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.

The Irrawaddy quotes the Scott selection, adding that nothing much has changed in Burma related to choices in recreation. “[G]roups of players can be seen in the back streets of Rangoon and dusty rural villages punting the wickerwork ball about for the fun of it.”

Hamilton pursues chinlone, seeking the spiritual benefit, rather than the volleyball-type scoring of sepak takraw. The latter has been a competitive sport at least since the 1965 Southeast Asian Games. Its promoters envision a promising future. At the website of the 15th Asian Games word comes of an “international offensive” to petition for inclusion in the Olympics. Its lure comes from the mesmerizing acrobatics—players executing bicycle kicks and landing back on their feet—and, organizers say, from the multiracial appeal across Asia.

Abdul Halim Bin Kader, secretary-general of the International Sepaktakraw Federation, sounds like the minds at FIFA. “We are also going to introduce a new ball, a new-generation ball, that will be an improvement on the 100 percent synthetic product currently in use, and this will be used for the first time in the first Asian Beach Games in 2008.”


Thailand Sepak Takraw Association president Chareuk Arirajkaran has been helping to drive the sport’s global reach, impressing upon others the game’s appeal on television. “[I]t is an event filled with motion,” he says. Arirajkaran has targeted Africa as a zone that he must persuade to help persuade Olympic organizers of the sport’s worth (Edward Thangarajah, “Sepak Takraw Looks for Recognition,” Bangkok Post, 4 Feb 07).

I plan to send them sepak takraw balls, nets, plus other equipment, along with videotapes to show them how to play sepak takraw. If they pick up the sport, then I am sure, it will spread like wildfire in the African continent. I have already spoken to some of their leaders.

About the Author

John Turnbull founded The Global Game in 2003. He was lead editor for The Global Game: Writers on Soccer (University of Nebraska Press, 2008) and has also written on soccer for Afriche e Orienti (Bologna, Italy), the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the New York Times Goal blog, Soccer and Society, So Foot (Paris) and When Saturday Comes. His essay "Alone in the Woods: The Literary Landscape of Soccer's 'Last Defender' " in World Literature Today was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Also for World Literature Today he edited a special section on women's soccer, "World Cup/World Lit 2011," before the Women's World Cup in Germany. The section appeared in the May-June issue. His next project is a book on soccer and faith.

Comments (2)

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  1. [...] But soccer is not the only sport in which players use their feet in beautiful and incredibly skillful ways. Two other sports, Sepak Takraw and Kemari, take the skill of juggling to new heights. Recent posts on The Offside and The Global Game have discussed Separk Takraw, which is essentially soccer volleyball (don’t miss the video on The Offside site). [...]

  2. Sepak Takraw says:

    We recently launched the new website for the UK Takraw Association. We also cover related games chinlone, football/soccer, cuju, circle takraw etc.

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