New cultural space needed for sustaining traditional folk games

By By Lin Jifu / 05-22-2015 / (Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Virtually lost


Skyscrapers now loom tall,
Where once the playgrounds stood.
Their long shadow covers all,
In every urban neighborhood.
Today, kids have new ways,
To spend their time.
They while away the hours online.
Rarely do they go outside,
To play games like chase,
Or to seek and hide.
In the modern world,
Things change so fast.
We lose sight of traditions,
From the past.
The games that once brought folks together,
Are in danger of being lost forever.
People interact in virtual space,
No longer talking face to face.
We need to bring the old ways back,
And rebuild the connections that we lack.


(Cartoon by Gou Ben; Poem by Long Yuan)


Traditional folk games are group cultural activities that are popular among common people and based on their life experience. Though they are only popular among certain groups and some games are not complicated at all, they reflect people’s wisdom and ideas.

Folk games evolve with the times and develop into regional variants. By examining the history of folk games, one can understand the living conditions and spirit of people in different times and places. Folk games are the most direct and vital expression of a nation’s spirit.

All games are associated with memories of happy times and one’s hometown. From kite-flying, swing-playing, hide-and-seek and cricket fighting to an eagle catching chicks and tug-of-war, almost everyone in China can name many folk games. These games originated from and became popular among common people.

They have become an important source of happiness for people and live on in the public memory. However, some folk games have disappeared over the course of history, and many others are declining due to various reasons.

First, during the process of urbanization, high-rise buildings have replaced traditional courtyard dwellings, which provided children space to play with neighbors, and now people are becoming more indifferent to each other.

Changes in environment confine children to their own homes and a small space for playing alone. Playgrounds for traditional folk games have disappeared with urbanization and transformation of old cities. Those places that enabled children to be close to and play in nature are now replaced by virtual electronic space on the Internet or cellphones.

Second, the fun in folk games comes not only from the process of playing but also from making toys or tools for playing. In the past, children’s toys mostly used materials from nature and daily life, such as stone, wood, bamboo, mud, paper, rope, iron wire and other materials that are easily obtainable. Children could get fun from almost anything they found in nature and daily life.

What’s more, parents usually made toys with children together. But nowadays, with social and economic development, factory-made toys have replaced those made of natural materials, and children are deprived of the imagination and creativity involved in making toys. For example, when mud is replaced by plastic and models, the creativity and fun of playing is reduced.

Third, with the development of technology, many new games have emerged, such as online games, changing the mode of traditional folk games, which required people to be face to face. These games in the virtual world can be said to be a revolution in games. They have not only changed the space and mode of games, but also created many new varieties of games that have profoundly influenced people’s attitudes toward life and their lifestyles.

Traditional folk games should change with the times. Some traditional games have disappeared, and this is the natural law of cultural development. But still for some others, in addition to recording, we can try to preserve them through various methods and ways, and to reveal their value.

We should find those elements in traditional folk games with positive power and popularize them by applying them to people’s lives. We should also develop an industry for traditional folk games to bring about more economic and social benefits and to enhance the influence of traditional Chinese culture.

In fact, many traditional folk games have innovated in terms of content while retaining their original characteristics. For example, poker and mahjong have different rules in different regions. These different rules are well received by local people, and this is just the principle for innovation and development of traditional folk games.


Lin Jifu is from the School of Literature, Journalism and Communication at Minzu University of China.