Chinlone is the traditional sport of Myanmar (Burma). Chinlone is a combination of sport and dance, a team sport with no opposing team. In essence chinlone is non-competitive, yet it’s as demanding as the most competitive ball games. The focus is not on winning or losing, but how beautifully one plays the game.
A team of six players pass the ball back and forth with their feet and knees as they walk around a circle. One player goes into the center to solo, creating a dance of various moves strung together. The soloist is supported by the other players who try to pass the ball back with one kick. When the ball drops to the ground it’s dead, and the play starts again.
Chinlone means “cane-ball” in Burmese. The ball is woven from rattan, and makes a distinctive clicking sound when kicked that is part of the aesthetic of the game. Players use six points of contact with the ball: the top of the toes, the inner and outer sides of the foot, the sole, the heel, and the knee. The game is played barefoot or in chinlone shoes that allow the players to feel the ball and the ground as directly as possible. The typical playing circle is 6.7 meters (22 feet) in diameter. The ideal playing surface is dry, hard packed dirt, but almost any flat surface will do.
Chinlone is over 1,500 years old and was once played for Myanmar royalty. Over the centuries, players have developed more than 200 different ways of kicking the ball. Many of the moves are similar to those of Myanmar dance and martial art. Some of the most difficult strokes are done behind the back without seeing the ball as it is kicked. Form is all important in chinlone, there is a correct way to position the hands, arms, torso, and head during the moves. A move is considered to have been done well only if the form is good.
Myanmar is a predominately Buddhist country, and chinlone games are a featured part of the many Buddhist festivals that take place during the year. The largest of these festivals goes on for more than a month with up to a thousand teams. An announcer calls out the names of the moves and entertains the audience with clever wordplay. Live music from a traditional orchestra inspires the players and shapes the style and rhythm of their play. The players play in time to the music and the musicians accent the kicks.
Both men and women play chinlone, often on the same team. Adults and children can play on the same team, and it’s not unusual to see elders in their 80’s playing.
In addition to the team style of chinlone, which is called “wein kat” or circle kick, there is also a solo performance style called “tapandaing”. This solo style is only performed by women.
To play chinlone well, the whole team must be absolutely in the moment – their minds cannot wander or the ball will drop. All serious players experience an intensely focused state of mind, similar to that achieved in Zen meditation, which they refer to as jhana.
Chinlone is one of a family of football games played throughout the world. It is related to similar games in Southeast Asia known as takraw in Thailand, sepak raga in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, sipa in the Philippines, kator in Laos and da cau in Vietnam. A competitive variation of the game played over a net, called sepak takraw was developed in Malaysia in the 1940’s. The origins of chinlone may be related to the ancient Chinese game of cuju or tsu chu, which is acknowledged by FIFA as being the oldest form of soccer. A similar game is also played in Japan where it is known as kemari. Chinlone is also related to the family of sports played by kicking a shuttlecock, know as jianzi in China and Taiwan, and jegichagi in Korea. And there is some evidence to suggest that a variation of these games traveled across the Bering Straits and influenced Native Americans, who also played a variety of games keeping a ball up with the feet. These games are thought to be the origin of footbag, also known as hacky sack.
However, nowhere in the world has the level of extraordinary foot skills and dexterity been combined with artistic expression and spirituality as in the Myanmar game of chinlone.