Today’s short post comes primarily from Nigel B. Crowther’s wonderful chapter on Ancient Chinese sport and physical education. Looking primarily at Chinese physical cultures, Crowther found that weightlifting, archery, weight throwing, tug of war, boxing and a host of other activities were practiced by Chinese men. Of interest to us today, was the use of Ding’s as feats of strength.
Without discounting the importance of martial arts ,which of course dated from this time, Ancient Chinese physical cultures proved equally fascinating as they spoke quite a bit about the religious and cultural values of the age. They also wouldn’t have looked out of place from a World’s Strongest Man competition.
So how and why did men strength train in Ancient China? Well, according to Crowther, exercise in Ancient China took a variety of forms and meanings. It was done as a form of religious ritual, to train for battle, to train for health and as a social custom. Fun also had a role to play in things as well.
Studying the period 6000 BC to 500 AD – which makes my own research seem more like journalism than history – Crowther found that Chinese soldiers and athletes devoted as a significant amount of time to physical culture. The building of the body was not just a matter of personal vanity but instead held an important social function and was an important means of self defence.
Where soldiers trained their bodies primarily through callisthenics, which made sense in an age before mass gymnasiums, there was still space for rudimentary forms of weightlifting. Far from an isolated activity, weightlifting developed into a sport or exhibition. To display their strength, ‘professional’ weightlifters, which in this sense meant soldiers or strongmen, lifted rocks and metal objects, like heavy tripods and massive swords. One’s ability to lift these objects was linked to their fighting prowess, their virility and as an indication of their family’s strength. In this sense, weightlifting in Ancient China was similar to Indian club swinging by Hindu wrestlers who likewise linked their strength to their masculine virility.
While stone lifting was the primary way in which one’s strong virility was shown, men also looked towards the heaviest objects found in day to day life. During ancient China’s Warring States period (475–221 BC), one of the primary tests of strength among martial artists involved a one- or two-man lift of a massive, three legged cauldron called a ding, which could weigh up to several hundred pounds. Since the second millennium BC, these cauldrons were used in ancient China for rituals in ancestral worship, and as such they came to be seen as a symbol of power.
Now unfortunately, it is difficult to know exactly how this lift was actually done. In my mind, I picture immensely strong individuals lifting the cauldron by a single leg. Considering I struggle to do this with a wooden chair, I suspect this may not have been possible. To my mind, a more likely explanation would be that a single man cauldron lift would be similar to an Atlas stone lift whereby the object is squeezed against the chest and sort of bearhugged/squatted up.
In performing the cauldron lift, these Chinese strongmen not only demonstrated considerable raw muscular power, but also a socially recognized symbolic power. The Ding was not ‘just’ a heavy object, but a key element in religious customs and rituals. So lifting the object linked the strongman to a much larger social custom. Furthermore in choosing to lift dings, objects which everyone was familiar, these Ancient Chinese physical culturists, used commonplace objects to prove, without a shadow of a doubt, that they were indeed strong.
This point also brings us to the recent, and wonderful, documentaries made by Rogue Fitness on nineteenth century strength athletes. In detailing the strongmen and strongwomen’s feats of strength, Jan and Terry Todd stressed the importance of using common objects like carts or sacks of flour in one’s routine. In a time before gymnasiums, barbells and dumbbells were popular, it was unlikely that individuals would have a real sense of how heavy a weight actually was. Using weights everyone was familiar with meant there was no doubt about one’s strength.
As with wrestling in Ancient China, a successful weightlifter became a person of considerable societal importance. Being strong then had societal advantages both in Chinese armies and Chinese society more generally. So next time we think weightlifting is a modern phenomena, it’s important to think again!
As always … happy lifting!
Wow, very interesting article, thanks!
Thanks so much Beti. I shared it with my students this year and they were equally fascinated!