Did China Invent Football?

After the Football World Cup and the amazing finale, everyone had the eyes glued to this fantastic French team and all the scenes of jubilation among the French.

If I had to survey a large range of people about the origins of football, needless to say the majority of the answers would be Europe.

However, the very first origins of football are ….Chinese and according to FIFA, the earliest form of soccer was a Chinese invention.

By the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.—220 A.D.), the game was called Cuju (pronounced tsoo-joo), best translated as “kick ball.”

Cuju was an ancient Chinese sport with similarities to soccer, featuring several significant variations in scoring and play style. It was played in a rectangular field often defined by thread or low walls, with typically one or two goals positioned in the middle of the field. It was a very popular sport in medieval China, pervasive among all classes and enjoyed by intellectuals, peasants, royalty, and soldiers alike.

The game was incredibly popular for many centuries, to the point that it was played professionally among both commoners and in the imperial court. Liu Bang, founding emperor of the Han Dynasty, was a known Cuju enthusiast. The imperial palace included a dedicated Cuju court where professional teams of 12 players each would face off.

Emperor Taizu and ministers playing cuju (c. 1300 AD)
Emperor Taizu and ministers playing cuju (c. 1300 AD)
Cuju Court

 

The game

Two teams of 12–16 players each attempted to score points by kicking the cuju ball through a goal. However, in contrast to soccer, there was one singular goal positioned in the middle of the field. This goal was made of two posts with a stretched net elevated between them, with a hole cut in the middle. Each team would try to kick the ball through this hole from their respective sides. Early in its history, there was also a two-goal version of cuju in which each team had their own goal in the middle of the field, though this was abandoned due to the popularity of the single-goal variation. It is unclear how many goals had to be scored to win a match or whether a time limit was used.

During the Tang Dynasty (618–907), another version of the sport, called baida, came into popularity, particularly among women. A group of 2–10 individual players would take turns attempting to score goals. A judge or judges would award points for skill, style, and ball handling, and could deduct points for poor performance. The player with the highest score by the end of the game won.

Women playing Cuju
Women playing Cuju

 

Restrictions

Players were allowed to touch the ball with any part of the body excluding hands. A referee could call fouls and/or deduct points, but it is unclear what constituted a foul, or how this system in its entirety worked. 

Cuju game

 

Equipment

Prior to the Tang Dynasty (618–907), cuju was played with a ball made of two sewn hemispheres of leather stuffed with feathers. As the sport gained popularity, a higher quality ball became the standard. With eight pieces of leather stitched together, the new cuju ball was much more uniformly shaped than its predecessor, and an air-filled animal bladder on the interior gave it a lighter weight for easier maneuvering.

This timeframe also established the goal setup that would become the standard for the following centuries. Typically, two posts would sit in the middle of the field with a net stretched between them with a hole cut in the middle, as illustrated to the right.

During the Song Dynasty (960–1279) cuju balls were crafted with twelve pieces of leather to further round its shape, and a professional standard weight of approximately 21 ounces was established. These improvements in the cuju ball quality and uniformity allowed for greater control of the ball among professional players.

Illustration of a cuju goal
Illustration of a cuju goal

 

Prior to the Tang Dynasty (618–907), cuju was played with a ball made of two sewn hemispheres of leather stuffed with feathers. As the sport gained popularity, a higher quality ball became the standard. With eight pieces of leather stitched together, the new cuju ball was much more uniformly shaped than its predecessor, and an air-filled animal bladder on the interior gave it a lighter weight for easier maneuvering.

This timeframe also established the goal setup that would become the standard for the following centuries. Typically, two posts would sit in the middle of the field with a net stretched between them with a hole cut in the middle, as illustrated to the right.

During the Song Dynasty (960–1279) cuju balls were crafted with twelve pieces of leather to further round its shape, and a professional standard weight of approximately 21 ounces was established. These improvements in the cuju ball quality and uniformity allowed for greater control of the ball among professional players.

Cuju ball
Cuju ball

 

The sport enjoyed a reign of popularity for over a millennium, even spreading out from China into other countries, before fading away around the 16th century.

But in China for well over 2,000 years, they have played the game of “kickball”. Today spelled zuqiu, it’s still the word used for football.

So can we say football originated in China?

Well it’s true that the Chinese had clubs, rules, and fans more than 1,000 years ago. But the various versions of kickball were a long way from modern football as defined in Sheffield in the 1860s. It was the British codifying of the rules that made association football the world’s game, the sport of the people, not just of the toffs. So maybe we should stick to calling the Chinese version “kickball”?

If you are a football lover or just interested in getting more information about Cuju, feel free to contact U China Travel at info@uchinatravel.com