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Chinlone, Burma’s Most Popular Sport
Knock, knock, knock; Everyone who has been to or lives in Burma knows this characteristic hollow clicking sound of a small ball when kicked in what is arguably the most popular ball game in Burma and played here for 1,500 years – Chinlone. It is played with a ball that has a diameter of approximately 6 inches/14 centimeters and 12 pentagonal holes.
Wein-kat is the team version of chinlone and the solo version played only by women is called tapandaing. Chinlone, meaning cane ball in Burmese, is played with just that: a woven cane/wicker ball, and has its roots in tzu chu also called cuju, an ancient Chinese game.
A team of six players pass the lightweight wicker ball back and forth between them on their feet, knees, shoulders and heads as they move around a circle. One player goes to the center to do the solo part, creating a dance of several movements chained together seamlessly. The soloist is supported by the other players who try to return the ball with a kick. There also has to be a high level of harmony between the player to prevent them from obstructing each other. When the ball falls to the ground it is dead and the game has to start again.
It is a football game that is played all over 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 some examples.
It is performed by young and old, predominantly men but also women at virtually any time and in all parts of the country. It is a sport of harmony and unity and an integral part of all pagoda festivals. Every year in Tabodwe (February), when the Mahamuni Pagoda Festival is held in Mandalay, hundreds of chinlone teams from all over the country gather here for their biggest festival to perform chinlone to the fullest.
Basically, any surface that is dry and flat is suitable for chinlone, but the most ideal is a circle of 6.7 meters in diameter made of dry, highly compacted soil. This gives a hard but springy and soft chinlone track.
At the Mandalay Pagoda Festival, live music from traditional Burmese orchestras is “setting the tone” for both the style and rhythm of the players, while moderators entertain spectators with funny commentary and call out the names of the moves of the chinlone players. These movements and ways of kicking the rattan ball – about 200 of these movements have been developed over time – are a mixture of Burmese dance and martial art movements; quite a large number of them are downright artistic. The most difficult of them are executed behind the player’s back where he cannot see the ball he has to kick. Mastering these kicks requires many hours of hard training.
Accurate performance of chinlone kicks and correct body postures are very important. For each move there 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, ‘pakon’ (shoulders), ‘mai ci’ (chin) and ‘yin bat’ (chest) are also used to stop the high-flying ball and place it on the foot.
Chinlone is a basically non-competitive ball game that is played within a team, it is very demanding and requires maximum concentration from each of the players. They must with and without playing the ball remain extremely focused throughout the game; a state of mind called jhana. This is not about winning or losing against a competing team but about grace and aesthetics. The object of the game is to keep the cane in the air by gracefully kicking it from one player to another within a team of six players who are placed in a hoop. Thus, a chinlone game is judged by the style and grace in which a team is playing.
There is also a competitive relative of chinlone played by two opposing teams over a net. This game is called sepak takraw and 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 where such an extraordinary level of playing skill is reached as in Burma.
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