Tock, tock, tock; everyone who has been to or is living in Burma knows this hollow clicking sound characteristic for a small ball when kicked in what is arguably Burma’s most popular ball game and played here since 1.500 years: Chinlone. It is played with a ball that has a diameter of roughly 6 inches/14 centimetres and 12 pentagonal holes.
Wein-kat is the team version of chinlone and the solo version played by women only is called tapandaing. Chinlone, which means cane ball in Burmese, is played with just that: a woven cane/rattan ball, and has its roots in tzu chu also called cuju an ancient Chinese game.
A team of six players passes the light wicker ball back and forth between them with their feet, knees, shoulders and heads as they move around a circle. One player goes into the centre to take the solo part, creating a dance of various moves strung seamless together. The soloist is supported by the other players who try to pass the ball back to him with one kick. There also has to be a high level of harmony amongst the player in order to avoid that they obstruct each other. When the ball drops to the ground it is dead and the game has to start again.
It is a football game played throughout the world varying only slightly. In Singapore and Indonesia similar games are called sipa, in Thailand takraw, in Malaysia sepak raga, in Vietnam da cau, in Laos kator and in Japan kemari; South American stylistic relatives are batey and pok-ta-pok, just to give you a few examples.
It is played by young and old, predominantly men but also women at virtually any time and everywhere in the country. It is a sport of harmony and unity and integral part of all pagoda festivals. Every year in Tabodwe (February) when the Mahamuni Pagoda Festival in Mandalay is celebrated hundreds of chinlone teams from all over the country meet here at their largest festival to perform chinlone at its finest.
Basically any surface that is dry and flat is suitable for chinlone but the most ideal one is a circle with 22 feet/6.7 metres diameter made of dry and highly compressed earth. This gives a hard yet elastic and soft chinlone court.
At the pagoda festival in Mandalay traditional Burmese Orchestras’ live music is ‘setting the tone’ for both the players style and rhythm while moderators entertain the onlookers with funny comments and call out the names of the chinlone players’ moves. These moves and ways of kicking the rattan ball – some 200 of these moves have developed over time – are a mixture of movements of Burmese dance and martial art; quite a large number of them being downright artistic. The most difficult of them are executed behind the player’s back where he cannot see the ball he has to kick. To master these kicks requires numerous hours of hard training.
Precise performance of chinlone kicks and correct body postures are all-important. To every move is a clearly defined correct way to position the upper body, head, hands, arms and legs and correct play allows six points of contact of the body with the ball, namely the ‘chay pya’ (tip of the toes), the ‘chay myet’ and ‘chay pha myet’ (outer and inner sides of the feet), the ‘chay pha naunt’ (heels), the ‘chay phawa’ (soles) and the ‘du’ (knees). However, to stop the high-flying ball and place it on the foot also the ‘pakon’ (shoulders), the ‘mai ci’ (chin) and the ‘yin bat’ (chest) are used.
Chinlone being a basically non-competitive ball game is played within one team, is highly demanding and requires fullest concentration on part of each of the players. They must with and without playing the ball stay extremely focused throughout the game; a state of mind called jhana. Here it is not about winning over or losing to a competing team but about grace and aesthetics. The objective of the game is to keep the cane ball in the air by passing it with one elegant kick from one player to the other within a team of six players that is positioned in a ring. Thus, a chinlone game is judged by the style and grace in which a team is performing.
There is also a competitive relative of chinlone that is played by two opposing teams over a net. This game is called sepak takraw and it originated in Malaysia where it was developed in the 1940s. But in Burma this game of direct competition in which one team wins and the other loses is not as popular as chinlone.
Chinlone or similar games are played in many countries but I think it is no exaggeration to say that there is hardly any country in which a level of extraordinary playing skills like that in Burma is reached.