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Beijing Scene, Volume 5, Issue 14, June 25 - July 1

Fun & Games
Hey Ayi,
Are Chinese kids taught to play mah-jongg and chess from an early age or are there any toys to stop them from turning into tube boobs?

Ma Yo-yo

Dear Yo-yo,
We have never forced our progeny to take up geriatric’s games or ballroom dancing. In ancient China, the children of the rich got to play with expensive fighting crickets and exotic birds while poor kids had to put up with herding buffalo. Flying kites was an equalizer, appealing to both rich and poor.

Today sidewalk shuttlecocks are used in badminton, but they were originally part of a kicking game. Like kite flying, kicking shuttlecocks was a seasonal game played in the first few months of winter. The traditional shuttlecock was a ball made from eight to twenty layers of shark skin, with two outer layers of snake skin crowned by three duck feathers. Players stood in a circle, kicking the shuttlecock from one to another, trying to keep it in the air for as long as possible. Whoever let the shuttlecock fall to the ground would have to drop out. A good player could send the shuttlecock up to 20 or 30 feet in the air and keep it going for hundreds of strokes.

In the 1950s and early 60s, sparrows became the victim of a boys’ game invented by Chairman Mao. In a campaign against the "four pests" he ordered all good citizens to kill sparrows, rats, bedbugs and lice. Slingshots were used in the battle against counterrevolutionary sparrows. Even now, when I pass the food stalls in Wangfujing Street, the smell of the frying birds makes me recall the revolutionary days when they could not twitter in peace.

Compared to the boys, girls took part in less violent pastimes. They collected sugar packages, cleaned out the sugar and flattened them. The girl owning the most beautiful sugar packages was the princess among her friends. There was also competition for dyed sheep bones. It was so difficult to collect a set of colored bones that those who did enjoyed great honor.

Back in school, ordinary handkerchiefs were an interesting enough diversion from lessons. Children sat clapping in a circle, singing the handkerchief song, while one ran around outside and threw the hanky behind someone’s back before running away to avoid being caught. When caught, that kid had to give some kind of performance like singing, dancing or reciting poems. The game would then continue with the person chosen from the ring having to walk around outside it and repeat the whole process.

On the way home from playing at school, there were more games like "pull-out-old-root" - tugging at poplar stems to see who was stronger. Boys also played with the most expensive and valuable toys, colorful glass marbles. Even though they were often punished by their parents for not doing their homework before rushing out to play with the lovely balls, they squatted over with their wounded rears pointed at the sun until darkness covered the ground and the lamplights shone.

During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), school lessons were reduced and few parents and teachers cared about the constant gameplaying of their offspring. Toys weren't made by parents, nor bought from stores where few items of such frivolity were sold. At that time makeshift iron hoops and steel bars with a guiding "v" were good for passing time. You used the v-head of the bar to push the circle, the faster and steadier you ran, the better it would go, just a little like dribbling at basketball. To make a perfect circle needed knowledge: about the size of the circle, the length of the bar and their proportion to your height. They would have forced you to do this kind of stuff at school anyway but somehow that made it much more boring. Here, if your calculations were out, you would lose the game, much less desirable than losing face with your teacher. With this toy, you could also keep busy all along the long march home.

Patting cigarette boxes was another favorite with boys. After folding the cigarette box into a triangle or square, then putting it on the ground, you had to fan it with your hand to make it flip over. The winner would get the boxes of the other players, providing essential training in gambling. A type of cigarette box bearing the wishes for "red double happiness" in Chinese characters was very valuable because the cigarettes were imported from south Asia and their packages were gorgeous and scarce. To get hold of such a precious box involved keeping a careful eye on the neighborhood smokers. "Have you finish your cigarette, uncle?" became an irritating refrain.

Girls were easier to please with what I believe was called Chinese elastic in younger countries. Jumping elastic stretched between two girls or chairs allowed others to jump up and down and across the elastic bands, doing tricks and singing songs all the while. Girls also played hopscotch and threw "earth-bags," cloth bags filled with fine sand. Players stood about 10 meters apart, throwing the sandbag at a girl between them. I like to think of it as the original paintball. Things became pretty wild when there were over 10 participants. They also competed for the most beautiful sandbags, showing off their brilliant skills, unlike today’s girls who know all about computers but are mostly useless when it comes to handwork.

Very few children had cloth dolls and owning one was every girl’s dream. But if you wanted to hug and kiss someone else’s, you’d have to save your sugars to exchange with its owner.

In the 1980s toy counters appeared in department stores to the delight of children curious about the small colorful planes and cars with batteries that could drive in circles. The toy counter became a place of heartache for kids with low-salaried parents incapable of joining the consumerism. Since it was not so easy to get the expensive but attractive toys, children sought out simpler things. Rubik’s Cubes became an obsession. Later adults also got involved, with people queueing to buy the ¥1 toy. The "magic square" (Chinese name for Rubik’s Cube) had nine faces with six colors on each face. To get to the ideal form first, some kids took apart the magic square and fixed it to show the correct color on each face, then joined them together again.

Today big-city kids have dozens of toys including the ultimate dream: crying and smiling dolls which may be preferable to snivelling siblings. With the increase in the quality of life, adults are able to pay for their one child’s favorite toy, from the Barbie doll and the electric chicken, to the ¥10,000 computer. These kids have lost interest in making their own toys and entertainment and are more likely to leave this type of activity to their grandfathers flying kites off bridges instead.

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