Soccer, one of the most popular sports games in the world, has a contemporary history that spans more than 100 years. Yet its roots can be traced so far back as the days before Jesus was born and before China became a unified kingdom.

According to FIFA, the earliest form of the game for which there is scientific evidence was an exercise from a military manual dating back to the second and third centuries BC in China during the Spring and Autumn Period 2,500 years ago.

A bronze mirror with soccer image
The back of an ancient bronze mirror for a lady’s daily makeup is engraved with a scene of a group of people playing a soccer game.

Soccer in Warring State Era – A Popular Recreation Activity

Chinese soccer was initially called 蹴鞠 (cuju), literally meaning “kicking a ball”.

The early form of the soccer ball was made of 8 triangular-shaped leather pieces and filled with feathers or hair.

Records of the Grand History (史记·苏秦列传) by Han historian Sima Qian (司马迁, 145BC-87BC), and The Strategies of the Warring States (战国策), a Han Dynasty book containing original anecdotes from the Warring States period, contain a passage mentioning the popularity of soccer game when describing the scene in Linzi (临淄), the capital of Qi Kingdom in today’s Shandong Province in China’s east:

“People in the city all love to play flute, harp and zither, watch cook fighting and dog fighting, and take part in chess and soccer games.”  (其民无不吹竽、鼓瑟、弹琴、击筑、斗鸡、走犬、六博、蹋鞠者).

Soccer in Han Dynasty & Three Kings Era – Physical Exercise and Military Training

Liu Bang (刘邦 256 BC – 195 BC), the founding emperor of the Han Dynasty was a big soccer fan and erected a stadium within his palace to specifically facilitate soccer matches. The stadium consisted of a soccer field and spectator areas around, completed with enclosure wall gates.

It was during that period, a set of rules governing soccer games was initially developed.

According to Han-style regulations, a professional soccer match should have a 12-member team on both sides led by a captain respectively, with the outcome decided on goal difference. And the athletes could utilize their feet, chest, back and shoulders in games, but using their hands was not permitted.

In a book titled Note On Soccer Stadium (鞠城铭), a Han scholar described how a typical soccer field of the time looked like: It was in a rectangular shape, facing east and west, with six-goal holes on the ground at either side guarded by six goalkeepers from both teams respectively (园鞠方墙,倣象阴阳, 法月衡对,二六相当).

As a result of government promotion, soccer became a popular national pastime among elites and commoners and was also used in military training. Legendary Han general Wei Qing (卫青) and Huo Qubing (霍去病) all loved to play soccer when guarding China’s northern borders.

Regarding the popularity of soccer among ordinary citizens, an entry to Records of the Grand History (史记·扁鹊仓公列传) documented one instance in which a soccer fan died of spitting blood after he ignored a doctor’s warning and kept playing soccer.

Book of Han (汉书·东方朔传), which narrates the life events of the legendary figure Dongfang Shuo (161 BC – 93 BC), comments that during leisure time if the man was not on the soccer field playing the game then he must be on the spectator seating watching the match.

The text referring to soccer can also be found in many other Han Dynasty references, such as Memories On West Capitol (西京杂记), About Tax On Salt And Iron (盐铁论), New Book On Soccer (蹴鞠新书) and Unofficial Biography Of Liu Xiang (刘向别录).

Entering the Three Kingdoms Period, a post-Han age marked by constant military campaigns between the warlords, playing soccer was regarded not just as a sport but as an important military skill.

Historian Yu Yu (虞预) concluded in Guiji Records (会稽典录) that people of Three Kingdoms practiced archery when on horseback and played soccer while at home (上以弓马为务,家以蹴鞠为学).

Soccer in Sui & Tang Dynasty – Emergence of Women’s Soccer Teams

The popularity of soccer further soared during the Tang Dynasty (618-907).

By then soccer tournaments were frequently organized, and it was not uncommon for having ten thousand spectators to watch and cheer the match on viewing stands. (球不离足,足不离球,华庭观赏,万人瞻仰).

The production of a soccer ball was further improved. They were still sewn together with eight leather pieces yet no longer filled with feathers or hair, but air, which allowed the ball to be bounced high.

The increased bounce efficiency of the ball resulted in the increased height of the goal hole up to 10 metres above the ground, formed by a net with a hollow in the middle about 1 metre in diameter, and the net was supported by bamboo poles. The goals were reduced from 6 to one or two, placed either at the two ends or at the centre of the soccer field, serving both teams.

The single-goal arrangement avoided direct body contact between two rival teams and was less physically demanding to the players, which attracted women to participate in the games.

The biggest fans of women’s soccer were Tang emperors, with female soccer matches held in the palace from time to time throughout the 400 years of the Tang Dynasty era.

Women’s soccer was generally less formal than professional men’s soccer. Often there was no goal on the field at all, and the number of players could be as few as just two ladies. Such a game was called Plain Kick (白打).

Wang Jian (王建, 768-835), a Tang poet, once depicted in his verse Palace Verse (宮词) how the Cold Food Festival Cup (a soccer game conventionally run on Cold Food Day) was taken place in the palace on the eve of Tomb Sweeping Festival, and its prepaid cash award custom to the armature athletes – the royal consorts and maiden servants (寒食內人长白打,库中先散与金钱).

