Chinese Law Prof Blog

Editor: Donald C. Clarke
George Washington University Law School

Thursday, August 28, 2008

The origin of ping pong

I started this blog with the intention of making and keeping a promise to readers that I would blog only about Chinese law and not waste their time with self-indulgent ramblings on other topics. I'm going to go off topic here, but only to present something that will be of interest to all sinologists: a marvelous account of the origins of ping pong by Alice Lyman Miller of the Hoover Institution (posted here with permission) that might otherwise never be broadly circulated.

The “game” called ping-pong is, of course, Chinese in origin, though it depends in part on what we mean by “Chinese” and “China.” The earliest references are in the Chunqiu 春秋 and seem to locate the invention of what becomes ping-pong in the state of Chu 楚, to the south of the emergent states on the Yellow River plain. Chu, of course, was seat of an alternative cultural strain, in some ways startlingly different from the millet and wheat-based cultures to the north, but also sharing unmistakable elements in common. Not surprisingly, therefore, aspects of the game in its earliest form both reflect Chu’s cultural dissonances with the northern plain cultures but also had lasting impact on the game in later times, when the game because embraced as a core element of the civilization we call “Chinese.”. Thus the game’s name “ping-pong” (rendered awkwardly as “pingpang” in what in later imperial times became the Mandarin dialect) is actually an abundantly true rendition via onomapoesis of the game’s characteristic sound in the Chu dialect of the 7th century BCE. This may surprise contemporary observers since “ping-pong” sounds nothing at all like the sound of the modern plastic sphere volleyed in modern manifestations of the game. But in the earliest phases of the game’s development, players volleyed dried lichee, whose sound is quite disarmingly and precisely captured in the term *tsyik *tsyuk, as carefully reconstructed by Herbert Giles, Bernard Karlgren, and most recently Peter Boodberg.

Other early references confirm the Chu genesis of the game. Sunzi 孙子 must have observed several matches among champions from Chu against challengers in Wu 吴and Yue 越 because he wrote about them and the tactics they deployed in state-sponsored matches in his classic text 孙子乒乓法. To clarify the confusion that often attends this classic in modern times, it bears repeating here that scholars and commentators in later and even contemporary periods failed to recognize that the term 兵 is a contraction—or more properly, an elision--used conventionally by Han scholars (thus, the Erya 爾雅, the Shuowen jiezi 说文解字, Mei Yizuo’s 1615 lexicon 字彙, and the 1711 Peiwen yunfu 佩文韵府, though curiously not the Kangxi zidian 康熙字典) of the original 乒乓, and concluded erroneously that Sunzi was describing warfare. A sarcastic tip of the hat again to May Fourth era cultural iconoclasm and its present-day legacy in the education policies of the PRC, for which—pace Gu Jiegang—we have one more tragic instance of how contemporary Chinese have lost touch with their own intellectual and cultural traditions

I will leave it to others to address the longstanding controversy over the game’s transmission westward, evidently forgotten now by many, during the Six Dynasties era, as reflected in the sculptures and frescoes at Dunhuang and points west in the Turfan Basin and beyond. By this time, of course, the game had already acquired the characteristic features of a religious discipline evident in its adherents even today. These, of course, derived ultimately from the sexual shamanism of Chu Daoism (as any judicious reading of Qu Yuan’s Lisao 离骚 will confirm) and were consolidated by its association with the neo-Daoist sects of Chang’an under Sixteen Kingdoms period.  The Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove were famous in their time as avid players. The legend that they had their servants follow them always with a jug of wine and a shovel (to inspire their rounds of poetry and to bury them on the spot if they keeled over dead during one of the drinking sessions) has numerous recorded variations that state that what their servants always carried with them were a jug of wine and a paddle, not a shovel.

The game’s religious disciplinary aspects are manifest even today in the intense focus of the individual player on the present moment (angular and linear) of the ball, her dispassionate repose as the ball approaches from across the net, and her return of the ball with a clean, unadorned stroke supremely efficient in its accord with the effortless minimalism consistent with shi 勢 and in conformity with the underlying organizing force of 道.

The game was already well established in the Central Asian oases in the 7th century, when Tang armies encountered it flourishing among the Nestorian communities of the region, and some of the Tocharian texts preserved from that time have recently been shown not to be Christian tracts at all, as was long thought, but actually to have been scorecards from tournaments begun during the era of Tanggut domination and continued thereafter. By the 8th century, the game had already begun to spread, via Moslem trade routes, to India, Persia, and ultimately to the West.

The one thing for which the West can claim credit, if that’s the right term, is the ungainly and ugly tennis grip used almost universally by clumsy Western adepts. Why this peculiar variation has endured, despite its demonstrated inferiority and its clearcut violation of the Daoist precepts that inspired the game from its earliest stages, is something of a mystery. Perhaps it has something to do with the “strategic culture” of Western civilization—its force-on-force predilections, its excessive reliance on technology to the neglect of technique, and other differences that David Brooks may elucidate.

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This isn't serious is it?

Posted by: Matt | Aug 28, 2008 8:07:36 PM

Kudos! A neglected history indeed, as well as an intuitively true narrative -- no doubt soon to make its way into the "standard reference books" of our own times. Mencken would be pleased.

I plan to pick up this neglected history in my own medium (audio) as soon as I can obtain a recording of the *tsyik *tsyuk of traditionalist play in Beijing, where I hear the lichee alternative to that abomination, the plastic ball, is now undergoing a renaissance.

Posted by: Beijing Sounds | Aug 29, 2008 3:19:05 AM

While it is true that the game sprung from the forehead of the native Daoist tradition, its long hiatus in Central Asia (described above) brought it to the forefront of the Daoist -- Buddhist merger, which became Chan. While the game was confined to the mesas of Central Asia, its very name was preserved, like a fly in amber, in the 'Phagspa script, until, retranslated into its native Chinese, it re-emerged in the surviving fragment of the Pingpang jing, discovered by Stein (found in the same cave as the Yanhuo xiong jing, tr. Snyder, 1969 [1]), and as yet remains untranslated . However the Pingpang jing should be well known in English soon, as its mantra has become the great Chinese rap song:

乒乒 乒乓 乒乒 乒乓

  乒乒 乒乓 乒乓乓乒乒乓 乒乓

  乒乒 乒乓 乒乒 乒乓

  乒乒 乒乓 乒乓 天 下 无 双


Posted by: Dr. Dryasdust | Sep 9, 2008 11:06:29 PM

You've done some good research and got some excellent information on here in regards to ping pong, thanks..

Posted by: Grant Draper | Oct 21, 2008 12:48:06 PM

Everything else I have read states the origin of the game to be England late 18th century

Posted by: Ann Murphy | Jan 6, 2013 7:21:58 AM

Thank you. I had heard that both the sport and the name originated in China, but I was starting to think I was wrong.

Posted by: angela n | Sep 21, 2014 9:17:53 AM

The game’s religious disciplinary aspects are manifest even today in the intense focus of the individual player on the present moment (angular and linear) of the ball. Thanks for share

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