"Cu" means to kick, "ju" refers to a type of leather ball filled with feathers.
Cuju became popular during the Warring States Period. Back then, cuju was as popular as
today's football, boasting countless fans. Of them, a man from Qi Country by the name of Xiangchu was particularly fond of the game. When he fell terribly ill, the famous doctor Canggong diagnosed him with needing rest and warned him to avoid exertion and sweating. So much did he love cuju that Xiangchu couldn't stop playing and died after a game.
In the Han Dynasty, cuju gradually gained favor in the courts.
It is said that the Han Wu Di (one of the Han emperors) played it.
Since cuju could ward off leg numbness occurring after a long horseback ride,
it also became a drill in army training. At the same time, cuju games were
made more uniform with the establishment of rules. In addition, a kind of playing
ground, called Ju Cheng, was especially built for cuju matches, with a moon-shaped goal at each side.
When the Tang Dynasty took over, the cuju ball evolved from the previous stuffed ball into a puffy ball with a two-layered hull. Also, the goal began to include a goal post. Another thing worthy of mention here is the appearance of female cuju teams. Records indicate that once a seventeen-year-old girl beat a team of army soldiers.
Cuju flourished during the Song Dynasty. In the Tale of Water Margin (one of the four ancient Chinese Masterpieces), the treacherous court official Gao Qiu was highly regarded by the emperor just because of his cuju skills. For instance, he could make the ball stick to his body. In fact, at that time, professional cuju performers were quite popular. Generally speaking, they were in two kinds. One group was trained by and performed for the royal court. Historical finds such as copper mirrors or brush pots from the Song era often show scenes of professional cuju performances. The other group consisted of civilians who made a living as cuju performers.
Large cities set up their own cuju organization, called Qi Yun She, or Yuan she, which is now considered as the earliest professional cuju club. The participants were cuju lovers or professional performers. The former had to formally acknowledge a professional as his teacher and pay a certain amount of money before becoming a member. This was to ensure the income of the professionals.
A Hui people Wang Yuncheng once wrote a book called "Cuju Collection" which describes in detail different ways to play cuju.
There are two main ways to play cuju: "Zhu Qiu" and "Bai Da".
"Zhu Qiu" was commonly performed during court feasts celebrating the emperor's birthday or during diplomatic events. It's a dual meet, with twelve or sixteen players on each team. Each player is named after his standing position, like "Xiaozheng," "qiutou (team leader)," "raose," "zhengxie," "bushu," "shesi," zhibin," the last three being judges. The competition is indirect, with the two teams standing separately by their own goals. Before the game, the two "qiutou" decide whether there will be two or three rounds, and then they draw lots to see who will take the service. The kickoff team first passes the ball to the "raose", who then passes it to other members, at last, the ball is passed to the "qiutou" again. Finally, the "qiutou" shoots the ball towards the some three-zhang's high, one-chi wide goal. If the ball bumps into the netting and falls, his teammates have to get the ball before it hits the ground and pass it to the "qiutou" again. If the ball falls to the rival's side, it becomes their turn to shoot the ball. When the ball hits the ground, the round is over. The team with more goals wins. Shots made by the "qiutou" are the key to winning the game so he or she is required to have incredibly accurate aim when shooting the ball through the narrow goal. Other members can only hold and pass the ball. The honor for victors and the shame for the losers rest upon the "qiutou." Usually, the winning "qiutou" was awarded with some silver bowls and brocades, while the loser had to smear white powder on his face and be whipped by hemp lash in front of the audience.
Another way is to play cuju ball without the goal. This method is called Baida. The playing ground is enclosed with thread and players inside kick the ball in turn. The number of mistakes made decides the game. For example, if the ball is not passed far enough to reach the others, then points get deducted. If the ball is kicked too far to out of the enclosure, then a big deduction is made. Other mistakes like kicking the ball too low, with too much of a punch, or turning at a wrong moment all lead to deductions. At last, the player with the highest score wins. Players can touch the ball with any body part except the hands. The number of players ranges from two to ten.
Cuju began to decline in popularity during the Ming Dynasty. As a result of the Ming royalty's neglect, the 2000-year-old sport finally faded into history.