Children's games are always interesting. Chinese games are especially so because they are a mine hitherto unexplored. An eminent archdeacon once wrote: "The Chinese are not much given to athletic exercises." A well-known doctor of divinity states that, "their sports do not require much physical exertion, nor do they often pair off, or choose sides and compete, in order to see who are the best players," while a still more prominent writer tells us that, "active, manly sports are not popular in the South." Let us see whether these opinions are true.

Two years ago a letter from Dr. Luther Gulick, at present connected with the Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, N. Y., came to us while in Peking, asking that we study into the character of Chinese children's games. Dr. Gulick was preparing a series of lectures on the "Psychology of Play." He desired to secure as much reliable information as possible regarding the play-life of the children of the East, in order that he might discover what relation exists between the games of Oriental and those of Occidental children. By so doing he would learn the effect of play on the mental and physical development as well as the character of children, and through them upon the human race as a whole. We were fortunate in having at our disposal a large number of students connected with Peking University, the preparatory, intermediate and primary schools, together with 150 girls in attendance at the girls' high school.

We received the letter at four o'clock, at which time the students had just been dismissed from school, and were taking their afternoon meal, but at 4:30 we went to the playground, notebook in hand, called together some of our most interesting boys, explained to them our object, and asked them to play for us. Some one may say that this was the worst possible thing to do, as it would make the children self-conscious and hence unnatural -- the sequel, however, will show.

At first that was exactly what happened. The children tittered, and looked at each other in blank astonishment, then one of them walked away and several others gathered about us. We repeated our explanation in order to secure their interest, set their minds to work thinking up games, and do away with the embarrassment, and it was only a few minutes before an intelligent expression began to appear in the eyes of some of the boys, and one of them, who was always ready for anything new, turned to his companion and said:

"You go and find Chi, and bring him here." "Who is Chi?" we inquired.

"He is the boy who knows more games than any of the rest of us," he explained.

Away he ran and soon reappeared with a very unpromising looking boy whom we recognized as a street waif that had been taken into what some one called our "raggedy school" a few years before. He was a glum looking boy -- a boy without a smile. There was a set expression on his face which might be interpreted as "life is not worth living," or, which would be an equally legitimate interpretation in the present instance, "these games are of no importance. If you want them we can play any number of them for you, but what will you do with them after you get them?"

All the crowd began at once to explain to Chi what we wanted, and he looked more solemn than ever, then we came to his rescue.

"Chi," we asked, "what kind of games do boys play?"

Slowly and solemnly Chi wound one leg around the other as he answered:

"Lots of them."

This is the stereotyped answer that will come from any Chinaman to almost any question he may be asked about things Chinese. "For instance?" we further inquired.

"Forcing the city gates," he answered.

"Play it for me."

The boys at once appointed captains who chose sides and they formed themselves into two lines facing each other, those of each line taking fast hold of each other's hands. The boys on one side then sang:

     He stuck a feather in his hat,
          And hurried to the town
     And children met him with a horse
          For the gates were broken down.

Then one from the other side ran with all his force, throwing himself upon the hands of the boys who had sung, the object being to "break through," in which case he took the two whose hands had been parted to "his side," while if he failed to break through he had to remain on their side. The others then sang. One from this group tried to break through their line, and thus they alternated until one side or the other was broken up.

The boys were panting and red in the face when the game was over, a strong argument against the Chinese-are- not-much-given-to-vigorous-exercise theory.

"Now play something which does not require so much exercise," we requested.

Every one looked at Chi, not that the other boys did not know the games, but simply because this matter-of-fact boy was their natural leader in this kind of sport.

"Blind man," he said quietly.

At once a handkerchief was tied around the eyes of one of the boys who was willing to be "blind man," and a game corresponding almost exactly to our own "blind man's buff" was played, without the remotest embarrassment, but with as much naturalness as though neither teacher nor spectator was near them.

"Have you any other games which require strength?" we inquired.

