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Did Soccer Originate in China?

Oct. 7, 2021

When we think of soccer (football), many people think of superstars like Lionel Messi from Argentina or the Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo. But did you know that in 2004, FIFA confirmed that the origins of soccer lie in Chinese Cuju (cù jū 蹴鞠)? Cuju was the earliest soccer-like activity recorded in history?

蹴鞠(cù jū): n. Cuju

The “Zhan Guo Ce” and “Historical Records” contain the earliest mentions of Cuju: the former describes the popularity of the game in Linzi, the capital of Qi State more than 2,300 years ago, and the says that Cuju was used to train and evaluate soldiers at that time.

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The Origin of Cuju

Cuju, translated into modern Chinese means “kicking ball”, in which “蹴 ()” means “to kick”, and “鞠 ()” means ball. According to legend, cuju was invented by one of the mythical three sovereigns and five emperors in order to train soldiers. According to the “Zhan Guo Ce”, during the time of King Qi Xuan (319 BC-301 BC) cuju spread throughout Linzi, in the State of Qi.

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The Soccer Fan Emperor

Liu Bang, the founding emperor of the Han Dynasty, and his father Liu Taigong were both well-known Cuju fans. Liu Bang’s vigorous promotion enabled Cuju to develop from a private entertainment into a professional competitive sport, including a robust set of competition rules. The court of the Han Dynasty had a walled competition field dedicated to the sport, very similar to the soccer stadiums of today.

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Even the rules of the time were similar to those of modern soccer: players were divided into two teams of twelve and the outcome was based on the number of goals scored.

During the Han Dynasty there was also a professional soccer technique book, “25 Techniques of Cuju”, which was included in the list of military books.

例句 (lì jù):

球迷(qiú mí): n. fan

qiú mí men yī zhí zài rè liè tǎo lùn nà chǎng qiú sài.
球   迷   们  一 直 在  热 烈 讨  论   那    场     球  赛。
The fans have been discussing the game enthusiastically.

The First Club

In the Song Dynasty, the popularity of Cuju continued to increase. The Yuan Dynasty painter Qian Xuan painted, “Emperor Taizu’s Cuju Picture”, a vivid portrayal of the popularity of Cuju. There are even records of good cuju players becoming high-ranking government officials.

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In the Song Dynasty, a professional Cuju club called Qiyunshe (Yuanshe) appeared, and there was even a national league tournament, where teams from all over participated.

例句 (lì jù):

俱乐部 (jù lè bù): n. club

wǒ men de jù lè bù huān yíng xīn chéng yuán.
我    们   的 俱 乐 部  欢     迎   新     成      员。
Our club welcomes new members.

The Decline of Cuju

Beginning in the Ming Dynasty, Cuju began to flourish only at the elite levels of society, popular mainly among officials and dignitaries, which changed the audience of the sport. When the Ming emperor Ming Taizu saw that many officials passed the time every day playing Cuju, abandoning their government duties, so he was furious. He issued a strict order banning officials, soldiers, and other government personnel from playing Cuju, and instituted severe punishments for violations. This led to the gradual decline of the Cuju movement.

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Clearly, despite the fact that the sport was not played continuously from ancient times until now, it is not an exaggeration to say that Chinese Cuju is the origin of soccer, or even that China is the birthplace of the sport.

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