Sport in ancient China

The ancient Greek world was obviously not the only place on earth where sport was practiced. Ancient China for instance developed an independent sports tradition.

During the Han-dynasty (206 BC 220 AD), which was contemporary with the Hellenistic and Early Imperial age of the Mediterranean, several sports were invented as military exercises. Just like the Greeks, the Chinese had wrestling, a race in armour and chariot races, but, unlike in Greece, the most common sports were ball games.

The Chinese type of football started as a military exercise to keep the soldiers in good shape and to teach them tactics. It was played on a rectangular field, with two teams of six players, and with six pits on each side as goals. The popularity of this sport grew in the Tang-dynasty (7th-9th century). In this period, the game was not unlike modern football which was originally an English game because of the leather ball filled with air and the use of two nets as goals.

Other ball games were developed during the Tang-dynasty: e.g. a game with only one goal, in which the ball could touch all body parts except the hands, and could not fall on the ground, and polo, the ball game played by horsemen, which was devised when China came into close contact with the steppe nomads in the fifth century AD. During the Song-dynasty (10th 13th century), the popularity of ball sports increased, because sport was no longer a pastime for soldiers and aristocrats only, but also for a larger part of the people.

The traditional Chinese combat sports, such as Taiji-boxing and Gong fu, were developed during the Ming-dynasty (14th 17th century) in specialized monasteries. The typical complex movements were not aimed at brute strength, as in Greece, but had to improve the physical well-being.

© KU Leuven, 2012