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Hidden Hong Kong: A look into jianzi, the Chinese shuttlecock sport

By Enoch Ngan 5 January 2023

Header images courtesy of Stougard and Janus Bahs Jacquet (via Wikimedia Commons)

Despite being a lesser-known Chinese sport, the game of jianzi (毽子) is definitely recognisable to people in Hong Kong. Who hasn’t seen a group of elderly men kicking around a colourful, feathered shuttlecock in the park, or seen children making an attempt at the game? With countless nicknames under its belt, most people in Asia may have seen or even played this shuttlecock sport themselves at least once in their lifetime.

Although not as popular as other Asian sports, such as table tennis and badminton, the unique sports style of jianzi is a perfect laidback game for groups ranging from two to 10 people. Read on for a look into the history of this ancient Chinese sport.

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“Children playing jianzi” hanging scroll. Photo: Shen Qinglan (via Wikimedia Commons)

A brief history of jianzi

Dating all the way back to the ancient Zhou dynasty of China, the sport of jianzi was mainly played amongst Chinese youth as a creative way to exercise and develop quick reflexes. It is believed that the fundamental gameplay and style were derived from a football-like game named cuju (蹴鞠). Due to the game’s simplicity and ease of play, many children created makeshift shuttlecocks at home, using round pieces of lead or tin with chicken feathers. During the war-torn dynasties of Han and Song from 207 to 906 AD, the popularity of jianzi exploded. Leaders utilised the game to train their troops alongside military exercises.

In 1933, China hosted the first national jianzi competition after the sport’s massive rise in popularity. A 1961 movie about the game went on to win a gold medal at an international film festival, further spreading the word about the sport. In 1984, jianzi was officially recognised as a Chinese national sport, and that same year saw the creation of the Hong Kong-based team, Amateur Union of Shuttlecock. By 1994, the Hong Kong team steadily grew into a reformed union known as the Hong Kong Association of Shuttlecock (HKSA).

Photo: Vaido Otsar (via Wikimedia Commons)

How to play

Considering the long history and enduring appeal of jianzi, the objective of the sport is surprisingly straightforward: keep the shuttlecock afloat with your feet. While it is true that the game requires players to use their feet to keep the shuttlecock afloat, using other body parts, such as your knees and chest, is also allowed. 

However, there are multiple ways of playing jianzi, each with a different end goal and ruleset. Depending on the size of your group or the competitive nature of you and your friends, those who partake in the sport play in either one of three ways.

Artistic: Artistic jianzi can be a beautiful medium of expression to watch, as those with years of experience and developed techniques display their skillset in different moves to embrace the sense of creativity that this game allows. In some cities across Asia, you might come across street performers parading world-class jianzi talent to amused crowds.

Freestyle: The freestyle variation of jianzi is often the most common style played. With the ability to include up to 10 players at a time, this version is inclusive and flexible. Just as how volleyball players gather around a circle for practice, jianzi players usually set an agreed amount of kicks as an objective to reach as they kick the shuttlecock around a group.

Competition: Competitive jianzi requires team coordination while also maintaining a strategic and effective skillset. Similar to other net sports, such as tennis and volleyball, a netted court is essential to determine points and count scores in competitive jianzi. The court used to play jianzi is identical to badminton courts, though, during professional play, the length of the court is lowered to just 11.88 metres. Players are not allowed to touch the shuttlecock with their hands; otherwise, they are issued with a foul.

Photo: Davidzdh (via Wikimedia Commons)

The shuttlecock

Weighing in about 15 grams, the shuttlecock—or featherball—used to play jianzi is not as heavy as your run-of-the-mill yellow tennis ball but not as lightweight as a badminton shuttlecock, either. Ranging around 15 to 18 centimetres in height, four equally lengthed goose or duck feathers are connected to a multilayered plastic base to create a ball.

With a relatively large player base still keeping the sport alive in Hong Kong, multiple sports outlets sell Jianzi shuttlecocks in multiple colours. During competitions, most people prefer pink-coloured shuttlecocks but buying the ball in other colours shouldn’t be an issue. You can buy regular ones at your local sports stores, such as Decathlon or GigaSports.

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Jianzi around the world

Jianzi goes by many names around the world: đá cầu, Federfussball, and plumfoot, to name a few. This feathered sport has seen play in many other foreign countries, with multiple iterations being created in similarity to Jianzi. For example, many foreigners can draw connections to the Western game of “Hacky Sack,” where players kick a small, round bag of pellets around to display skill and dexterity. Below are some excerpts of how Jianzi has spread worldwide in the past centuries

Germany: While on a trip to China in 1984, German engineer Peter von Rüden noticed a group of Chinese elderly playing jianzi in a local park. Captivated by the essence of the sport, von Rüden returned to Germany to popularise jianzi among his European peers.

After departing with his own shuttlecock from China, he presented this game to friends and family members. In hopes of further spreading the appeal of the sport, von Rüden founded FFC Hagen in 1991, the first European shuttlecock club. His hometown of Hagen in Germany even hosted the Shuttlecock World Championships in 2002.

Korea: Jegichagi (제기차기), the Korean shuttlecock game, predates many other Asian versions. It has been passed on for generations despite no physical written record of its ancient origins. Drawing inspiration from the fundamentals of jianzi, jegichagi utilises a leathered ball instead of a traditional shuttlecock to play the social game.

Vietnam: Đá cầu has been present in Vietnam for quite some time, with tournaments dating as far back as the eleventh century. Records from seventeenth-century temples around Vietnam even have inscriptions of đá cầu players enjoying the sport.

In the 1900s, the sport was revitalised through the manufacturing of cheaper đá cầu shuttlecocks and the organising of multiple đá cầu teams and groups. Đá cầu is now practically identical to jianzi, often being referred to as the same sport.

Photo: Stougard (via Wikimedia Commons)

Even if you don’t plan on playing jianzi anytime soon, appreciating the sport as a fundamental building block of ancient Chinese history is crucial to a deeper understanding of Chinese culture. Despite being lesser known compared to other shuttlecock games, jianzi is regarded as one of the forefathers of badminton. Although the sport has yet to break into the world of mainstream Western sports, it has long enjoyed an influential status in Asia. Leverage its simplicity of play and grab a shuttlecock to develop your jianzi skills!

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Enoch Ngan

Writer

Enoch is an Asian-American born in California who studied in Hong Kong when he was younger. While in Hong Kong, he enjoys going on hikes with breathtaking scenery and catching up with old friends and family. If you ever see him around, he always has music playing in the background, whether that be exploring the city or simply relaxing at home.

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