World Football

The cradle of football

Legend has it that football, like so many other major human achievements, originates from the early days of civilisation and the reign of Huang-Ti - China's famed "Yellow Emperor". FIFA Magazine explores...

While they used their hands and body more than their feet and head to keep the ball aloft, professional ball jugglers already existed in China - more than two thousand years ago. Art and literature dating from the Han period (206 BC - 220 AD), however, show that people also played a game involving kicking a ball.

The football-like game with teams, rules, competitions and stadiums gained favour among the rulers and the people. Even back then, football was a true sport of the people in China.

Early literature refers to the game using the word "cuju" - literally, "to kick a ball" - and its homonym, a binomial that is written slightly differently in Chinese and whose two characters embody the meaning "foot". Other traditional expressions for this ancient game included taju, cuqiu and cuyuan - "kicking the sphere or the round object". The second element of the modern term zuqiu - "foot-ball" - indicates that the balls originally used were valuable objects, because players used balls with brocade silk coverings as well as leather balls. Towards the end of the Tang Dynasty (618-906), people started to use footballs containing an air-filled bladder, whose springiness and bounce brought entirely new technical and tactical dimensions to the game.

Football player on a bas-relief with a hatched base from the Qimu que, the "stone tower in the spiritual alley leading to the ancestral temple of the mother of Kai", inscribed with the date 123 AD. Ancestral monument at the foot of the Song mountain near Dengfeng, Henan province (Edouard Chavannes, Mission Archeologique dans la Chine Septentrionale, Planches. Paris: Imprimerie Nationale, Ernest Leroux, 1909).


Inscribed 123 AD, one of the oldest clear depictions of a footballer in existence is a bas-relief from the Qimu que, the "stone tower in the spiritual alley leading to the ancestral temple of the mother of Kai". This monument in honour of the ancestors at the foot of the Song mountain is 3.5 km north of the county town of Dengfeng in Henan province. On the left of the picture, there are two figures - probably spectators - sitting motionless, while on the right a player with his arms outstretched and wearing a long gown is firing a rasping left-footed shot on the turn.

In Ancient China, it seems that football was not just played for fun and as a pastime, but was also used by the army to train body and mind, to raise morale and as a means of relaxation. Taju bingshi, "football (strengthens) the fighting power of soldiers", is referred to in the seven teachings of the Confucian scholar and politician Liu Xin (ca. 50 BC - 23 AD).

Various early sources and commentaries state that the two opposing football teams had six players each - a figure that is confirmed by Han period writer Li You (ca. 55-135 AD). One of his 85 inscriptions still in existence, entitled "Jucheng ming" or "Inscription on the ball wall", is dedicated to football:

"The ball is round, the (ball) wall rectangular,
A symbolic image (of the universal elemental forces) yin and yang.
Using the (twelve) moons (months) as a guide (for the number of players), they lay siege to one another.
With six (members) each, (the teams) are balanced.
A head (referee) is named and an assistant appointed.
Their interpretations of the rules must be constant.
Unprejudiced (they must be towards team members) near or far.
There shall be no currying favour nor high-handedness.
With an honest heart and balanced thoughts.
No one can find fault with wrong decisions.
(If) football is regulated correctly like this,
How much this must mean for daily life."

The game of football as a reflection of the universe, life, society, law and order - that is undoubtedly the sense of the chiselled "Inscription on the ball wall"! The poet uses his words to remind his contemporaries and future generations about justice and fair play. Clearly, high moral standards as well as social acceptance and popular support were prerequisites for the game even in the first century AD. Football gives rise to elementary universal images: the shape of the round ball resembles the full moon and the round sky of Chinese tradition. The opposing teams may represent the two polar opposites already referred to, yin and yang, which complement each other in their contrasting movement and fuse the entire universe everywhere to create harmony.

Reproduction of a scene from a traditional football match (Chi Taileng, Gulao de Zhongguo zuqiu - Cujuxi ["Football in Ancient China - game with the foot-ball"], in Zhongguo tiyu gujin manhua ["Commentaries on sport in China yesterday and today"]. Shanghai: Shanghai jiaoyu chubanshe, 1982).

The "ball wall", or the goal, was square and probably had a round hole in the middle. The number of players on the pitch correspond to the twelve months, while the rectangular (or possibly square) pitch or stadium - which may have been slightly sunken and surrounded by a wall - represents the fortified city, the ancestral temple and also the idea of a square Earth.

