Polo in Ancient China: A Sport of Emperors
Polo in Ancient China: A Sport of Emperors
- Polo: A Sport of Emperors
Anyone who has delved into Chinese art, especially that of the Tang Dynasty, would be surprised by the multitude of images depicting polo players. Noble women (and some men), elegantly dressed, are portrayed in paintings and sculptures, mounted on horses in the characteristic poses of this sport. This should come as no surprise, as for nearly 6 centuries, polo was one of China’s most popular sports. Initially a crucial component of military training, its practice was closely tied to the leisure and exercises of emperors. For some, it became an almost obsessive passion, marking significant moments in Chinese history and inspiring some of the most beautiful artworks of its time.
- The Passion for Polo Spanned Seven Centuries
Most experts believe that polo originated in Persia around the 5th century BCE, where it was considered a vital activity for enhancing cavalry skills in armies and was also enjoyed in noble courts. It’s thought that the sport was brought to China by the Persian prince Peroz, the son of the last pre-Islamic emperor, who fled to China’s Tang capital of Chang’an in the 670s. This coincided with the first mention of polo in China. Some suggest it might have also passed through Tibet, as evidenced by the Tibetan word «pulu» used for polo. Polo was also practiced in Tibet, with historical records and poems describing a match in 709 between a Chinese and a Tibetan team. The Chinese team, captained by the future Emperor Xuanzong, emerged victorious (García Quílez 2005).
Some scholars speculate that polo originated in China during the Han Dynasty, though this claim may have arisen from confusion between cuju (a sport played with the feet) and polo, called jiqiu in these times, as noted by various authors. The debate could be closed by the discovery of six pictorial bricks from an Eastern Han dynasty (25–220 CE) tomb close to Xuzhou City in Jiangsu province, which present images of equestrian players chasing after a ball with a curved stick, as this is the earliest pictorial evidence of polo related sport in Eurasia, but the discovering years later of three balls in a cemetery near Turfan, in Xinjiang province, suggest let open the possibility that the balls were used to play a polo-like sport, as ball games from ancient times were considered an excellent form of physical exercise and military training (Wertmann 2020: 6)
Anyway, from the early Tang Dynasty in the 7th century to the end of the 13th century, polo remained one of China’s most popular sports, experiencing periods of varying glory depending on imperial support. Since these times Tang Dynasty, polo captivated Chinese emperors. Emperor Taizong was known for praising the game, and legends (possibly created later) tell of him ordering fifty palace ladies to form polo teams, recruiting eunuchs as trainers. Even Wu Zetian, initially one of these ladies but later the only empress in Chinese history, was appointed captain of one of these teams. The Tang emperors, with ancestral ties to the Xianbei nomads, cherished equestrianism and outdoor activities, viewing polo as a means of military training. During this time, polo fields were established in prefectures for training army riders, and polo games became essential ceremonies for inspecting troops.
Polo rapidly spread to civilian and social life. The sixteen Tang emperors, some skilled players themselves, became passionate about the sport. Polo’s popularity peaked during the reign of Xuanzong, with court artists creating numerous paintings of imperial members playing polo. During this era, the Kingdom of Khotan supplied good horses for the emperor to play polo. Polo fields were established within the imperial palace and noble mansions in Chang’an.
Following the fall of the Tang Dynasty in 918, polo continued to flourish during subsequent short-lived dynasties. However, it gained even greater popularity among the ruling peoples of northern China, many of whom had nomadic origins. Emperor Shengzong of the Liao Dynasty, whose southern capital was Beijing, was known for his passion for polo, which he sometimes played excessively despite warnings from his ministers. During this dynasty, the aristocratic nature of polo became evident; only the privileged were allowed to play. On holidays, the entire court would dress in finery and gather at the polo field, offering food and wine to the gods before the Emperor changed attire to engage in various sports. In 951, a Chinese envoy presented the Kitan court with polo horses and attire for the players.
