Sports have been practiced in the ancient times most especially by the ancient Greeks. But they are not the only one who had an independent sports tradition. It’s because the Ancient Chinese had also developed and played sports back in those times.
Whenever people talk about ancient China, the topics revolve only around their dynasties, empire, government, art, culture, and religion, but seldom about the sports they played back then. This is the reason why some might think that the ancient Chinese didn’t have any knowledge about sports.
Did you know that during the Han-dynasty, which was from 206 BC to 220 AD, there were several sports that were invented as military exercises? The same as the Greeks, the Chinese also had wrestling and chariot races; however, the most common sports in ancient China were ball games, including football.
Many other ball games and sports were developed during the Tang-dynasty, the Song-dynasty, and the Ming-dynasty. To learn more, here are some of the most popular ancient Chinese sports.
This sport was known in Chinese as Chui wan. It was different from the modern golf we play in the present time but there are some similarities. Chinese golf was usually held in open country that has different landscapes.
Based on Emperor Mingzong (1300-1329) who enjoyed this game, it involved 10 holes that were spread across the course and each had flags inserted beside them. When you strike the wooden ball into the hole using the stick, you will get a point.
Chinese golf was most popular during the Song and Yuan Dynasties. It was played by the emperor and nobles, as well as the common folk and children. This is why it was referred to as sport of the age.
The sport Polo was known in ancient China as Jī jū, and it was played by the nobles in the Tang Dynasty (618-907). It involved hitting of wooden balls with a stick on horseback. Out of the 19 emperors, 11 of them were die-hard fans of Polo. In fact, two of the emperors died on accidents while playing this sport.
Polo was believed to be introduced by the Persian and Tubo Kingdoms, and was also enthusiastically practiced by ancient Chinese women. There were also times that this game was more than recreational. One example was when Emperor Xizong found it difficult to choose between four candidates to become the military official of the Sichuan region. For him to decide, he asked them to play a game of Polo, and the one who won the game got the job.
In ancient Chinese, swordplay was called Jiànshù. According to their legend, it wasn’t just a man’s game. It’s because a teenage girl living in the forests of the ancient State of Yue attracted the attention of the king (722 BC – 221 BC) due to her skills with a blade. With this, the king sent her to train the royal army.
On her way there, she was challenged by a senior swordsman. Using two bamboo branches, they competed, and with just three moves, she was able to win. This paved the way for competitive swordplay. Later on, this woman was named, “The Woman of Yue”. In the following dynasties, swordplay became widespread and more complicated.
Football was called Cùjū in ancient China, and it was believed to be the earliest form of football because the first recorded game was 2,000 years ago. This sport became popular during the Tang (618 – 907) and Song (960 – 1279) Dynasties.
The ball during those times was made of eight pieces of leather that were stitched together, forming a round shell. An animal bladder was installed and inflated inside of it. The goal was made of a net on bamboo sticks. It only had one goal placed in the middle of the field. The number of players varied as long as each teams were equally matched.
Aside from the main game, the players also had matches on technique such as juggling the ball with their feet. There was one women’s team that time that had 153 members. Their team was known to be very skillful because once the game had started, the ball never touched the ground.
Archery or Shèjiàn in ancient Chinese started in the Western Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC – 771 BC). It was an important part of education for skilled gentlemen in ancient China. They started learning five techniques at the age of 15. This includes being able to shoot with enough force to pierce a target, as well as shooting three arrows in quick sequence.
It’s surprising to know that ice-skating was practiced in the ancient times, but believe it or not, it was once a warriors’ art with ice skates. The sport was called Bīng xī and it was practiced because Manchu men needed to master the skill of moving 350 kilometers in a single day to reach their enemies.
When the Manchu men moved from the north to the capital city of Beijing and came to power in the Qing Dynasty (1616 – 1911), ice-skating became a traditional sport. Every winter, there were 200 proficient ice-skaters selected to perform on the frozen royal lake.
Ice-skaters during those times wore knee pads, and they secured their shoes with leather. Their shoes were fitted with single iron blades for speed, and double blades for security. There were also competitions for figure skating, ice acrobatics, and speed skating that were held for the benefit of the royal family.
Brief Biography of Chinese Ancient Sports
Sports in ancient China were vibrant and diverse, each with its characteristics. In particular, traditional Chinese life support techniques combine physical movement with mental activity in ways rarely seen in sports practiced elsewhere. With their unique value of promoting health and fighting disease, these arts are irreplaceable to humanity. China is one of the oldest cultures in the world and has long practiced some sports. They have practiced archery, swordsmanship, and football, dating back to the early dynasties.
Relics of artifacts about sports were discovered in China around 4,000 to 10,000 years ago. Chinese were fond of physical exercises returning to the Western Zhou Dynasty (c 1,066- 771 BC). Different sporting activities were done in different ways at other times, and some even had different names depending on the location. Further, ancient sports in China had been linked to the association of martial arts. With its diverse traditions and cultures, China has invented its quadrennial multi-sport event quite similar to the Olympics, and the event is called National Games.
Tracing back China’s long history of sports, the country’s successful international sport was primarily table tennis. However, a turn of events happened when Chinese women won the 1981 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Cup—this winning moment gained the public’s attention. In 1994, an association of Chinese athletes professionalized football, followed by basketball, volleyball, and ping pong. Sports club operations now cover ticket sales, advertising, club transfers, commercial matches, and television broadcasting.
Today, Chinese athletes are known for their martial arts, but embracing Western sports also became part of Chinese sports history, from basketball to snooker. Fitness is such a big part of Chinese culture that many health clubs and commercial gyms exist. This country has many cyclists, with 470 million bicycles in 2012. But basketball is significant for young people, primarily thanks to NBA players of Chinese or of Chinese descent. Players like Yoa Ming and Jeremy Lin are highly respected in China. China has also participated in most Olympic Games since 1932, both in the Summer and Winter Games. They also hosted the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, winning 51 gold medals. They won a total of 100 medals that year. This is the most medals won in an Olympic expedition since it first took part in 1932. China also hosted the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.
Being one of the oldest and longest lasting civilizations in the history of the world, it is interesting to know that the ancient Chinese were also involved in different sports. And most of their popular sports are still being played up to the present time.