The history of sports in ancient China
At the time the Greeks were holding the first Olympics in 776 BC, the ancient Chinese were also starting their own sporting competitions. Stone balls excavated in Gaoyang and Shanxi province, dating back 10,000 years, are believed by historians to have been used not only in hunting but also in throwing contests. By the time China was unified under the Qin emperor in 221 BC, sports had developed into a form of competition and amusement.
Fun Fact: Sports and athletics have long been a part of China’s history – even the philosopher and teacher Confucius (551-497 BC) was regarded as a skilled archer! Here are some more legends about ancient Chinese athletes.
Long Distance Legend
The story of Kua Fu chasing the sun (夸父追日, kuà fù zhuī rì) can be found in three different books: Shanhai Jing, Lie Zi and Huai Nan Zi. Legend has it that a tribe of giants that lived in the North felt sad about the sun disappearing at the end of each day, so they asked a strong youth named Kua Fu to capture it. One day, when the sun had just risen over the sea, Kua Fu began sprinting toward it. He climbed mountains and jumped over rivers, but still couldn’t catch it. After days of pursuit, the tired Kua Fu collapsed and his body was transformed into a mountain, now known as Kua Fu Mountain (located between two canyons in Lingbao, Henan province).
Ling and Fen
According to records found in the book Ling Ding, King Cheng of the Zhou dynasty (1042-1020 BC) took his soldiers and servants out to a place called Qitian for spring exercises and archery practice. On their return, Cheng told his royal guards, Ling and Fen, “If you can keep up with my carriage all the way back to the palace by foot, I will give you the gift of ten servants.” The two soldiers accepted the challenge and ran right alongside the king’s carriage, despite King Cheng ordering his driver to go as fast as possible. At the palace gates, the two soldiers surpassed the carriage, and the king, who had underestimated how fast and strong Ling and Fen were, kept his word and rewarded the runners as promised.
It is said that during the Wei dynasty (386-535 AD), the emperor Xiaowen once sought a skilled general to lead an important attack. General Yang Dayang volunteered but was rejected as he lacked a good reputation. After much persuasion, however, Yang was given a chance to prove his ability. Tying a long string around his forehead, he began to run. The string flew behind him straight as an arrow, displaying his amazing speed – so quick that even the fastest horse could not catch him. Yang was thus quickly accepted as the front-line officer.