Sport in Ancient Times East to West

Table of Content

The noted sociologist Norbert Elias has observed that the English word sport has been in use only since the Industrial Revolution and that even in the early 1800s, no native German equivalent for the term existed. Sport means different things in different societies, but it is an essential part of social history. The concepts of sport have changed over the years so that as a result of industrialization in the last two centuries, we tend to think of modern sport in terms of games and competition, which may or may not be evident in ancient societies.

In antiquity, only in Mesoamerica do team games appear to have been as popular as they are today—some may argue that they were more popular— although the concepts behind them are different. Elias has also remarked that the early meaning of sport as “an amusement,” or “recreational activity,” has evolved into a physical contest with de? nite regulations. The historian Allen Guttmann has de? ned several traits that characterize modern sport: secularism, equality of opportunity to compete, bureaucratization, specialization, rationalization, quanti cation, and the quest for records.

This essay could be plagiarized. Get your custom essay
“Dirty Pretty Things” Acts of Desperation: The State of Being Desperate
128 writers

ready to help you now

Get original paper

Without paying upfront

He has since modi? ed his views and considers bureaucratization and specialization to be subdivisions of rationalization. Although the scarcity of sources and written rules hampers our understanding of much of ancient sport, these seven features are largely missing from prehistoric societies. Yet during the historical period some are discernible in the Greco-Roman world and elsewhere. It is dif? cult, therefore, to characterize sport in a way that is appropriate for all cultures.

Even though, in the broad sense of the term, sport is universal, narrow de itions such as “nonutilitarian physical contests” and “competitions with no ulterior motives” that some historians have proposed are far too simplistic to embrace all the nuances of ancient civilizations, appropriate as they may be for some societies. In antiquity, Greek athletics and Mesoamerican ball games, for example, were competitive; but not every sport concerned winning, losing, and high performance. Some activities were noncompetitive, or judgmental: the Greeks admired the grace and skill (kalokagathia) of ball games.

One version of Japanese “kick ball” (kemari) involved keeping the ball in the air while of ials looked for elements of speed, style, and strategy. These games had an aesthetic quality, xxii Introduction although this does not necessarily imply that the ancients considered them to belong to the arts. People in the ancient world rarely practiced sports for their own sake, especially in the earliest times, for physical pursuits had strong links with ritual, warfare, entertainment, or other external features. In China, sports had connections not only with cult and warfare, but also with social customs, philosophy, health, and medicine.

Over time, several physical activities that began with a strong cultic, or military, association (their raison d’etre) developed into sports in their own right, or even transcended sports. We can interpret several activities in the ancient world as initiation rites, notably various footraces for girls in Greece and perhaps bull leaping for youths in Minoan society. Many sports became entertainments, such as the great spectacles of gladiators and chariot racing in Rome. Some could be part of a tness routine, like the martial art of wushu in China and ball playing in the Roman baths.

Other pursuits could involve organized (or spontaneous) play and exercise, and recreations both physical and nonphysical, which may or may not have been integral parts of the culture of the society. Researchers still debate the question of how sport began. Some see sport as play, a part of nature, or a basic release from tension (a catharsis). Others have suggested that it arose from instinctive drives (or impulses), from the hunting ritual, or tests of strength. Yet others have remarked on the close association between sport and religion in the ancient world, but few would agree that religion is the origin of sport.

This element of religion, or more precisely ritual, has largely disappeared from sport in the modern world, although it is still much in evidence, for example, in Japanese sumo wrestling. According to the Marxist theory, sport is a preparation for work that separates human beings from beasts. One school of thought views sport as a means of discharging aggression; another maintains that it causes more aggression than it discharges. One unusual theory suggests that sport is the ritual sacri ce of human energy that is evident in all societies in different forms: the one who has the most energy to expend is worthy of the greatest honor.

No single theory for the origin of sport has met with general acceptance, but sport is clearly a social phenomenon. Many have argued that sport played a greater role in Greek society than it has in recent times, for it evolved into a fundamental component of culture, particularly in literature, religion, and art. Indeed, the physiques of ancient athletes (especially pentathletes) inspired Greek sculptors to produce outstanding works of art, such as the Discobolus of Myron and the Doryphorus of Lysippus.

In the modern world, however, sport has not had a major in? ence on art, despite the hopes of Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympic Movement, and the International Olympic Committee that artists would seek “new inspiration in athleticism. ” One may think of the Acrobats of Picasso, bull ghting in the works of Goya, and the bronze athletes of the North American sculptor Tait McKenzie, but these are atypical items among the world’s masterpieces.

