Power and Dexterity

Asian Games: The Art of Contest

Power and Dexterity
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.

Tartars Playing Polo
larger image

Kano Soshu (d. 1601)
Tartars Playing Polo
Japan; Momoyama period (1573–1615), late 16th century
One of a pair of six-fold screens; ink, color, and gold on paper
165.1 x 349.3 cm
Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, Museum Purchase, B69D18.A.
Reproduced by permission