In some Chinese villages I’ve visited, the only language I have in common with the inhabitants is ‘Hello’ or ‘Ni hao’ – and sometimes barely that. It’s all fascinating and new; the way people live, how they dress, what they do for work and entertainment.
And yet when I look at the children, it’s all so familiar, a nostalgic kind of familiarity with my own childhood – or no, not even that, with children in the books I read as a kid, books set fifty or a hundred years before I was born.
I’ve seen girls playing French Skipping (I think that’s what we called it when I was at school, anyone else remember this?), hopping in and out of loops of elastic in ever more complicated patterns and rhythms, accompanied by chanted rhymes.
I’ve seen children play Grandmother’s Footsteps in a cobbled yard that was built for the tea horse caravans (‘That’s a great game!’ everyone I’ve told this to has exclaimed, eyes lighting up with remembered enthusiasm).
In a village square surrounded by rice paddies, small boys were playing with whips and tops (so at last I know exactly what this entails, I never quite understood when it was described in books). They were bowling hoops. They should have been wearing knickerbockers (I never quite knew what they were either).
(And then there was the taxi driver in Xi’an who finally suggested we agree on a fare by playing Scissors Paper Stone. There are the men flying kites in city parks, spinning them out into the sky from metal wheels like fishing rod reels, as though they are fishing for clouds, for dreams).
Clearly games come from a similarly common pot as fairytales do. They make up a language we all have in common, even if some of us forget it, abandon old words, make up new… So that in Chinese villages sometimes I don’t so much feel I’ve moved in space as gone back in time.