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A Century of Chinese Toys

Zhao Lei (赵蕾) dives into her sandbox of memories, and rediscovers some of her favorite toys

09·23·2010

A Century of Chinese Toys

Zhao Lei (赵蕾) dives into her sandbox of memories, and rediscovers some of her favorite toys

09·23·2010

In the 1980s, dolls were expensive in China—a luxury for a child like me. So when I was 7 years old, I spent a whole month making a doll for a friend. It was to be her birthday present. I made it with white cloth, cutting two black holes for the eyes. While I was sewing, all I could think about was how much the gift would reflect my love for her.

On my friend’s birthday, when I finally placed the doll carefully in her hands, she unexpectedly exploded into tears. She thought it was a ghost. Whatever. It’s still the prettiest ghost doll I have ever seen.

No matter what kind of family we come from, poor or rich, Western or Eastern, toys brightened (or haunted) all of our childhoods. In China, the oldest known toys—clay animals found by archaeologists—are from 6,000 or 7,000 years ago. But in the eyes of a child, there isn’t a big difference between a model plane and a piece of wood. These toys, just like a kernel of corn or a pebble, could still be played with by kids today.  So we invited two lovely kids, Wu Kaiqiao and Feng Yuning, to play with the toys. They didn’t seem to care whether the toys were new or old, but the biggest surprise was Wu Kaiqiao’s clear choice of a favorite toy. It was the bamboo horse.

Ancient Chinese toys and games often have poetic names, such as the darting vessel (投壶 tóuhú, a darting game) and puppet (偶人 ǒurén). From the names alone, they’re inextricably tied to culture and tradition. Among these, my favorite is one that’s rarely seen today: it’s just a simple stick of bamboo called the bamboo horse (竹马 zhúmǎ). But when a boy climbs on board, the pole transforms into a triumphant horse.

While the toy isn’t as popular as it once was, it did inspire an idiom that will last forever. “Green plums and a bamboo horse” (“青梅竹马” qīngméi zhúmǎ) refers to childhood sweethearts, calling to mind a girl smelling green plums shyly, meeting a boy riding on a bamboo horse.

For any Chinese adult today, the classic toy is a drum-shaped rattle (拨浪鼓 bōlanggǔ). It was once apparently used as a real musical instrument, but for the last millennium it’s been a toy. Many kids have fulfilled their musical dreams by swinging this “drum,” including me.

Tin toys were common when I was growing up in the 1980s. But when they were first produced in Shanghai in the early 1920s, most kids could only dream about playing with them. For an ordinary family at the time, buying a toy like Chicken Pecking Rice (小鸡啄米 xiǎojī zhuómǐ) would have been about as easy as buying a star. This one uses two sliding bars, not batteries, to make two roosters peck the rice in turn. My parents bought a worn one for me after I was born in 1979. Even after being passed on for several generations, the chickens are still pecking the rice.

Boys weren’t yet playing with slingshots or the electric guns that arrived in the late ’80s. Instead, at least until the late 1970s, there was the hoop (铁环 tiěhuán). It was a thin iron bar, wrapped into a circle, that kids would roll along using another iron bar. Though rarely seen today, this simple toy caused many a young boy to forget to go home for dinner.

For those families who couldn’t afford a tin toy in the ’20s—and that included most families—toys were usually handmade. Everything common in daily life could be used in these creations. Granny Wang, who’s in her 70s, recalls her favorite childhood toy was leek leaves. She would break a leaf off, and wear it carefully as a necklace or earrings. It made her feel like she had become a princess. “I envy the modern kids with so many toys, but I’m not too jealous,” she smiled.

I have to echo Granny Wang. When I was around 5, living with my grandparents in a small village, all the kids played with tree leaves. The best leaves were those from a locust tree. You first stripped the leaf, getting rid of everything but the stem. Then everyone wrapped their stems across the other kids’ stems, to see whose leaf would break first. We also twisted leaves to pretend we were cooking dishes like fried doughnuts (油条 yóutiáo) or fried twisted dough (麻花 máhuā), the Tianjin specialty. We usually made many, as though we were working for a real restaurant. I was even elected head chef, because I could “cook” quickly and delicately.

