Déjà vu, all over again

Déjà vu, all over again

By Roy Hay

The Australian Society for Sports History has made significant contributions to sports history over the years, but it probably caused its greatest stir in the wider world in 1991 when the Bulletin carried an article by Professor Ling Hongling, of Northwest Normal University in Lanzhou, arguing that golf had originated in China from the practice of chuiwan.  Complete with illustrations showing Chinese participants swinging clubs at balls and knocking them into pits in the ground, the article argued ‘we may safely deduce that it is due to the propagation of Chinese Chuiwan that golf has been able to emerge in the West as a mature game’.(1)

Normally, Bulletin articles are read quietly by our membership and then put away on the bookshelf, but this one provoked a huge public and media response as described by the then editor, Braham Dabscheck. ‘The article by Professor Ling Hongling of Northwest Normal University, Lanshou, P.R. China, on the Chinese origins of golf, in the last issue of the Bulletin, seems to have had an impact, if not be the source of an international incident. Accounts of the article—and incidentally ASSH!—have been published in newspapers across four continents.’ (2) The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews, keeper of the game in its own eyes, weighed into the debate, and radio and television followed up the story.

Now, in January 2006, the matter has been revived by, among others, Robert Philip in the Daily Telegraph in London.(3)  He writes, ‘How can the nutty professor be so sure of his “facts”? Because in Mandarin chui means “to hit” and wan means “ball”. (Come on, surely everyone knows that “golf” is derived from the ancient Scots “gowff”—to strike.) But to back up his rewriting of history, Ling dips into the Dongxuan Records, a book written during the Song Dynasty of 960–1279 which describes how a local bigwig “instructed his daughter to dig holes in the ground so that he might drive a ball into them with a purposely crafted stick …” Furthermore, Emperor Huizong and his grandson, the future Emperor Zhangzong, were passionate “gowffers”, carrying their balls in silk purses and using 10 different “coloured sticks” as clubs. “Now that the whole truth has been clarified, this misunderstanding can be corrected,” witters Ling. “Golf as we know it, clearly originated in China.” ’

The R&A begs to differ. ‘Stick and ball games have been around for centuries but golf as we know it today—played over 18 holes—clearly originated in Scotland’, was its reaction. The R&A’s imperial view is reflected on its website:‘At the China Golf Development Forum held in Guangzhou, formerly known as Canton, the R&A Director of Golf Development, Duncan Weir, presented a commemorative plate to the Vice Executive Chairman of the China Golf Association, Mr Hu, to mark 20 years of golf in China’.(4)

Since John Bale set about analysing Tutsi high jumping, we have become much more conscious of the complex relationships between indigenous cultural practices and modern sports and aware that there is no simple linear relationship between them.(5) Yet it is interesting to reflect that it sometimes takes the world about 15 years to catch up on ASSH.


(1)            Ling Hongling, ‘Verification of the fact that golf originated from chuiwan,’ ASSH Bulletin, 14 July 1991, pp. 12–23.

(2)              Braham Dabscheck, ‘Chinese golf story putts along,’ ASSH Bulletin, 15 December 1991, p. 41.

(3)           Robert Philip, ‘Nice try but Chinese pitch is way off line’, Electronic Telegraph, 13 January 2006. Braham Dabscheck was interviewed again on ABC News Radio when the story rebroke.

(4)           ‘China golf development forum,’ Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews website, http://www.randa.org/,  24 March 2004, accessed 15 January 2006.

(5)            John Bale, Imagined Olympians: Body Culture and Colonial Representation in Rwanda, University of Minnesota Press, 2002.

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