Mind over rattan | In a meld of meditation and footvolley, the Burmese excel

Rawat Parbchompoo of Thailand contends with Aung Cho Myint of Myanmar, in foreground, at the Asian Games in Doha. Thailand defeated Myanmar in this men’s doubles final of sepak takraw, two sets to nil (21–17, 21–15), on 13 Dec 06. (© 2006 DAGOC)

Doha, Qatar | In the family tree of football variants, cuju begat chinlone begat sepak raga begat sepak takraw. While this genealogy may be speculative—less formalized and less freighted than that in the first chapter of Matthew—the importance is that the stylized kickball game of imperial China has found expression in the modern era.

Previously we have discussed chinlone (see 20 Apr 06), or “cane ball,” the noncompetitive, hacky-sack-like juggling of a rattan ball in a circle of peers. Practitioner Greg Hamilton, director of the critically lauded documentary Mystic Ball, describes the Burmese game in an interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. as a fusion of sport, dance and meditation.

The Irrawaddy magazine, produced in Thailand by expatriate Burmese, features chinlone in its January issue (Geoffrey Walton, “It’s Only a Game“), reflecting on the success of Burmese athletes at the recent Asian Games in Qatar. Athletes from Myanmar won two silver and three bronze medals in the sepak takraw competition in Doha. A blend of the Malay and Thai words for “kick” and “ball,” sepak takraw is the competitive, footvolley permutation of chinlone, although an earlier version, called sepak raga, was played in the Malay Peninsula, also with a ball of rattan.

Solo and team chinlone master Su Su Hlaing “supports her family through her performances which has enabled her to send her younger sisters and brother to school and university,” says the Mystic Ball website.

Sir James George Scott, credited with bringing association football to Burma (see our review of Andrew Marshall‘s book The Trouser People), comments in a chapter of his book The Burman: His Life and Notions (1910) on native games such as chinlone and gonnyinto, a sort of full-contact jumping contest.

Curiously enough, taking gônnyinto for mere childishness, most foreigners look upon “Burmese football” as a game. This is certainly not the case in so far as a “game” is a striving between one or more competitors for supremacy. There are of course different degrees of proficiency, but one man cannot be pitted directly against another to see who is the better player, as you do with two lawn tennis or racket players. Primarily chinlôn, as it is called, is simply designed to exercise the body, to restore elasticity to the back and limbs cramped by sitting, reading, or writing, or even by playing chess or gônnyinto. The ball is composed of wicker-work, strips of rattan interwoven in bands so as to leave a number of pentagonal holes, and is about four inches, or a little less, in diameter. It is extremely light, and the object is to keep the ball as long as possible in the air without touching it with the hands. Thus a single individual may play it all by himself, or there may be a circle of players who catch the ball as it comes round their way, keep it up as long as they can, until an ill-judged stroke sends it away from them to somebody else, who proceeds in a similar manner.

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