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women sitting and playing a board game

Women of the Tang court playing double land (about 800 AD) – Ancient Chinese games

Where did Chinese games come from?

In ancient China, as in other places, both board games and movement games probably come from war training. Board games trained generals in battlefield strategy, and martial arts trained men to fight.

History of board games
Games in ancient India
And in ancient Egypt
Swimming in China

Who invented martial arts?

According to some stories, it was the Yellow Emperor, about 2600 BC, even before the Shang Dynasty, who first invented martial arts. We don’t know much about that, but certainly people in the Zhou Dynasty (about 1100 BC) were fighting using Jiao li martial arts techniques.

The Zhou Dynasty
The Art of War
What is Taoism?

By about 550 BC, in the Eastern Zhou Dynasty, Sun Tzu wrote a book called the “Art of War“, which describes a lot of martial arts ideas and techniques. Around the same time, Taoists probably began practicing Tai Chi.

Two young children playing paddleball in the Song Dynasty

Paddleball (Song Dynasty, 1100s AD)

Kung Fu and the Han Dynasty

By the time of the Han Dynasty, about 50 AD, we have better information about the martial arts. At this time, Pan Ku wrote a book about Kung Fu called “Six Chapters of Hand Fighting.”

More about the Han Dynasty
Chinese medicine

By 220 AD, about the time the Han Dynasty collapsed, a doctor called Hua T’uo wrote another book about Kung Fu called the “Five Animals Play” which shows five different ways of fighting named after the tiger, the deer, the monkey, the bear, and the bird.

two men in shorts doing martial arts

Shaolin monks practicing Kung Fu

The Shaolin monks

Just before 500 AD, Buddhist monks came to China from India and founded the Shaolin monastery, which is in central China, near modern Zhengzhou. Chinese monks at Shaolin developed kung fu as an art and to defend their monastery and their country.

Buddhism in China
Buddhist monks
Three Kingdoms China

There are records of the Shaolin monks fighting to defend their monastery from bandits around 610 AD, and fighting to defend their country in 621 AD, at the end of the Three Kingdoms civil wars. After that, we don’t hear much more about martial arts in China until the 1500s AD.

T'ang dynasty woman playing polo on a horse

T’ang dynasty woman playing polo

Playing polo in China

But the rise of Central Asian power and trade brought a lot more horses and horse games to China, and the game of polo became popular there by around 1000 AD.

Central Asian games
Medieval Islamic games
Where do horses come from?
Bows and arrows
Bowed musical instruments

A red man looking angry playing Go

The Chinese god Guan Yu playing Go

The invention of kites

People in China also invented some of the world’s earliest kites, made of bamboo and silk, around 800 BC. Many people flew kites as a game, but people also used kites to measure distances, signal over long distances, and test the wind.

Why does the wind blow?
Where does silk come from?
The Qingming Jie festival

They cut the strings and let kites float away to get rid of bad luck in the springtime Qingming festival. Boys and girls in China also loved to swim in rivers and lakes.

What about Chinese board games?

Ancient Chinese games also included a lot of board games. The most popular one today is Go. People were playing Go in China as early as 2000 BC, during the Shang Dynasty. Othello is a simple version of Go.
By medieval times, mostly rich, powerful people played Go, while poor people played Xianqi, or Chinese chess, which is more like the Indian (and modern American) game of chess. It is possible that Xianqi was the earliest chess game; people were probably playing it by the 400s BC.

More about chess
Invention of playing cards

Then around 800 AD, under the T’ang Dynasty, Chinese people used their invention of paper to invent the first playing cards – the “leaf game”.

(In case you were wondering, Chinese Checkers is NOT a Chinese game. It was invented in Germany.)

Learn by doing: play a game of Go or try bicycle polo
More about swimming in ancient China

Bibliography and further reading about ancient Chinese games:

Islamic games
Central Asian games
Ancient China home