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CAN ANCIENT CHINESE POLO UNRAVEL THE ORIGINS OF POLO?

The discovery of three leather balls and eight long-handled polo sticks, dating 221 BCE-710BCE, from the Yanghai Tombs in Turpan district, China has once again jolted the polo historians to reconsider the origins of polo. The latest archaeological discovery in China predates the origin of polo at least by more than a century with respect to the hitherto accepted dates which locates the origin of polo in Persia around 6BCE.

The Turpan district located in the northwest China became a site of exhilarating and shocking discoveries when the archaeologists started excavating the Turpan basin in the 1970s. The site houses China’s quaint Yanghai tombs which are believed to be 3000 years old burial sites from the Bronze Age. The Xinjiang region of northwest China is abode to the nomadic and pastoral Subeixi community who has been the dwellers of the steppes in central Asia for centuries. Subeixi is among the many communities who continuously traversed between China and Ukraine and were excellent horsemen.
Chinese historians have been speculating that the presence of polo in Xinjiang dates back to many centuries. Lyu Guo’en senior archaeologist at Turpan reminded that first references to polo in China traces from Han dynasty (202BCE -220 AD) but recent research including the discovery of a polo field, 7966 yards, in Tashkurgan Tajik might altogether change the history of Polo’s origin.

Chinese Tang Dynasty (610-907 A.D) played polo for various recreational and diplomatic purposes. Duan Xiaoqing, lecturer of history at China Northwest Institutes for Nationalities, shares fascinating details about polo during the Tang Dynasty which he accrued from the excavations sites of Dunhuang Grottoes in the Gansu province of Northwest China. Wool covered in leather served as balls to very sophisticatedly designed long handled, painted and carved sticks which served as polo mallets. Teams comprised three to four players embattled in regular playoffs on ponies whose tails were coiled and highly ornamented. Even though there were no fixed rules pertaining to the ground size, it was a game played under the supervision of two referees. Duan explained, “as the games were held mainly for entertainment rather than competition, there were no rigid stipulations on the types of equipment, courts, and rules.” Polo under Tang dynasty not only entertained the excited spectators but also nourished strong diplomatic ties with neighbor dynasties including Tibet. A shocking episode recounts how when the Emperor Abaoji lost a cherished relative on the polo field in 910 AD, he ordered the mutilation of all remaining players.

The latest discovery which dates back to Spring and Autumn Warring States period (770BC-221BC) of Chinese history is poised to unleash a new dimension to Polo’s history. Historians speculate that polo might have looked like a mock battle at some points of time with more than hundred people on the ground as horsemanship was crucial to the central Asian races. Even though it is hard to pinpoint the origin of polo with utmost certainty, but recent finding in China are indeed fascinating as they bring us on the edge of groundbreaking discoveries which can alter our perception of Polo forever.

 

PHOTO CREDITS: Wikimedia Commons

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