Recreation and Leisure Activities

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Recreation and Leisure Activities


Kites. Known as “paper birds,” Chinese kites began to appear in the fifth century B.C.E. They were made of frames of thin pieces of wood or bamboo that were bound together and coated with brilliantly painted paper. In the sixth century C.E. besieged cities flew kites to send military signals for help. Some people flew kites in order to draw fevers out of patients, believing that kites had healing powers. Li Ye flew a kite in the tenth century C.E. and attached a piece of bamboo to it with a silk ribbon. The vibration of the wind on the ribbon made a whistling sound, and kites thereafter were called fengzheng (aeolian harps). Kites of various types of shapes and colors were made; the most popular shapes were human and mythical figures, flowers, birds, fish, worms, bats, dragonflies, and others. Kites were divided into two types, according to the method they were made. The frame of a “soft wing” kite could be disassem-bled so that it could be put in a box. A “hard wing” kite was made with the body, head, and wings in one piece and was covered with thick paper or silk fabric so that it could fly in strong winds. The city of Weifang in Shandong became a well-known center of kite making and flying in Ming times (1368-1644).

Popular Board Game. Weiqi or go was first played in India about four thousand years ago. In the Tang era (618-907) the modern form of the game began to appear. Weiqi was played on a square board with 19 horizontal and 19 vertical lines dividing it into 361 small squares. It was played by only two players, one having 180 white markers

or “stones” and the other having 181 black ones. The black player went first. The goal of the game was to place enough stones on the board to occupy more squares than the opponent. Weiqi is still a popular recreation in China today.

Mahjong. The game mahjong became popular in Ming times and is played by four people using dice and 136 tiles. The aim of this game is to gain a perfect hand: 4 sets of 3 tiles each and an identical pair, called mahjong. The Chinese word majiang literally stands for “house sparrow,” because when the players are shuffling the tiles, they create a bird-like sound. Mahjong came from a card game named ma tiao, which was based on tarot cards and transmitted to China from Europe in the sixteenth century. Although the rules of mahjong were complicated and difficult to follow, both men and women in every social class enjoyed playing it.

Playing Cards. Playing cards were made from thick, hard papers and ornamented with numbers and pictures and used to play various games. The Chinese were the first to invent paper playing cards as early as in the ninth century. The Song scholar Ouyang Xiu later claimed that the use of paper playing cards resulted in the change of book design from paper rolls to paper sheets and pages. Playing cards were printed with woodcut blocks and frequently colored by hand. The cards were usually two inches long and one inch wide. Made of thick paper, more durable than those of today but harder to shuffle. The ordinary designs for the backs were drawn of fictional

characters by famous artists. Designs often depicted figures from the famous Chinese book, Shuihuzhuan (The Water Margin), a collection of stories and plays of the Northern Song dynasty (960-1125). This form of entertainment spread to Europe from China through Arab merchants and travelers such as Marco Polo. Playing cards did not appear in Europe until 1377, when the Germans and Spanish began to use them.

Lion Dance. By the Song dynasty (960-1279) the lion dance had been developed. Initially, soldiers used the dance to frighten enemy horses and elephants on the battlefield. During the Ming dynasty lion dances became common after vil-lagers in Guangdong province performed them to scare away wild animals. Lion dances were performed at such festivals as the New Year celebration. One lion dancer acted as the lion’s body and was covered with long, yellow fur while another dancer in the front held the costumed head. Both dancers per-formed gymnastic actions to the sounds of loud drums and gongs. Sometimes they could climb up on a big ball and roll it with their feet.

Martial Arts. Martial arts originated from early farming tools and hunting techniques. During the Tang dynasty the imperial court created a program of choosing military officials through martial arts examinations and contests. In the Song period the central administration set up regulations for open competitions, and during the Ming era the government organized contests to promote the expansion of the martial arts. Meanwhile, a diversity of martial arts techniques contributed to the development of different schools. Schools of South China, known as nanquan, stressed hand techniques, whereas schools in North China accentuated kicking. When the “soft” technique, named taijiquan, began to develop, martial arts started to shift from physical battles to concerns with enhancing health and longevity.

Supreme Pole Boxing. Taijiquan stands for “Supreme Pole Boxing.” Tai represents “supreme,” while// implies “polarity” in the sense of yin and yang. Quan signifies the fist and is translated as boxing or fighting. During the Ming dynasty Chen Wangtin, a famous martial arts master and army general who lived in Henan Province in central China, developed taijiquan by bringing together the traditional techniques of boxing and deep natural breathing. Taijiquan was a slow, curving movement of the arms, head, torso, and legs, calling for harmonization of all sections of the body and attention of the mind. These graceful movements adopted artistic gestures used in Chinese operas and acrobatics. The soft and yielding quality of this exercise, a form of spiritual meditation, helped a person gain strength. Ming people began to practice taijiquan because this movement was useful in improving the performance of the body’s circulatory, respiratory, and metabolic systems.


Scott Morton, China: Its History and Culture (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1995).

Dorothy Perkins, Encyclopedia of China: The Essential Reference to China, Its History and Culture (New York: Facts on File, 1999).

Colin A Ronan, The Shorter Science and Civilization in China: An Abridgement of Joseph Needhams Original Text (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978).