If I were to tell you that the real originators of golf were the Chinese, would you believe me? Who Played the First Stroke?In September 1993, a British news agency released a story stating that chuiwan ("whack-ball"), or Chinese golf, appeared as long ago as the year 1282, in the reign of the Mongol emperor Kublai Kahn-over 400 years before the game was known in England. The course on which chuiwan was played, and the rules of the game, were strikingly similar to those of golf.
The ancient Chinese playing golf? A verbal account could be dismissed as mere rumor, but a picture might have to be admitted in evidence. Anyone who has seen the Ming-dynasty painting Xuanzong at Play, from the collection of the Palace Museum in Beijing, cannot have helped wondering what this figure in ancient dress was doing playing modern golf.
The scene of the Ming emperor Xuanzong-for the club-wielding personage is none other-golfing in full regal splendor is grand enough to leave modern-day sports stars speechless. His clubs, sorted by type, are propped up in special stands. To one side, two men stand guard, while a number of "caddies"-possibly court eunuchs-stand in trembling deference, each holding up a club for His Imperial Majesty to choose from.
On Xuanzong's private chuiwan course, the grass is trimmed neat and smooth, and the four large greens bear a total of ten holes which, just as on a modern golf course, are all marked by flagpoles bearing different-colored pennants.
There are many other ancient Chinese paintings similar to this one of Xuanzong playing chuiwan. The players in them range from children to fine ladies-evidently in old China chuiwan was a game enjoyed by male and female, rich and poor alike. And The Book of Chuiwan, written in 1282 by "Old Man Ning Zhi" gives us all the more reason to take a closer look at the relationship between chuiwan and modern golf.
The Book of Chuiwan says that chuiwan had appeared in China by the Song dynasty, and that the monarchs who were most enamored of the game during that period were probably the Song emperor Huizong (ruled 1101-1125) and the Jin emperor Zhangzong (ruled 1190-1208). Both would often "study deeply the advantageous methods of the ancients, the better to attain perfection." Just as people today try to improve their game with the help of coaching and videos, these emperors of old were constantly trying to brush up their skills by drawing on the knowledge of past masters.
As for the imperial clubs, according to The Book of Chuiwan they were edged with pure gold, inlaid with jade, and their shafts sumptuously decorated. When their majesties had finished playing, their equipment was not put away in bags, but placed in brocaded cases. Even today's top-flight golf clubs, which sell for NT$800-900,000 a set, would look pretty shabby next to kit like this.
A Mongol Import to Europe?
The contents of The Book of Chuiwan lists 32 chapters, ranging from competition rules to the essentials of playing technique, and from the manufacture of clubs to the maintenance of the greens. The sport described in this voluminous work seems no less "professional" or refined than the modern game of golf in our own technically advanced age.
For instance, chuiwan was played with 10 different kinds of clubs. If anything, this is even more complicated than the range of clubs relied on by golfers in today's tournaments.
As well as being played on natural slopes, just like golf today chuiwan was also played on courses artificially laid out on flat grassland, with raised and lowered hazards. Modern golf links have teeing grounds which are used as the starting point for playing each hole, and chuiwan also had "bases" marked out as the places from which the ball had to be played. Play in chuiwan was divided into first, second and third strokes, with the first stroke having to be played from a base, and each subsequent stroke being played from where the ball last landed. Apart from the different terminology, one can say that in almost every particular, the way chuiwan was played seems to mirror the game of golf.
No wonder, then, that recently the study of chuiwan has become an essential part of academic investigations into the history of sport and recreation. Could golf, described in the West as having originated in the 14th century, have been taken to Europe by the Mongol armies in the 13th century, just as gunpowder was? Many people are currently trying to ascertain whether golf evolved from the ancient Chinese game of chuiwan.
Golf Hits a Nation into the Rough
The question whether Chinese chuiwan really was the "great-grandfather" of modern golf is a new area of research in the history of sport. But researchers are in no doubt that the standard 18-hole game of golf which has taken the modern world by storm first came to popularity in Scotland. Ever since the natural seaside course near St. Andrews in Scotland became a competitive venue in the 18th century, it has remained the place where professional golfers everywhere dream of playing.
The British Open, held at St. Andrews annually and one of the world's four leading golf tournaments, is as big an event as the finals of the US national basketball or football championships, and thanks to the electronic media it has long attracted large viewing audiences in many countries. Many years ago Taiwanese golfer Lu Liang-huan took second place there. In one Japanese cartoon portraying the life of a professional golfer, the hero thinks of the ultimate goal of his golfing career as "to walk across the St. Andrews course as a victor."
According to the British-published book The Encyclopedia of Golf, golf first appeared in Scotland around 1319. It became so popular that even military men became tirelessly absorbed in the game. Hence the Parliament of King James II of Scotland decreed in 1457 that "Golfe be utterly cryed downe," so that the people might again turn their attention to the practice of archery for the defense of the realm.
