Sports and Games of Old China
A major aspect of Song Emperor Huizong’s birthday celebrations was a soccer match between royal teams. Two referees would certainly have been warranted on these occasions, as the losing team faced flogging and having their faces smothered in yellow and white powder. Soccer matches were eventually institutionalized and incorporated into festive occasions. They commenced after all in attendance had drunk their sixth cup of wine. Being played in the spirit of performance rather than competition, they were less ferocious than Emperor Huizong’s birthday matches.
It was also during the Song Dynasty that football clubs, known as Yuan Societies, first appeared in China. Their players were called Yuan mates, and had the hypothetical right to transfer to other clubs. Leaving a Yuan Society, however, was no easy matter. Yuan mates seeking to play elsewhere were required to give detailed information about their coaches and previous career experience and also to pass rigorous tests of foot balling skill. One such rite of passage was keeping the ball in the air for 100 kicks off either foot.
Beat the Ball
Hitting, as well as kicking, a ball was also a popular pastime in ancient China. In the Tang Dynasty it took the forms of maqiu (polo), a sport as popular as cuju during the Tang Dynasty, and buda (step hit) a game similar to hockey.
During the Song Dynasty buda became refined into the game known as chuiwan (hit ball). The main differences between chuiwan and buda were that the point of the former was to hit the ball into a hole rather than a goal, and competitiveness was based on indirect, as opposed to direct, confrontation. Hockey thus evolved into the earliest form of golf.
The heads of chuiwan clubs were made of wood and wrapped in ox sinew. They were fashioned for long- and short-distance shots. The shaft was made of hard yet flexible bamboo. The ball was slightly larger than an egg and made from knots of lumber, cattle horn or agate.
There were both individual and team chuiwan events. The distance between player and hole varied between a dozen to 20 meters. Contestants scored by getting the ball into the hole in three shots.
In 1282, the 19th year of Zhiyuan Reign of the Yuan Dynasty, Ning Zhi wrote a book on chuiwan called Wan Jing (The Book of Chuiwan). It gives a detailed account of the history of chuiwan, its general rules, and competition venues. Chuiwan is the obvious forerunner to today’s golf. The main difference between the two is that chuiwan was played one-handed.
Football, or to be more exact, soccer, was first played in China in the Han Dynasty (206 BC –AD 220). Then, as now, the actual ball was made of leather, and inflated with hair and other soft fillings rather than air. That the so-called beautiful game has such a long history in the celestial kingdom may come as a surprise. The astonishing fact of the matter is that it was played by both men and women. This is attested by Han Dynasty historical records and images on bricks. The sport’s emphasis at that time was on individual rather than team skills.
Football in the Han Dynasty was played on a pitch bounded by low walls on all four sides. There were 12 players on each side and two referees – chief and deputy. Han Dynasty strategists considered football, or cuju (literally kick ball), as an effective form of military training. It helped to build up soldiers’ physique, nurture valor and acquaint them with the subtleties of attack and defense. When celebrated Han general Huo Qubing led his troops to the Gansu Corridor to fight the Xiongnu (Hun) invaders, he gave orders to build and play upon a football pitch. This was an effective way of boosting troop morale as well as keeping them fit.
Female footballers appeared once more in the Tang Dynasty (618-907) at the time when air-inflated footballs, made from eight pieces of leather stitched together over an animal bladder, appeared. Women were the main exponents of a game that was actually a kind of reverse kick-basketball. Players from both teams took turns at aiming for a single, aerial, goal that hung in the center of the pitch. It was constructed out of two 10-meter-high poles, between which hung a net with an opening one meter in diameter.
The succeeding Song Dynasty (960-1279) is regarded as the golden age of cuju in China. Both single- and double-goal football were played throughout, but it was the latter that became a national favorite, both at court and among the common people. Improvements in football-making technology, whereby the shell was made from 12 rather than eight pieces of leather, also gave the ball a rounder shape.
China has a 2,000-year history of archery (shejian,) according to historical records. In remote antiquity, bows and arrows were used for hunting and later as weapons. China’s most famous archer, often dubbed the Chinese Robin Hood, was Yang Youji who lived during the Warring States period (475-221 BC). Every Chinese person associates Yang Youji with the story of the competition between him and another archer named Pan Hu. When Yang’s turn came to shoot, he complained that the target was both too large and too near. He agreed to take his turn after substituting the target for a willow leaf and lengthening the distance to 100 paces. He naturally won the competition hands down. The two Chinese idioms “bai bu chuan yang” (shoot an arrow through a willow leaf at a hundred paces) and “bai fa bai zhong” (a hundred shots, a hundred bull’s eyes) that originate from this story make shooting at willow (sheliu) synonymous with striving constantly to improve skills.
Shooting at willow subsequently evolved into horseback archery, an extremely difficult sport at which only the most skilled exponents could compete. The target comprised two rows of peeled willow twigs stuck in the ground and tied at the top with a kerchief. Each of the contestants aimed a flightless arrow at one of the twigs as they rode past. The point was to split it and catch the topmost half before it hit the ground. Archers that accomplished both feats scored highest, followed by those that hit their twig but failed to catch the severed half.
This sport was a feature of Song Dynasty military training and performances. It began to die out around the mid-Qing Dynasty with the introduction of hot weaponry.
Wrestling (jiaodi) was the ancient sport believed best to evince the might of the ruling monarch. This concept was based on the legendary battle of two tribes. One was headed by Yellow Emperor, the other by Chiyou, chief of the Miao tribe and inventor of weapons and metallurgy. Chiyou was a ferocious warrior who affixed two ox horns to his head with which to gore his foe. Although he failed to vanquish the Yellow Emperor, tales of his bravery have been passed down through generations.
Ox horn headgear became a facet of the Chinese traditional performance art known as “Chiyou Drama,” that emerged and became popular during the Qin Dynasty (221– 207 BC). Its performers wore horns and simulated battles between wild oxen.
It was Emperor Qinshihuang that first brought Jiaodi Drama (wrestling minus the ox horns) to the imperial court. Upon unifying China, the emperor collected, confiscated and destroyed all weapons so as to consolidate his rule and prevent uprisings. It was his love of Jiaodi Drama that gave him the idea of promoting jiaodi as a means of self-defense. This form of drama subsequently developed into a competitive sport of strength and skill. By the succeeding Han Dynasty it was a favorite among the common people. They would travel from near and far to attend large-scale official contests held regularly in large towns and cities.
The Mongolian rulers of the Yuan Dynasty particularly enjoyed both watching and actively participating in wrestling. It was also a sport for women. Marco Polo’s travel notes mention one Yuan Dynasty noble woman who decided that she would marry the man that could defeat her in a wrestling bout. As it happened, she emerged undefeated from a series of matchmaking feats, and so found no mate. Her wrestling prowess did, however, win her the reward of 10,000 horses. There is no record of whether this doughty lady subsequently abandoned wrestling in favor of horse racing.