Origins in China


China was a major influence on Japan in the 3th to 8th centuries, with many Chinese traditions and rules adopted and practiced by the Japanese people. This was brought about when invaders from Korea, which was under Chinese rule at the time, occupied Japan, bringing with them the manners, customs and art techniques of their more advanced culture. Major examples of these cultural influences include Buddism, Chinese writing, Chinese art methods, the customs and ceremonies of the Imperial court, and the concept of city and temple planning. Various envoys were also sent between the two countries, which played a major part in influencing Japanese culture.
Records of wrestling in China date back as far as the 2nd century BC, to the Chou Dynasty (1030 - 221BC), with various accounts recorded in ancient documents. This wrestling was commonly referred to as 'Chiao-ti', which was written in the characters meaning 'Horned Strength'; a term used up until the the 10th century.

Early Chiao-ti involved butting, in addition to wrestling, and was mainly performed at rural festivities as a ritual contest, in which contestants were required to wear horned headpieces. During the Han period (202BC - AD220) it was somewhat refined in that butting techniques were replaced with more sophisticated throwing and holding techniques. This new refined style was consequentely deemed suitable to be included in military training for the Imperial guards, along with the more traditional pursuits of archery and chariot racing.

Wrestler figurines from a tomb. 5th-3rd century B.C

Despite it's inclusion in military training, Chiao-ti soon became popular amongst the noble classes and the Imperial court, and was adopted as a form of entertainment. In the Shi Chi (the 1st Century BC Book of History), it is recorded that,"the second Ch'in emperor often amused himself by holding Chiao-ti tournaments and musical shows in his palace at Kan Chuan" (P.L.Cuyler, 1985, pg10).

Figure of a dancer a court banquet
On the outset of the Han dynasty, it's founder, Liu Pang made attempts to put a stop to these wrestling displays, as he viewed them as being vulgar and offensive. These moves to put a stop to such a popular form of entertainment proved largely ineffective, and his successor, Han Wu Ti, brought them back into the limelight with even more pomp and splendour. He turned them into "gorgeous spectacles complete with dancers, musicians, and matches between young boys"(P.L.Cuyler, 1985, pg ).

Chiao-ti was well and truly part of court life by the end of the Han period, with Ts'ao Ts'ao, the last of the reigning Han emperors adding it to the official list of court amusements, which resulted in it becoming an extremely popular monthly event at the Imperial Court.

Female dancers as court entertainment

Chiao-ti was not, however, restricted only to the upper classes. It was also a major form of entertainment for the common people of the period. Having originated in rural areas as part of agrarian festivals, it developed into a popular form of entertainment, which soon spread to the larger cities. Once in the cities, it was not long before large tournaments were organised, drawing very large crowds.

The Sui Dynasty (590 - 618) saw Chiao-ti tournaments fixed to take place on the lunar calender for the fifteenth day of the first month of the year, which coincided with the last day of the new years celebrations. These events became elaborate affairs enjoyed greatly by the reigning emperor of the time, Yang-ti. In fact, it is said that Yang-ti so much enjoyed watching Chiao-ti that he would often sneak off to tournaments held in the city, dressed in diguise.

The fifteenth day of the seventh month was also an important festival day on which Chiao-ti was often performed.This practice was was especially popular during the T'ang dynasty (618 -906), when tournaments were accompanied by sumtuous banquets, music and dancing. Wrestlers were usually selected from the ranks of Imperial guards, and performed not only at court, but at various venues within the capital. They also toured the provinces giving wrestling displays.The best wrestlers, however, were made to remain at court by the empereor, so as to be on hand, should he wish to view a match.

From the Sui dynasty onwards, Japan had direct contact with China through envoys of artists, scholars and diplomats, which was the period during which China seems to have had a great deal of influence on Japan, and when sumo and court ceremonies were certainly affected. Indeed, the development of sumo in Japan took a remarkably similar road throughout history to the present.

A wealthy chinese patron of wrestling. A Japanese temple built in Chinese Buddist style. A Japanese print by Kiyomasu, Chinese hero Choryo.