It comes as no surprise that, as the creators of great artistic
and intellectual traditions, the civilizations of Asia produced
games of mental sophistication. On the other hand, sports and games
of physical prowess (aside from martial arts) are not what spring
immediately to mind when we consider the leisure cultures of Asia.
Yet there is a long tradition of physical competition in Asian culture.
In addition to performance—acrobats are known at least as
early as the fourth century B.C.E.—Asia is home to a rich
culture of games of physical dexterity and agility. These run the
gamut from pitch-pot, a game of arrow-tossing with distinctly East
Asian origins and popularity, to polo, the practice of which extended
throughout and beyond Asia. The former is hardly ever played and
barely known today. Polo, on the other hand, is the source of rich
literary and visual imagery from China to Iran and was one of the
activities that defined the self-image of the Persian aristocracy.
In contrast with other games that rely primarily on mental skills
such as visual memory and forward thinking, these games are defined
mainly by hand-eye coordination skills, and to varying degrees
by strength and stamina. Sedentary games and physical contests
both require skills acquired by practice, tactical thinking, and
adherence to rules and conventions; in all are found the temptation
to cheat, the role of chance, and, of course, the aim of winning
itself. And while, in the popular imagination, the stereotype
of the brilliant but physically inept scholar looms large, many
instances of Asian individuals who excelled both at mental and
physical games undermine this myth of mental and physical dichotomy.