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Culture Insider: Once popular sports in ancient capital Xi'an

Updated: 2021-09-22

The ancient capital Xi'an in Northwest China's Shaanxi province is holding the National Games. As the capital of 13 dynasties throughout Chinese history, the ancient city has never been far from sports. Starting from the Western Zhou Dynasty (c. 11th century-771 BC) to the Tang Dynasty (618-907), the city has held many sports events.

Cuju: Origin of modern soccer

Cuju was an ancient Chinese competitive game involving kicking a ball through an opening into a net.

As the ancestor of soccer, it first appeared in the renowned ancient Chinese historical work Zhan Guo Ce ("Strategies of the Warring States"), which described cuju as a form of entertainment among the general public.

Later, cuju was commonly played in the army for military training purposes, during the Han Dynasty (202 BC - 220 AD).

Emperor Hangaozu Liu Bang, the first emperor of the Western Han Dynasty, was a cuju fan, who not only liked watching cuju games, but always tried his footwork on the playground.

Liu Che, emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty, who was crazy about cuju, would establish a cuju field wherever his army went. He used cuju as a way of training soldiers.

The earliest record of women cuju players can be traced back to the Han Dynasty. We can see from the paintings females with their hair tied, waving their long sleeves and looking chic when playing cuju.

Up to the Tang Dynasty, women players prevailed at the royal court, as emperors enjoyed watching soccer games. At that time, various skills were widely used in playing cuju, mainly serving as entertainment purpose.

As a way of national culture protection, cuju was listed into the first batch of China's intangible cultural heritages in 2006.

Jiaodi: Chinese-style wrestling

Sumo, known as Japan's "national sport", actually originated in ancient China. Sumo was called jiaodi or jiaoli in ancient times.

Ancient jiaodi, a Chinese-style wrestling, was performed by athletes wearing ox horns and wrestling with each other imitating wild oxen.

During the Sui (581-618) and Tang dynasties, jiaodi was highly favored by emperors. It is said that Emperor Muzong of the Tang Dynasty watched jiaodi performance every three days. In the Tang Dynasty, jiaodi was part of military training and a kind of entrainment and athletic sports.

There were even specialized wrestling teams in Tang royal court, which brought jiaodi masters nationwide. Wrestling was also popular among folk people, and according to historical records, wrestling competition was usually held twice each year, in spring and autumn respectively.

In 1991, a Tang Dynasty figurine with a pose of wrestling was unearthed at a tomb in Tangjinxiang county in the suburb of Xi'an city. The figurine, a strong figure, half naked, bare feet, wearing a triangle pants, is poised to attack.

Jiju: Ancient polo

Jiju is a sport which uses a stick to hit balls while riding on a horse, pretty similar to modern polo. It was popular in the royal court and among common people in the Tang Dynasty. There were many fields for playing polo in the court and it was also a major military training program in the army.

In the Tang Dynasty capital, there were formal polo courts, such as the stadium pavilion in Chang'an palace.

The Tang Dynasty polo was a size of a fist, and often made with light and solid wood, hallow in the middle, round and smooth in the surface.

Polo playing can be seen in many murals in Tang Dynasty coffin chambers. There is a famous mural unearthed in a prince tomb in Shaanxi province in 1971 which portrays more than 20 men riding on horses playing polo.


During ancient times, the origin of archery was closely related with hunting and defense. Ancient archery was not only an athletic event, a military training program, and an entertainment activity, but also part of education.

As early as in Zhou Dynasty (c.11th century-256 BC), the archery was listed as one of the six practical disciplines, also called the Six Arts, becoming an important protocol and competition form.

Formal archery contests were held during the Wei, Jin, Southern and Northern Dynasties (220-589).

During the Tang Dynasty, archery was an important part of the Wuju Imperial Examinations, and five kinds of archery skills would be tested, including on-horse shot, step shot and flat shot.