The long-held theory that the Greeks alone among ancient people had a competitive spirit that permeated all levels of Introduction  society, although recently challenged, still holds some merit. This spirit is less evident in early Italy, the Middle East, North Africa, and the Far East, although competition could decide who lived and died in Mesoamerica. Although there has sometimes been a tendency to consider sport in antiquity as civilized and that of the Middle Ages as violent and crude, the ancient world also knew savagery in sport. Even if we omit the Roman gladiatorial shows, we may note that Greek spectators went to boxing competitions at Olympia to see blood.

Greek combatants in the pancration tried to kick their opponents in the genitals and gouge their eyes—the  rst of these tactics was legal, the second was not. The Greeks loved armed combat, which several of their sports re ect. The enlightened philosopher Plato proposed athletic events for his ideal society that had value as training for warfare. The ancient Athenians spent more money on the military than on any other activity. The Mesoamericans decapitated members of losing ball teams. In ancient times, sport did not permeate all levels of society on an equal basis.

Sport was largely for men. Women appear to have participated in far fewer physical pursuits, even allowing for the fact that the sources are almost exclusively male. Boys and girls also took part to a lesser extent, often in activities that involved rites of passage. In Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East, sport seems to have been mainly for the ruling classes, a symbol of their power, although in these cultures we are at the mercy of the chroniclers and artists who had more interest in documenting the sports and recreations of kings and their courtiers than the general populace.

Sport for the lower classes here often involved military training or recreational activities. Yet success by commoners in certain sports could lead to state of ce in China, or a royal appointment among the Hittites. In Rome and to a degree in Byzantium, rulers used sport to entertain the masses, which served as an escape, or diversion, from reality. Because of these complexities, one should not study ancient sport in isolation, but in close relationship with the society in which it took place, especially in the case of Eastern cultures that developed differently from our own. We can discover much about civilizations from sport.

As several scholars have remarked, we sometimes learn more from the way people played than the way they worked. With these observations in mind, we will discuss the role of ancient sport in both the Eastern and Western worlds. One The Far East: China, Japan, and Korea Even though the International Olympic Committee awarded the 2008 Olympic Games to Beijing, Western historians are still not fully conversant with the sports of early China. We possess few primary sources on ancient sport for the Far East compared with the abundant material for the civilizations of Greece and Rome.

The great expanse of China—isolated by mountains, deserts, and seas—the wide varieties of its climate, and the ethnic diversity of its population compound the problem. Anthropologists have identi? ed four separate cultures in China, but in terms of sport, we will discuss just two societies, namely the highly developed agricultural people of the south and east, and the nomadic tribes and mountainous people of the north and west. The former generally practiced physical activities of a more peaceful and passive nature. The latter used sports almost as a permanent training for war.

For modern Chinese historians, the ancient period of history extends into the Qing dynasty, until about 1840. This was the time of the Opium Wars as a result of which China became more accessible to the West, ceded Hong Kong to the British, and offered certain rights to foreigners. In keeping with the rest of the book, however, we will not trace sports as far forward as the nineteenth century, but only into the Ming dynasty (1368–1644 c. e. ). As far as is known, China had no organized sports that resembled the events of the ancient or modern Olympics.

Nevertheless, several Chinese researchers have pointed out that fencing, gymnastics, martial arts, archery, equestrian events, weightlifting, boxing, wrestling, and a forerunner of soccer developed in China during the Han period (206 b. c. e. –220 c. e. ). They observe that all these sports are part of the modern Olympic Games. They could also have included running and four events that were once part of the Olympics, namely golf, polo, tug of war, and weight throwing. Yet one can presume that most of these ancient Chinese activities would not closely resemble the Olympic events of today. Certainly none had a direct in? ence on the modern Olympic program that consists largely (or even entirely, as some have argued) of Western and westernized sports.

The Chinese participated in various sporting activities that were associated, among other things, with rituals, military training, social customs, philosophy, health, and even medical treatments. Scholars have seen the earliest signs of physical pursuits in the caves of the village of Zhoukoudian, near Beijing, where “Peking Man” lived about 600,000 years ago. Here, the skeletons of wild horses and deer suggest to some that the early Chinese were accomplished runners.

