Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs: Cockfighting Inspires Poetry


Taiwan Review is the flagship publication of Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

– Gameness til the End

Fowl Combat

Taiwan Review
Publication Date:07/01/1990

“Cruel eyes emit vermillion light”­—a large gamecock owned by a Taiwan cockfighter struts and stretches.

An ancient blood sport inspires poetry and serves as a metaphor for power struggles.

Like the chicken itself, cockfighting probably originated in Asia. Some cockfighting aficionados and historians think the ancient sport began on the Indian subcontinent and spread from there to other parts of the world. But recent archaeological evidence from areas dating earlier than the Indus Valley civilization sites at Mohenjo-daro (c. 2500-1500 B.C.) points to early domestication of the chicken in China, casting at least some doubt on the theory of Indian origin. The blood sport was also popular in ancient Greece, perhaps arriving there via Persia, and seems to have existed in Rome by 470 B.C.

Cockfighting has a long recorded his­tory in Asia. The Bayon of Angkor Thorn in Kampuchea, for instance, has a bas-relief which includes a vivid scene depicting a cockfight. This bas-relief dates from the late 12th to the early 13th Century, but the sport was popular in pre-Angkor Kampuchea as well, as shown by Chinese statements about the kingdom of Funan (Old Khmer Vnam), which occupied the lower course of the Mekong River during the first several centuries A.D.

The first official Chinese envoys ar­rived in Funan sometime between 245 and 250 A.D. One of the envoys made a record of the mission and noted the Funanese ruler’s passion for cockfighting and how he armed his cocks with metal spurs. But whenever the standard Chi­nese histories mention Funan, as they occasionally do up until at least the 11th Century A.D., they seldom fail to call attention to cockfighting as a characteristic feature of life there. Chinese historians and their readers would have found nothing particularly exotic in the Funan­ese interest in the sport, for by the time of this visit to that land in the 3rd Cen­tury, cockfighting had already existed in China proper for at least 750 years.

The first recorded cockfight in Chi­nese history took place in 517 B.C., during the Chou Dynasty, in the Confu­cius’ home state of Lu in modern Shan­tung Province. This particular cockfight, which is mentioned in no less than four ancient books, was between the Chi-sun and Hou clans. The cockfight served as a good metaphor for the power struggles then taking place in the State of Lu among its aristocratic families.

There is no reason to doubt that the fight really occurred. And the tactics employed, most notably the use of metal spurs, indicate that the sport had been around for some time. Another signifi­cant feature of this fight was the applica­tion of mustard in some form to one of the cocks. It remains unclear where the mustard was applied and what it was meant to achieve. Some early references mention mustard in connection with the wings—perhaps as some form of stimulant? —but no further explanation is provided. At any rate, mustard and metal spurs, along with the family names of Hou and Chi-sun, gradually became stock images and allusions in poetry and prose having to do with cockfighting.

Writings concerning the Chou Dynasty (c. 11th Century-256 B.C.) and Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-220 A.D.) often depict cockfighting as a pastime of rulers and other people of wealth and position. During the Han period, its fans included the father of Liu Pang, the founder of the dynasty. The Han royal family pro­duced a number of other enthusiasts as well. Liu Yu, who was a great-grandson of Liu Pang and a son of Emperor Ching (reigned 156-141 B.C.), was fond not only of cockfights but also of duck­-fighting and goose-fighting. The great and long-reigning Emperor Wu (140-87 B.C.), better known for his pursuit of im­mortality and his adoption of Confucian­ ism as state orthodoxy, occasionally graced cockfights with his presence. Emperor Hsuan (79-49 B.C.) is known to have been fond of the sport in his youth, and Emperor Cheng (32-7 B.C.) appears to have had an interest in it as well.

In addition to such royal personages, it is very likely that those commoners who could afford it might have also engaged in cockfighting in the late Chou and Han Dynasties. The Record of the Warring States mentions it as one of the activities favored by the resi­dents of the prosperous city of Lintzu during the Warring States Period (475-221 B. C.). Furthermore, there must have been a group of professionals who specialized in breeding, raising, and training cocks for the pit.

At the end of the Han Dynasty and during the subsequent Wei (220-265) period, cockfighting makes its first appearances in poetry and rhapsody in the works of such figures as Tsao Chih and Fu Hsuan. Tsao is a major Chinese poet, and in his frequently anthologized “Famous Towns”, which depicts the somewhat self­ indulgent life of youths in the capital city of Loyang, is the line: “They fight cocks on the eastern suburb roads.” Thereafter, references to the eastern road or suburbs became a common motif in Chi­nese poems that refer to the cockfight.

It may be indicative of cockfighting’s popularity that Tsao Chih’s nephew Emperor Ming (226-239) in Wei times built the Cockfighting Terrace, but un­ fortunately nothing beyond the name is known about this structure. Somewhat later, Six Dynasties poems and remarks in contemporary historical sources indicate that cockfighting, as well as duck­-fighting, continued to exist in that turbulent period of Chinese history.