The star soccer players in the Tang time included great poets Li Bai (李白 701-764) and Du Fu (杜甫 712-770).

Soccer in Song Dynasty – Commercialisation of Soccer Games

Song Dynasty (960–1279), the technologically most advanced era in ancient China, saw the biggest improvement in the production of soccer balls and the administration of soccer games.

The leather pieces to make a soccer ball was increased from 8 to 12, which enhanced the roundness of the sphere.

Each team in a match by then normally consisted of 16 players, and the captain would be responsible to serve the first ball and shoot the only goal when the ball returned to him from his teammates.

As it was the case during the Han and Tang dynasties, Song emperors were also big promoters of this particular sport.

Chinese emperor playing soccer with his officials

Emperor Huizong (1082-1135) was a fanatic soccer fan and appointed soccer star Gao Qiu (高俅) as his general commander to lead the royal army guarding the palace and the capital Bianliang, in today’s Kaifeng, Henan Province.

The legend of 108 outlaws of marsh just occurred during his reign with Gao Qiu as the main antagonist.

In Water Margin (水浒), one of the four most celebrated classic Chinese novels, novelist Shi Naian (施耐庵 1296-1372) narrated how Gao Qiu gained special favour with the monarch.

Chinese emperor playing soccer

When the Northern Song was reduced to the Southern Song (1127-1279), the popularity of soccer games did not diminish. In fact, it was during that period, Round Club (圆社), the first professional soccer association, came into being, specializing in coordinating soccer events and arranging soccer tournaments.

Another famous soccer organisation at the time was Cloud Reaching Club (齐云社), which had specific membership charters governing the members’ behaviors on and off the field, that include “10 Things to Do” (十紧要), like being a team player (要朋友), a law-abiding citizen (要礼法), a trustworthy man (要信实) and a proactive member (要精神), and “10 Things Not to Do” (十禁戒), such as not to gamble (戒赌博), not to initiate lawsuit (戒词讼), not to indulge in alcohol and sex (戒酒色) and not to engage in fighting (戒争斗).

Ancient Chinese men playing soccer

Zhou Mi (周密), a 13th-century writer, in his book Past Events In A Martial World (武林旧事), recorded a list of 32 sportsmen’s names in both teams of a soccer match taking place in Song capital Hangzhou, complete with each player’s position in the field, which certainly must be the first soccer team names list published in the world.

Due to the wide popularity of soccer throughout the Song Dynasty, the game gradually became quite commercialised with soccer-themed teahouses (蹴球茶坊) emerging in many cities. Some stores in completely different trading areas would also use soccer to promote their business. A historical record detailed how a shop selling cooking oil named itself Soccer Store (角球店).

Soccer in Ming Dynasty – Final Glory of Ancient Soccer in China

After the classic Chinese civilisation entered the era of the Ming Dynasty, the Middle Kingdom became more a citizen society, as compared to Han’s aristocracy structure, Tang’s noble order and Song’s elite system.

By then more ordinary members of Chinese society got a chance to involve in hobby pursuit and leisure activities, which included soccer games which saw more women and kids kicking balls on the playground.

This ink painting by Du Jin (杜菫), a scholar-painter of the 15th century, illustrates ladies playing soccer in the garden.

Ming Dynasty emperor watching soccer game

This painting by a Ming court artist depicts the fifth Ming emperor Xuanzong watching guards and servants playing soccer.

In History of Ming Dynasty (明通鉴) compiled by post-Ming scholar Xia Xie (夏燮 1800–1875), a much more reliable account of Ming history than the one “officially” published under Manchu’s sponsorship, there is a story about the 11th Ming emperor Wuzong’s brush with soccer:

In the 1st year of Wuzhong’s reign, bandit Zhang Mao from Wen’an County became a sworn brother of his neighbour, eunuch Zhang Zhong, and thus got a chance to enter the Beijing Forbidden City to play soccer with the emperor.

Ancient Chinese kids playing soccer

This is part of the embroidered pattern in a jacket unearthed from a Ming empress’ tomb, which illustrates three youth playing soccer together.

The fact that soccer play would be used as a theme of artistic decoration reflects the wide popularity of the game in people’s daily lives.

An ancient Chinese family cup - mother and her kids playing soccer

However, such wide popularity and high professionalism in classic Chinese soccer during the Ming era was actually just the last glorious radiance of the setting sun before total darkness descended on China’s soccer field.

The End of Ancient Chinese Soccer

The occupation of China by Manchus following the Ming’s demise in the middle 17th century sent the Chinese civilisation backwards for thousands of years.

Anything those stone-age aliens couldn’t understand or considered would pose a threat to their rule had to go: Books on technologies were burned, the Daoist practice was prohibited, and martial arts and sports were banned, that included soccer.

While martial arts, for their practical applications in health and self-defense, were still taught and learned secretly in Chinese society, classic Chinese soccer, chiefly serving as entertainment as it was during the Ming dynasty, faded into history.

After three hundred years, Chinese, including China’s professional soccer players, can only watch the World Cup on television ……..

3 thought on “A Brief History of Chinese Soccer”

You are welcome to share your thoughts here