Playing a Friendly Game in Myanmar

By James Davis

While travelling in Myanmar, you may come across people gathered in open spaces doing a combination of dance and sports. This is chinlone, the national sport of Myanmar, which has been played since 1,500 years ago.

Chinlone is a non-competitive sport usually played by 6 people in one team. There are no opposing teams, as everybody plays together collaboratively. The goal is to keep the ball, also called chinlone, from hitting the ground.

The ball is handwoven from dried palm tree leaves and looks more like a basket than a ball. The game is played by men, women and children. It is a fluid, fast-paced game that often combines dance and sports skills.

The game is called ‘caneball’ in English and has been played in Myanmar since the times of royalty. Over the years, 200 methods of contacting the ball have been developed, some of which are pretty difficult to master.

Method of Playing

The word ‘chinlone’ means rounded basket. A 4-inch caneball, which is very light and resilient, is tossed and kicked around in a friendly manner to play this unique game. When you travel to Myanmar, you can see these balls sold in many shops in Myanmar.

The players pass the ball in a circle, with one player positioned at the centre of it. All of them strive to keep the ball from hitting the ground, passing it among themselves as creatively as possible. The circle is usually 22 feet in diameter.

Players use their heads, knees and feet to keep the ball off the ground. The player in the centre performs a solo, exhibiting various dance moves and innovative techniques. The other players in the circle support the player in the centre. The game is centred around the technique of manoeuvring the ball.

Since this is a friendly game, there is no formal scoring and no goal to shoot. However, it will be a mistake to think this being a simple game. Players practise playing it for years. They need to master artistic moves to ensure the spectators are entertained while watching the game. It is a tedious game since it requires concentration and finesse. It involves hard work and is not everybody’s cup of tea.

History and Development of Chinlone

The original form of chinlone involved a single player performing to keep the ball in the air. It was called ‘tapandaing’. Originally developed to entertain Myanmar’s royalty, the ancient sport displays the heavy influence of Myanmar’s traditional dance.

When the British conquered Myanmar, they were intrigued by the sport and spread it to other cultures. By 1911, many parts of Europe and Asia had started playing chinlone. However, the colonial rule in Myanmar also led to games such as polo and golf coming to the forefront.

Post-independence, when the government realised the historical and cultural importance of the sport, it used chinlone to educate the youth about the country’s culture. A rulebook for chinlone was written in 1953 under the direction of the government, and the first official chinlone competition was held in Yangon that year. The importance of the game was renewed in the 1960s, and since then, chinlone has been considered part of the nation’s cultural pride.

The game entered the international sports scene when it was performed in the closing ceremony of the 2013 Southeast Asian Games in Nay Pyi Taw. Chinlone was also included as a separate sports category in the competition.

This served as the base for establishing the Asian Chinlone Championship, with the first one held in 2014 and the second in 2016 in Nay Pyi Taw. Other Asian nations play similar kinds of sport, known by different names in different countries. The participants of the 2014 championship included Brazil, Malaysia, Cambodia, Thailand, South Korea, Japan and India. Brazil was a specially invited team for the event.

In 2016, separate competitions were held for men’s and women’s teams. Teams from Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Indonesia, Iran, Cambodia, Myanmar, Korea, Thailand, India, Laos and Japan participated in the men’s competition while teams from Malaysia, Indonesia, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Myanmar competed in the women’s competition.

Waso Chinlone Festival in Myanmar

Chinlone is not just a sport. It is a cultural heritage of Myanmar, played in any and every occasion. Every July, the country celebrates a festival dedicated solely to the game. The Waso Chinlone Festival is celebrated at Mahamuni Pagoda’s compound in Mandalay where teams from all over the country show off their best moves.

Although the festival was originally based at Mahamuni Pagoda, it has slowly permeated the rest of the country. Now, it is celebrated in almost every region, and teams from other countries also come to Myanmar to participate in the festival. Sometimes, the number of teams can go as high as 1,800!

If you are in Myanmar and see people playing chinlone, do join in the fun if you want. The locals will be very happy to play with you. You can learn some of their amazing dance moves and show them off when you get back home.