Today’s post comes primarily from the Ma Strength weightlifting book written by Manuel Buitrago, an expert on Chinese weightlifting techniques. I’m delighted to say that Manuel has offered to write a series of articles on the history of Chinese weightlifting so I would like to extend my thanks at the outset. This is a fascinating and long history which many individuals (including myself) know little about.
China is one of the most dominant countries in men’s and women’s weightlifting, holding most of the weightlifting world records for men and women. While this dominance may seem like a recent phenomenon, China has a long history and culture of strength sports leading up to the development of modern weightlifting. These strength sports took on various forms over time, as shown in Figure 1 (Yang 1987):
The Qin state (897 BCE – 210 BCE) existed during the Iron Age in China (600BCE). During this period, major revolutions in agriculture and military occurred. For example, the axe allowed men to cut down trees, clear land, and increase agricultural production. On the military side, soldiers attached an axe head to form 7-meter length halberds, iron daggers to form 3.5-meter spears, and introduced armor made of steel plates.
While these weapons were more durable and effective, the demand grew for strong bodies to wield them. Around the same time, the Qin state underwent a cultural change, one of which was implementing a military reward system which gave land and money to peasants in exchange for service. Additionally, military rankings were determined by one’s success and lethality on the battlefield. These changes offered a pathway for peasants to improve their economic situation and provided incentives for strength. In fact, King Wu of Qin was such an admirer of weight lifting performance such that he awarded high posts to strongmen at that time (Yang 1996).
One of the most popular implements to determine these positions and confer prestige was the ding: a metal ware with 3 legs and 2 ears, which could weigh between several hundred to a thousand pounds. Depending on the shape, a ding was usually carried on the shoulder by two people using a pole, as shown in Figure 2, but a single person could lift it overhead by holding the handles (Huang 2014).
The Han dynasty arose after the death of the Qin Emperor Qin Shi Huang and expanded westward into central Asia. With the demand for soldiers still running high, the Han continued ding competitions but also created a special ding known as the Han-ding made explicitly for sport (Peng 2012). The court established a “ding officer” responsible for arranging ding lifting contests at court and authorizing the title of ‘the mighty ding lifter’ to winners.
As the Han empire expanded westward, the importance of the Silk Road and trade exploded. With silk and other goods in high demand from the West, the Han dynasty experienced a boom of economic growth which created an opportunity for strength performances (see Figure 3). There were many events testing strength, speed, and power such as barbell stone lifting, broadsword performance, weighted carrying, and weighted acrobatic performances (Peng 2012).
However, the Han dynasty became mired in corruption and gradually decayed from incompetent governing, natural disasters, and subsequent peasant uprisings. The fall led to a power vacuum and struggle for succession known as the Three Kingdoms period. During this 60-year period of epic conflict, the ding was gradually replaced by the qiaoguan as the formal weightlifting instrument in the subsequent Jin and Tang dynasties. Qiaoguan refers to the broad and thick bar(s) used to bolt city gates shut, and strongmen would lift them from there ends and even try to raise them overhead, as shown in Figure 4.
The origins of qiaoguan appear as early as the Spring and Autumn period (771 to 476 BCE) with historical references to Confucius lifting qiaoguan in the capital city (Gao 2008). However, qiaoguan lifting was a more significant part of military culture than sport during the Jin dynasty due to frequent wars and the need to lift qiaoguan quickly to protect city gates. Therefore, Jin emperors installed strength standards with qiaoguan along with martial proficiency for county, state, and military officials (Qin 2012).
While the Jin Dynasty unified China for a short time, it quickly fell into disunity and internal wars continued until the Tang dynasty (618 – 907). During this time, the Tang Dynasty further institutionalized and regulated the practice of enlisting strongmen. For example, Empress Wu Zetian established military examinations that included qiaoguan, weight carrying, and bodybuilding as some of the examination items (Gao 2008). At that time, the qiaoguan was about 168cm long, diameter 11.7cm, and lifted for 10 repetitions (Yang 2013). Candidates also had to lift a qiaoguan in each hand and walk with them for a prescribed distance (Li 2013).
Like the Han, natural disasters, palace corruption, and ensuing rebellions led to the fall of the Tang dynasty. With the rise of the Song Dynasty (960 – 1279) there was an increase in naval power which changed the focus of the military from brute force to strategy. Additionally, there was an increase in maritime trade which grew the economy and allowed the Song to implement social welfare programs which grew the urban middle class and avoid rebellion. These events shifted weightlifting activities away from military culture and more into the public. As a result, street and private performers expressed strength through various activities requiring artistry as well as performance such as stone lifting or stacking, handling elaborate weapons, and balancing acts (Li 2013) as shown in Figure 3.
Later in the Ming dynasty, stone stacking became part of the military examination system. Other notable events included using one’s hands to rotate a 50kg broadsword around one’s body, and the famous general Qi Jiguang ordered his soldiers to shoulder an iron dummy weighing 150kg and walk around for 500m to enhance their physical fitness (Yang 1987). In the late Ming dynasty, the precursor to the modern weightlifting barbell appeared made of wood with stone bells attached at the ends (see Figure 4). It was used in strength competitions and acrobatics even after the Manchu people conquered the Ming and set up the Qing dynasty (Qin 2012).
Before the 1800’s, only military and performers used traditional weightlifting activities due to the influence of Confucianism, which emphasized civility and strengthening the mind to the public rather than manual labor, physical exercise, and martial activity. However, Western demands for open trade with China became more aggressive, and domestic problems increasingly plagued the Qing empire. As a result, Western sports and thought were incorporated in Chinese physical culture during the 1840’s – early 1900’s, (see Figure 5).
Christian groups like the YMCA pushed the idea that a strong body was commensurate to being a good Christian since the body was seen as an instrument in service of the Lord (Zhang 2015). And some Chinese political reformers used social Darwinism to correlate the physical strength of the people to the strength and welfare of the nation (Morris 2000). During this time women were also involved in physical culture, as strong, healthy women would be more fit to produce and raise strong children. This political trend of physical culture will continue during the Republican era and during the rise of Mao Zedong.
Gao, Qing. 2008. “Qiaoquan to Ding Lifting – Ancient Chinese Weightlifting Sports.” Sports World: Academic Edition.5: 103 – 104.
Huang, Hu. 2014. “The Evolution of Weightlifting in Ancient China.” Sports Culture Guide. 4: 156 – 159.
Li, Hua. 2013. “Sports in the Song Dynasty.” Master’s Thesis. Henan University.
Morris, Andrew. 2000. “‘To Make the Four Hundred Million Move’: The Late Qing Dynasty Origins of Modern Chinese Sport and Physical Culture.” Comparative Studies in Society and History. 42(4): 876 – 906.
Peng, Lei. 2012. “Weightlifting during the Han Dynasty.” Lantai World. 27: 35 – 36.
Qin, Hai-sheng. 2013. The Research on the Weightlifting Sports of Ancient China. Journal of Anyang Institute of Technology. 11(2). 88 – 90.
Yang, Shiyong. 1987. “History of Weightlifting.” Sport and Science. 6: 25 – 27.
Yang, Shiyong. 1996. “A Brief History of Weightlifting in Ancient China.” Asian Weightlifting. 4.
Zhang, Hujie. 2015. “Christianity and the Rise of Western Physical Education and Sport in Modern China, 1840 – 1920’s.” The International Journal of the History of Sport. 32(8): 1121 – 1126.
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Fascinating. Great read. Love learning about the intercultural histories of the iron game.
Seriously right? Was so happy when Manuel offered to write this series!