The Chinese and Tsu Chu

The Chinese and Tsu Chu

The Chinese are credited with the earliest form of football, commonly recognised as approximately 255 – 206 BCE. However as mentioned previously there are a number of opinions on the dates involved – some go all the way back to 5000 BCE!

The game was called Tsu Chu (sometimes spelt as cuju) and records show mention of this game in military manuals dating back to the Tsin Dynasty (255 – 206 BCE). Tsu Chu was part of the physical education programme used to train soldiers at the time. The game was played extensively during the following period of the Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE).

Tsu Chu literally means football as tsu may be translated to ‘kicking the ball with feet’ and chu meaning ‘a ball made of leather and stuffed’. Quite specific for a term that is over 2000 years old.

The game was incredibly hard to play and the goal was a net with a hole (approximately 30-40 cm in diameter) strung between two bamboo poles that were 30 feet high.

To ‘score’ the ball had to go through the hole in the net. This meant that players were actually very skilful and were almost considered artists or performers in their role – remember that they were not allowed to use their hands. Tsu Chu was played as part of the Emperor’s birthday celebrations – perhaps this is the first example of an exhibition match!

A Han Dynasty military manual lists a ‘zuqui’ (football) as equipment needed for Tsu Chu. The zuqui was roughly the size of a volleyball, made of roughly stitched leather panels and stuffed with animal fur.

Chinese legend tells of Liu Bang (the founder of the Han Dynasty) being a big fan of the game. When his father moved with him from the countryside to the Imperial Palace he missed playing the game terribly. So his son, the Emperor, built a special field near the Palace and invited a number of skilful players from his hometown to play there. It is really during the Han Dynasty that the game of Tsu Chu came into prominence.

The Han Dynasty Emperor Wudi (156-87 BCE) was also a great fan of the game. After conquering Central Asia, he ordered that all good ball players move to the capital so that he could watch them play. Emperor Wudi would spend many a day watching a game of Tsu Chu and quite often he couldn’t help but play a few games as well!

References to other forms of Tsu Chu can be found in historical records. Below we have detailed the other versions of the game;

‘Five a side style’ – Involved a rectangular court with walls and 12 semi-circular holes cut out of the walls. There were the goals, six for each side! Each goal also had a goalkeeper making 12 in total! The game was so hard that the first team to score were the winners!

‘Keepy – Uppy’ – This was a version where the purpose was just to keep the ball in the air.

‘Gladiator- style’ – As part of the military training, a player would be attacked by 3-4 other players whilst still trying to keep the ball in the air and score through the hole in the net!!!

During the Tang Dynasty (618-907) a hollow ball filled with air replaced the solid one. At this time kicking the ball became popular with women as well.

Tsu Chu became incredibly popular with both aristocrats and ordinary people alike and remained popular until the Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1911) when it was eventually replaced by Western Football. Recently in China there has been a surge of interest in playing the game of Tsu Chu.

However whilst considered by many to be the earliest forerunner of football, Tsu Chu did not have a direct influence on the game of football as we know it today. So we must look elsewhere for the true origins of the game.