Pictured above: on the left is Emperor Taizu of Song playing cuju (football) with Prime Minister Zhao Pu. He reigned in the 10th century. This painting is by artist Qian Xuan (1235–1305). On the right, 1,000 years later, then Vice President Xi Jinping showed off his football skills, while inspecting a stadium in preparation for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Xi was picked to oversee China’s Olympic Committee, to make sure the games were a success. A lot of people are unaware of this fact. Was Xi channeling China’s millennial love for football, by having this photo blasted all over the country? He has been instrumental in turbocharging his citizens’ passion for the beautiful game.
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I first learned about the long history of Chinese football, when going to a whiskey bar in Beijing, named Cuju (蹴鞠 = cùjū). Funny enough, it was owned by a Moroccan, which only added to the cosmopolitan ambiance of the evening. I had never seen this word in Chinese in my life and when I looked it up and saw that it meant ancient football/soccer, I was intrigued. The owner confirmed to me that he christened his bar Cuju, because he was a passionate lover of the modern game, currently being played at the highest levels of the World Cup in Russia.
While it riles many English people, who are rightfully proud of their contributions to modern football, on July 15th, 2004 FIFA officially declared that the game originated in China (http://ancient-chinese-life.blogspot.com/2011/01/chinese-ancient-football-cuju.html).
Cuju is not the name used in today’s Mandarin for the modern game of football. That would be zúqiú (足球), literally the first character meaning foot and the second meaning ball, making a compound word. Cuju goes back 2,300 years, long before the birth of Christ. While the Chinese were refining the rules of football, the West’s first foreign policy foray was in full force, with Greece’s Alexander raping, enslaving and exterminating entire populations, while plundering their resources in Africa and Asia. His Eurangloland successors are maintaining this proud Western tradition of genocide, exploitation and extraction across the same continents and beyond, in the Americas and Oceania.
Football was developed during the short-lived Qin Dynasty (3rd century BC), where the word China likely comes from. It gained tremendous popularity in the Han Dynasty, which lasted two hundred years before and two centuries after Christ. It was especially popular among the upper class and military. It was also a big hit among the ladies, so take that, Mia Hamm. In the court records, one young woman was so good that she beat an entire men’s team by herself, like some female Sino-Pele. Go girl go!
Meanwhile, the West was entertaining its masses with gladiators butchering each other to gory death and feeding prisoners to carnivorous animals as sporting amusement. Nothing like a rousing picnic at the colosseum, watching famished hyenas and lions scarf down the entrails and brains of what’s left of a human carcass. Yummy! Clockwork Orange, me droogs, time for a little bit of the ol’ ultra-violence, said Alex. Westerners haven’t changed much in the last 2,000 years, when it comes to their bloodlust, except that it went global centuries ago, much to the tragic loss of the rest of the world, and continue to do so.
The Han turned football into a professional sport, with stands full of spectators watching the matches. The rules were almost identical to today’s game. Two teams of twelve to sixteen players each battled on a pitch, with an opposing net on each end to shoot and score into; the only way to move and pass the ball was with the feet. By the Tang Dynasty (7th-10th centuries), football was so popular that the capital city had playing fields all over the place, with popularity of the sport spreading to all levels of society. I can imagine kids were kicking footballs up and down streets and in parks, just like they do today around the world, as depicted in the 12th century painting below.
One Hundred Children in the Long Spring (長春百子圖), a painting by Chinese artist Su Hanchen (蘇漢臣), active 1130–1160s AD. Nothing has changed for thousands of years.
The original footballs were made of leather, which were filled with animal hair and/or feathers. The Tang Chinese developed the pressurized air bladder, so like today’s ball, it had bounce, and could travel much further and faster. It revolutionized the game. Corner kick…goal!
In the 10th century, the game was so popular that big cities developed professional leagues and they held a national championship (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cuju), predecessors to UEFA (European League) and the World Cup. I wonder how well these medieval players would do this year in Russia?
By the Song Dynasty (10th-13th centuries), the game evolved less as a team sport and became more of a competition to see who could keep the ball off the ground the longest, using all of the body, except the arms, which is very similar to today’s rules of contact. Handball! This was called báidǎ (白打). It is still played by millions of Chinese in neighborhoods across the country, except that to accommodate small public spaces, they kick and keep in the air a big weighted feather shuttlecock, which doesn’t bounce and fly all over the place, called a jiànzi (毽子). I see locals playing it for hours on end, after work and on the weekends.
Woodcut illustration from the classic medieval Chinese novel, Outlaws of the Marsh, aka The Water Margin or All Men Are Brothers. The story has similarities to Robin Hood, bandits who help the common folk, with wealthy people’s money. Several passages in this celebrated Sino-fiction laud the Song Dynasty’s beautiful game, cuju.
