Golf, the game of hitting a small round ball with specially made clubs over an outdoor course, is synonymous with being an exclusionary tool of the elite; and a highly favored pastime of the very wealthy. But when and where did it all begin? Some say even though the game was developed and groomed during the 15th century in Scotland, it might have been invented somewhere else—and that this place could in fact be China.
The game of golf traces back several centuries with deep roots and origins, that descend from ball and stick games of archaic eras around the world. And as we look at ancient Chinese texts and paintings, they reveal how similar the contents, rules, and equipment resemble that of golf today. Looking back to the Song Dynasty in China, a book called Dongxuan lu, written by Wei Tai, describes how a country magistrate taught his daughter how to dig holes in the ground and drive a ball into them. As the activity developed and grew popular, it became known as Chuiwan—where the aim of the game was to use a club to strike a ball into a target.
In Chuiwan (which translates “to hit a ball”) the game is separated into six components, and played on a more textured and versatile landscape than it is now. When the weather was favorable, players would gather in a lush garden or open space to begin the sequence of play. After setting up a base, using a club or some sort, the goal was to drive the ball into a hole with both long and short strokes—while keeping score of the game. According to Wan Jing, a book published in 1282 AD, “Both Emperor Huizong of the Song Dynasty and Emperor Zhangzong of the Jin Dynasty liked to play Chuiwan. They kept the balls in silk bags and while playing, they used colored sticks.” The game, like modern golf, included an element of etiquette ultimately for the progress of virtue.
Over the long periods of the middle ages, the game evolved and grew in popularity as a sport for both royalty and commoners. In China, everyone from the emperor to the lower class played the game; as it was more a leisure sport than a competitive one. The game fell out of popularity sometime around the 15th century, which was coincidentally the same period of time that it appeared in Europe. It was there, in the luscious fields of Scotland, that the game evolved. As time passed, its popularity quickly spread throughout 16th century Europe thanks to a royal endorsement by King Charles to Mary Queen of Scots. It was later passed along to the French where the term ‘caddie’ derives from the name for her French military aides, known as cadets.
It’s a difficult sport that shuns away amateurs with its time-consuming, simplistic, and challenging nature. However, it is one that has truly defined western culture. Over the course of the twentieth century, the games popularity grew in America, and as its notoriety expanded. The sport eventually trickled down the social ladder to become an iconic activity of casual business and suburban relaxation. Even today, this single-athlete sport has major cultural significance.
Golf is a game that has lasted many, many years—with its ancient origins much debated and unclear. Historians point one artifact in particular, a painting titled The Autumn Banquet (part of a Ming Dynasty scroll), that captures a scene from a farewell banquet which shows courtiers playing a variety of leisure games—as a sign that the sport certainly has deep connections to China. Whether or not it was indeed founded here, we may never know for certain.