This paper examines how missionary educational institutions and Young Men’s Christian Association physical education and sport programmes, in conjunction with the nation-building project of the Nationalist government, transformed and modernized physical education and sport in China from 1840 to 1937. The concepts of cultural imperialism and nationalism are central to this study, to understand how the two interacted in the process of the development of modern physical education and sports in China. This paper argues that the cultural imperialism model is ineffective for an understanding of the impact of missionaries on Chinese society and the subsequent transformation and indigenization of physical education and sport in modern China. More precisely, the way in which Chinese nationalism played an active role in resisting, selecting, and reshaping the cultural products (modern physical education and sport) evidences a process that was an active negotiation, rather than a passive consumption, of Western culture. This said, Christian physical education and sport programmes had long-lasting effects on how physical education and sports became the way to define ‘modern’ bodies as they were incorporated into the wider education programme of modernizing China under the Nationalist government.