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Ancient Beer Pong: Playing Touhu in East Asia

Public Historian and co-author of "Exploring American Girlhood in 50 Historic Treasures" (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021).

“Table screen with Woman Playing Touhu,” Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), late 17th century, China.

“Table screen with Woman Playing Touhu,” Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), late 17th century, China.

I found this table screen while browsing the online collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. When you visit a museum, there is so much that you don’t see. Objects are kept in storage for many reasons: the museum doesn’t have the space to display them, some are so fragile that they must undergo conservation efforts on a regular basis, or they simply don’t relate to current exhibitions. This is one of them.

It depicts the game of Touhu, an ancient East Asian Game dating back over 2,500 years. Today, it is commonly known as Pitch-pot. And it’s a game that may have been played by women since it was invented…

Touhu emerged during the Warring States period in China, likely invented by archers or soldiers. As described by the Metropolitan Museum of Art,

The woman is playing a game in which arrows are shot into a vase with a narrow neck. On the back of the screen a quote from a Tang dynasty (618–907) poet reads:

To the Master, joyous and deeply grateful is
She to serve and to follow, as though two
Suns are illuminating her saints and ancestors

Subtle clues lie in this description. First, the game requires arrows, so it was likely invented by archers or soldiers on campaign seeking entertainment. Second, it requires skill to shoot the arrow through the narrow neck of a vase, so it was very competitive.

Third, women played this game. The woman depicted playing Touhu in the table screen seems to be practicing, given that no one else is depicted with her and the game (as we will see) had at least two players. We can see that she is holding sticks, some of which have already been tossed at the vase (and only one has made it in). She is surrounded by tables and trees, so perhaps she is practicing in a garden. Given that the screen is inscribed with “To the Master,” it was likely given as a gift.

The Met’s database reveals that there is another inscription on the back:

“Rejoicing at the profound grace in keeping me in attendance
I have served two sagacious emperors in succession.”

This is a quote from a Tang-dynasty poem by Shen Quan Qi.

The square seal reads: le’er zhiming (enjoy life and know your destiny)

I’m not really sure what this means, because I’m not a scholar of Chinese history. But from the reading, it appears that perhaps the poet, Shen Quan Qi, is a servant or a teacher to the emperor. Without knowing how these inscriptions appear on the back, it’s speculation that Shen Quan Qi may be a woman, who is giving this screen of a favorite game or pastime to her master, the Emperor. The reality could be very different, so if you happen to be a Chinese scholar or know something more, I’d love to hear from you. Now, back to the game.

Though we can’t tell when women might have entered this game’s sphere, it’s likely that it was fairly early on. Stories from Ancient China feature several female warriors. There was Fu Hao, wife of Emperor Wu Ding (before the Warring States period), whose battlefield exploits were recorded on tortoise shells unearthed at Yinxu. There was also Mao, wife of Emperor Fudeng, an accomplished horsewoman and archer who shot 700 soldiers in one battle before being captured and executed. And many others, so it’s reasonable for us to assume that women were playing this game very early on.

While this screen dates to the 1600s (nearly 2,000 years after the game was first invented), it’s likely very similar to the original game. Touhu is first described in the Book of Rites, which was written during the Warring States and early Han periods to describe the previous dynasty, the Zhou. We might be talking about a game that’s even older, since the Zhou period dates back to 1046 BCE!

How to Play Touhu

According to the Book of Rites, which calls the game “Thau Hu,”

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1. According to the rules for Pitch-pot, the host carries the arrows in both his hands put together; the superintendent of the archery carries in the same way the stand on which the tallies were placed; and an attendant holds in his hand the pot.

2. The host entreats (one of the guests), saying, ‘I have here these crooked arrows, and this pot with its wry mouth; but we beg you to amuse yourself with them.’

Banter is exchanged as the guest states he is too drunk to partake in the game. Eventually, the guest agrees to play and bows twice to signify that he will receive the arrows. The host and guest each go to a platform — one on the left, and one of the right.

4. The superintendent of the archery comes forward, and measures the distance of the pot (from the mats), which should be a space of the length of two and a half arrows. He then returns to his station, sets forth the stand for the tallies, and with his face to the east, takes eight counters and stands up. He asks the guest to pitch, saying, ‘When the arrow goes straight in, it is reckoned an entry. If you throw a second (without waiting for your opponent to pitch), it is not reckoned.’

At this point, the arrows are pitched toward the vase. As stated above, the players must take turns — if one makes it in, he (or she) cannot go until the other has gone. Only the arrow going straight in counts.

But here’s a nice little twist: when one player succeeds, he “gives the vanquished a cup to drink.” Sounds a bit like beer pong!

After this the Book of Rites describes something about setting up “horses” and music, but it’s not very clear what is going on. When the arrows are all used up, they conduct a second round of pitching. The superintendent then counts the tallies and announces the winner. Everyone’s cups are filled and,

Those who have to drink all kneel, and raising their cups with both hands, say, ‘We receive what you give us to drink.’ The victors (also) kneel and say, ‘We beg respectfully to refresh you.’

Once everyone has had a drink, everyone congratulates the victor.

“Playing a tuho game under the forest” from Hyewon pungsokdo by 19th-century Korean painter, Hyewon.

“Playing a tuho game under the forest” from Hyewon pungsokdo by 19th-century Korean painter, Hyewon.

Spread & Popularity

Touhu spread rapidly throughout East Asia. Around 1116 CE, it was popularized by King Yejong in Korea, where it became known as Tuho. Though it diminished in popularity, it flourished again under the Joseon dynasty of the 1500s as a creation of Confucianism. It was even recommended by the scholar Yi Hwang as a way to develop physical health and mental focus. In the image above, we see that Korean women also played Tuho — she is on the far right, holding the arrows.

Today, Tuho is played as part of the Korean New Year’s Day and Chuseok. It’s still played in the same fashion: players throw arrows at a vase from about ten paces away and for every arrow that misses the pot, the loser has to take a drink.

A woman and man play Tuho in Korea.

A woman and man play Tuho in Korea.

So, with Touho, we have an ancient East Asian game likely played by men and women. Since there are quite a few female warriors in Ancient Chinese history (and many more in legends), we can safely assume that women played this game alongside the men. When the game spread to the upper classes and became a courtly game, the chances that women played it increase further. And by the 1600s, as demonstrated in the images above, women were playing it enough to be depicted playing it. As it all games, representation is key to understanding that women have always been players.

© 2018 Tiffany Isselhardt

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