One of the first photographs of men playing chinlone, taken around 1899
Chinlone has played a prominent role in Myanmar for about 1,500 years. Its style is so performance-based because it was first created as a means of entertaining Burmese royalty. Chinlone is heavily influenced by traditional Burmese martial arts and dance, another reason as to why so much importance is placed upon technique. As it is such an old game, many variations have been made to it, including hundreds of different ways or moves to use when maneuvering the ball. In addition to the original form of chinlone, there is a single performance style. This form of chinlone is called tapandaing. While chinlone had been widely considered by Europeans to more of a game than a sport, international interest in chinlone grew rapidly. By 1911, chinlone teams were performing in parts of Europe and Asia. As spectators of chinlone, Europeans deemed it to be merely a game of indigenous people, too effeminate to be considered a sport.
After Myanmar's independence from British colonial rule in 1948, many British influences and cultural practices lingered, including British sports such as polo. Past British colonialism still weighed heavily upon Burmese life. From the 1960s and onward, there was a big governmental push for traditional and historical preservation. The premise was for cultural pride to be renewed. Myanmar needed traditions that were unique to Burmese culture, free from any colonial influence. Chinlone fit this role perfectly, playing a key part in establishing Myanmar nationalism. Myanmar began implementing physical education in schools, teaching children from a young age about traditional sports like chinlone, as a way to educate and pride them on their culture. This was a small yet effective way in reestablishing Burmese life after colonial rule. With this new found nationalism, chinlone was finally considered a real sport.
The head of the Burma Athletic Association, U Ah Yein, was ordered by Burmese government to write a rulebook for chinlone (1953). These rules forced chinlone into being more competitive, and the first official chinlone competition was held in Yangon that same year. In addition to providing chinlone with an official set of rules, U Ah Yein's chinlone rulebook claimed chinlone to be unique to Myanmar only, as the birthplace of the game. While chinlone does distinctively go back far into Burmese tradition, there are many similar sports closely related to it across many other Southeast Asian countries. These ball games are as follows: da cau (Vietnam), kator (Laos), sepak raga (Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and Indonesia), sipa (Philippines), and takraw (Thailand).
Watercolor painting of a chinlone game from the 19th century.
In the 2013 Southeast Asian Games
Another notable aspect of chinlone is its significance in the 2013 Southeast Asian Games, hosted in Naypyidaw, Myanmar. After 44 years since the last time Myanmar hosted the games, in 1969, the 2013 games was the perfect chance for Myanmar to show the rest of the region how much they progressed and modernized. While Naypyidaw was still lacking many amenities, with the help of funds from the Chinese government, Myanmar pulled off the highly anticipated event. The closing ceremony featured chinlone as the face of Burmese culture, and chinlone was even included as a separate sport within the competition. This was controversial, since other countries could not adequately compete in a sport that is unique to only Myanmar. By the end of the 2013 Southeast Asian Games, Myanmar had successfully showcased its new modernity, with chinlone at the forefront.