Rekindling China’s polo passion

This article was published on 8th of June 2018, China Daily.

When the sport of polo is mentioned, the first country that comes to mind is usually Argentina, which is internationally recognized as being home to the world’s finest ponies and players.

If pushed to name another country with which the sport is associated, most people would probably suggest the United Kingdom, where, for many years, the sport has been a favorite among members of the royal family.

China is unlikely to be high on many people’s lists, but it should be because the game’s earliest roots are found there. And if Duncan Qiu has his way, the regal sport could regain its throne in the country where it started.

Qiu fell in love with polo while attending school in the UK, and has now set up a team in an effort to promote the game and help China rediscover this lost piece of its sporting history.

The Kylin team is named after a mythical Chinese beast, and incorporates the best personnel, knowledge and facilities from China, Great Britain and Argentina – the three flags that feature on the team’s shirts.

Backed by the Fosun investment group, the Kylin team now has a permanent base at Burningfold Polo Club, deep in the heart of the Surrey countryside, about an hour’s drive south of London.

Qiu hopes he can put down roots for a project with the long-term aim of taking polo back to the land where it started.

“As a country, China has one of the longest historical traditions anywhere in the world, and polo is part of that, but somewhere along the way maybe one of the dynasties focused on something else, and we lost it,” he said.

“China also has two of the three oldest breeds of horse in the world, the Mongolian and the Akhal-Teke, but again we’ve lost our way a bit.

“Now, Britain and Argentina have the best breeding systems and technology, and this country is where I learned the sport, so I want to share that with other people, and hopefully take polo back.”

For those who are unfamiliar with polo, it is played on horseback between two teams of four riders, with the aim of hitting a small ball into the goal at either end of a pitch, using long-handed mallets.

The game requires expert horsemanship, stamina and accuracy, and is divided into four periods of seven minutes, known as chukkas.

There is a three-minute break between each chukka, and at the extended half-time break, spectators are invited onto the pitch to tread down the divots in the turf.

Qiu said he is proud of the game’s Chinese roots and he makes a point of highlighting them in the way the Kylin team dresses – wearing face masks, for both practical and cultural reasons.

“Polo represents passion and the culture of nation, and our team does that by wearing masks,” he said.

“The ancient warrior Gao Changgong, the prince of Lanling, was the first to ride into battle wearing a mask to scare his opponents, and then Chinese soldiers adopted them to protect their eyes from arrows. We wear the masks as a sign of our culture, but also because polo can be a very physical game.

“People get injured, particularly around the face and eyes, and it’s amazing that, in so many years, no one has thought to do something like that to protect players’ faces. When I read how Chinese warriors wore masks, I thought we should too.”

The team’s efforts to fly the Chinese flag in the UK and in the world of polo have already been recognized by significant figures in China.

Jin Xu, minister counselor at the Chinese embassy in London, was at a recent game, and the Kylin team is being supported by investment company Fosun International, which said the time is right to promote polo, a sport that fits in perfectly with the mood of contemporary China.

The point of our investment into Kylin is because of its cultural value,” said Cindy Xin, Fosun’s project manager for the team.

“China is getting economically stronger than before, so awareness of all aspects of Chinese culture is raised too, and Chinese people have more confidence than before in their culture.

“We can stand in front of the world and be proud. Most people don’t know polo originated in China, so this is a great time to tell them that.

“Kylin is a great international mix. Team leader Duncan is Chinese, the captain, Martin Roman, is from Argentina, and the other two team members are from the UK.

“Polo is a popular sport in the UK but it’s forgotten in China, so it’s a great chance for us to rediscover this lost part of our culture. Now the team has a base here at Burningfold, we hope we can help make polo more well known.”

By chance, Kylin’s first game at their new Burningfold home was against their landlords. It ended in a 10-3 loss, but the score failed to put a dampener on the day enjoyed by a crowd of around 1,000 spectators, or the welcome given the team by Tony Samuels, vice-chairman of Surrey County Council, who attended the match.

“I think it’s absolutely wonderful that people from China want to come here to our beautiful county and be part of it, so I really welcome them here,” Samuels said.

“To have a Chinese presence established here in Surrey like this, through the Kylin team, is great news, culturally and for business.

“We already have very successful basketball and ice hockey teams playing nearby in Guildford, which is where the University of Surrey is based, and we’re going to try and attract more students from China there.

“Because of Brexit, we’re going to be doing a lot more business with China, so anything that strengthens those connections and attracts Chinese people here to Surrey can only be a good thing.”

Kylin’s opening game may have ended in defeat, but the crowd enjoyed a day out in glorious weather at a stunning country location – and as far as Qiu is concerned, that made the day a success.

“Although I want to reintroduce the game to China, this isn’t just about China – I want to establish the game for younger players everywhere,” he said.

“You can’t just rely on people being brought into the game by their parents. I want to make polo a game for all young people. At the moment, I’d say, in terms of development, out of 10 steps, football, tennis and basketball are on the seventh or eighth step, but polo is only on the second or third one, so there’s still a long way to go.

“But I’m confident we can make the game more professional. If we do that, then more people will start to think about it.”

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