Jianzi – the ancient Chinese game copied by hacky sack


There is nothing new under the sun’ as the old biblical saying goes. Someone comes up with what they think is a great new concept and then they discover that it has all been done before.  That doesn’t always stop them from cashing in.

jianzi illustrationIn the early 1970s two Americans came up with a ‘new’ game which they called Hacky-Sack; they formed a company, trademarked the game and the little sacks/balls they manufactured with which to play it.  They subsequently sold ‘their’ game for a shed-load of money.

But truth to tell, Hacky-Sack is no more, no less, than the ancient game that has been played here in China for millenia – Jianzi (sometimes called Ti Jianzi).

KickaShuttleCock The only difference being that the Jianzi which gives its name to the game is a feathered, weighted shuttlecock, whereas a Hacky-Sack is a small weighted pouchy bag.  I am irritated by articles in the US media which refer to ‘Jianzi – The Chinese Hacky-Sack’ when what they should say is ‘Hacky-Sack – the American Jianzi’.jianzi illustration 2

Jianzi originated in China at least 2000 years ago during the Han Dynasty and was, and still is, played by young and old alike.  By the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) Jianzi shops had become commonplace in China, you no longer had to make your own shuttlecock, mind Jianzi 1you they are not exactly difficult to produce and there are lots of websites which will tell you how to do just that.

Here is a picture of my very own one which cost all of 35p! Since my strokes in 2010 I have difficulty standing/walking on two legs, let-alone balancing on one leg whilst the other kicks the feathery jianzi, so it is destined to just be another thing on my bookshelf gathering dust – alas!

Jianzi is played by kicking the shuttlecock to keep it from touching the ground, a player must only touch it with their feet or legs – hands are not involved.

It can be played by a single person, two, three or more people.  There are many variations of play.

jianzi3Much of the time it is just a knock-about with friends but in recent years a more formal, structured game with a governing body, fixed rules, competions, local teams, tournaments etc has emerged,  and this is gaining popularity too. Needless to say, money is involved in this development!

We live in a tower block of apartments, however the tower blocks on either side all contain offices so I often look down at the communal gardens and see groups of young white-collar jianziworkers jackets off, sleeves rolled-up, having a game of Jianzi during their lunch break.

In the early mornings here in China you see many elderly and middle-aged people in the public parks; they do Tai Chi, sword play, or fan dancing and ball-room dancing,  but many of them just play Jianzi on their own as it is excellent aerobic exercise.

It is well known that the Chinese invented gunpowder, fireworks, compasses, paper, umbrellas, moveable type for printing etc etc – but the pundits writing about Chinese inventions never mention Jianzi/hacky sack – so I decided I should redress the balance!

About herschelian

Started my 60s by moving to China with my DH. Surprised to find I am still here in Beijing eight years later - still finding it an adventure!
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12 Responses to Jianzi – the ancient Chinese game copied by hacky sack

  1. Jennie says:

    Another wonderful, informative and beautiful illustrated article! I can’ tell you how much I enjoy these!

  2. Chris says:

    Well done! I brought one home with me to show students here in the States. It’s not so easy to do and is great exercise. I’ll have to drag mine out and take it to the next church picnic. Thanks for the reminder.

  3. Thank you. I had seen these when I was in China this year but even our tour guide, who was Chinese didn’t enlighten us. Maybe this is too old-hat to him. I think these are excellent exercise tools. 🙂

  4. Jianzi is the perfect little exercise. It’s fun and lightweight. You can play alone or with friends, for a few minutes or an hour. It’s a good cardio exercise and good for for balance and flexibility. When we lived in the Philippines, I saw kids playing it all the time. Lets CUT the Crap is probably right: a Chinese tour guide would think it’s too old-hat to mention.

  5. Kit says:

    Very interesting – I’ve never come across hacky sack either, so both are new to me. I’ve just been reading 1434 by Gavin Menzies and am discovering exactly how much the Chinese did first! I don’t think it is at all well known in Europe that the Chinese brought to Italy a whole lot of knowledge that sparked the Italian Renaissance and that Leonardo was just elaborating on technology learned from them. Seems we hate adjusting popular ideas of history to fit facts.

  6. alexparr2015 says:

    Very interesting, thank you! I just read about Jianzi and other asian sports (http://mytefl.net/blog/teach-abroad-9-sports-to-discover-while-teaching/ ) and was looking at where to find them, then came across your article.

    From their appearance, so bright and colorful, I never expected they’d have such a long history. Thought they’d be a recent invention.

  7. Great article about Jianzi history !

    If you want more videos about Jianzi juste have a look here : http://www.dacau.fr/category/blog

    in france we call Jianzi “Dacau” or “Plumfoot” !

  8. wernicke85 says:

    You are irritated easily, or you don’t understand sentence syntax. When American’s talk about Jianzi they are using hacky sack as a frame of reference. In sentence syntax you have a word, followed by a comma, then the modifier. In this case “Jianzi, the Chinese hacky-sack” using a well known American version of the sport as a reference to define the word. To most Americans they were first exposed to hacky-sack, so they use something that is already defined to modify the word. Also, while hacky-sack is very similar to Jianzi they are also different as the movements. With hacky-sack, you can be more intricate due to the fact that the sack does not need to gain height to flip. Experts can toss the sack much lower allowing for quicker, shorter and different movements. Thanks for being like most Chinese and claiming that the Chinese way is the first way and the best way…

    • herschelian says:

      Hello wernike85; Your response to my post seemed somewhat patronising.
      Firstly I should tell you I am NOT Chinese, I am a middle-aged Scottish woman who has been living in China for a few years. You think I am easily irritated or that I don’t understand sentence syntax because of what I wrote in this blog post.
      I wrote it out of a sense of frustration because I overheard two American tourists watching people play Jianzi and saying to one another “Oh look, the Chinese have tried to copy Hacky Sack”.
      At the time it was the final straw.

      Over the years, in the UK and here in China, I have heard comments from Americans who seem to think that they invented/initiated everything. For example I have heard young Americans claiming that the USA invented the World Wide Web (Sir Tim Berners Lee – British); it seems to be a particularly American thing that their citizens think that everything good/modern was invented by people in the USA.
      Scotland alone (a small country) is responsible for the invention of TV (John Logie Baird), tyres (John Boyd Dunlop), hypodermic syringes (Alexander Wood), MRI scans (University of Aberdeen), bread toaster (Alan MacMaster) {I am particularly grateful to him for this !}, Fingerprinting (Henry Faulds),
      flush toilets (Alexander Cumming), Decimal points (John Napier), Video game ‘Grand Theft Auto’ (DMA Designs – David Jones of Edinburgh) and so on and so forth…
      On visits to the USA I have had conversations with parents and children who are SURE that Roald Dahl (the fantastic author of many childrens’ books) is an American; many Americans think Walt Disney wrote the stories his company turned into movies – and have never heard of Hans Christian Andersen or the Brothers Grimm.
      I don’t think that China and the Chinese invented everything first, but I do think that Americans should acknowledge how many things they take for granted were not American inventions, but invented elsewhere.

    • samueal says:

      that was really unnecessary

  9. Jennie says:

    Go Hershelian!

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