"Man-wheel," said Chi in his monosyllabic way.

"Play it, please."

"Go and call Wei-Yuan," to one of the smaller boys.

The boy ran off to find the one indicated, and Chi

selected two other middle-sized and two small boys. When Wei-Yuan, a larger but very good-natured, kindly- dispositioned lad, came, the two middle-sized boys stood beside him, one facing north, the other south, and caught each other's hand over Wei-Yuan's shoulder. The two smaller boys then stood beside these two, each of whom clutched hold of the small boys' girdles, who in turn clutched their girdles and Wei-Yuan took their disengaged hands. Thus the five boys were firmly bound together. The wheel then began to turn, the small boys were gradually lifted from the ground and swung or whirled around in an almost horizontal position.

"This game requires more strength," Chi explained, "than any other small boys' game."

"Have you any games more vigorous than this?"

"Pitching the stone lock, and lifting the stone dumb-bells, but they are for men."

"What is that game you were playing a few days ago in which you used one stick to knock another?"

"One is striking the stick, and another is knocking the stick."

"Play one of them."

Chi drew two lines on the ground eight feet apart, on one of which he put a stick. He then threw another stick at it, the object being to drive it over the other line. He who first succeeds in driving it over the line wins the game. The sticks are ten to fifteen inches long.

Striking the stick is similar to tip-cat which we have often seen played by boys on the streets of New York. The children mark out a square five or six feet on each side. The striker takes a position inside, with his feet spread apart as wide as possible, to give him a better command of the square. One of the others places the block in the position which he supposes will be most difficult for the striker to hit. The latter is then at liberty to twist around on one foot, placing the other outside the square, in order if possible to secure a position from which he can strike to advantage. He then throws a stick about fifteen inches long at the block to drive it out of the square. If he fails, the one who placed the block takes the stick, and another places the block for him. If he succeeds he has the privilege of striking the block three times as follows: He first strikes it perpendicularly, which causes it to bound up two or three feet, when he hits it as one would hit a ball, driving it as far as possible. This he repeats three times, and if he succeeds in driving it the distance agreed upon, which may be 20, 50, 200, 300, 500 or more feet, he wins the game. If not he brings back the block and tries again, continuing to strike until he fails to drive it out of the square. This game develops ingenuity in placing the block and skill, in striking, and is one of the most popular of all boys' games.

When they had finished striking the stick one of the smaller children went over to where Chi was standing and whispered in his ear. The expression of his face remained as unchangeable as that of a stone image, as he called out:

"Select fruit."

The boys danced about in high glee, selected two captains who chose sides, and they all squatted down in two rows twenty feet apart. Each boy was given the name of some kind of fruit, such as apples, pears, peaches, quinces or plums, all of which are common about Peking. The captain on one side then blindfolded one of his boys, while one from the other group arose and stealthily walked over and touched him, returning to his place among his own group and taking as nearly as possible the position he had when the other was blindfolded. In case his companions are uncertain as to whether his position is exactly the same, they all change their position, in order to prevent the one blindfolded from guessing who it was who left his place.

The covering was then removed from his eyes, he went over to the other side, examined carefully if perchance he might discover, from change of position, discomfort in squatting, or a trace of guilt in the face or eyes of any of them, a clue to the guilty party. He "made faces" to try to cause the guilty one to laugh. He gesticulated, grimaced, did everything he could think of, but they looked blank and unconcerned, or all laughed together, allowing no telltale look to appear on their faces. His pantomimes sometimes brought out the guilty one, but in case they did not, his last resort was to risk a guess, and so he made his selection. If he was right he took the boy to his side; if wrong, he stayed on their side. One of their side was then blindfolded, and the whole was repeated until one group or the other lost all its men. The game is popular among girls as well as boys.

"Do you have any other guessing games?" we asked Chi.

"Yes, there is point at the moon or the stars," he answered, "and blind man is also a guessing game."

