Cuju and the Han Dynasty
Today the game of soccer has grown into a global phenomenon, unlike any other. For countries like the United States, soccer remains a secondary corporate sport, but for the vast majority of the globe, soccer is more than a sport: it is a religion. According to renowned soccer author David Goldblatt, FIFA believes “that around a billion people play the game reasonably formally. That’s 50 million referees, balls and pitches and 25 million kilometres of white lines, enough to circle the earth over a thousand times” (Goldblatt, xv). But how did we get to this point?
The history of soccer twists and turns around the globe, from the hills of Asia to the coasts of Africa. The game of soccer has outlasted governing bodies, global crisis, and thousands of cultural fads; but to truly understand where the beautiful game is now, we have to dive into where it began.
The Game of Cuju:
To find some of the first traces of any games that remotely resemble modern day soccer, one must travel to an unsuspecting place: China in 206 BCE. Under the control of the great Han dynasty, China had become a pillar of innovation, art, and political stability. For upwards of four decades the Han dynasty ruled over China, rivaling more well-known empires from the West, as one of the most dominant dynasties in human history. Perhaps the most influential stamp the Han dynasty left on the world, is one of the globe’s first developed versions of soccer, known as cuju.
Cuju, which translates directly to kickball, was played with a round ball, two goals, and two teams working their hardest to score goals. Sound familiar?
The game of Cuju was played with a leather ball stuffed with various furs or feathers. The goals were made of either crescent shaped pieces of wood, or a silk sheet, with a hole in it, hung between two bamboo posts. While the game featured some use of hands, and certainly carried a higher level of physicality than our modern game of soccer/football, cuju certainly laid the groundwork for what has become the world’s most popular game.
The Game Splinters:
As time wore on, new dynasties came into power, yet cuju remained a pillar of Chinese culture for some time. Through both the Tang (618-907 CE) and Song (960-1279 CE) dynasties the game of cuju, continued to be played, but the game had been splintered, as Goldblatt writes of “a formal separation” of cuju into two games: Bai Da and Zhu Qui (Goldblatt, 6).
The separation of cuju into two separate games, was largely based on a separation of wealth and poverty. The elites of China began to play Bai Da, which resembled cuju in almost every tactical way, while the poorer Chinese athletes began playing Zhu Qui, a game that featured only one goal, and aerial acrobatics (much like modern-day juggling). While the games would be played for years after the Han dynasty had fallen, the separation of the games ultimately limited the growth of the sport, and with the rise of the Ming Dynasty, in the coming decades, cuju would finally disappear.
Modern Day Soccer in China:
Today, soccer is back and thriving in China. Current President Xi Jinping, is a fanatic of the beautiful game and continues to work to make his country a perennial power in a rapidly growing soccer world. Through investment in cutting-edge training equipment and state of the art stadiums, Jinping is hoping to incentivize a new generation of Chinese youth into becoming the nation’s first great soccer generation.
Creating top of the line athletes has never been a problem for China, as they consistently compete in the Olympic games, at a very high level. But for a country of discipline to truly embrace the culture of soccer, they must also embrace creativity, diversity, and improvisation.
As soccer, once again, becomes a pillar of Chinese culture, Jinping will rely on a growing Chinese Super League (which recently added international stars Axel Witsel and Hulk, among others), and a cultural embracement of a game already embraced by the rest of the world. Perhaps a re-investment in their past, could make all the difference in establishing a soccer future, in China.