A modern game that has an ancient past

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 May, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 May, 2008, 12:00am

As Beijing indulged in one ceremony after another to mark the 100-day countdown to the Olympics this week, the unassuming township of Morin Dawa, tucked away on the northwest fringe of Inner Mongolia's grasslands, woke up to yet another tranquil morning.

The fanfare that echoed round the capital more than 1,200km away did not resonate as far as there. But out on the vast plains there were still celebrations - albeit for a different reason.

The Inner Mongolia provincial men's hockey team, consisting of an all-Morin Dawa squad, won their second successive national championship title after beating Gansu 2-1 in the western city of Lanzhou.

Morin Dawa's success was no coincidence, however. Sports officials in Inner Mongolia, a province with a population of 24 million, pick all the hockey team's players from a town that boasts fewer than 260,000 inhabitants.

'We have the same state-funded sports system as elsewhere in the country, but our success is because of the Daurs' sports heritage,' said Ao Junxiang, an ethnic Daur and the deputy director of the prefecture's sports governing body.

'It would take another two days for the team to return. But last night all the restaurants were overbooked by celebrating crowds,' he added.

The ethnic Daurs, one of the smallest minority groups in China, put Morin Dawa, a city with neither a railway station nor an airport, and hockey on the map in China.

For the first time, China have qualified for an Olympic berth in Beijing. And if they win a medal it would - in the eyes of some historians at least - ensure hockey is coming home.

Depending on your sources, hockey - a game played with curved sticks to strike a ball-like object between two opposing teams - was first played 4,000 years ago by Egyptians, or 2,500 years ago by the Greeks or 2,000 years ago by the Persians. Amid the bleakness and plagues, Europe during the middle ages appears to have also enjoyed a hockey fest, with the game being played throughout the continent.

The British, with their penchant for rules and clubs, are widely credited with modernising the game on the fields of public schools in the mid-19th century.

But with the rise of China and the subsequent rewriting of the sports history books as new discoveries are made and old ones re-examined, it appears the Daurs can also lay a claim to hockey's development.

Descendants of the Khitan, an ancient nomadic tribe who founded the Liao Empire to the north of the old Middle Kingdom in the 10th century, the Daur are known as the Jews of the Far East. This is a reference to the violent oppression suffered by the group for centuries at the hands of conquerors including the Mongols, Manchus and the Russians, before the bulk of the Daurian population eventually congregated and settled down in Morin Dawa in the 18th century.

With a rich oral literature but no written language, Daurian cultural identity has been preserved, to some extent, by the people's obsession with what they term as 'beikou', or hockey.

Like elsewhere, ancient Daur hockey borrowed most of its equipment from mother nature. The stick was made of oak tree roots, naturally shaped with a crooked end. The ball was usually a small round block of polished apricot tree root approximately the size of a modern baseball.

Daurian beikou, popular in the prime of the Liao empire, made it into the history books as the closest and the earliest ancient kin to modern hockey, as it was systematised by the British about 150 years ago. Both adopt an 11-a-side format and players may play the ball only with the rounded side of the stick.

'We still regularly play beikou in its very primitive form,' said E'Jingrong, a player in his 80s, ahead of a ceremonial exhibition Beikou game by the elders on a pitch by the side of the Nonni River.

The former government official and his fellow veteran players, all of whom are over 60 and play in traditional Daur costumes, skilfully dribbled the ball, weaving through the field and shooting the cloth-covered apricot-root block into two temporary goals marked by oak branches.

E'Jingrong was a member of Communist China's first men's national hockey team back in the late 1950s, which was also, like today, an all-Daurian squad. But the sporting tradition was nearly wiped out during the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution.

And the game nearly became extinct in the region because of the ongoing policy of assimilation which has seen ethnic Han immigrants pour into Morin Dawa over the past few decades.

This has changed the demography as well as the culture of the once Daur-dominated township.

Most Daurian traditions have been lost, including the use of Daurian family names among ethnic Daurs and the practice of Shamanism, a religion idolising the spirits and nature.

But the love for hockey just survived - and is now undergoing a renaissance.

'Morin Dawa remained an economically backward prefecture for much of the past five decades and we didn't have the resources to finance a competitive team until very recently,' said Ao, who runs the local hockey programme. 'However, we have contributed talent to the national teams because it doesn't take a special sports school to groom decent field hockey players here. The sport is in the Daur blood.'

Guo Dongdong, 12, is a protege of the unique Daur hockey academy. He rises early every weekday at 6am for an hour and half of practice at his primary school. Though he has posters of basketball stars Kobe Bryant and Yao Ming on his bedroom wall, the fifth-grader said there's only one sport in his life.

'To us, anyone who doesn't play hockey would be looked down on,' said Guo.

The sport has received little exposure on the mainland even though it has been on the rise ever since the national team beat powerhouses India during the 2006 Asian Doha Games.

In the eyes of Yang Chao, an assistant coach at the national men's hockey team, five Daurs, led by striker Meng Jun, are the backbone of China's upcoming Olympic debut and medal hopes.

Big talent in small places

Morin Dawa players make up the entire Inner Mongolia squad

The town of Morin Dawa has a population of this many in thousands: 260