By this time the boys had become enthusiastic, and had entirely forgotten that they were playing for us or indeed for any purpose. It was a new experience, this having their games taken in a notebook, and each was anxious not only that he play well, but that no mistake be made by any one. The more Chi realized the importance of playing the games properly the more solemn he became, if indeed it were possible to be more solemn than was his normal condition. He now changed to a game of an entirely different character from those already played. Those developed strength, skill or curiosity; this developed quick reaction in the players.

"What shall we play?" inquired one of the boys.

"Queue," answered Chi.

Immediately every boy jerked his queue over his shoulder and began to edge away from his companions. But as he walked away from one he drew near another, and a sudden calling of his name would so surprise him that in turning his head to see who spoke his short queue would be jerked back over his shoulder and he received a dozen slaps from his companions, all of whom were waiting for just such an opportunity. This is the object of the game -- to catch a boy with his queue down his back. Some of the boys, more spry than others, would move away to a distance, and then as though all unconsciously, allow their queue to hang down the back in its natural position, depending upon their fleetness or their agility in getting out of the way or bringing the queue around in front. This game is peculiarly interesting and caused much hilarity. At times even the solemn face of Chi relaxed into a smile.

"Honor," called out Chi, and as in the circus when the ringmaster cracks his whip, everything changed. The boys each hooked the first finger of his right hand with that of his companion and then pulled until their fingers broke apart, when they each uttered the word "Honor." This must not be spoken before they broke apart, but as soon as possible after, and he who was first heard was entitled to an obeisance on the part of the other. Those who failed the first trial sat down, and those who succeeded paired off and pulled once more, and so on until only one was left, who, as in the spelling-bees of our boyhood days, became the hero of the hour.

Chi, however, was not making heroes, or was it that he did not want to hurt the feelings of those who were less agile; at any rate he called out "Hockey," and the boys at once snatched up their short sticks and began playing at a game that is not unlike our American "shinny," a game which is so familiar to every American boy as to make description unnecessary -- the principal difference between this and the American game being that the boys all try to prevent one boy from putting a ball into what they call the big hole, which, like the others, tended to develop quickness of action in the boys.

I was familiar with the fact that there are certain games which tend to develop the parental or protective instinct in children, while certain others develop the combative and destructive, as for instance playing with dolls develops the mother-instinct in girls; tea-parties, the love of society; and paper dolls teach them how to arrange the furniture in their houses; while on the other hand, wrestling, boxing, sparring, battles, and all such amusements if constantly engaged in by boys, tend to make them, if properly guided and instructed, brave and patriotic; but if not properly led, cause them to be quarrelsome, domineering, cruel, coarse and rough, and I wondered if the Chinese boys had any such games.

"Chi," I asked, "do you have any such games as host and guest, or games in which the large boys protect the small ones?"

"Host and guest," said Chi.

The boys at once arranged themselves promiscuously over the playground, and with a few peanuts, or sour dates which they picked up under the date trees, with all the ceremony of their race, they invited the others to dine with them. After playing thus for a moment, Chi called out:

"Roast dog meat."

The children gathered in a group, put the palms of their hands together, squatted in a bunch or ring, and placed their hands together in the centre to represent the pot. The boy on the left of the illustration represents Mrs. Wang, the guest of the occasion, while Chi himself stands on the right with his hand on the head of one of the boys. Chi walked around the ring while he sang:

     Roast, roast, roast dog meat,
     The second pot smells bad,
     The little pot is sweet,
     Come, Mrs. Wang, please,
     And eat dog meat.

He then invited Mrs. Wang to come and partake of a dinner of dog meat with him, and the following conversation ensued.

          I cannot walk.
     I'll hire a cart for you.
          I'm afraid of the bumping.
     I'll hire a sedan chair for you.
          I'm afraid of the jolting.
     I'll hire a donkey for you.
          I'm afraid of falling off.
     I'll carry you.
          I have no clothes.
     I'll borrow some for you.
          I have no hair ornaments.
     I'll make some for you.
          I have no shoes.
     I'll buy some for you.