They sought after cooperation, harmony, health,  tness, and a balance of body and mind. Consequently, they advocated a disinterest in competition, vigorous exercise, and muscular development. This search for harmony and balance did not apply to the same extent to all of China, for in the mountainous and nomadic regions of the north and west, the Chinese practiced robust sports associated with horsemanship and warfare. Military training had a strong in? uence on sport and physical education in China from primitive times to the Jin dynasty in 265 c. e.

To assist in warfare, the Chinese practiced several activities, especially archery, equestrianism, and games such as cuju (“kick ball”) and jiju (a form of polo). As in many early societies, war was not a choice but a fact of life. Hence, we ? nd that from the age of 15, male students learned archery in school. Even philosophers as famous as Confucius (552–479 b. c. e. ) engaged in shooting with the bow, carried a sword, and partook in horse riding. The invention of the stirrup in China—a device unknown to the Greeks and Romans—allowed the rider much greater control in handling weapons on horseback.

Foot soldiers engaged in bare-hand  ghting, fencing, boxing, wrestling, running, throwing weights, and weightlifting. Over time, these aids to the military evolved into various forms of activities for people of different ages. The Chinese practiced them for recreation, entertainment, competition, exhibition, and other purposes. Archery developed into a popular organization where ceremony and social status seem to have been as important as competition, physical strength, and skill. It became a common recreational activity at festivals and was a means of selecting important state of? ials during the Zhou period (1027–221 b. c. e. ).

A tactic in naval warfare involved teams of men pulling into range an enemy vessel that they had seized with a grappling hook. This evolved into a version of tug of war, a recreation that became popular in the Han period, especially in the south of China. Wrestling turned into an entertainment, above all for the royal court, and an organization in its own right, particularly among the Mongols of the north. It became a way to advance one’s career or social standing. Boxing developed into a sport during the Ming dynasty.

It seems to have been extremely brutal, with no evidence for protective gloves, although it did have speci? c rules that even in the ancient world promoted elements of fair play. The of cials also attempted to improve athletic standards in boxing by banning sex before competition, a practice that the ancient Greeks and even modern boxers have independently followed, but with no documented degree of success. Running as training for the military gave rise to an ultra-long distance test in the Yuan dynasty (1279–1368 c. e. ), when members of the imperial guard were obliged to run more than 55 miles in six hours.

To run for a quarter of the day averaging nine minutes per mile would require 4 Sport in Ancient Times that these guards be highly trained athletes. Long-distance running became popular outside the military, where the Chinese used it as a means to train mailmen, or couriers of the day. Weightlifting also developed into a sport or exhibition. To display their strength, professional weightlifters lifted rocks and metal objects, such as heavy tripods and massive swords. As with wrestling, success here could lead to social advancement. The texts also relate that the Chinese practiced throwing objects weighing about 13 pounds.

The Chinese engaged in several sports that have become of great interest to historians because of their perceived similarities with modern games. Some researchers have stated that the game of cuju—a word derived from cu meaning “to kick” and ju “a ball”—is evidence that a version of soccer developed earlier in the Far East than in the West (see also sports in Japan and Korea). Indeed, in 2004, the President of the Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA)—perhaps more with the eye of a politician than a historian—declared that the ancient Chinese game of cuju was the origin of modern soccer.

On the FIFA Web site, an ancient Chinese illustration depicts what appears to be a player (although well clothed) with a soccer-style ball. Interesting though this may be, we should be careful here not to impose modern conceptions on ancient activities and cultures. Cuju may originally have been a folk game that became a preparation and training for the military.

Records  rst appear in the Han period, when the game was standardized. Its purpose was in part to maintain the ness of warriors and perhaps serve as a talent pool for potential soldiers, but it evolved into a game of relaxation, an entertainment, and a competitive sport with rules, captains, and referees. It transcended all classes of society, for intellectuals as well as peasants participated in the game. There is evidence for professionals and female players including a girl of 17. Emperors and those who could afford it even had their own private playing ?elds and invited the best players to play there. Ancient handbooks (including one of the earliest surviving Chinese texts) show how important cuju grew to be in Chinese society.

The poet Li You (55–135 c. e. ) saw the game as a microcosm of daily life and a representation of the balance of yin and yang. In the Wei dynasty (220–265 c. e. ), cuju took on further symbolic overtones when writers suggested that the playing ? eld represented the earth, the ball one of the heavenly bodies, and the 12 players the signs of the zodiac. Sources such as Li You provide a good description of the game. The Chinese played it in an area surrounded by a square wall, a primitive version perhaps of the larger and more monumental Mesoamerican ball court.