Another favorite toy of mine was mud. In the early 1980s, parents rarely bought toys from shops, but made them for their children by hand, like wooden guns and paper toys. My father only earned around 30 yuan a month, which was an average salary, so he couldn’t afford unnecessary expenses, either.

So in the village, my friends and I played with anything we could find. Mud was popular, as it could be turned into cars, beds, or chickens laying eggs.

The most exciting mud game could only be played with a special mud found alongside the riverbanks. You take a handful and make it as smooth and thin as possible, thinnest in the center. Then you find a big flat stone, hold your mud in one hand, shout “one, two, three, go!” and fling it onto the stone. The goal was for the thin center of mud to be knocked away, but not the thicker outside—so that only a ring of mud remains. However much mud you got to fly out on impact was how much your friends needed to give you; the bigger the hole, the more mud you could earn. Since we were already by the river, we skipped rocks, too.

Elsewhere in China, kids played with whatever they could find, too. Sometimes it was bones. In northeastern China, my friend Zhao Zhankun’s favorite toy was yangguai (羊拐), which is played with four or five ankle bones from a lamb. The rules are complicated, but using one hand, in a limited amount of time, you adjust and stack the bones. As a lamb only has two such bones, it used to be difficult to get a set—but now the bones are often made from plastic, so the game’s popularity has increased.

One of the few luxury toys we did have in the 1980s was marbles. They were affordable. We dug small holes in the dirt, and competed to see who could shoot the ball into the hole. It was a kind of “hand golf.”

When I left the village to attend school in the county, my world was suddenly opened to a dizzying variety of toys. Almost everyone had toys bought from the shops, and my father’s salary was raised to 100 yuan. Unfortunately, I still didn’t have a doll, but a classmate living nearby had two. I still remember: one was dressed in pink, the other in white. We played in her room everyday after school, giving two sweet names to our two doll children. We cared for them like real mothers would. My mom was often astonished to find me talking to myself, saying weird things and sitting motionless for hours. I was living in a new world with my sweet doll daughter.

When I became a Grade Two pupil, many new games started appearing—games that were also popular in the West. My favorite was hackysack (沙包 shābāo), literally “sand bags” which we stuffed with grains of rice. In Grade Three, we played “rubber band,” otherwise known as jump rope (皮筋 píjīn), while chanting verses like “Little horse skipping a river” and “Malan flower.”

With the 1980s, mechanical toys started appearing, but they were still too expensive for many families. One of the most popular was Little Bear Taking Photos (小熊拍照 xiǎoxióng pāizhào): a little plastic bear dressed in a suit, that walked around “taking photos.” A light in the bear’s camera flashed, just like a real flash. It sounds simple, but at that time, a doll that could blink was unbelievable. I struggled to find toys like that.

As China began to open up, more toys started appearing. My younger brother had a Transformers action figure, and cartoon character trading cards. Then videogames appeared, and the neighborhood kids started getting train sets, cell phones, even video cameras.Walking into a toy shop today, I feel like Alice after she plopped into Wonderland.And watching the children play with their new robots and toys, I can see they enjoy them as much as I enjoyed my toys—my mud, my fried doughnut leaves and my drum-shaped rattle.

Time has washed away many of my childhood toys—I no longer play with any of these. But I do still play one of the games, whenever I can. With my brother, my classmates, my friends, and even my coworkers, I still play Chinese checkers (跳棋 tiàoqí).

  • toy
  • wánjù 玩具
  • to play
  • wán
  • doll
  • wáwa 娃娃
  • Transformer
  • Biànxíng jīngāng 变形金刚
  • I’m starting a toy collection.
  • Wǒ yào kāishǐ shōucáng wánjù. 我要开始收藏玩具。
  • “Transformers, more than meets the eye.”
  • “Biànxíng jīngāng, suíshí biàn xíngzhuàng.” “变形金刚,随时变形状。”