This conversation may be carried on to any length, according to the fertility of the minds of the children, the excuses of Mrs. Wang at times being very ludicrous. All these, however, being met, the host carries her off on his back to partake of the dainties of a dog meat feast.

"What were you playing a few days ago when all the boys lay in a straight line?"

"Skin the snake."

The boys danced for glee. This was one of their favorite games.

They all stood in line one behind the other. They bent forward, and each put one hand between his legs and thus grasped the disengaged hand of the boy behind him.

Then they began backing. The one in the rear lay down and they backed over astride of him, each lying down as he backed over the one next behind him with the other's head between his legs and his head between the legs of his neighbor, keeping fast hold of hands. They were thus lying in a straight line.

The last one that lay down then got up, and as he walked astride the line raised each one after him until all were up, when they let go hands, stood straight, and the game was finished.

"Have you any other games which develop the protective instinct in boys?" we inquired of Chi.

"The hawk catching the young chicks," said the matter-of-fact boy, answering my question and directing the boys at the same time.

The children selected one of their number to represent the hawk and another the hen, the latter being one of the largest and best natured of the group, and one to whom the small boys naturally looked for protection.

They formed a line with the mother hen in front, each clutching fast hold of the others' clothing, with a large active boy at the end of the line.

The hawk then came to catch the chicks, but the mother hen spread her wings and moved from side to side keeping between the hawk and the brood, while at the same time the line swayed from side to side always in the opposite direction from that in which the hawk was going. Every chick caught by the hawk was taken out of the line until they were all gone.

One of the boys whispered something to Chi.

"Strike the poles," exclaimed the latter.

As soon as they began playing we recognized it as a game we had already seen.

The boys stood about four feet apart, each having a stick four or five feet long which he grasped near the middle. As they repeated the following rhyme in concert they struck alternately the upper and lower ends of the sticks together, occasionally half inverting them and thus striking the upper ends together in an underhand way. They struck once for each accented syllable of the following rhyme, making it a very rhythmical game.

          Strike the stick,
          One you see.
 I'll strike you and you strike me.
          Strike the stick,
          Twice around,
 Strike it hard for a good, big sound.
          Strike it thrice,
          A stick won't hurt.
 The magpie wears a small white shirt.
          Strike again.
          Four for you.
 A camel, a horse, and a Mongol too.
          Strike it five -- 
          Five I said,
 A mushroom grows with dirt on its head.
          Strike it six
          Thus you do,
 Six good horsemen caught Liu Hsiu.
          Strike it seven
          For 'tis said
 A pheasant's coat is green and red.
          Strike it eight,
          Strike it right,
 A gourd on the house-top blossoms white.
          Strike again,
          Strike it nine,
 We'll have some soup, some meat and wine.
          Strike it ten,
          Then you stop,
 A small, white blossom on an onion top.

Chi did not wait for further suggestion from any one, but called out:

"Throw cash."

The boys all ran to an adjoining wall, each took a cash from his purse or pocket, and pressing it against the wall, let it drop. The one whose cash rolled farthest away took it up and threw it against the wall in such a way as to make it bound back as far as possible.

Each did this in turn. The one whose cash bounded farthest, then took it up, and with his foot on the place whence he had taken it, he pitched or threw it in turn at each of the others. Those he hit he took up. When he missed one, all who remained took up their cash and struck the wall again, going through the same process as before. The one who wins is the one who takes up most cash.

This seemed to call to mind another pitching game, for Chi said once more in his old military way:

"Pitch brickbats."

The boys drew two lines fifteen feet apart. Each took a piece of brick, and, standing on one line pitched to see who could come nearest to the other.

The one farthest from the line set up his brick on the line and the one nearest, standing on the opposite line, pitched at it, the object being to knock it over.

