The first rabona

The Water Margin (水滸傳; Shui Hu Zhuan) is — together with the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Dream of the Red Chamber, and Journey to the West, popularly known as Monkey — one of the four great classical novels of Chinese literature.

It may also be home to the first literary portrayal of the rabona, the move in which football players kick with the kicking leg crossed behind the leg used for support.

The Water Margin tells the story of a group of 12th century bandits who rebel against corrupt local officials and who, banding together, petition the Emperor for recognition of the (Confucian) virtue of their cause.

There are lots of portrayals of venal or iniquitous officials in the book, but one early example concerns the rebels’ principal adversary, Gao Qiu. As Edwin Lowe puts it in his introduction to his revised version of JH Jackson’s 1937 translation,

“In the notionally virtuous Confucian state with a meritocratic civil service, we find the unvirtuous promoted to the highest offices in the state, such as Prime Minister Cai Jing, while the worthless are likewise promoted to high office through flattery and patronage, such as the idler Gao Qiu, whose only skill is his ability to impress the Crown Prince (and later Emperor) at football”.

By football, Lowe means cuju, a progenitor of modern association football which reached its peak popularity roughly at the same time as the events of the Water Margin. Cuju had both competitive and non-competitive variants, with the latter emphasising artistry and accuracy in control of the ball.

Here’s the description (in the first chapter) of Gao Qiu’s skill at football:

“Gao Qiu dared not to intrude — so he took up his position behind the servants. Now good luck had come to Gao Qiu. The ball rebounded from the ground and Prince Duan failed to kick it — it bounced into the crowd of spectators and landed at the side of Gao Qiu. He saw the ball and instantly had courage. He used the mandarin-duck twist (one leg behind the other) and kicked the ball back to Prince Duan. Prince Duan saw this and being pleased with the exhibition, asked who he was”.

This description sounds to me very much like a description of a rabona. It’s clear that the ball is on the ground, so Gao Qiu isn’t attempting a volley with his rear leg stretched behind him. Sadly, I have no idea how mandarin ducks twist, and so that part of the description is opaque to me. But unless the translation is remarkably errant, then this has a good claim to be the first recorded rabona — beating Ricardo Infante’s archetypal effort of 1948 by a good eight hundred years.

Sadly for China, footballers of Gao Qiu’s proficiency are scarce. The national team recently drew nil-nil with Hong Kong, in a match noted more for its political overtones than what happened on the pitch.

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