Young princes of the royal house en­gaged in cockfighting early in the Tang Dynasty (618-907). The tomb of Prince Li Hsien is adorned with wonderful murals, including a scene of a palace woman holding a fighting rooster. But the historical heyday of cockfighting in Tang times was the reign of Emperor Hsuantsung (712-756), one of the most famous monarchs in Chinese history. The latter half of his reign in particular is notorious for its lavish expenditures on art and entertainment.

Cockfighting was considerably in vogue then, a fact reflected in both literature and painting. Poems by such impor­tant Tang poets as Wang Wei, Li Po, and Tu Fu attest to the high social status cockfighters could attain, and later copies of paintings by Tang artists pur­port to show Emperor Hsuantsung watching a cockfight. One of the most significant literary works in this regard is the Tang tale, written in classical Chinese, called “The Old Man of the Eastern Wall”. The main char­acter is a cockfighter in the employ of the emperor. In this story, cockfighting seems to betoken the factors leading to the downfall of the court. In one place the tale asserts that since Hsuantsung was born on a date in the cyclical Chinese zodiac that contained the character, which is symbolically correlated with the cock, it was inauspicious for him to engage in the sport.

The bloody and destructive An Lu­-shan Rebellion led to the abdication of Hsuantsung and put an end to the ex­travagant performances held for the delectation of his court. But cockfighting survived as both a popular and a royal pastime. Aficionados included the Tang emperors Taitsung, Mutsung, Wen­tsung, and Hsitsung.

By the early Tang, cockfighting had already come to be associated with the two spring festivals of Cold Food and Tomb Sweeping, and this association continued into the Sung Dynasty (960-1279). In the Northern Sung capital of Pienliang (modern Kaifeng in Honan Province), it was also one of the many activities that made up the boisterous birthday celebration for the folk god Erhlang on the twenty-fourth day of the sixth lunar month. The Sung Dynasty was an age of urbanization in China, and amusements and divertissements were in great demand both in Pienliang and in the Southern Sung capital of Lin-an (modern Hangchow). Wealthy households in both metropolises are known to have attracted practitioners of numerous skills and arts, including experts in cock­fighting and quail-fighting.

Sung Dynasty cockfighting was by no means restricted to the capitals. The sport was practiced at least as far west as Chengtu as well. Looking back on his experiences in that city, the most prolific of Sung poets, Lu Yu, once wrote of himself:

The Reckless Old Man at fifty was still bold and uninhibited.
In Brocade City he once awoke to a dream of luxurious living.
Bamboo Leaf Springtime lees, cyan jade ewers,
Peach blossoms, thoroughbred horses, virid silk bridles.
Fighting cocks in the southern market, everyone divided into sides Shooting pheasants in the western suburbs,
 I always hit the mark ….

Fowl CombatTomorrow’s fighters­ as in centuries past, the breeding of gamecocks can be an expensive and complicated process.

The most avid adherents of cock­fighting in Sung times, however, may have been the non-Chinese inhabitants of the Canton area. A practical account of their practices is given in Answers From Beyond the Five Ridges, a collection of observations made by Chou Chu-fei while passing through the area in the late 12th Century. In his notes on the sport, he even affirms that mustard was still being used on the gamecocks, some 1,500 years after the first mention of that prac­tice in the northern state of Lu during Chou times.

In more recent times, references to cockfighting can be found in prose and poetry from the Yuan (1271-1368) and Ming (1368-1644) Dynasties. For exam­ple, the early Ching Dynasty poet Wang Tzu-shou indicates that Ming imperial offspring were fond of gambling at the sport. In another case, Chang Tai (1599-1684?) speaks of enjoying cock-fighting and forming a cockfighting club. He concludes, however, on a note reminiscent of “The Old Man of the Eastern Wall,” saying: “One day, I was reading an unofficial history that said Hsuan-tsung of Tang times lost his country because, having been born in a yu month, in a yu year, he was fond of cock-fighting. Since I, too, was born in a yu month in a yu year, I quit.”

Ching Dynasty (1644-1911) refer­ences to the sport include passing remarks in the famous novel Dream Of the Red Chamber, as well as censorious observations on it by 19th­ Century English visitors to China. The criticism of cockfighting by these foreign observers reflects the development of modern Western sensibilities regarding man’s relations with the natural world. But the sport was very popular in some quarters in England for centuries before it was finally outlawed in the 1800s, and even then it did not magically disappear.

Cockfighting is a violent and bloody sport that continues to flourish in the 20th Century. Its prominence in certain lands, such as Bali and the Philippines, is common knowledge. Less well-known is the extent of its popularity in other places. In the United States, for instance, cockfights are often associated in the popular mind with the Deep South, Cuban Florida, the Mexican border states, and Hawaii. In fact, they are held in nearly every state, involving millions of dollars annually and attracting large numbers of breeders and fighters. Still, despite the sport’s endurance, it is either strongly censured or banned outright in many societies.