Pictorial bricks from an Eastern Han dynasty tomb close to Xuzhou, Jiangsu province. Rubbing: Li and Zheng (2014, 104-105). Available via license: CC BY-NC-ND 4.0
In Manchuria, playing polo was prohibited for the defeated subjects of the ancient Bohai Kingdom. However, in 1038, the governor requested a reconsideration of the ban, citing the city’s lack of hunting grounds. Playing polo became the sole means to keep the subjects physically fit for the army (Liu 1985: 210).
During the Song Dynasty, polo was played for the amusement of the court. The enthusiasm for polo was so great that matches were played even at night, with the field illuminated by an array of candles (Giles 1915: 97). The History of the Song Dynasty provides further evidence of the sophistication of polo. Emperor Taizong ordered his officials to draft defined rules for its practice. Standardized sizes for the playing area and goals were adopted, players of each team wore different colors, and referees and judges oversaw the game (Riordan 2002: 49). This enthusiasm is related to its decline and, perhaps, the fate of its last emperor.
When the Song Dynasty was defeated by the Jurchen, a descendant of the imperial family fled to Hangzhou and established the Southern Song Dynasty. The shortage of horses significantly changed the lifestyle of the ruling class. By 1187, nine out of ten court officials no longer rode horses but were carried in sedan chairs (Liu 1985: 219). Moreover, the lack of suitable grounds led to a decline in polo’s popularity. The refined, urban, and gentle class of officials cared little for vigorous sports, considering them inappropriate, harmful, and even risky. Under their influence, court circles abandoned games like polo. This negative attitude permeated the culture and persisted until the early 20th century (Liu 1985: 204).
For a brief period in the 1160s, polo experienced a revival at court. Emperor Xiaozong (r. 1163-1189), aiming to reclaim the northern half of China ruled by the Jurchen, engaged in horseback riding, archery, and polo to enhance his battle skills. After him, the waning interest in polo did not make the game disappear, and it continued to be practiced among the military or by professional players. Additionally, diplomatic protocol demanded that polo be played as part of entertainment for foreign envoys, maintaining its ritualistic function (Liu 1985: 222). This role persisted until the 14th century, and during the early Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), a polo ritual was observed on the fifth day of the fifth month, following the traditions of the Kitan and Jurchen peoples (Liu 1985: 223).
Among the Jurchen of the Jin Dynasty ruling the northern half of China, it was customary to hold polo matches every year on the fifth day of the fifth month, following a sky-worshipping ritual (Liu 1985: 213). Towards the end of the Jurchen empire, several unfavorable references to polo appear. The dowager empress forbade Aizong (r. 1224-1234), the last emperor of the dynasty they founded, from playing polo (Liu 1985: 214).
Polo scene from the Tang dynasty tomb of Li Xian, Crown Prince Zhanghuai, at Qianling Mausoleum, Shaanxi province. Photo: X.Y. Chen. Available via license: CC BY-NC-ND 4.0
- Description of How Polo Was Played
The rules of polo (maqiu 马球 in Chinese, but called 击毬 in ancient times) varied considerably over time, and even within the same years, the game was played in many different ways. During the Tang Dynasty, polo underwent significant changes in terms of field size, the number of players, and goals (one or two). Some players substituted horses with donkeys or mules. Besides reducing the frenetic pace of the game, the use of these animals allowed for play in a much smaller space, sometimes on a street (Liu 1985: 205).
As polo was played during the Tang Dynasty more for pleasure than the need to win, the equipment and game rules were flexible. Sometimes, a single goalpost was erected in the center of the field to test each player’s accuracy (Ashton 2014). Generally, players were divided into two teams with sixteen players on each side. They wore embroidered jackets or clothing and rode elegantly decorated horses. During matches, a military band played music on the sidelines. Colored flags on both sides of the goalposts kept track of each team’s score. Two referees, each carrying a pair of red flags, waved them akin to modern referees blowing whistles.