While China’s Song Dynasty technology, culture and civilization were centuries ahead of the rest world, Europeans were massacring each other, Muslims, Slavs and Jews by the millions, as fanatical leaders and their people participated in the genocidal Crusades into Palestine. It was suitably called the Dark Ages.
Contrasting the West’s many bloodbaths, it was during this time that Marco Polo traveled around and lived in China, in total awe and amazement of the country and its people. Going back to what was a European hellhole must have been deeply shocking in comparison. It is speculated that football, like so many other things Westerners take for granted, was brought back to Europe along the Silk Roads. I hate to break it to you, Romans, but the Chinese invented spaghetti centuries before it was brought west to Italy (9c vs. 13-14c). This list of technical, commercial and cultural imports from China is a kilometer long, into the 20th century and onto the present (http://chinarising.puntopress.com/2018/03/20/china-tech-invention-innovation-technology-research-and-development-past-present-future-5000-years-of-progress-a-china-rising-radio-sinoland-living-document/).
Thereafter, women got really involved in football, with prostitutes organizing games to attract horny sport jocks to their brothels. Talk about marketing synergy. Shouting out, Game on!, joking about how you just had to reduce the pressure in your balls and asking your friend if they scored, took on whole new meanings in the Ming Dynasty (13th-17th centuries). Ming emperors even officially banned the game by imperial decree, with some threatening as punishment to cut off the culprits’ feet. By the Qing Dynasty (17th-20th centuries), cuju, or football became nothing more than historical nostalgia.
Ming Dynasty Emperor Yongle, early 15th century, taking in a game of football, being played by court eunuchs. I guess they didn’t need to wear jock straps.
Would the Chinese be a global force in football, if the game hadn’t died a slow, ignominious death here, hundreds of years ago? Some people speculate that this is part of the explanation of why China has only been to one World Cup, 2002, when it crashed out with three straight losses and couldn’t even get a cuju ball into the net one time (http://www.scmp.com/magazines/post-magazine/short-reads/article/2152717/why-chinas-world-cup-failings-might-be-explained). That was 16 long, frustrating years ago. Since 1980, Baba Beijing has been promoting and developing, with great success, winter and summer Olympic champions. China has gotten no less than fourth place in total summer medal rankings since 2000, although less spectacularly so in the winter games (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/China_at_the_Olympics). Football has simply not been a targeted sport to excel in.
There is a common refrain that, China has so many people, they should dominate in football, but it’s a false assumption. It has nothing to do with China’s huge population and everything to do with tradition and nationwide sports development, going back decades: this is what we do.
Two cases in point illustrate this very well. Norway, with a population of only about five million people, has won more Winter Olympics medals than any other country, way ahead of the rest of the world. Why? Because Norwegian children put on skis and skates as soon as they can walk, and the citizens make the commitment and invest the resources towards these sports: this is what we do.
New Zealand, also with a population of about five million people, strikes fear every time its All Blacks rugby team trots onto the pitch, with their celebrated pre-match Maori war dance, called the haka. This small country, with the population of a third-tier city in China, is so dominate in world rugby competition, that when they lose, everybody is shocked. Why? Because Kiwis are handed a rugby ball as soon as they can stand up and the entire nation focuses its investment and development in this sport: this is who we are.
This photo was a sensation in China when it hit the national media, with then Vice President Xi Jinping kicking a football in Dublin. What most people did not know is that it was a Gaelic football, used in a national sport of Ireland, somewhat of a cross between international football and rugby. The distinction was lost. What the Chinese people saw was that their future president is gaga about football.
For 2,000 years, the Chinese were the face and spirit of “global football”, as it were, then they lost their mojo. But they can take heart and always get it back: this is who we are and what we do. Since Xi Jinping was elected president in 2013, this same kind of Olympic focus and ambition has turned to nationwide football. Xi loves the beautiful game and his passion and commitment have infected the entire population. It took the Chinese a generation to become world beaters at the Olympics and with the money and organization going into football development (http://chinarising.puntopress.com/2018/06/22/100000-chinese-going-to-the-world-cup-in-russia-with-no-team-to-cheer-for-china-rising-radio-sinoland-180622/), winning the World Cup may not take as long as 25-30 years. While not officially declared, I suspect that privately, Baba Beijing wants to win at least one, if not both the men’s and women’s World Cups by 2049, the centennial anniversary for the founding of communist-socialist New China.
A heartbroken Chinese fan at the 2002 World Cup, the only time China has qualified for this competition. Hang in there, my friend, your day of glory will come. The characters on his right cheek say, “spirit” and his bandana shouts, “China on to victory”.
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