Toys in ancient China

By LIU JIANG / 06-10-2020 / (Chinese Social Sciences Today)

A mahoraga in the collection of the Shenzhen Wangye Museum Photo: FILE


Toys can be good company for a child. From the past to the present, various types of toys have emerged, some of which are still enjoyed around the world, while others have gradually disappeared. Nevertheless, toys not familiar to people nowadays may have been the favorites of children in the past.


Turtledove carts
The turtledove cart, originating from the Han Dynasty, resembles a big bird carrying a smaller bird. There are two wheels on each side of the big bird and a hole in the bird’s breast to tie a string into. The cart in the Six Dynasties period (220–589) resembled a big bird carrying two small birds sitting one behind the other, with a small wheel behind the big bird’s tail making the cart more stable.

Archaeologists have discovered and unearthed many real turtledove carts, many of which are made of bronze and ceramics. The cart’s widespread use spanning from the Han Dynasty to the Xi (Western) Jin suggests that the toy was very popular during these periods. When playing with this toy, a child needs to use a string threaded through the small hole in the dove’s breast, pulling the dove cart forward. If the string is pulled hard, the tail of the cart will be lifted. If pulled gently, the tail will always be close to the ground. The turtledove cart imitated various forms of flying and walking depending on the way it was used.

In the minds of ancient people, the turtledove was a type of magical bird. The legend goes that this bird could not choke, so in the Han Dynasty, the elderly over 70 years old would be given turtledove sticks.

In the Book of the Later Han by Fan Ye (398–445), the turtledove symbolizes filial duty. In the Zuozhuan by Zuo Qiuming (556–451 BCE) parents’ deep love for their children is also reflected in the image of the turtledove. This is the reason why the ancients created the turtledove cart as a toy resembling a big bird carrying smaller birds. They hoped that children might understand the virtues of respecting the elderly and caring about the young through playing with it. After the Sui and Tang Dynasties, the turtledove cart was not as popular but still existed as a metaphor for any children’s game.


A Song Dynasty Barbie doll
The Eastern Capital: A Dream of Splendor (Dongjingmeng Hualu) by Meng Yuanlao (1090–1150) describes in detail the prosperous society and life of Bianliang (now Kaifeng) in the Song Dynasty. There is one passage remarking that “people on all streets and in every alleyway are selling mahoraga.” These fashionable mahoraga were a favorite national toy during this period.

The mahoraga, also known as móhéluó or móhóuluó, deriving from Sanskrit, is a clay toy. The Eastern Capital depicts how this beautifully decorated and valuable clay toy was passionately adored by the public and the imperial establishment.

People were mostly enthusiastic about mahoraga up until the Southern Song period (1127–1279). When portraying the society of the Southern Song, Wulin Jiushi (Ancient Matters from the Wulin Garden) by Zhou Mi (1232–1298) reveals that mahoraga were used as a tribute to the imperial court. Furthermore, people used ivory, bergamot and gold instead of clay as materials to manufacture mahoraga and decorated them with jade clothing, pearl hairpins and bracelets, before placing them in five-color hollowed-out golden screen cupboards. They became very precious objects.

Some other historical records portray a lively representation of mahoraga. The advanced mahoraga was not just a simple clay doll, but contained within it a gear to make the doll move. This type of clay doll not only looked vivid, but could also frown and smile and salute with folded hands in order to attract people to become intoxicated. This moving toy, decorated with clothing and jewelry, was similar in a way to the Barbie doll.

Scholars hold different opinions on the derivation of the mahoraga. Some think that is the symbol of the god Shiva. Some others argue that it has roots in the mahoraga, a god with a snake’s head and a human body of the eight races of Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils in Buddhist sutras.


A ritual model cart
The portrayal and topic of “When Confucius met Lao-tzu” is common in Han Dynasty stone reliefs, portraying Confucius humbly asking Laozi for advice. There is always a child with them in the relief. The child is Xiang Tuo. It is said that Confucius once acknowledged him as his teacher in his travels. To show that Xiang Tuo is only a seven-year-old child, the relief shows a long-handled toy cart in his hand. This cart is known as a pu cart.

The pu cart, also known as the pu wheel, is a vehicle with bulrush-wrapped wheels. It is used as a vehicle for the Fengshan sacrifice rites (a religious ritual conducted by China’s ancient emperors) or recruitment of hermits. The Records of the Grand Historian by Sima Qian (c. 145–86 BCE) mentions that when ancient emperors offered sacrifices, the wheels of the cart would be wrapped with bulrush to prevent damage to grass and trees. The Book of Han by Ban Gu (32–92) mentions that the cart used to recruit talent must also be wrapped in the same way so as to make it more stable.
Different from the turtledove cart, the pu cart is driven by a firm long handle behind it. However, an example of a real cart has not been unearthed as it is difficult to find one due to its degradable bamboo wood material.

The pu cart represents the emperor’s appreciation of talent. When parents gave their children the cart as a toy it represented their positive expectations for their children, and the hope that their children could one day be employed by the emperor as sages. The cart also became a symbol of children themselves.


A game illustrates court institutions
Shengguan Tu, also known as Caixuan Ge or the Table of Bureaucratic Promotion, was a popular game during the Ming and Qing Dynasties. According to research,  Shengguan Tu originated from the Han Dynasty. The Daybook Manuscripts (Rishu) unearthed from Tomb 8 at the Kongjiapo excavation site in Suizhou, Hubei, is probably a prototype.

Nanbu Xinshu by Qian Yi (968–1026), a novel about bureaucracy in the Tang Dynasty, recorded that to clearly explain the political institutions of the imperial court, Tang government official Li He invented Caixuan Ge, which was renamed  Shengguan Tu in the Ming Dynasty.

Shengguan Tu included a map, dice, chess pieces and chips. The map was based on the official system in different dynasties. The map in the Qing Dynasty consisted of a three-layer spiral pattern, consisting of civilians in the outer ring and grand protectors, grand preceptors and grand tutors in the Yamen (Chinese traditional government offices). The dice consisted of a six-sided die and a four-character spinning top. The characters for “de”, “cai”, “gong”, “zang” were printed on the top. If they threw “de”, “cai”, “gong”, the player would move on as specified, namely for promotion. If they rolled “zang”, the player would need to stay where they were or move back, symbolizing demotion. The winner was the player who achieved the position of grand tutor first and possessed the chips of the other players. It can be deduced that the game play was similar to modern board games.

Shengguan Tu was all the rage in the Qing Dynasty and evolved into various types of games, such as the Table of Bureaucratic Promotion based on the Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin (1715–1763) and Shengguan Tu based on the Water Margin by Shi Nai’an (1296–1370). The Chunming caifengzhi by Shen Taimou created during the end of the Qing Dynasty recorded abundant special purchases of the game for the Spring Festival in Beijing. In its product description, Shengguan Tu was one of the must-buy toys during the Spring Festival for Beijing natives. This game has gradually disappeared over time.


The article was edited and translated from Beijing Daily.

edited by NIU XIAOQIAN

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