Ancient Chinese games – board games and martial arts

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women sitting and playing a board game

Women of the Tang court playing double land (about 800 AD)

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. 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. 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)

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.” 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

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. 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

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

A red man looking angry playing Go

The Chinese god Guan Yu playing Go

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. 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.

People in China also invented 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.

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 Chinese games:

Islamic games
Central Asian games
Ancient China
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By |2018-04-18T09:54:09+00:00June 6th, 2017|China, Games|0 Comments
Cite this page: Carr, K.E. Ancient Chinese games – board games and martial arts. Quatr.us Study Guides, June 6, 2017. Web. August 16, 2018.

About the Author:

Dr. Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram, Pinterest, or Facebook, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.

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