As the most populous country in the world celebrates their new year, we take a look back at all of the Chinese players to have played in the Premier League.
Despite a population of over 1.3 billion people, only five Chinese footballers have made a first-team Premier League appearance (six if you include Nico Yennaris, read on to find out why). Below we profile each of these players, discussing their time in England and other career highlights.
Here they are, in chronological order of their first appearance in the Premier League.
Sun Jihai – Manchester City
Probably the best known of China’s Premier League exports, central defender Sun spent six and a half seasons with Manchester City between 2002 and 2008.
Sun became one of the first two Chinese players in the English Football League four years earlier, joining Crystal Palace on loan from now-defunct Chinese club Dalian Shide.
Having impressed with Palace in the second tier, Sun was recalled by Dalian before the scheduled end of his loan.
His form did not go unnoticed however, and Manchester City, then in the second tier, bought Sun for £2 million in February 2002.
He quickly became a fan favourite as City won promotion back to the Premier League, where he established himself as a starting centre back alongside Sylvain Distin and Richard Dunne.
During the 2002/03 Premier League campaign, Sun scored twice, becoming the first Chinese player to score in the Premier League. To date, he is one of only two Chinese players to have done so.
After suffering a number of injuries and with Middle Eastern money being injected into the club in 2008, Sun left City to join Championship side Sheffield United.
He played a single injury-hit season in South Yorkshire before returning to China, where he played out the rest of his career before retiring in 2016, at the age of 39.
Sun played 80 times for China, including at the 2002 World Cup; China’s only appearance at a World Cup to date.
Li Tie – Everton
Following the national team’s first experience of World Cup football in 2002, hosted by Japan and South Korea, it was hoped that China’s national team would go from strength to strength.
Telecommunications company Kejian secured a lucrative sponsorship deal of Everton for the following Premier League season and arranged the transfers of two Chinese players; one of whom was Li Tie.
A versatile defensive midfielder, Li proved an instant success at Goodison Park, playing 29 times in 2002/03 before sealing a permanent move the following season.
Unfortunately, his permanent Premier League career never got started. Having played only five times in 2003/04, Li broke his leg while on international duty, spending over a year on the sidelines and never breaking into the team again.
Sheffield United handed Li a Premier League lifeline in 2006, but further injury troubles meant he was only able to make one cup appearance.
He returned to China two years later, eventually retiring in 2011. Li enjoyed a fruitful international career despite his sporadic appearances at club level. He currently sits sixth in the list of the most capped players in China’s history, playing 92 times between 1995 and 2007, scoring six goals.
He entered management following retirement, twice being appointed assistant manager of the national team. He is currently in charge of Super League side Wuhan Zall, and led them to the Jia League (second tier) title in 2018.
Li Weifeng – Everton
While many Everton fans will remember Li Tie, you can forgive them for forgetting his namesake Li Weifeng. Signed on loan along with Li Tie, Li Weifeng was in many ways expected to be the bigger success of the two. He was not.
A ferocious centre half who impressed at that Summer’s World Cup, Li Weifeng made just two appearances for the Toffees and only one in the Premier League.
He returned to Shenzhen Ping’an at the end of the season and played out the rest of his career in China and South Korea, before retiring in 2015.
Partial to a scuffle, Weifeng earned several red cards over the course of his career. In 2006, he was banned from playing for the Chinese national team after an incident in an Asian Champions League fixture, with the ban eventually lifted a year later.
Despite this, Weifeng went on to make 112 appearances for his country, making him currently the most capped player in China’s history. His record is under threat however, with Gao Lin and Zheng Zhi just three and four caps shy respectively, and both are still playing.
Zheng Zhi – Charlton Athletic
Having scored 21 goals in 26 Chinese Super League appearances in 2006, versatile midfielder Zheng Zhi began to attract the attention of a number of clubs outside of China.
In November, Zheng joined Charlton on trial, the Addicks struggling at the bottom of the Premier League. He impressed enough to be awarded a loan deal until the end of the season, playing 12 league games as Charlton suffered relegation to the Championship.
During this time, Zheng scored in a 2-0 win over Newcastle, becoming the second Chinese player to score in the Premier League. It remains the most recent Premier League goal scored by a Chinese player.
Zheng briefly returned to Shandong Luneng at the end of the season as agreed in his loan, but Charlton signed him permanently for a fee of £2 million ahead of their first season in the Championship.
He impressed in the Championship but declined towards the end of the season as Charlton finished 12th. Many believed Zheng’s loss of form was a result of having no off-season break since the Winter of 2005/06 because of the timing of his signings with Charlton.
His form never picked up and he managed just 13 League appearances in 2008/09 as the Addicks suffered relegation to League One.
He left on a free transfer that summer, signing for Celtic and enjoying a reasonably successful season before moving back to China with Guangzhou Evergrande, where he remains to this day, winning seven Chinese Super League titles and two Asian Champions Leagues in the process.
At the age of 38, Zheng Zhi is still involved in the Chinese National team and played four times in the recent AFC Cup. At the time of writing, he is third in the list of China’s most capped players with 108, behind Li Weifeng and Gao Lin.
Dong Fangzhuo – Manchester United
Blink and you’ll miss him, Dong Fangzhuo is the only Chinese player to ever play for Manchester United. When, you ask? Long story.
Having built up a reputation in the youth ranks in China, Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United snapped Dong up for £500,000 from Dalian Shide in January 2004; he was only 18 at the time.
Due to problems obtaining a work permit, he was unable to play for United for almost three years, during which time he joined Belgian side Royal Antwerp on loan.
His time in Belgium was a success, scoring 34 goals in 71 league games, and when he returned fans were excited to finally see him in action for the Red Devils.
He had to wait until May 2007 to finally make his debut, in somewhat comical circumstances. Having wrapped up the league title and with an FA Cup final imminent, Sir Alex Ferguson put out an almost satirical lineup in a league fixture at Chelsea.
This side boasting Kieran Lee, Chris Eagles, Kieran Richardson and Dong to name a but a few received a guard of honour from Chelsea. The game finished 0-0.
Dong played only two more times for United, once each in the League Cup and Champions League, before he was allowed to move back to Dalian Shide in China.
He never realised his potential, spending spells in Poland, Portugal and Armenia before moving back to China. He hasn’t played since 2014.
Dong did however manage to break into the national team for a spell during his time with United, scoring twice in 13 games.
Nico Yennaris – Arsenal
You may be confused by this one, but bear with me.
Born in England and capped by England at under 17, 18 and 19 level, Nico Yennaris came through the ranks at Arsenal, where he made a single Premier League appearance as a substitute in 2011/12.
After spells on loan at Notts County and Bournemouth, Yennaris signed for Brentford on a permanent deal in 2014.
He remained with the Bees until January deadline day 2019 (31/01/19), when he sealed a sensational move to Beijing Guoan of the Chinese Super League.
The player announced via twitter that he had joined as a Chinese citizen, (qualifying through his mother’s Chinese ancestry) which enables Beijing to list him as a Chinese player (CSL rules state only three non-Chinese players can play in any domestic game).
As a Chinese citizen, Yennaris qualifies for this list. He has taken the Chinese name Li Ke and may be considered for selection for the National team. Who saw that coming?