If he failed he set up his brick and the other pitched at it.

If he succeeded, he next pitched it near the other, hopped over and kicked his brick against that of his companion, knocking it over. Then he carried it successively on his head, on each shoulder, on back and breast (walking), in the bend of his thigh and the bend of his knee (hopping), and between his legs (shuffling), each time dropping it on the other brick and knocking it over.

Finally he marked a square enclosing the brick, eighteen inches each side, and hopped back and forth over both square and brick ten times which constituted him winner of the game.

Chi had become so expert in pitching and dropping the brick as to be able to play the game without an error. The shuffling and hopping often caused much merriment.

"What is that game," we inquired of Chi, "the boys on the street play with two marbles?"

Without directly answering my question Chi turned to the boys and said:

"Kick the marbles."

The boys soon produced from somewhere, -- Chinese boys can always produce anything from anywhere, -- two marbles an inch and a half in diameter. Chi put one on the ground, and with the toe of his shoe upon it, gave it a shove. Then placing the other, he shoved it in the same way, the object being to hit the first.

There are two ways in which one may win. The first boy says to the second, kick this marble north (south, east or west) of the other at one kick. If he succeeds he wins, if he fails the other wins.

If he puts it north as ordered, he may kick again to hit the other ball, in which case he wins again. If he hits the ball and goes north, as ordered, at one kick, he wins double.

Each boy tries to leave the balls in as difficult a position as possible for his successor; and here comes in a peculiarity which leaves this game unique among the games of the world. If the position in which the balls are left is too difficult for the other to play he may refuse to kick and the first is compelled to play his own difficult game -- or like Haman -- to hang on his own gallows. It recognizes the Chinese golden rule of not doing to others what you would not have them do to you.

The boys spent a long time playing this game -- indeed they seemed to forget they were playing for us, and we were finally compelled to call them off.

Chi had turned the marbles over to the others as soon as he had fairly started it, and stood in that peculiar fashion of his with one leg wound around the other, and when we called to them, he simply said as though it were the next part of the same game:

"Kick the shoes."

The boys all took off their shoes -- an easy matter for an Oriental -- and piled them in a heap. At a given sign they all kicked the pile scattering the shoes in every direction, and each snatched up, and, for the time, kept what he got. Those who were very agile got their own shoes, or a pair which would fit them, while those who were slow only secured a single shoe, and that either too large or too small. It was amusing to see a large-footed boy with a small shoe, and a boy with small feet having a shoe or shoes much too large for him.

The game was a good test of the boys' agility.

On consulting our watch we found it would soon be time for the boys to enter school, but asked them to play one more game.

"Cat catching mice," said Chi.

The children selected one of their company to represent the cat and another the mouse.

The remainder formed a ring with the mouse inside and the cat outside, and while the ring revolved, the following conversation took place:

     "What o'clock is it?"
          "Just struck nine."
"Is the mouse at home?" "He's about to dine."
All the time the mouse was careful to keep as far as possible from the cat.

The ring stopped revolving and the cat popped in at this side and the mouse out at the other. It is one of the rules of the game that the cat must follow exactly in the footsteps of the mouse. They wound in and out of the ring for some time but at last the mouse was caught and "eaten," the eating process being the amusing part of the game. It is impossible to describe it as every "cat" does it differently, and one of the virtues of a cat is to be a good eater.

The boys continued to play until the bell rang for the evening session. They referred to many different games which they had received from Europeans, but played only those which Chi had learned upon the street before he entered school. This was repeated day after day, until we had gathered a large collection of their most common, and consequently their best, games, the number of which was an indication of the richness of the play life of Chinese boys.

Another peculiarly interesting fact was the leadership of Chi. The Chinese boy, like the Chinese man is a genuine democrat and is ready to follow the one who knows what he is about and is competent to take the lead, with little regard to social position. It is the civil service idea of a genuine democracy ingrained in childhood.

back to the table of contents