Polo balls were made of wool and covered with leather, while mallets were painted and had a crescent-shaped head, similar to hockey sticks, and were several meters long. As long as the polo field was smooth and firm, its size could vary. The objective of the game was to score by putting the ball into the opposing team’s goal. The goal was not very wide, just over one Chinese foot (0.36 meters) wide, but its height, according to different accounts, ranged from ten to thirty Chinese feet (Liu 1985: 206).
Polo fields were often exquisitely constructed. In 1956, an inscription was unearthed from the ruins of the Tang Dynasty’s Daming Palace in Xi’an, indicating that the palace had a polo field (Cui 2008: 56).
- Emperors Obsessed with Polo
Some emperors developed passions for polo that bordered on obsessive fondness. Emperor Zhongzong constructed two polo fields within his palace near Chang’an. Many high-ranking officials had their own fields, and even scholars used the annual polo match at the Palace of the Lunar Lantern as one of the three activities to celebrate success in the imperial examinations. Poems were composed about polo, horse breeding centers were established for its practice, and a multitude of artifacts testify to its popularity, fostered in various regions by expanding trade and emphasis on horsemanship (Riordan 2002: 39).
Emperor Muzong (r. 820-824), who ascended the throne with the support of eunuchs, devoted most of his time to hunting, polo, and sumptuous banquets. He built new polo fields in the capital. In 823, Muzong fell from a horse during a polo match, leaving him paralyzed. Eunuchs ruled in his place for the rest of the year until he died at the age of 29. While some authors argue that his demise wasn’t a result of the polo accident but rather due to ingesting alchemical concoctions in hopes of achieving immortality (Karetzky 1996: 151).
Polo was also an obsession for Emperor Xizong (r. 874-888). When he was forced to flee the capital and take refuge in Sichuan, he couldn’t decide which of his four appointed generals should be the garrison commander. To settle the matter, he ordered them to play polo, and the winner received the mission. The Emperor himself once remarked that if the imperial examinations for officials were conducted through polo matches, he would surely secure the highest honors (Liu 1985: 2009).
Female polo player-MA 6116. Musee Guimet. Picture by Sailko. Creative Commons Attribution 4.0
- Admonitions Against the Practice of Polo
Polo was highly popular during the Tang Dynasty among both women and men, but it was also perilous: riders who fell from horses were frequently injured or killed. That was one reason why donkeys were used, particularly in the practice among women. Some women developed a strong passion for the sport and their mounts, like Lady Cui. At her death, it’s possible that donkeys were ritually sacrificed so she could continue playing polo in the afterlife (Price 2000).
In fact, a donkey-mounted variant of polo was practiced, often by women and children who found the donkey to be less forceful, smaller, and more manageable than a horse (Riordan 2002: 40). Ladies and children enjoyed playing another version, mainly in secluded courtyards, where riding was optional. They could forego the polo stick and use something shorter to strike the ball (Liu 1985: 204).
Officials often criticized the emperors’ passion for polo, as it could cause them injuries, and possibly death. Not only them, but a Taoist monk pointed out that «polo harms the vitality of the players and also of the horses,» not to mention that «it is extremely dangerous» (Liu 1985: 208). And he wasn’t entirely wrong, as polo was the cause of Emperor Muzong’s death and that of many generals.
- Polo Field Massacre
The actual peril of the polo field was often intertwined with palace power struggles and conflicts among the factions vying for control over China. At times, a polo match became a pretext for the assassination of political opponents. Generals would deliberately lead an enemy into a polo match, let them fall from their mount, and ensure they were trampled by galloping horses. Another atrocity occurred in 844 when Emperor Wuzong (r. 841-846) had his troops surround a polo field, summoned several officials inside, and executed them all. Shi Xiong, the executor of the plot, dismembered one of the corpses right then and there (Liu 1985: 208).
