Top 11 Most Famous Traditional Chinese Games and Outdoor Activities

Top 11 Most Famous Traditional Chinese Games and Outdoor Activities

During ancient times, Chinese children didn't have smartphones, iPads, or computers to entertain themselves. Instead, they grew up with traditional games, sports, and activities. Today, despite technological advancement in China, people still keep their outdoor, traditional Chinese games alive.

In this article, we'll introduce you to the top 11 most popular traditional Chinese games—most of which are still widely loved in modern-day life. 

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毽子 (jiàn zi) Shuttlecock

Jianzi player

A person playing jiàn zi, Wikimedia

According to Chinese legends, jiàn zi originated from 蹴鞠 (cuju), an ancient game from the Han dynasty that has been around for over 2,000 years. These traditional Chinese toys are pretty simple, with only one rule: keep the shuttlecock in the air without using your hands. Players mainly try to kick as many as possible, not to drop the shuttlecock. Over the years, various techniques have been developed, from simple kicking to acrobatic heading to powerful overhead kicks. Besides being played in the schoolyard, the shuttlecock is also very popular among senior citizens to keep their limbs active

The two elderly having fun kicking shuttlecock around

In China, this traditional Chinese game usually has two main forms: two kickers or two teams playing against each other, like soccer, or in a group of 5 to 10 people circling and kicking the shuttlecock. Shuttlecock has also evolved into a formal traditional Chinese sport. Jiàn Qiu, the competitive, government-run version of jiàn zi, is played on a rectangular court divided by net-like badminton but with kicks instead of rackets.

抖空竹 (dǒu kōng zhú) Chinese yo-yo

Diabolo Chinese yoyo in Ueno Koen

A person playing Chinese yoyo, Wikimedia

The Chinese Yo-yo dǒu kōng zhú, also known as diabolo, is an hourglass-shaped toy made of wood or bamboo with a string connected to two hand sticks. The players get the diabolo to balance and rotate by alternating the hand sticks up and down. Highly skilled players can toss the yo-yo up in the air and catch it on the strings or manipulate the strings into patterns while keeping the yo-yo spinning

Tricks on the dǒu kōng zhú (the Chinese yo-yo), Kuma Films

Playing diabolo is a fun folk game especially popular in North China. Playing diabolo has evolved into a part of Chinese traditional acrobatics through many changes. This traditional Chinese toy was listed as a National Cultural Heritage in 2006. Diabolo is also played in performances, especially those including acrobatics. The most famous acrobatic troupe, Cirque Du Soleil, performs Chinese yo-yos in several shows.

跳皮筋 (tiào pí jīn) Chinese jump rope


Chinese jump rope demonstration, WikiHow

When you visit China, you'll easily find Chinese parks full of people, both young and old, from dawn to dusk, engaging in many sports, leisure activities, and traditional Chinese outdoor games. One of these activities is 跳皮筋, which literally translates to jumping rubber band and is one of the favorites, as it involves movements and engagement to keep them active and entertained.

The Chinese jump rope features a giant stretched-out rubber band. Unlike the Western jump rope, this game aims to hook your legs into the rope in a specific order to create loops and patterns in a certain sequence. The rope is raised as each level is completed, making the patterns more difficult. A rhyme or song often accompanies this game

Kids playing Chinese jump rope—跳皮筋 (tiào pí jīn)

放风筝 (fang fēng zhēng) Flying kites

Chinese kite festival

Chinese kite festival, China Discovery

The Chinese kite is both a traditional folk handicraft and a traditional toy for children around 700 – 476 BC. They were originally designed by the philosopher Mo Zi (or Mao Tse) as a military technology to spy on the enemy's situation from the air. 

During the Tang dynasty (618 – 900 CE), kites became a traditional art. Kites are made and flown in the pleasant spring weather, making them a symbol of health and prosperity even today. 

Kite flying was declared an official sport in 1991. Regular kite-flying competitions are held annually in several cities across China. On April 20 – 25 each year, the annual Weifang International Kite Festival is held in this “Kite City” in Shandong Province

Annual kite festival in the eastern province of Shandong in 2021, SCMP Clips

During this, the top ten out of thousands of participants from China and abroad compete with beautiful and colorful kites in all forms and sizes.

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蝈蝈 (guō guō) Grasshopper 

Chinese crickets as pets

Grasshopper in wooden/bamboo cage, Wikimedia

Guō guō is not a game; it is often seen as a toy for young children. As the vibrant green crickets are believed to symbolize good luck and are famous for their “singing.”

Chinese children often find them and keep them in whimsical containers. Some containers are even specifically designed to amplify these tunes. During the summer months, you can easily find them in many markets in China.

乒乓 (pīng pāng) Ping pong

Ding Ning-min

Professional Chinese ping pong: Ding Ning-min

Though Ping Pong is not a Chinese invention, it's one of China's most-played recreational sports, with over 300 million players. This activity is available in almost every schoolyard and is easy to purchase and set up. 

Chinese school kids playing ping pong

You don't need to build or pave a court. Ping-pong tables are lightweight and can be folded up to save room. 

