The origin of football in China

35mm original

The English didn’t invent football, since in every age -from the Maya to the Romans- there were sports played with a ball. In football, as in other aspects of the History, we should try to have a less euro-centric attitude.

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Let’s say that the Crown, through its work of colonization, did the world know what is her own version of football, which today we practice and watch.When Marco Polo came to China was faced with a reality -cultural and scientific-much more advanced than the European, which was clouded from the Middle Ages.China was ahead on almost everything, even in football.


Modern football was introduced in China in 1860, following the bloody Opium War and the conquest of Hong Kong by the British. It was a period full of humiliations for the Chinese people, invaded from every angle by Western forces, but the other small side of the coin tells us that it was also a period of cultural contaminations.

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The English reached China’s east coast, bringing the art of football in the various ports, such as Shanghai and Tianjin. But this is only the recent History, because what is English is actually Chinese, and we must jump back 4,500 years, reaching the age of the Yellow Empire ofHuangdi, to find the first football’s appearance in China. In fact, at that time military troops tested themselves in a game called “tsuchu”, which literally means “ball kicked with the feet”. The goal was to kick a leather ball filled with women’s hair into a hole held up by two bamboo canes.The legends of that period tell us that the losers were obliged to walk for many kilometres in the desert and who lost the ball was destined to die.According to historical finds, the “tsuchu” was born in the eastern province of Shandong, the land of Confucius, more precisely in the city of Zibo-in which today is the only one national museum dedicated to football in the Linzi District- where it all began thousands of years ago.

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We can so consider Zibo as the cradle of the most loved sport in the world, even if paradoxically no pro teams are currently playing in this city. In the birthplace of football, in 2011, an attempt at setting a new world record for football had special meaning for its people.In an event organized as part of the International Qi Culture Tourism Festival, 1,377 school students and football fans from the area gathered to take the title of most people keeping a ball in the air.Despite adverse weather conditions, the attempt smashed a tough target of 1,062 participants that was set by the students of Yanbian University in China in 2009.

The power of football

They say that President Xi Jinping is madly in love with football. I think it’s better to say that Xi, more than football, is in love with the “soft power policy” (I mean, the use of non-warlike resources to achieve diplomatic goals).It is certainly not the first time in Chinese History. Already the emperor Liu Bang, in 206 BC -at the dawn of the Han Dynasty- placed football at the heart of his dominion.When he became emperor, Liu Bang built football fields around his imperial residence. Legends tell that he was madly in love with this sport, which played an important social role during the entire Han dynasty. A find of 50 AD attest the spread of this sport in Japan and the first international matches.First with Liu Bang and later with Emperor Wudi, the rules of “tsuchu” were codified and collected in official documents.From these we can identify two types of game: “zhuqiu” and “baida”.The first is the competitive version, in which it won by scoring more goals, with teams composed from twelve to sixteen players and the goal post that could change from the classic hole held up by bamboo canes to parts of wall.The matches were organized at court during diplomatic events. The “baida” was instead a practice for jugglers, in which no importance was assigned to the number of goals scored, but to the style of the performance.

The first cup and the decline

As modern football History tells us, the oldest tournament is the FA Cup, whose first edition was held in 1872. In the final, played on March 16, London Wanderers won 1-0 against London Engineer. In Asia the first official tournament was the Duran Cup in India in 1888, while in China, more exactly in Hong Kong, the Challenge Shield was played in 1898. But if we really want to split hairs, the first official football competition was the Qin Yun She, held during the Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD).The “tsuchu” became a professional practice: on one side there were athletes who performed at the court, on the other citizens who made a living by playing in their villages or towns.

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China and “tsuchu” knew the great decline during the years of the Ming Dynasty, after a period of wars on several fronts.The imperial power was overturned by a coup and the subsequent establishment of the Qing Dynasty in 1644. It’s in this last chapter of the Imperial era that the “tsuchu” dissolved, since the practice didn’t respect the rules of the Confucian philosophy, which vertically and rigidly divided social classes.Thanks to the sport, a quite skilled farmer could prevail over a government official and this was considered unacceptable. In fact, in Confucianism was essential the respect for higher authority, in the social and familiar sphere. If the competitive “tsuchu” -namely the “zhuqiu”-  gradually disappeared, the jugglers’ version-the “baida”-kept its own social importance and had a comeback in Japan under the name of “kemari”.

Today and tomorrow

Today China seems to have made peace with football, actually its great expansion -not only economic- also passes through this sport. In recent years the clubs in the Chinese Super League spent exorbitant amounts, more than those in the English Premier League.

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The media attention mainly focuses on players which arrive in China from Europe and we wonder if in the future the Chinese Super League will take on a central position in football world arena. After a totally deregulated growth, the costs are destined to decrease and for Chinese football, as well as for the country’s economy, we’ll talk of a process of stabilization defined as “New Normal”. The government bypassed the federation and imposed some restrictions on foreigners and an extra tax for those purchases that exceed 30 million euro. The revenues will be devolved to the development of the youth sector.

History has changing balances. Who knows in the future where football will shift its centre of gravity.


By Igor Giammanco

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