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Sports in Ancient China and Greece

2004-03-27 15:25 COC

    The history of the Olympic Movement may be divided into the ancient and modern periods. The ancient period covered at least 12 centuries from 776 BC when the first Olympic Games was held in Greece to AD 339 when the Roman emperor Theodosius the Great prohibited the Olympic Games as a pagan activity. Then came a lull of some 15 centuries in which no Olympic Games were held, though the ancient Olympic ideals had not perished from the mind of many a great thinker. The modern period has covered less than one century, starting from 1896 when the first modern Olympic Games was held ---on an international rather than national scale. 

    Chronologically, the ancient period of the Olympic Movement corresponded in Chinese history to the period from the Eastern Zhou Dynasty (770-256 BC) to the Jin Dynasty (265-240 AD), while the modern period corresponded to the period from the latter part of the region of Guang Xu (1875-1909) of the Qing Dynasty to the present-day People's Republic of China. In the ancient period,China had no relations with Greece in the field of sport, although there was the Silk Road serving as a channel of trade and cultural exchanges between the East and West from the second century BC. In the modern period, however, China has been associated very early with the Olympic Movement. Such a relationship is more or less rooted in the common origin and features shared by ancient China and Greece in the field of sport, which forms part of national culture and is inseparable from socio-political life---for all social communities at all times.

    The ancient Olympic Games were a four-yearly event with sporting activities as its main content and the cessation of hostilities among the city states in Greece as its main characteristic. In those days, China also experienced divisions from time to time. There were the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC) and the Period of Warring States (475-221 BC) during the Zhou Dynasty before the First Emperor of Qin (259-210 BC) unified the whole Chinese empire. Following the Han Dynasty (206BC-AD220), the main part of China was divided again during the Period of Three Kingdoms (220-280), to be reunified under the Jin court. As in ancient Greece, there were of course intervals of peace between wars among the states or kingdoms---not as a result of the proclamation of truce during the Olympic Games which were non-existent in ancient China, but as a result of diplomatic manoeuvres or military deterrent forces. After all, there is the universal law of "split after long unity and unity after long split," as Chinese philosophers put it.

    However, the non-existence of Games does not necessarily mean non-existence of sports. As a matter of face, there are sports whenever and wherever there are human activities. Man must take up sports to keep fit for survival and amuse themselves after work. In order to gather food , hunters in the palaeolithic times not only invented tools, such as stone axes, balls, hooks, spearheads and nets, but also learned how to use them more efficiently, knowing that only with a stronger physique and the ability to run and swim faster, jump higher and throw a projectile farther and with greater precision could they catch more game and fish. This was the origin of the running, jumping, throwing and swimming events which figure so largely in the Olympic Games today, and whose origin can only be attributed to human instincts rather than to a particular race or individual at a particular time. The stone balls excavated in Gaoyang County in China's Shanxi Province date back to 100,000 years and are supposed to have been used not only in hunting, but also in throwing contests as athletes do in shot putting today. Archery, another Olympic event, has appeared in the mythology of many nations. Odyssey was said to have slain his wife's suitors with his bow and arrows. A Chinese legend has it that during the Yao times many thousand years ago, a marksman named Hou Yi shot down nine of the 10suns in the sky which had scorched all plants on the earth. Even today, bows and arrows are still used among many ethnic groups in China as a weapon to kill animals and in archery as a popular sporting event.

    In ancient times men engaged themselves not only in flight with nature, but also in flight among themselves. Therefore sport has yet another aim: to improve the ability to beat the enemy, with or without weapons. During the rule of the Yellow Emperor, who has been held as the first ancestor of the Chinese nation, a rebel tribe headed by Chiyou trained his warriors in fighting with cow horns fastened to the head, which was included in the "one hundred amusements" and developed into various forms of wrestling in later generations. Military training in ancient China included all kinds of martial arts, such as wrestling, pugilism, fencing, tripodlifting, horse-racing, stone-throwing, hunting and swimming. During the Spring and Autumn Period, a high-ranking official in Qi state named Guan Zhong (?-645 BC) ordered the building of swimming pools by conducting the water of three rivers and awarded heavy prizes to good swimmers among his "water troops." A copper pot excavated in Chengdu in Sichuan Province is inscribed with a battle on water in those days. Among the Greeks there is note of occasional swimming races, and a famous boxer swam as a part of his training.

    Sports also served military purposes in a ancient Greece, especially in Sparta where all citizens received stoic military training from early childhood, in almost the same sports as in ancient China. According to historical records written during the Period of Warring States, the Chinese kings and emperors ordered their officers to teach archery, charioteering and wrestling in winter and "required the populace to spend six hours farming and two hours practicing martial arts every day."

    The ancient Chinese and Greek civilizations shared another thing in common in sporting activities, that is, they were often combined with dancing. A pot in the Neolithic Age excavated in Qinghai Province's Datong County shows on the inside surface three groups of dancers. It is said that in those times China was hit by frequent torrential rains and floods and people suffered a lot from unbroken spells of wet weather. In order to relax their stiffened bones and muscles and dispel their gloomy moods, they would dance a kind of dance that "could conduct the flow of blood and vital energy in the body." The military training in Sparta also included dances and there were choreographic competitions at the ancient Olympic Games. Actually there was little or no difference between physical exercises and dances as is the case with such modern sports as figure skating and artistic and rhythmic gymnastics.

    What should be emphasized here is that sports were included in the educational system both in ancient China and Greece. During the Zhou Dynasty and the previous Xia (21st---16th century BC) and Shang (16th---11th century BC) dynasties, all seats of learning were at the same time places for teaching martial arts. The great Chinese philosopher and Educationist Confucius (551-479 BC) was also a good athlete in archery and charioteering and took an active part in fishing, hunting, excursions and hill-climbing. Paying equal attention to moral, intellectual and physical development of his 3,000 pupils, he carried out an educational system of "Six Arts," namely, rituals, music, archery, charioteering, writing and mathematics, which were supplementary to each other. In archery, for instance, he insisted on proper conduct, or what we call "sportsmanship" today, pointing out that an archer should do his best to win and what's more important, "be modest and observe rituals." Besides, he advised people to keep a good eating habit, to abstain from stale dish and meat and not to talk when taking a meal. Such guiding principles were similar to those of the great Greek philosopher Plato (428-348 BC) who held that physical training and sanitation should become an important part of education and that one should train his physique through sports and mould his temperament through music. The curricula at his time included gymnastics, which was broadened to embrace hygiene and dietetics. The Greek gymnasium also taught philosophy, literature and music, and public libraries were nearby.

    It is interesting to note that both Chinese and Greek educationists in ancient times emphasized that physical training should suit different ages. According to the Chinese classic work Li Ji (Book of Rites), children should learn "civilian dances" at 13, "martial dances" at 15, and archery and charioteering at older ages. Plato also advocated different sports for different age groups---music and singing for 7-12, dancing, wrestling, archery and horsemanship for 12-17 and more physical training for 17-20.

    Whether out of historical necessity or contingency, sports in both ancient China and Greece were closely combined with productive labour, military training, dancing and the whole educational system, thus providing an ideological foundation for China's ready acceptance of the modern Olympic ideals, which were deeply rooted in the ancient Greek society, in spite of the cessation of Olympic Games for15 centuries.