羽毛球 (yǔ máo qiǔ) Badminton

playing badminton

Kid playing badminton

Badminton is very popular among Chinese kids and is another relatively cheap sport. It is played without a net in many schoolyards, with rules similar to hacky sack. The game aims to prevent the badminton birdie or shuttlecock from touching the ground.

Besides ping pong, the Chinese have also dominated badminton at major international competitions.

皮影戏 (pí yǐng xì) Chinese shadow puppetry 

Chinese paper puppet

An elderly man holding up one Chinese shadow paper puppet, China Culture

Chinese shadow puppetry, also known as shadow play, originated in the Han dynasty (202 BC – 220 AD). During ancient times, shadow play was the closest thing to watching a film or television for entertainment.

Shadow puppetry includes two-dimensional figures (made of paper, cotton, leather, and other materials) placed behind a screen back, then a thin white cloth. A light source produces shadows on this screen, and the folk artists will then manipulate the figures to tell a story through movements, often accompanied by sung narrations

Behind the scenes of Chinese traditional culture shadow play, Jim Tate

During the Tang (618 – 907), Song (960 – 1279), and Qing (1644 – 1912) dynasties, the shadow play art reached its peak and was staged in most major events. Shadowplay was recognized as a National Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2006 and added to the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list in 2011.

抓拐 (zhuā guǎi) Knuckle bones

Chinese traditional knuckle bone game

Knucklebones for a game, Mid-autumn Chinese Ancient Festival

Knuckle Bones is one of the most popular traditional Chinese games. This game is very similar to “jacks” in Western culture. 拐 (guǎi) refers to a piece of bone, usually from a sheep or pig's thigh joint. Children often save them from dinner.

Like jacks, a ball or small beanbag is tossed up while playing. Although the rules differ, one of the main goals is to “turn” all four bones right side up before catching the beanbag.

This activity was popular among young ladies in ancient times to improve their finger nimbleness. The more nimble their fingers, the better at the loom and embroidery they would be.

斗蛐蛐 (dòu qū qū) Cricket battling

Though this particular game may offend some animal lovers, it's quite popular in many rural areas in China. The players will put crickets in an enclosed “arena” (usually a clear bowl or box). Then, they will agitate their crickets by prodding their antenna with a stick, causing them to become aggressive. The crickets are forced to fight until one flees, stops chirping, is thrown out of the ring, or is eaten by the other.

Background information for cricket battling, South China Morning Post

Many adults also participate in cricket battling; some even grow crickets specifically for fighting. The cricket battling season occurs between August and September, as these insects rarely live through the fall season.

象棋 (xiàngqí) Chinese chess

Xiangqi or Chinese Chess Board

Xiàngqí board layout, Wikimedia

Xiangqi, also known as Chinese chess, is a strategic board game played between two players on a square board divided into compartments.

Like chess, the objective is to capture the opponent's general while protecting your own. Each player has an army of different pieces, including Generals, Advisors, Elephants, Horses, Chariots, Cannons, and Soldiers, each with its movement and abilities.

Quick and concise explanation of Chinese Chess, Triple S Games

The game involves attacking, defending, and strategically positioning your pieces to control the board. It is a popular and deeply rooted traditional game in Chinese culture, enjoyed by players of all ages.

Frequently asked questions

What traditional games do Chinese people play?

  1. 毽子 (jiàn zi) Shuttlecock

  2. 抖空竹 (dǒu kōng zhú) Chinese yo-yo

  3. 跳皮筋 (tiào pí jīn) Chinese jump rope

  4. 放风筝 (fang fēng zhēng) Flying kites

  5. 蝈蝈 (guō guō) Grasshopper

  6. 乒乓 (pīng pāng) Ping pong

  7. 羽毛球 (yǔ máo qiǔ) Badminton

  8. 皮影戏 (pí yǐng xì) Chinese shadow puppetry

  9. 抓拐 (zhuā guǎi) Knuckle bones

  10. 斗蛐蛐 (dòu qū qū) Cricket battling

  11. 象棋 (xiàngqí) Chinese Chess

What games do children in China play?

Here are the top 4 games Chinese children play:

  1. Chinese kites 放风筝 (fang fēng zhēng)

  2. Chinese jump rope 跳皮筋 (tiào pí jīn)

  3. Shuttlecock 毽子 (jiàn zi

  4. Chinese yoyo 抖空竹 (dǒu kōng zhú

What are some traditional Chinese outdoor games?

  1. 毽子 (jiàn zi) Shuttlecock

  2. 抖空竹 (dǒu kōng zhú) Chinese yo-yo

  3. 跳皮筋 (tiào pí jīn) Chinese jump rope

  4. 放风筝 (fang fēng zhēng) Flying kites

Are Chinese Checkers Chinese?

While Chinese checkers do have a Chinese name called 中國跳棋, they do not originate from China. It was invented in Germany in 1892. Its original name is called Sternhalma.

In closing

These games provide a glimpse into the cultural heritage and recreational pursuits of the past. As technology advances, these traditional games serve as a reminder of the enduring value of outdoor play and cultural traditions in Chinese society.

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