Was Football Invented in China?

“History has to be rewritten in every generation, because although the past does not change, the present does; each generation asks new questions of the past and finds new areas of sympathy as it re-lives different aspects of the experiences of its predecessors.” – Christopher Hill

Often history can appear to be fixed. We know what happened, when and why. But history is in fact in flux, constantly being written, re-thought and re-written. As such formerly accepted truths become fallacies and fringe theories become mainstream. As such we have learned that Napoleon wasn’t short at all, that Benjamin Franklin wasn’t the true father of electricity and that dinosaurs may well have been covered in feathers (picture a T-Rex as more like a giant turkey than a giant lizard. I’ve just ruined Jurassic Park for you, haven’t I?). It seems that the further we move away from the past, the more we discover.

Strange as it may seem, discovering more does not always make things clearer. Sometimes the more we discover, the more questions we raise, and the more cast-iron certainties that get exposed as wire-frame caricatures that flicker and die, the more confusing things become.

Take football, for example. We all know the story that England invented football, that it involved alongside its brother in utero, rugby, from a violent medieval sport that has become known as “mob football”. The game, such as it was, consisted of entire towns (sometimes more) of people attempting to get some form of ball from one side of a town to the other. These were anything goes games, chaotic and violent, what coherent rules existed were barely followed. Then, in 1857, things got serious. Sheffield FC were formed and took part in informal games. Then in 1863 The FA was formed and rules were drawn up and codified, and the game went from a disorganised mess to one played by gentlemen with moustaches and long shorts. And the rest, as they say, is history…

Except maybe it’s not. Maybe the mob football played on England’s dirty cobbled streets was not the true ancient precursor to modern football. Maybe we have to go back even further in history than medieval England. Maybe we need to go East, to ancient China, and back over about two-and-a-half thousand years, and discover an ancient game called cuju (or sometimes tsu chu).

The ancient Chinese game of cuju – the precursor to modern football?

Cuju was a game that more closely resembles football as we know it than the unruly mob warfare of mob football. It’s hard to be certain of the exact rules but it’s believed that the game – which began life as a military training exercise – involved having to keep a stuff round ball in the air without using ones hands. So far, so football. Of course, there was at least one huge difference – the pitch contained not two but six goals. The first team to score in all six was declared the victor. One of the clearer explanations of the game comes from a serene 1st Century poem by Li You:

“A round ball and a square wall,
Just like the Yin and Yang,
Moon-shaped goals are opposite each other,
Each side has six in equal number.
Select the captains and appoint the referees,
Based on the unchangeable regulations,
Don’t regard relatives and friends,
Keep away from partiality
Maintain fairness and peace,
Don’t complain of others’ faults,
Such is the matter of cuju.
If all this is necessary for cuju,
How much more for the business of life”

So, did China invent football? The country itself seems to think so, going on a charm offensive around the time of the Beijing Olympics while simultaneously laying claim to the precursors to modern golf and polo. FIFA seem to agree, mentioning the ancient Chinese game on a page on their website dedicated to the origins of the game.

In truth, it’s almost impossible to be certain over the invention of football. Games involving the kicking of balls – or at least round objects – with the feet have cropped up all over the globe during the span of human history. That small article on the FIFA website mentions the English origin, as well as China’s cujo, the Japanese game of Kemari, the similar Roman and ancient Greek games of Harpastum and Episkyros, respectively (incidentally, the Greek historian, scholar and raconteur Herodotus remarked in his book Histories that the “ball” in these games would often be the severed head of the captain of a defeated army).

The Roman game of Harpastum. No severed head here though.

The Australian Aboriginal peoples played a game called Woggabaliri – basically a version of keepy-uppy or what Americans would call hackey-sack – that was first documented in the 1800s but is likely much, much older. In ancient Mesoamerican civilisations there was a game called Ullamalitztli (or Ulama) which featured a rubber ball controlled mainly with the hips and the captain of the losing team would have his heart cut out as a human sacrifice.

Ulama. Looks violent.

Yep. Really violent.


The Native American Choctaw tribe had a ball game that could feature hundreds of players. They did use sticks so you could argue it was more a predessor to hockey or lacrosse, but unlike some other ancient games, only two goals were used, like in football. I could go on and on, there are tales of ball games in the early civilisations in South East Asia, doubtless there are many more variations on the “several people move a ball around” theme throughout the ancient world that I’m unaware of. And as we discover more and more about the world and civilisations from which we sprang, we will discover more ancient ball games.

That’s what I like most about this debate. To me, it doesn’t really matter who invented football, English, Chinese or whoever else wants to lay claim to it. It’s nice to know that wherever a group of humans have congregated, they have wanted to kick, throw or hit a ball around. That we have reached this stage, where the game of football is played and beloved in every corner of the globe, is both remarkable and unsurprising. Let’s hope we’re still playing the game when future historians are looking back at our ancient games of football, thinking about how primitive it all was…