By Scott Tsai 6:49 pm PST

Cuju, an ancient Chinese form of soccer, can be traced back as far as the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD). It became increasingly popular in the Tang Dynasty (618–907), to the point that there were even professional women’s teams.

The similarities between Cuju and modern soccer are uncanny, and FIFA recognizes it as the oldest form of soccer. While Tang Dynasty Cuju did have goals, it did ban using hands and arms to hit the ball while playing. In the version played by ladies of the imperial court, the game emphasized elegant body movements.

In competitions, the winner was determined either by whoever could keep the ball in play the longest without letting it touch the ground or whoever could perform the most graceful kicks. A game generally involved two or three players. This form of soccer was a sport that was very well suited for women, and it was popular during the Tang, Ming, and Qing dynasties.

15th century Ming Dynasty depiction of Cuju play at the royal court. A picture is from printed book of the Water Margin.

The Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) saw the emergence of professional women’s Cuju. Equipped with great skill, these female players performed nationwide. Marveling at their performance, ancient poets wrote several poems in praise of these women. Two ladies who played Cuju were featured in a poem called Beauties in Their Myriad Forms by Li Yu (1610-1680), a poet of the late Ming and early Qing dynasties.

Playing Cuju on a sunny February day,

Two maidens compete in the fragrant breeze.

The sweat on their faces mixes with their makeup like drops of dew on flowers;

dust on their eyebrows resembles swaying willow leaves amidst the blue fog.

Outside the drooping green leaves are delicate fingers,

beneath fluttering red skirts are petite feet.

After some time, the beauties appear weak and fatigued,

catching the gaze of Chang’an youths.