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Swimming In Ancient China

Swimming is an important part of Olympics. This popular sport enjoyed a long history and served as various purposes in ancient China: fishing, pears-picking, entertainment performance and wars.

As early as primitive society, swimming was valued as an important means to defeat enemies. The earliest history record regarding swim can be traced back to the sixth century. The earliest poetry collection in China--The Epitomize of Poetry mentioned that in the deeper part of water, people use boat to cross it while in the shallow water areas, people swim across it." This reflects that China is among the earliest countries embark on swimming.

Swimming, more than a sport in ancient China

In Spring and Autumn period (770BC-221BC), swimming prevailed as a custom. The Analects of Confucius wrote the people of the state of Lu swam during festivals and went home merrily. 

During Han dynasty (202BC-9AD), swimming was deeply-rooted among the lower class. In order to bring convenience to people, the rulers constructed Taiye Pool which is probably the earliest swimming pool in history. Since then, people's swimming skills improved greatly. Huai Nanzi, a book wrote during Han dynasty, mentioned various swimming postures. In the lower area of Yangtze River and south China, swimming competitions were held during hot summer.

 the legend Zhou Chu killed the dragon

Nongchao(literally means swim among the tides ) emerged in Tany dynasty(618-907). Poet Li Yi wrote in Eulogy of South China: "The tide comes and recedes regularly, while my husband who is doing business far away keeps delaying his return time. Tortured by the lovesick, I regret not marrying a tide player initially". This poetry mirrors that swimmers were adorned by ladies at that time.

In Song dynasty (1127-1276), Nongchao (tide play) had developed into the favorite entertainment game of people. At that time, an overwhelming quantity of people will leave the capital Lin'an( today's Hangzhou) and head for Qiantang river each August to see the tide play. Magnificent and impressive, Qiantang River has been famous since ancient times for its tides. There is one essay devoted to this scene: "Far in the horizon, the tide will approach swiftly, which keeps growing and expanding every second, then hundreds of excellent swimmers will dash against the formidable and mighty tide like arrows, with colorful flags in hands. They are so adept at it that none of their flags will get wet. Rich businessmen and the noble class will award them with gold and silver".

 Mogao Grottoes' Fresco depicting Swimming (Sui Dynasty581-618)

Song dynasty witnessed the flourishment of business include handicraft industry. To meet the needs of expanding city citizens, some military sports were transformed into entertainment activities, and professional actors and actresses emerged also. Swimming, one of the most popular entertainment activity, became more popular at that time. According to historical records of Song Dynasty, a swimming contest was held in Jinming Pool during North Song dynasty (960-1127): "the prizes were thrown into the pool and swimmers will rush for them, and ten thousands of people were watching this competition". This game evolved into "Run after Duck" game. During each dragon-boat festival, dozens of ducks will be thrown into rivers, and people will stand on the bank to see swimmers compete to seize those ducks. This game soon became the most favorite at that time. There was another game during Song dynasty named Shui Qiuqian(水秋千): two boats equipped with Qiuqian(Swing Wood boards) would park among a lake, and swimmers would dangle on Qianqian to the high point, when their body reached the balance, they would jump into the river. This game is more dangerous and challenging compared to diving nowadays. For if the participants fail to seize the critical moment, they will fall on the deck of boat. This game and tide play game are rare seen after Song dynasty, they just vanished mysteriously.

Shui Qiuqian(水秋千): a diving game of Song Dynasty

The history of woman swimming enjoys a long history also. The Epitomize of Poetry mentioned girls swam among the Han River. One fresco of Mogao Grottoes in Northern Wei dynasty (386-534) depicting the scene of four women swimming. Xishi, one of the Top Four beauties in ancient China, was good at swimming. 

Swimming Soldiers: a prominent branch of the armed forces in ancient China

China is blessed with the dense network of rivers and lakes. During Spring and Autumn Period(770BC-221BC), wars and battles never ceased for one day. Seeing the advantage of water transportation which is faster and safer, some kingdoms embarked on improving soldiers' swimming skills and this practice turned out to be successful. Since then, swimming was an indispensable quality of soldiers in ancient China.

 Fresco of Qing dynasty in Potala Palace, Tibet


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