In ancient China, charms were created to promote good luck and fortune in the major events of a person’s life such as marriage, the birth of children and promotion to an important government position.
The celebration of sports was not a major theme of either Chinese coins or charms until very modern times with the current popularity of souvenir and commemorative coins.
According to FIFA, the earliest documented evidence for the origin of football is a Chinese military manual dating from the second to third centuries BC which describes an exercise of kicking a leather ball filled with feathers and hair through an opening 30-40 cm wide into a small net fixed on long bamboo canes.
The Chinese called this football sport cuju (蹴鞠). Cu means “kick the ball with the feet” and ju refers to “a ball made of hide”. The game of cuju was popular at least as early as the Warring States Period (475 BC – 221 BC) when it was used for military training.
The “football” charm shown here recently appeared in “China Numismatics”* and dates from the Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD).
Not only is the subject unusual but this charm exhibits some of the outstanding artistic characteristics of the Song Dynasty which is considered one of the golden eras of Chinese art.
The four football players surrounding the square hole are sculpted in a minimalist style that conveys energy and movement with each player displaying a different action.
The players at the top and bottom are seen moving towards the right while the two players on the sides are running towards the left.
The figure at the top is running toward the ball, which is shown at the one o’clock position, preparing to kick it. The player at the right has just “headed” the ball. The player below the hole is running at full speed while the player at the left appears to have just kicked the ball.
This minimalist style was epitomized by the famous Southern Song Dynasty painter Liang Kai (梁楷).
Liang Kai (1140-1210 AD) relied on only the essential details to convey the essence of the subject.
In his quest to find the essence of being, he ultimately resigned his position at the court in order to practice Chan Buddhism.
The principles of Chan Buddhism (禅宗) include spontaneity and “sudden enlightenment” which can be seen in his own style of painting.
China’s Chan Buddhism would eventually spread to Japan where it evolved into Zen.
Interestingly enough, the game of football was also played by women in ancient China.
Shown at the left is the image of a woman kicking a ball. This stone engraving is from a Han Dynasty tomb (206 BC -220 AD).
Women were traditionally limited in regard to outside public activities but football became a popular sport for women, particularly those of the court, during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) and especially during the Song Dynasty.
It seems appropriate, therefore, that the reverse side of this old football charm would display, in a minimalist style, the traditional symbols of a man and a woman.
The animated dragon can be recognized at the right even though it lacks such details as scales.
The phoenix with its wings and graceful posture is at the left.
* Charm images from Issue #112 (2011) of “China Numismatics” (中國錢幣).