During ancient times, Chinese children didn’t have smartphones, iPads, or computers to entertain themselves. Instead, they grew up with traditional games, sports, and activities. Today, despite the level of technological advancement in China, people still keep their outdoor, traditional Chinese games alive.
In this article, we’ll introduce you to the top 10 most popular traditional Chinese games – most of which are still widely loved in modern-day life.
毽子 (jiàn zi) Shuttlecock
According to Chinese legends, jiàn zi originated from 蹴鞠 (cuju), an ancient game from the Han dynasty, so it has been around for over 2,000 years. This traditional game itself is pretty simple, with only one rule: keep the shuttlecock in the air without using the hands. Players mainly try to kick as many as possible not to drop the shuttlecock. Over the years, various techniques have been developed, from simple kicking to acrobatic heading to powerful overhead kicks. Besides being played in the schoolyard, the shuttlecock is also very popular among senior citizens to keep their limbs active.
Chinese children playing shuttlecock
In China, this game usually has two main forms: two kickers or two teams playing against each other, like soccer, or in a group of 5 to 10 people circling and kicking the shuttlecock. Shuttlecock has also evolved into a formal Chinese sport. Jiàn Qiu, the competitive, government-run version of jiàn zi, is played on a rectangular court divided by net–like badminton, but with kicks instead of rackets.
抖空竹 (dǒu kōng zhú) Chinese yo-yo
The Chinese Yo-yo dǒu kōng zhú, also known as diabolo, is an hourglass-shaped toy made of wood or bamboo with a string connected to two hand sticks. The players get the diabolo to balance and rotate by alternating the hand sticks up and down. Highly skilled players can toss the yo-yo up in the air and catch it on the strings or manipulate the strings into patterns while keeping the yo-yo spinning.
Playing diabolo is a fun folk game and is especially popular in North China. Playing diabolo has evolved into a part of Chinese traditional acrobatics through many changes. This traditional game was listed as a National Cultural Heritage in 2006. Diabolo is also played in performances, especially those including acrobatics. The most famous acrobatic troupe, Cirque Du Soleil, performs Chinese yo-yos in several shows.
跳皮筋 (tiào pí jīn) Chinese jump rope
When you visit China, you’ll easily find Chinese parks full of people, both young and old, from dawn to dusk, engaging in many sports and leisure activities. And jumping rope is one of the favorites as it involves movements and engagement to keep them active and entertained.
The Chinese jump rope features a giant stretched-out rubber band. Unlike the Western jump rope, the goal of this game is to hook your legs into the rope in a specific order to create loops and patterns in a certain sequence. The rope is raised as each level is completed, making the patterns more difficult. This game is often accompanied by a rhyme or song.
放风筝 (fang fēng zhēng) Flying kites
The Chinese kite is both a traditional folk handicraft and a traditional toy for children around 700 – 476 BC. They were originally designed by the philosopher Mo Zi (or Mao Tse) as a military technology to spy on the enemy’s situation from the air.
During the Tang dynasty (618 – 900 CE), kites became a traditional art. Kites are made and flown in the pleasant weather of spring, making them a symbol of health and prosperity even today.
Kite flying was declared an official sport in 1991. Regular kite-flying competitions are held annually in several cities across China. On April 20 – 25 each year, the annual Weifang International Kite Festival is held in this “Kite City” in Shandong Province. During which, the top ten out of thousands of participants from China and abroad compete with beautiful and colorful kites in all forms and sizes.
蝈蝈 (guō guō) Grasshopper
Guō guō is not a game, it is often seen as a toy for young children. As the vibrant green crickets are believed to symbolize good luck and are famous for their “singing,” Chinese children often find them and keep them in whimsical containers. Some containers are even specifically designed to amplify these tunes. During the summer months, you can easily find them at many markets in China.
乒乓 (pīng pāng) Ping pong
Though Ping Pong is not a Chinese invention, it’s one of China’s most-played recreational sports with over 300 million players. This activity is available in almost every schoolyard and fairly easy to purchase and set up. You don’t need to build or pave a court. Ping pong tables are lightweight and can be folded up to save room.
羽毛球 (yǔ máo qiǔ) Badminton
Badminton is very popular among Chinese kids, and it’s another relatively cheap sport. It is played without a net in many schoolyards, with rules similar to hacky sack. The game’s goal is to prevent the badminton birdie from touching the ground. Besides ping pong, the Chinese have also dominated badminton at major international competitions.
皮影戏 (Pí yǐng xì) Chinese shadow puppetry
Chinese shadow puppetry, also known as shadow play, originated in the Han dynasty (202 BC – 220 AD). During ancient times, shadow play was the closest thing to watching a film or television for entertainment. Shadow puppetry includes two-dimensional figures (made of paper, cotton, leather, and other materials) placed behind a screen back, then a thin white cloth. A light source produces shadows on this screen, and the folk artists will then manipulate the figures to tell a story through movements, often accompanied by sung narrations.
During the Tang (618 – 907), Song (960 – 1279), and Qing (1644 – 1912) dynasties, the shadow play art reached its peak and was staged in most major events. Shadow play was recognized as a National Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2006 and added to the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list in 2011.
抓拐 (zhuā guǎi) Knuckle bones
Knuckle bones is one of the most popular traditional Chinese games. This game is very similar to “jacks” in Western culture. 拐 (guǎi) refers to a piece of bone, usually from a sheep or pig’s thigh joint. Children often save them from dinner. Like jacks, a ball or small beanbag is tossed up while playing. Although the rules differ, one of the main goals is to “turn” all four bones right side up before catching the beanbag.
This activity was popular among young ladies in ancient times to improve their finger nimbleness. The more nimble their fingers, the better at the loom and embroidery they would be.
斗蛐蛐 (dòu qū qū) Cricket battling
Though this particular game may offend some animal lovers, it’s quite popular in many rural areas in China. The players will put crickets in an enclosed “arena” (usually a clear bowl or box). Then, they will agitate their crickets by prodding their antenna with a stick, causing them to become aggressive. The crickets are forced to fight until one of them flees, stops chirping, is thrown out of the ring, or is eaten by the other.
Many adults also participate in cricket battling, and some even grow crickets specifically for fighting. The cricket battling season takes place between August and September, as these insects rarely live through the fall season.
Which of these traditional Chinese games is your favorite? Let us know by sharing a comment!
If you’re interested in Chinese life, culture, or history, subscribe to the Pandanese blog to find more posts like this! Pandanese is a Mandarin Chinese learning platform that helps users master the language by employing mnemonics and Spaced Repetition System (SRS). Sign up for Pandanese for more helpful learning ideas, inspiration, and tips to add to your Chinese learning journey!
The easiest way to learn Chinese
Learn more than 6,000 hanzi and vocabulary in a single year.