The Qing Dynasty rulers of China came from Central Asia; they weren’t swimmers. Under their rule, very few people in northern China could swim. In 1708, the Qinkiang Association for the Saving of Life established the first lifeguards anywhere in the world, but this was mainly to save people who fell out of boats, because most people couldn’t swim.
When the Chinese Revolution came, revolutionaries showed how different they were from the Qing Dynasty by learning to swim. They didn’t learn to swim very well though: in the time of Chairman Mao, in the 1900s, most people in China swam using the breaststroke, not the crawl stroke they had used in the Middle Ages. Many people in China wanted to act like they could swim, but most people were not good swimmers. The government built some swimming pools – indoor pools and outdoor pools – but not nearly enough of them for everyone to swim in. Ponds and streams became too polluted to swim in safely.
Today, most kids in China swim in swimming pools. Like kids in Europe, learn to swim the breaststroke first, and only very good swimmers learn to swim the crawl stroke. Even at the Olympic Games, Chinese swimmers win in breaststroke rather than in freestyle swimming. And most people in China are still not very good swimmers.