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An individual or team-based ball game played in ancient China, claimed by some as a forerunner of modern association football (soccer). The ju was a sort of rubber ball, leather on the outside, and stuffed with feathers, or with an animal bladder inside the sewn skin. Cuju means ‘to kick the ball with the foot’. The game had a religious symbolism during the Wei dynasty (ad 220–65), when ‘the football field seems to have symbolized the earth while the ball represented a heavenly body’ (Allen Guttmann, Sports: The First Five Millennia, 2004). During the earlier Han dynasty (206 bc–ad 220) the game had featured in poetic writing and a handbook was written on it, and evidence suggests that it could be officiated by a referee, and had a general recreational profile as well as a military rationale. Cuju societies were formed during the Tang period (618–907). Accounts vary over when the game also used two goals and set numbers of players in a team, but during the Northern Song Dynasty (960–1126) the game became established as an urban sport of the newly expanding cities. Fixed playing pitches were laid out, and a cuju match could embellish the birthday celebrations of the emperor. Professional teams—of both men and women—were formed at the imperial palace, and this popularized the sport for the general populace. By the Ming Dynasty (1368–1544) and the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911), equestrian sports were preferred, particularly by the Manchurian rulers of the latter period.

Cuju's precise origins are unclear, but it is claimed that an organized, rule-based form was played in the city of Linzi, capital of Qi state in the Shandong province, in China's Spring and Autumn Period (770 bc–476 bc). Joseph ‘S’ Blatter, president of world football's organizing body Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), attended the Third Chian International Football Exhibition in 2004, and stated that football originated in China, with Linzi the birthplace of the game. In 2006, officials from Linzi began to lobby UNESCO and China's culture ministry to seek status for the city as a ‘world nonmaterial heritage’ site. As part of this, cuju courses were established in primary and middle schools in Linzi and its district, and 5,000 players were reported to be active in the sport. This labelling of the game's heritage, linked to forms of regional revitalization and cultural renaissance of traditional practices, is an illuminating case of the power of sport to contribute to the heritage industry.

Subjects: Sport and Leisure.

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