China and the Origins of Football

The Ancient Chinese Game of Cuju

Modern football began in England in the second half of the 19th century.

That much is true.

The Cambridge rules of 1848, Sheffield F.C.'s foundation in 1857 and then the start of the Football Association in London in 1863 form the holy trinity of the game's birth.

But, as is also well known, ancient sphere-kicking pastimes have been found in most continents. Australian Aborigines, Koreans, Greeks and Aztecs for example played football-esque sports centuries before England's Victorians.

Right now, Zurich's FIFA Museum is hosting a series of webinars on the various ancient forms of football, which kicked off today with a discussion about the 2,300-year-old Chinese game of Cuju, the world's oldest recorded football-like sport, between two Manchester University professors - Yang-Wen Zheng and Michael Wood, author of The Story of China.

Cuju, or Ts'u ChΓΌ, meaning kick-ball, ranged in form from six to 16-a-side and involved kicking the ball through a small central goal suspended in the air between 10 meter-high wooden posts. In another form, the goals were several openings at either end of the walls of a court.

Cuju in medieval China

1st/2nd century poet Li You describes this latter version clearly:

"A round ball and a square wall, moon-shaped goals are opposite each other, each side has six in equal number," he wrote, before going on to make the first connection between football and fair play:

"Don't regard friends and relatives. Keep away from partiality, maintain fairness and peace, don't complain of others' faults, such is the matter of cuju."

It may have influenced the similar Japanese game kemari, and an account of a match in 50 B.C. between Chinese cuju and Japanese kemari players is redolent of the hybrid matches sometimes played today between Gaelic and Australian Rules footballers, or rugby league and union codes.

By the 10th century cuju was using an inflatable leather ball, slightly heavier than a modern football, and with royal patronage, became widely popular in China. Song emperor Taizu was himself a keen player.

By the 15th century however, cuju was in decline having been banned as a distraction from work and war by the spartan-minded Hongwu Emperor, and by the time association football arrived China from the West in the 19th century, cuju had ceased to be a pastime and was more a folk memory.

One is tempted to wonder if Marco Polo brought cuju or kemari back to Italy in the 13th century and maybe he did, but Greco-Roman ball games like episkyros and harpastum had already taken root in the Mediterranean.

Cuju has only recently been rediscovered as a proud ancient tradition back in its homeland, perhaps as part of the nation's new cultural confidence as it asserts itself internationally, celebrated with the opening of the Linzi Museum of Football in the eastern Shangdong province.

The Cuju Museum, Linzi, China.
The Cuju Museum, Linzi, China

The museum honours the ancient sport and contains what looks like a Roman bust and a holy relic of Sepp Blatter, who proudly cited the province as the birthplace of football back in 2004.

Of course, he has not been the only man to attempt to curry favour with the world's coming superpower.

President Xi Jinping, despite apparently being a Man United fan, visited Manchester City and the National Football Museum in 2015, and three years ago, Cuju itself came to the Etihad with Bernardo Silva having a crack at it to mark Chinese New Year:

When the World Cup finally arrives in China, as is absolutely inevitable, we will surely see and hear more about their country's ancient version of the sport we all know and love.

With the world's soon-to-be No.1 economy behind it, it can only be a matter of time until the red shirts are a superpower on the football field. Xi Jinping has a plan for China to have 50 million registered football players by 2025 and to host the FIFA World Cup in 2030 or 2034.

For now, the superpower is stuck in first gear, as the national team has failed again to qualify for the World Cup Finals, to be held this November in Qatar.

So, in 2022, cuju remains the highlight of China's football history.

But more than ever, football is the world's sport and sooner or later, as the world turns, it will include a strong Chinese flavour.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

The FIFA Museum has an impressive online archive to explore the sport's origins and has upcoming webinars on kemari, Greco-Roman and Meso-American ball games. 

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