Mar 14

Scotland Besieged: Ancient Chinese Golf

We see it everywhere – “North Carolina, First in Flight,” Columbus and the new world (“In the name of Queen Isabella”), Russia sending the first human into space and the advent of vodka (“Vee inwented it”). We love competition. We love races, and above all, as nationalistic points of pride, we love inventing things before anyone else can come up with them. No matter how clever they are, younger countries still come up against the vast spans of ancient cultures, and you can just bet that whatever you’ve come up with, someone in an ancient land at least had it cross their minds thousands of years before you. Even if you did invent it, countries all around the world will do their best to preempt you. Take, for example, China’s recent efforts to unseat Scotland as the center of modern golf.

On one hand, China brings art and oral tradition as evidence of a golf-like game being played around 945 AD, hundreds of years before the hallowed British version of links history. The game was called cui wan, or strike pellet. Ten different clubs were employed, with ten different degrees of loft. All right, that’s coming alarmingly close. Yes, the object was to secure the “pellet” into a socket in the ground – check. It is also true that the alternative name for cui wan was bu da, which means, walk and hit – got me there. There is pictorial evidence of courses, both indoors and outdoors, cups and banners that might be construed as pin flags. Hoot mon!
The Chinese go on to say that this game, which was a favorite among non-royals and palace maids, was imported by Mongolian nomads into Europe during the fourteen and fifteenth centuries, where it was diffused throughout several countries before being congealed into a distinct Scottish game.

Other Chinese scholars are pointing to a version of the game that was played in China up to 6,000 years ago in the Ming Dynasty. Now, that’s just rubbing it in, and if that’s the way it’s to be, other countries might as well get into the act. Egypt has symbols of a similar game played 2,600 years ago, but you don’t see them scoffing at the Scots. The Greeks chime in with their very similar game of 1,300 years ago – and leave it to the Romans to make it violent.

The Roman game of “Paganica” was said to have been an oppositional team game resembling a cross between golf and hockey. Just think of that in the modern day, with someone like Tiger or Phil donning the green jacket with half their teeth missing. Rome’s game with the curved stick was brought along in the British invasions, and can be found in popular culture there. In Shakespear’s “Romeo and Juliet,” the Duke bans the game of “bandying” in the streets, presumably to keep the two dysfunctional families in line.

Robert Browning claims that golf is an offshoot of Cambuca, a game played in 14th century England with bent clubs and leather balls, also with an added defend/attack component. It is supposedly related to the ancient Irish game of Camanachd, which is a descendant of the extinct Celtic game of Shinty. Ah, well…who knew?

Things look dire, indeed, for the Scots, but they are absolutely correct on one point. Stick and ball games have been around since the beginning. It’s one of the first things a human wants to do once he or she can stand up – hit something with a stick. That does not, mean, however, that the game of golf comes out of this prehistoric urge, as practiced by the Chinese or anyone else. Clearly, the modern game of golf is firmly rooted in the countryside of Scotland. Most golfers around the world have no earthly idea of how to yell “fore” in Chinese, nor will they ever need to. There’s only one troublesome question, however. Isn’t “kolfe” a Dutch word?

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