In the early days, one scored a goal by kicking the ball into a hole in the ground, but later by kicking into nets suspended high up between bamboo poles. At times, there were as many as six goals (nets), but eventually a single goal in the middle of the  eld that both teams attacked and defended. As now, it seems that the team that scored the most goals was victorious. At  rst, the Chinese used a hard (stuffed) leather ball, but from the  fth century c. e. played with a more modern-style air ball made from an animal bladder.

The number of players per side varied over the centuries, but appears to have The Far East: China, Japan, and Korea been set at six. In other versions of the game, keeping the ball in the air with a limited number of kicks and passing the ball were major criteria. As with several Chinese sports, the texts emphasize that one should play the game in a spirit of fairness and impartiality. The Chinese also participated in a version of polo, known as jiju , which came to China from the West (perhaps along the Silk Road from Persia).

Like cuju, it had military associations, especially as a form of cavalry training, to counteract the increasing threats of foreign invaders. Jiju developed into a sport during the Tang dynasty (618–907 c. e. , when it became particularly popular with all emperors of the period, some of whom became outstanding players and owned their own  elds. It evolved into a favorite entertainment that sometimes took place at night by torchlight before large numbers of people. Jiju was perhaps the closest that the ancient Chinese came to a modern-style spectator sport. From the sources, we can deduce that two sides, equal in number, played on a huge  eld that measured approximately 1,000 by 100 yards. Although this is much longer and narrower than a modern polo eld that typically measures 300 by 150 yards, the Chinese doubtless had many more players.

 Terra-cotta statuette of a “polo” player from the Tang dynasty. Musee Cernuschi, Paris. Photo courtesy of Scala, Art Resource, NY. 6 Sport in Ancient Times in a game than the four per side today to develop (at least initially) military skills en masse. The Chinese played with a ball made of bone, stone, or hard wood that was similar to the one used in modern times before the introduction of a plastic ball. The game changed from having a single net to two nets with goalkeepers. As in modern ice hockey, a horn signi ed the scoring of a goal, for which the of? cials awarded a  ag.

A signi ant “polo” match took place in January 821 c. e. between China and Japan. This is one of the world’s  rst known international sporting events. It took place in Tokyo, when a team of Chinese ambassadors played against a team chosen by the emperor of Japan. We can deduce that “polo” in Japan at this time must have been suf? ciently like “polo” in China to allow such a match to take place. Although modern historians may overestimate the importance of the event, this competition between representatives of two ancient nations certainly caught the imagination of Chinese poets who celebrated it in verse.

They remark on the great spectacle of the game, the excitement of goalmouth incidents, the noise of the horses’ hooves, and the enthusiasm of the spectators. The name of one outstanding jiju player, Xia, has survived; he was in the habit of performing tricks for spectators. He placed a stack of 12 coins in the middle of a “polo”  eld and demonstrated his remarkable hand-to-eye coordination by launching them into the air one at time with his stick. Today one would imagine that Xia would be much in demand to participate in television commercials for sports companies.

Jiju grew less popular in China during the Song dynasty, when it was the military and entertainers who mainly played the game. One notable exception, however, in the tenth century was the emperor Taizong, an avid fan and participant who organized competitions throughout the country and established speci? c rules for “polo. ” Taizong’s detractors criticized him for neglecting his duties as emperor and for risking serious injury in what was obviously a dangerous sport. Long before, Daoist priests and followers of Confucius had disapproved of jiju as an immoral activity that sapped the vitality of the players.

Others had observed that it had so preoccupied the military that it had made soldiers less effective in war, despite its original intentions. By the time of the Ming dynasty, jiju in China seems to have been in real decline from which it never recovered. A third important sport in China developed from jiju. This is chiuwan, or “hit ball,” a precursor of golf that some historians believe the Chinese played long before the Europeans. In the northern Song dynasty, chiuwan was popular among the of? cials of the court. In the Ming dynasty, it spread throughout the country when the lower classes began to play the game.

In 1282, Wanjing (or The Classic of Ball Games) de? ned a set of rules for the sport in written form. Individuals, pairs, or more players using wooden or bamboo clubs attempted to hit a ball made of wood into a hole marked by a  ag. The player who won the most holes was the victor and received prizes. As in modern golf, etiquette became a feature of the game.

Despite the similarities, chiuwan had no direct in ence on the modern game regulated by the Royal and Ancient Golf Club in St. Andrews, Scotland. Mongolian travelers, however, may have exported this version of the game to the West in the Middle Ages. Several other sports and recreations were important in China. In the Han dynasty and before, some of these pursuits occurred at agricultural festivals that incorporated physical activities as part of rural life. Dragon boat racing, for instance—versions of which are still popular today around the world— was an agrarian rite to ensure the fertility of crops.

