Soccer is one of the most popular sports in the world. Though the modern version of soccer that is played today has its origins in the West, an ancient form of soccer already existed in China about 2,000 years ago. Known as cuju, the earliest known evidence of the game appears in a military manual from the 2nd to 3rd centuries B.C.
During the period of Warring States (476 B.C. – 221 B.C.), cuju was used as an enjoyable fitness training regime for military personnel. Soon, the game’s popularity spread to the upper classes. During the time of the Han Dynasty (206 BC to 220 AD), Emperor Wu often held cuju matches inside the imperial palace. It was during this period that the rules of cuju started forming and eventually became standardized. A unique playing area would be constructed for cuju matches with six goal posts in total.
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During the time of the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907), the ball used in cuju games underwent a change. Unlike the feather-stuffed balls that used to be the standard, balls filled with air with two layers of hull began to be used. It was during the Song Dynasty (960 – 1279) that the popularity of cuju reached its zenith. The game was played during court feasts. Since this was a time of economic and social development, all classes of people started playing the game. This period also saw the establishment of professional cuju clubs where people would be trained by professional teachers after paying money to become a member.
Participation in the game was not limited to men. Women also used to play cuju in ancient times. One writer from the Tang Dynasty narrates a story of three teenage girls competing against soldiers in a game of cuju.
During the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644), the tradition of cuju started going downhill. The game ended up becoming associated with brothels, with prostitutes playing in order to attract the attention of potential customers. Officials neglected their duties to take part in such games. In an attempt to curb this behavior, the founding emperor of the Ming Dynasty, Zhu Yuanzhang, banned the sport. Slowly, the reputation of cuju fell and the game faded away from Chinese society.
While people were attracted to cuju for its enjoyment, fame, and money, the health benefits of the game were also an important contributor to its popularity. One book praises the game for strengthening the body, supporting digestion, and combating obesity.
A text from the Han Dynasty period established the earliest rules and regulations of the game. “The round ball and the square court symbolized the traditional Daoist concepts of yin and yang. In comparison to modern soccer, the goals were small, moon-shaped holes and there were six of them at either end of the court. The 24 players and their team captains would elect a referee before the game, who was to mediate based on the regulations and according to the standards of fair sportsmanship,” according to The Epoch Times.
Cuju had two main styles — Zhuqiu and Baida. Zhuqiu was mostly played during court feasts and diplomatic events. Baida was a style that became dominant during the Song Dynasty period. This style stressed the importance of developing teamwork and individual style. The winner was decided based on which team registered the most fouls. For instance, if a player kicked the ball too low, it would lead to fewer points. If a player’s pass failed to reach his teammate, points would be deducted.