Having a ball

By Zhao Ruixue| (China Daily)| Updated : 2022-12-22

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Handmade cuju balls, created using techniques such as weaving and embroidery with wool and silk yarn. [Photo provided to China Daily]

While the recently concluded World Cup was in full swing in Qatar, the people of a particular city in China were busy making soccer history of their own.

Zibo, a city in Shandong province, was named in 2004 by soccer's governing body, FIFA, as the "home of soccer", based on the fact that the ancient Chinese sport of cuju was acknowledged by FIFA as the earliest form of soccer.

"Many people buy cuju sets to play for fun, or use as a gift to give to friends," says Yu Jian, an inheritor of cuju equipment manufacturing in Linzi district of Zibo city.

Sales during the World Cup are usually at least twice that of normal, he reveals.

Cuju was an ancient Chinese game involving the kicking of a ball. Its origin has been traced back to the Linzi district, which was the capital city of the ancient Qi state, a state that existed for more than 800 years during the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC) and the Warring States Period (475-221 BC).

The word cu means to kick, while ju refers to an ancient type of leather ball stuffed with feathers or grain chaff.


Chinese and Qatari youth try the ancient Chinese game of cuju at an exchange-and-experience activity held in Doha, Qatar, in November. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Cuju is recorded in the ancient Chinese historical text Zhan Guo Ce (Strategies of the Warring States), which describes it as one of many forms of entertainment among the public.

Historical books show that, during the Han Dynasty (202 BC-AD 220), cuju was commonly played by soldiers for military training purposes. During the Tang Dynasty (618-907), women played cuju at the royal court for the entertainment of the emperors.

Cuju flourished during the Song Dynasty (960-1279), extending its popularity to every class, before its decline during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), which saw the 2,000-year-old game slowly fade away.

In 2006, cuju was listed among China's first batch of intangible cultural heritage items.

Yu, in his 60s, has been studying and making cuju equipment for nearly two decades. In his workshop, cuju balls stuffed with cotton and made with four, six or eight leather panels are on show.

"The manufacturing techniques evolved during different times. For example, the balls were stitched together with four pieces of leather during the Qi state, and in the Han era, it was six pieces," says Yu.

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