The popularity of football - which was largely free of the martial character of the Tang period and, like polo, more of a pastime - seems to have reached its climax during the eighth and ninth centuries AD. At that time, Chinese football appears to have branched off into two different directions: one saw football played as a competitive team sport with defined rules and in special arenas with standardised goals, corner flags and various other markings; the other led to an unregulated alternative version of the sport. The objective of the latter was for the players to use their feet to volley the ball to each other without letting it touch the ground. This game can be seen as a precursor to the alternative sport of "footbag" or "hacky sack", which has become popular among young people worldwide since the 1970s.

It is noteworthy that, towards the end of the Song period (960-1279) and afterwards, encyclopaedists concentrated on the rules as well as the historical and formal aspects of football. The Shilin guangji, "Comprehensive collection from the labyrinth of facts", written by Chen Yuanjing (ca. 1200-1266 AD), gives details of the technical elements of conventional football. The reprint of the original wooden engraving with instructive illustrations dates from 1322. It shows that traditional football was played with a goal, or qiumen, in the middle of the pitch. The qiumen probably resembled an oversized hybrid of a set of rugby posts and a goal wall used for shooting practice. The two outer posts were 10.5 m high and positioned just over 3 m apart. The actual goal was the fengliuyan, the "prominent eye", an 85 cm-gap between two crossbars joining the two uprights in their upper third. The objective was to kick the ball through this "open eye", which was left uncovered by the net, or wangzi, that was stretched between the two outer uprights and each of the crossbars around the opening - in other words, to shoot. Some literature refers to the opening as a bull's-eye, or zhengsai.

Cross-section of a "ball wall" from Cuju tupu ["Collection of Football Art"] (Zhou Shirong, "Zuqiu wen tongjing he Songdai de zuqiu youxi" ["Football pattern on bronze mirror and football during the Song period"], Wenwu 1977).

From the very start, football was considered a sport that was suitable to be played in the royal court.  Many Han Dynasty rulers were avid football fans.  Taizu (Zhao Kuangyin, reigned 960-976), the founder of the Song Dynasty (960-1279), was allegedly an exceptionally talented footballer. Artists from various eras are said to have often painted him enjoying his favourite pastime, one such exhibit is a remarkable fan that is today on show at the National Palace Museum in Taipei and has been attributed to the artist, Su Hanchen, who painted at the Imperial Art Academy between 1120 and 1160.

The small scene shows six courtiers, some wearing long robes not suited for sport and with hair resembling court dignitaries. Standing in a circle, they look on in admiration as the stocky right wing - the monarch himself - half raises his right foot, about to pass the leather ball to his bearded opponent, who is lifting his long robe slightly to the side with his right hand in order to receive the ball.

Girls and women also actively took part in football, or that is, at least, the impression given by art and literature. One of the most charming depictions is by Ming painter Du Jin from Zhenjiang in Jiangsu province, who painted between around 1465 and 1509. Beneath a blossoming plum tree in the palace garden, elegant ladies-in-waiting enjoy a game of football. Other pictures of this type also demonstrate football's unreserved popularity in China over the centuries.

The semi-nomadic founders of the Jin Dynasty (1115-1234) admired Chinese civilisation and culture. After Jon chen had conquered the north during the Jin Dynasty, the kilns of the region continued to produce pottery in keeping with the traditional technical, material and artistic principles of the Northern Song (960-1127).  The region's pottery is known as Cizhou pottery after the area where it was made, now Cixian (Ci province), and its surroundings in the south of Hebei province near to Henan's northern frontier. Football was evidently one of the most prized developments, as is underlined by the top of an octagonal Cizhou headrest, dug up in the city of Xingtai, Hebei province, and now on display at the province's museum - it depicts a talented young player as he practises.

He juggles a ball sewn together from hexagonal panels with his right foot, which is partly hidden under his floor-length robe. On the bottom of the headrest, an inscription is clearly legible on a cartouche: Zhang jia zao, "Made by the Zhang family". The Zhang family of potters specialised in headrests and worked for many generations in the central Cizhou region. Pictures of children playing were among the most popular decorations for painted Cizhou pottery headrests, which not only cooled people down on hot summer days, but were also said to stimulate happy dreams and fulfil wishes - maybe even the dream of becoming a great footballer… ?

HELMUT BRINKER is a professor of Oriental Art at the University of Zurich.

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