Several polo matches played a pivotal role in the downfall of the Northern Song Dynasty. When the Jurchen besieged their capital in Kaifeng and captured all members of the imperial family, they first detained the young Emperor Qinzong (r. 1126-1127). Under duress, they pressured him into visiting the Jurchen army’s headquarters under the pretext of inviting him to a grand polo feast and banquet (which was, however, canceled due to rain). Once the capital was conquered and all family members were taken hostage (except the one who escaped to establish the Southern Song Dynasty), the Jurchen marched them northward. During a stop in Zhenting, the conquerors played polo while the prisoners watched (Liu 1985: 211).
Upon reaching Beijing, the captives were invited once again to watch polo. One source recounts that Prince Hai-ling, ruling the Jurchen empire, ordered Qinzong and the deposed Khitan ruler to play polo. They were intentionally given weak horses. Suddenly, archers shot the former Khitan ruler, killing him. Startled, Qinzong fell from his horse and was shot as well. Nobody cared for their corpses, which were trampled by horses (Liu 1985: 212).
Polo also brought misfortune to the Jurchen. In the dynasty’s final years, a general tasked with defending the last mountain range between the Mongols and Kaifeng was celebrating New Year’s Eve by playing polo when the Mongols launched a surprise attack, sweeping through his defenses (Liu 1985: 215).
Female polo player Guimet MA6117. Marie-Lan Nguyen. Creative Commons Attribution 4.0
- Polo in Art
Depictions of polo in art from the Tang Dynasty are among the most remarkable, not only due to their abundance, diverse mediums, and the elegance of the players, but also because the distinctive movements of the sport compelled the era’s finest artists to study the intricate motions of horses and riders and render them with appropriate aesthetic expression.
As noted by Mary Fong (1984:60): “During the seventh century, the saddle-horse became an indispensable partner of the polo player and, consequently, a new challenge to the horse painter. The complexity of movement required for the portrayal of the player poses a unique problem to the artist. The detail shows that the rider as well as the animal are rendered in a three-dimensional configuration that is not just anatomically correct but convincingly suggestive of a turnabout act while riding on a horse that is speeding ahead in the opposite direction. Such an achievement epitomizes the level of artistic development that had. taken place in early Tang motif”.
The mural painting in the tomb of Li Xian (653-684), nephew of Wu Zetian, presents a vivid polo scene with over twenty riders. One of them is seen swinging their mallet backward towards the ball, while four others rush towards them in an apparent effort to block and retrieve the ball (Liu 1985: 207), the most complete and expressive piece of classical art on the subject. In other toms of western China were found polo players made terracota, clay or cast in relief in the back of bronze mirrors (Shao 1986: 14).
Interestingly, the majority of the preserved polo player figures are female. Determining the cause of this phenomenon is challenging, although it might reflect a special preference of the deceased for this sport and an intention to continue playing it in the afterlife (García Quílez 2009). This, in turn, suggests that among noblewomen, polo might have been a favored form of entertainment.
Cui Lequan. Archaeological Discoveries and Tang-Song Period Sports and Games. Kaogu (Archaeology) 2008. 7: 70–84
Fong, Mary H. Tang Tomb Murals Reviewed in the Light of Tang Texts on Painting. Artibus Asiae, Vol. 45, No. 1 (1984), pp. 35-72
Giles, Herbert. Adversaria Sinica. (Football And Polo In China). Kelly & Walsh Ltd. Shanghai. 1915
Liu, James T.C. Polo and Cultural Change: From T’ang to Sung China. Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies Vol. 45, No. 1 (Jun., 1985), pp. 203-224.
Riordan, James and Robin Jones. Sport and Physical Education in China. Taylor & Francis e-Library, 2002
Shao Wenliang. Sports in ancient China. Peoples’s Sport Publishing House. Beijing. 1986.
Wertmann, Patrick et al. New evidence for ball games in Eurasia from ca. 3000-year-old Yanghai tombs in the Turfan depression of Northwest China. Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports 34 (2020).
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