Chinese Yo-Yo: Thousands Of Years Old And Still Popular Today

Sep 28, 2017

At the annual Western Michigan University China Festival on Saturday, October 7th you can see people perform with one of the oldest toys in the world - the yo-yo.


Historians believe the yo-yo may have originated in China. Though they’re not sure exactly how old the toy is, researchers at Yale say yo-yos are depicted on some ancient Greek vases dated as far back as 500 B.C.

Portage Central High School junior Jack Liu does a yo-yo trick at WMUK's Takeda studio
Credit Rebecca Thiele, WMUK

High school junior Jack Liu is the director of a yo-yo club at the Kalamazoo Chinese Academy - a nonprofit that teaches Chinese language and culture.

Liu doesn’t play with the kind of yo-yo we’re used to in the United States. The Chinese yo-yo is very different.

“A Chinese yo-yo, you have two separate sticks - one in each hand and then a string running from each stick in the middle. So you have a stick in your right hand, a stick in your left hand and a string connecting both in the middle," he says.

"Then the actual yo-yo itself, think of it almost as an hourglass but tipped on its side.”  

The Chinese yo-yo isn’t attached to the string. So you can do tricks like throwing it up in the air and catching it, passing it from player to player, or even juggling multiple yo-yos at once. Liu says he got into yo-yo after seeing it a Chinese New Year celebration.

“We always like to incorporate it in our Chinese New Year performances because it’s one of the more exciting acts I guess you’d say - a lot of action, a lot of really cool moves that people haven’t seen before," he says.

Today’s yo-yos are usually made of plastic, but the traditional Chinese yo-yos were made of wood.

“They actually carved out parts of the insides of the yo-yos to make that kind of…when you spin them, they actually make this bamboo-like sounding noise to them,” says Liu.

Mei Lin is the operations manager at the Kalamazoo Chinese Academy and also Liu’s mom. She says today’s yo-yos are more flashy.

“These days the yo-yo looks really cool and they have all kinds of designs. They even have lights,” she says.

Lin says one of the things she likes about the yo-yo is that it’s a non-competitive - and sometimes collaborative - sport.

“They teach them physically and mentally because you have to go through a lot of fails before you can do the one trick. So it helps them learn and be able to concentrate," she says.

"This is a very unique heritage for all the Chinese students and also it helps to connect our Chinese community.”

You can see the yo-yo performance at Western Michigan University’s China Festival on Saturday, October 7th.