Polo makes a comeback, 1,800 years after China's first chukka

The children of the rich are swapping golf for a more active game
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The Independent Online

Polo's coming home. After a rude interruption because of the Cultural Revolution, the second-generation of China's New Rich have taken up long-handled mallets and embraced a sport that symbolises the nation's search for global prestige.

For many years the despised pastime of the capitalist running dogs, polo is now the sport of choice for rich young Chinese. While the first generation of wealthy Chinese are sticking to their golf clubs, their offspring are opting for something more physically challenging, with the kudos a sport beloved of English princes and Argentine grandees can bring.

"We call Polo a 'gentleman's sport'," said Xia Yang, the manager of the Beijing Sunny Times Polo Club, one of several that have sprung up around China. "Since we don't have a nobility in China, we can train ourselves to become gentlemen."

All manner of theories have been put forward to explain where polo came from. The Chinese say the game first arrived in China 1,800 years ago from Persia, and that the word "Polo" comes from "Pulu," the Tibetan word for ball. Already on the wane, it died out completely during the Cultural Revolution.

Being one of eight riders chasing a small ball around a large field is not an obvious lifestyle choice. For many players, though, the deciding factor is vanity. It's an exclusive, rich-man's sport in a society where wealth is becoming more important.

This kind of high-end tradition does not get introduced overnight. The polo shirt has caused a sensation in the Chinese fashion world as a sign of affluence and influence, but for those eager to wield true power, playing the horseback sport itself is a badge of having arrived.

Chinese polo fans are quick to point out that the game is the real sport of kings, not horse racing, but because of stables and breeding issues, they are cousins.

Mr Xia started a horse racing business but a ban on gambling in China meant that it was going nowhere. "Then I saw on CCTV [a state broadcaster] that Prince Charles plays polo, and this inspired me. Polo would be a perfect way to grow my business," he said. "Polo is not an unattainable sport. Polo is a kind of health and fashion sport. It needs you to be brave enough, and needs you have a very good personality."

The Sunny Times Polo club has 30 members, almost all of them successful people in one field or another. "We play together to practise our skills, and this playing together has already became one social platform, where you can know people in a special way, make friends with the same interests, and have more chances to create social relations inside this group."

The sport is popular not just in the capital. The Tianjin Goldin Metropolitan Polo Club and Hotel opened earlier this month in China's fifth-largest city and has two international-sized polo fields and stable facilities for 150 horses. China's largest polo club, its opening game was a four-chukka match with professional players from England, Australia and New Zealand, as well as fans from across the country and abroad.

"Chinese people thrive on novelty and relish the intensity of competition and the thrill of intense sports," said Englishman Paul Stevens, who runs the club. "Golf has been around for quite a while now and has become somewhat passé. Polo is poised to become the new and improved golf."

He believes the two most important things for Chinese people are family and money, and polo is tied to both. "We offer an environment where families can meet and mingle in safe and secure surroundings, where we can introduce new aspects and components of high society lifestyle and where they can meet and be introduced to a new class of business mogul, far beyond that which would be accessible in a mere dining or other sporting club," he said.

Tianjin is 92 miles from Beijing, but is now just a half hour away by bullet train and the polo club is hoping to capitalise on this proximity to lure Beijing's elite. "An equestrian sport fits with a new generation of Chinese seeking to appear global," said Mr Stevens. "Polo is good exercise. For those who can't abide going to the gym, polo offers a total body workout combined with the thrill of the game and competition."

The game is not for the financially faint-hearted. At the Tianjin club, membership is reportedly priced from 380,000 yuan (£36,000 ) for social members, rising to 10 million yuan for patrons who own their own teams.

Polo is the main focus, but the Metropolitan Club also adds other accessories for high-class living: fine dining, bespoke spa treatments and vintage wines.

Liu Shilai, one of China's few internationally recognised polo players, set up the Tangren Polo and Equestrian Club in Beijing two months ago, and is hoping to sign up 20 members in the next three years paying fees of one million yuan each. "Polo attracts me, for it is one of the most difficult sports, with its combination of wisdom, courage, team co-operation and trust, the complex of sports, luxury and noble spirit," Mr Liu said.

Rachel Wyatt is the general manager of Shanghai's Nine Dragons Hill Polo Club, a job she combines with being assistant secretary general of the China Horse Industry Association. She is a passionate rider and keen polo player with 15 years experience, having arrived in China with ball bags and polo sticks five years ago but found nowhere to practice her sport.

"Polo in China has experienced dramatic growth in recent years, especially this year, because several new Polo clubs opened in 2010. I'm so happy to see this, although it always reminds me of how tough it was for me and my husband when we started to initiate this sport in China in 2005," she said.

"There was supposed to be a performance in Xi'an about Tang Dynasty ladies playing polo, but unfortunately when I contacted them, that performance was cancelled. But this kind of thing inspired me that there would be a potential market to enrol people in polo games in China," she said.