This century has likewise seen the continuation of cockfighting in China. The presence of uncritical reports on the sport in the People’s Daily points to its acceptance on the mainland. Cockfighting is popular in many provinces, among them Shantung, Honan, Anhwei, Kiangsu, and Kwangtung. Shoukuang in Shantung Province is noted for its strong cockfighting tradition, and Hotse, also in Shantung, was the venue for a large in­ternational derby (the accepted nomenclature) in 1986. Kaifeng, in Honan Province, where cockfighting as a popular activity dates back to the Sung Dynasty, has an old and well-developed fraternity of cockfighters, one which has outlasted the vicissitudes of modern Chi­nese history and endures to the present day. In Taiwan, cockfighting per se is not illegal, but gambling is. And gambling is, of course, an almost indispensable in­gredient of cockfighting.

In pre-modern China, the forces that operated in opposition to cockfighting were somewhat different from those in the early modern and modern West­ern world. Chinese opposition had noth­ing to do with any rights animals were felt to possess or any duty man was thought to have toward animals. Instead, it had to do with the milieu in which cockfighting took place and with its effect on man. Cockfighting was frivo­lous, interfered with self-cultivation, and was a waste of time and money.

It is clear from historical and literary sources that by Han Dynasty times the sport was often associated with well­-to-do young wastrels and gamblers, persons of low station, and morally and socially ambiguous knights-errant. Ad­herents of cockfighting were among those rounded up in a crackdown on merchants and powerful families during the reign of Emperor Wu. In the same period, Tung Chung-shu (179-93 B.C.), the man largely responsible for the adoption of Confucianism as state orthodoxy, included cockfighting in a list of activities he considered to be signs of breakdown in the social order. As in modern times, gambling was seen as one of the evils of the sport.

In poetry, the first hint of criticism of cockfighting as an occupation of ne’er­-do-wells comes from a rather obscure Six Dynasties poet. It was up to the major Tang poets Wang Wei and Li Po to blast those who owed their high status and position primarily to such activities. Cockfighting as a way of identifying moral deficiency in literary characters continued into the 18th Century and up to modern times. It is found in the Dream of the Red Chamber as well as in Ting Ling’s 1927 story “Meng­ko”.

While it is clear that traditional Chi­nese values could condemn cockfighting, the role of religion is less certain. At first glance, Buddhist injunctions to protect the lives of animals might seem a power­ful weapon with which to oppose blood sports like cockfighting. And monastic rules against spectacles do exist. But there seems to be a doctrinal dilemma here, for the karmic purpose of rebirth as an animal is to do penance through suffering inflicted by man, other animals, and the environment. It may be that Buddhist maitri (universal sympa­thy) did, in fact, act to restrict some people’s participation in cockfighting, but there is no direct evidence to that effect. —Robert Joe Cutter is an associate professor of Chinese at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Tsao Chih

Wandering eyes have done with subtle dancing;
Clear hearing is sated with music.
The host is listless and has nothing to do;
The many guests offer a way to have fun.
Long mats seat the merry visitors,
Cockfights they watch in an empty room.
The gathered stags are now in a frenzy;
Twin rectrices fly and flutter instinctively.
Beating primaries start a swift breeze;
Cruel eyes emit vermilion light.
Beaks fall, light down scatters;
Harsh spurs wound again and again.
A long crow enters the clouds in the blue;
Fanning wings, a single bird soars up.
I want the help of raccoon-dog grease,
Then I’d always be able to dominate this pit.

Liu Chen

The cinnabar cocks are covered with flowery colors;
The twin spurs are like edged points.
Wanting totally to flex their blazing might,
They meet in battle on this inner causeway.
Sharp talons scrabble on jade steps;
Glaring eyes contain fiery light.
Long rectrices ramp in a startling breeze;
Hackle-feathers now spread in display.
They lightly rise and wield their hooked beaks,
Strike like lightning and again fly back.

Ying Yang

I was careworn and my mood was unhappy;
I had no means to escape labor and toil.
The brothers roamed to the sporting grounds,
And ordered carriages to fetch many guests.
Two groups split into facing ranks;
The gathered cocks shine and are put on display.
Twin spurs slip the long tethers;
Flying and leaping, they jump the opponents and rivals.
Mustard wings flourish metal spurs.
Battle after battle, what chaotic confusion!
From morning to the setting of the sun
The winners and losers still are not clear.
The champion drives off a host of opponents;
Its toughness and quickness surpass the rest of the flock.
The surrounding gallery all enjoy and praise it;
Guests and hosts feel delighted and glad.
It is not that liu-po and chess do not make one happy,
But this sport is what our age prizes.


More reads:

poultry gamefowl chicken gamecock

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.