But a series of prohibitions failed to deter the Scots from pursuing the little white ball. As their love for golf grew, so the nation's military prowess declined, and finally Scotland was subjugated by the English. But this enabled golf to take England by storm, to follow in British colonial footsteps across the Americas, Australasia, India and Africa, and finally, in the 20th century, to "conquer" the entire world.
There is little doubt that golf owes its worldwide popularity today to the Scots. But whether the game was really a Scottish invention has long been a matter of dispute-especially since the story of its creation has never been backed up by anything more than rustic legends.
The story goes that the homeward route of a fisherman on the east coast of Scotland took him through grassland interspersed with sand dunes. The man was wont to pick up pieces of driftwood from the shore, with which he would strike at small round stones lying along his path. When one of these pebbles rolled into a rabbit hole, the game of golf was born.
Scottish winters can be bitter, so whenever shepherds or fishermen went out for a game, they would take along a flask of whisky, and drink a capful before teeing off at each hole. A flask held 18 ounces, and a capful was just an ounce, so after 18 holes the amber liquid would be finished and the players would part company and make their separate ways home. Thus the rule that a game of golf is played over 18 holes became established.
A Roman Game?
This all sounds plausible enough, but the idea that golf had its origins in "rabbit abuse" does not convince sport historians. How could a sport which now appears so high-class have come from such absurd origins?
And indeed, some assiduous delvers into sport history have discovered a "nobler" lineage for golf. Back in the days of the Roman Empire, a ball game named paganica was popular which involved a curved wooden stick and a leather ball stuffed with feathers; this, they say, was the real ancestor of golf. The northward and westward advance of the Roman Empire from the Mediterranean carried the game into other areas, and gave rise to the golf-like games played in low-lying countries such as Belgium and Luxembourg. However, the traditional southern French jeu de mail (pall-mall) and the Dutch kolf, which both involve hitting a ball into a hole with a wooden mallet or stick, each also have their champions who insist that the one or the other is the true ancestor of golf.
One might easily let it go at that, but when one delves further into this question, one finds national games similar to golf almost everywhere. The Encyclopedia of Golf says that the deceptively simple "ball-into-hole" game of golf has taken countless people under its spell over the years, and down the ages who-knows-how-many games have been devised based on knocking balls into holes in the ground.
"In human history there have been myriad 'ball-and-stick' games," says The Encyclopedia of Golf , and this has given rise to the multitude of opposing speculations as to golf's origins.
The "discovery" of and research into China's chuiwan makes it clear that the human passion for knocking balls into holes really does extend to all places and all ages!
Horseplay Leads to "Fore" Play
But how was chuiwan invented? Researchers believe it evolved from a Tang-dynasty version of polo. Polo matches in the Tang were played on pitches some 750 meters long by 600 meters wide. Players galloped around the pitch on horseback, striking the ball with long mallets, in a fast-moving, strenuous game. The Tang emperor Xuanzong (ruled 1426-1435) excelled at polo, and to find favor with him the palace ladies were eager to try their hand at the game. But polo is not for everyone, so the less athletic and more timid concubines invented a horseless version in which the players ran along on the ground, seeing who could hit the ball highest and furthest t. A painting in the Shanghai Municipal Museum showing a scene from such a game demonstrates the ingenuity the palace ladies of the time displayed in making their own entertainment.
In the mid-Tang, the ladies came up with a new variation: they dug several holes in the grass pitch, and split into two opposing teams. By the Song dynasty, chuiwan had evolved into its final form, and reached the peak of its popularity. This popularity continued into the Yuan and Ming dynasties; in one Yuan-dynasty zaju drama, a character asks: "Do you dare to take me on at chuiwan and archery, to see which of us is the better?" The speaker obviously considers himself no slouch at the game, but sadly his handicap is not revealed.
During the Wanli reign (1573-1619) of the Ming dynasty, Zhou Lujing published a new edition of The Book of Chuiwan, adding a postscript in which he wrote: "When I went to the cities as a young man, I saw many people of leisure playing chuiwan." There were many players in the cities of the time, but did people play purely for pleasure, or was the game used-as today-as a way of oiling the wheels of commerce?
Birdies Over the Great Wall
The game of chuiwan was strikingly similar to modern golf, but later its development in China ran out of steam. Mainland author Gu Mingtang, in a book about Chinese sports and games, writes that during the Ming dynasty chuiwan went into a decline. He ascribes its dwindling popularity to a "lack of courses to play on."
However, this hypothesis is not accepted by others well versed in the subject, particularly as such a lack would hardly have presented an obstacle to a monarch. The indifferent physical prowess of the Ming emperors, and their lack of interest in sports, may be a more plausible explanation.
Today their descendants seem to be doing better. With the help of modern machinery, Taiwan's golf courses have advanced up one hillside after another, and in mainland China, in a vogue led by Taiwanese business people and promoted by orders from PRC president Jiang Zemin, the golfing population has burgeoned and there is a growing trend towards professionalization of the sport. Is the imminent prospect of "overtaking Britain and catching up with the US" a comfort to the departed souls of our ancient Chinese ancestors?