Like many other Chinese sports, it developed from ritual into a competitive sport that took place at  xed times of the year. The dragon was the bene cent spirit of water, and, according to legend, the boat race commemorated the attempt to rescue the body of the renowned poet Qu Yuan, who had drowned. The Chinese also practiced hunting, bull ? ghting, racing carriages, demonstrating skill in darts at banquets, using swings for exercise and recreation, acrobatics, and in northern climates even skiing and ice skating.

According to the texts, they enjoyed ? ying kites, a pursuit that became a national pastime. They constructed the kites from bamboo, silk, and paper and painted on them mythological and religious images. In the recreational version, people  ew kites for pleasure. In competition, they tried to cut the strings of their opponents’ kites (which from a Western perspective seems to be antithetical to the Chinese interest in fair play). They also used kites for military purposes to spy on their enemies. The Chinese still  y kites today to avert evil spirits.

In the schools of old, students learned dancing that became a form of social expression and entertainment. Many board games are known, including Chinese chess, which dates back perhaps to the second century b. c. e. Chess became more than a recreation, for it had military connotations (strategy) and promoted mental stimulation. This game is somewhat different from modern chess, which many scholars believe originated in India in the sixth century c. e. In the late thirteenth century, Marco Polo journeyed to China (Cathay) from Constantinople along the Silk Road and met the emperor Kublai Khan.

Polo, an eminent Venetian traveler, recorded the skill of archers, the equestrian expertise of the Mongols, the enthusiasm of the nobility for hunting, and the feats of long-distance runners who acted as military couriers. He also remarked on acrobats and jugglers in the royal court, women who hunted and  shed, and men and women who bathed together in cold public baths to promote health. As Marco Polo observed, China had sports for women, although as in many early societies they did not receive the same education as men. From the evidence of several statuettes and the writings of poets who relate that the game slimmed the hips, we can infer hat jiju was not an unusual activity for females.

Servant women played this version of polo against each other before spectators in the imperial palace, where the records state that on one instance the all-female Red team beat the Green team by two goals to one. The empress and other women of the court also played “polo. ” Sometimes women and children played a more gentle variety of the game on donkeys. There is also evidence for mixed teams of “polo”—in one painting one can see 5 women and 11 men playing the game together.

For reasons not stated, young men sometimes played jiju in drag. Women also participated in various other sporting activities. They enjoyed archery (in which some empresses had outstanding skills), chiuwan, varieties of cuju (which according to one scholar had erotic overtones), dancing, dragon boat racing,  shing, hunting, kite  ying, shuttlecock, swimming, throwing balls, and public performances of wrestling.

If we trust the account of Marco Polo, one female member of the Mongol royal family, Khutulun, gained a fearsome reputation for her physical prowess, especially after defeating a potential husband in a wrestling match. These stories of the Mongol princess who triumphed over men are not unlike those of the legendary Greek heroine Atalanta . Modern reference works on ancient Chinese sport rarely mention the martial arts, although China doubtless had some in uence on their rise to prominence, with the spiritual in uences of Daoism, Confucianism, and The Far East: China, Japan, and Korea Buddhism.

In China, there was an interest in general  tness that combined various philosophies, mental stimulation, and breathing techniques that imitated the movements of animals. During the period 772–481 b. c. e. , there is an early reference to a form of ju-jitsu as a military exercise. The name of Bodhidharma, a Zen Buddhist monk, stands out in the development of the martial arts. In approximately 525 c. e. , he traveled from southern India to China to visit the Shaolin monastery, where he is reputed to have initiated a morning exercise program for the monks.

The martial arts, however, do not appear to have developed into recognizable forms of sport until much later times, perhaps with the Okinawans in the seventeenth century. Even then, the military element was predominant, as we shall see in the next section on Japan. It is interesting that twenty rst century supporters of the martial art known as wushu and of golf—it seems in the latter case more for its modern attractions than for its ancient Chinese “heritage”—lobbied for their inclusion in the Olympic Games of 2008 in Beijing. Wushu became a demonstration sport. Golf did not.

Cite this page

Sport in Ancient Times East to West. (2016, Nov 13). Retrieved from

Remember! This essay was written by a student

You can get a custom paper by one of our expert writers

Order custom paper Without paying upfront