I’ve always found the Chinese very eager to unearth historical precedents to validate whatever it is they want to say or do. The most jaw-dropping example I can recall would have been in around 1993, when the venerable old Shanghai newspaper Xinmin Wanbao ran an article proving that the native population of the Americas was descended from refugees from the defeated Yin dynasty who arrived in the New World in the 11th century BC while fleeing their Zhou-dynasty conquerors. The evidence was that the name “Indian”, which European settlers gave them, was in fact a mishearing of the local greeting - Yin di an 殷地安 - which meant “the Lands of the Yin are at peace”. There’s just one tiny problem with that abortive territorial claim over the USA: it’s obviously b*llocks.
Where was I? Ah, yes, Peter Foster in the Telegraph yesterday did a piece on China’s rediscovery of polo, the nouveau riche there apparently having realised that ponies can soak up the money they’ve made through dodgy political contacts and by the sweat of the proletariat like nothing else on earth. (The joyously named Beijing Sunny Times Polo Club is asking £15,000 for a year’s membership, if you’re interested in hanging out with women who look like Imelda Marcos and capitalists who make the man on the Monopoly box look like Che Guevara.)
Like all the other stories on polo in China that have run over the past seven years since the sport began to take off, this one too repeats the claim that the Chinese have been playing polo for 1,800 years. So, I did a bit of digging to try to uncover the source for this, and the evidence turns out to be a bit thin. Yes, there’s solid evidence in the form of a tomb mural from the early 8th century AD that the aristocracy of the Tang dynasty played a game involving riding horses while hitting a ball with a stick, though it does seem to have been as much a test of martial skill (historical titbit: Tang dynasty = horsemanship + chubby women) as a way for fabulously rich people to show off.
But that’s several centuries later than the date claimed. For the Han dynasty, 1,800 years ago, the evidence is circumstantial, and comes from an article written by a historian of sport named Tang Hao (1887-1959). According to Tang Hao, a poet named Cai Fu 蔡孚 who was writing in the 740s makes a reference in a poem to a sport like polo being played in the Eastern Han dynasty, more than 500 years earlier. Also, in 1979 a thingy that could kind of pass as a ball was discovered during the excavation of a Han-dynasty beacon tower in Gansu province, but that’s obviously not proof that people were playing polo there while waiting for the Xiongnu to invade.
Where was I again? Oh, yes - sickeningly rich Chinese businessmen and their wives, the Empress Dowager Cixis of our time, might point to history to justify their displays of tasteless wealth, but they’ll still be first up against the wall when the Communists ride into town. Oh, hang on...