Badminton – a Kaleidoscope of Antiquity09 August, 2016
A dazzling kaleidoscope of countries, cultures, and methods of propulsion appears when we view the story of the shuttlecock. It takes us back thousands of years and hints at deep-seated reasons for its extraordinarily widespread appeal.
A question emerges: whether the appeal of a moving shuttlecock is so basic that it appears spontaneously in different places, or whether it required long distance travellers to take the joys of feathered flight to new parts of the globe. A comparison of shuttlecock activities suggests China perhaps became a location for the most significant. Here one of the oldest versions may have become the genesis of the modern game.
No wonder badminton claims to be the oldest racket sport. As far back as 2,000 years ago shuttlecock games were played in both Greece and China.
Shuttlecock kicking evolved in Taiwan during the Han dynasty, and in Vietnam wood carvings of shuttlecock players were found in old temples. In Korea it was called Jeigi-Chagi, in Macao it was Chiquia, and in Malaysia it was Chap-the.
It was also one of the Chinese empire’s most popular activities - according to The Game of Shuttlecock in China, an article published in Le Journal de la Jeunesse in 1875 - from whence its fame spread to Europe.
Trade may have helped that spread. But shuttlecock activities had long existed in other very widely separated places. How, one wonders, did they spring up among North American Indian tribes who played such games long before the arrival of Europeans?
How did they begin in New Mexico, where shuttlecocks were made from corn husks with two upright feathers, and hit with the palm of the hand? Might they have originated independently in these places?
Traces of a similar game were found on the borders of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona, in civilisations between 200 and 1300 AD. Here shuttlecocks were struck with the hand, often at village feasts and religious celebrations. A wooden bat and a shuttlecock with three feathers inserted into a twig, was used in what is now British Columbia near Washington.
Similar games had been played in South America for many centuries. Shuttlecocks were projected by a throwing stick in the Peru area, perhaps as a fertility ritual. A feathered ball game appeared in Guyana, Brazil and parts of Paraguay, Bolivia and Argentina.
The spread of feathered objects may have been facilitated by the Aztecs, who treated them as culturally significant, perhaps with religious overtones and for ceremonial purposes. This would have created favourable attitudes towards them.
It is therefore tempting to ask whether shuttlecock games have been almost universal. Certainly, they were deeply rooted in customs in Asia and America. Feet, hands or bats all became methods of propulsion, though the purpose was usually the same – to send a feathered object to each other without it touching the floor.
The fact that shuttlecocks emerged in similar forms in so many different places suggests they may appeal to something basic in human nature. That creates a fascinating question as to whether shuttlecock games originated separately, as well as being passed between cultures.
This is unlikely, according to Jean-Yves Guillain in his excellent book entitled Badminton: An Illustrated History. He points out that balls are almost naturally created, whereas shuttlecocks are not.
Inserting feathers into a piece of cork was a conscious step, he says, and therefore learned and passed on. But how it became so widespread is an unanswered question, Guillain admits.
Others of us find it hard to believe that shuttlecock games could have been transported to so many widely separated places so long ago, when travel was so infrequent. Hence, there may be other explanations for their ubiquity.
Research suggests that children have a fascination with movement which is instinctive, especially movement through the air. The motions of weighted feathers, which are so attractively varied, may stimulate an impulse in people to recreate them. Perhaps this spontaneously occurred in different places around the world.
Also supporting this thesis is that shuttlecocks have been constructed from quite different materials over many centuries. Although chicken feathers were commonly used, these were often inserted into very different kinds of base – sometimes of wool, or of leather, or of snakeskin, all of which might be weighted by different kinds of metal or coins. The different creations are dazzling.
The Miao people, between China and Thailand, used a wooden bat and inserted three feathers into a bamboo base. The Japanese played with wooden bats which were often beautifully coloured and ornamented, and sometimes deployed at the royal palace. Shuttlecocks made of bamboo might be given the head of a dragonfly.
In some civilisations, it was during the rituals and ceremonies that shuttlecock games got enacted which was important. They usually still retained a recreational quality, which was the essential ingredient when shuttlecocks appeared in 16th century Europe.
Ancient history may also suggest something fundamental about the game – why China became its leading exponent, quite apart from its resources and organisation and empathy for a people’s game.
It tells us that badminton may have originated from T’su-chu, a football game created in 2,500 BC at the time of Huang-Di, who laid some of the foundations of Chinese civilisation. It was apparently designed to improve the skills of soldiers fighting against Chi-You, leader of the Miao people. Played with a round, leather object filled with hair and mane, this game achieved immediate popularity.
Gradually though, its military implications faded, becoming a winter sport for children, and probably leading to Ti Jianzi, a foot-shuttle game which was popular during the Han and Tang dynasties (206 BC to 907 AD).
Remarkably, this game received formal approval as a sport in the 20th century –by the state commission for physical culture in China, with rules similar to badminton’s.It also spawned a version with a net called Wang-jian, played several hundreds of years ago in Guangdong but which now seems to be the direct ancestor of badminton.
We may therefore reach two conclusions: that a single source invention of shuttlecock games seems unlikely given their wide geographical spread, and that the birthplace of modern badminton may be in a South-East Chinese province.
-- By Richard Eaton