A Mysterious Night in Beijing and a Game that’ll Give you Whiplash
Surprised and Mesmerized
Noises of Beijing are as infamously abrupt as the smells of Beijing, so when I first heard the pops, I wasn’t immediately concerned. It was late evening, and I was marching my way home from the subway station. I was exhausted from a day of walking in the sun, so my attention was limited to pleasant thoughts of climbing into bed. I kept marching, trying to ignore the intermittent and indiscernible popping sounds, until a loud crack rang in my ears to my immediate right.
Twenty feet away stood a man wielding a full fledged bull whip – he hoisted it above his head and threw it in my direction twice. Each throw was at the steady pace of the steps he took toward me. Then, with no warning, he pivoted backward on one foot to send the whip flying behind him, as if he caught something sneaking up on him.
I was both startled and fascinated. I had never seen such a thing in person. The whip was six feet long and clapped as loud as a gun. Instinctually, I kept moving swiftly, but then paused to record the scene from what I thought was a safe distance.
I was mesmerized until I was struck by a thought: “I don’t know who this guy is, why he has a whip or why I think it’s a good idea to record him; If there’s anyone in Beijing that I shouldn’t pester with a camera, it’s the man with a whip.”
Feeling like he may just have himself a target after all, I promptly got the heck out of there. I made my way home unharmed, but the pops followed me the whole way. For blocks they tore through the honking of cars and the belting of Beijing er hua speech. They echoed in my mind as I tried to sleep, begging questions that I had no answers to – so I convinced myself I’d find some.
The Whipping Man and His Game
Sure enough, there is a plethora of information on my mysterious man and his whip.
Turns out, he’s just one of the many people who participate in a sport called da tuoluo (大陀螺). The bullwhip he was handling is only one piece of a two piece puzzle, and it’s hardly menacing for those who play the sport.
Da tuoluo, directly translating to “hit pegtop” or “hit gyro”, is said to have originated in China around 2000 BC. An excavation in 1926 supported this theory when a 4000-year-old top was found in the Shanxi province. The game varies between provinces, but always involves some sort of whip and some sort of spinning top.
The point of the sport is to, first, spin the top, and, second, keep the top spinning – this is where the whip comes in. Players strike the spinning top with their whip to keep it spinning and can even use the whip to maneuver the top while it spins. The best of players can keep up to five tops spinning simultaneously.
When it comes to the equipment, there is quite a bit of variation in material. Spinning tops can be made of wood, metal, bakelite and resin, while whips can take the form of chain, cable, nylon, rubber, leather as well as a stick with a string connected to the end of it.
The weight of the spinning tops can vary from 1 kg to a mind-blowing 1000 kg, but most players use 1 kg to 3kg tops for recreation. Whips can weigh from 600 and 1.5kg and range in length from less than one meter (considered to be short) to three meters (considered to be long).
Where you play Da tuoluo is contingent upon the length of your whip. For whips of more than one meter, a minimum of 20 square meters is needed; for a 2 meter whip, you will need at least 64 square meters, and so on. But, no matter how long your whip, you’ll need a smooth surface, as the head of the spinning top is not fit to spin on irregular surfaces.
Since da tuoluo is considered to be sport and exercise, often you will find people using the equipment to work out – hence the man I witnessed whipping nothing but the ground he stood on.
Perhaps if he had been spinning a top with his whip, the whole scenario would have registered as a lot more benign in my mind. I can see the appeal in spinning a top with a whip: it takes serious skill and it’s kind of badass.
Sending the bullwhip flying toward the spinning top, and then ripping it back to release that sharp snap must amount to a supply of endorphins comparable to the crack of a baseball by the swing of your bat.
Even if we left the whip out of the picture, there seems to be something oddly captivating about objects of gyroscopic nature.
Take fidget spinners for example. Despite being almost insultingly simple, they captured hundreds of thousands of people’s attention and could remain pinched between our fingers for hours.
For the 90’s kids out there, take the beyblade as example number two. The premise of Beyblade’s popularity was that you could battle other people by spinning and then clashing your “blades” together. (This concept is actually employed in da tuoluo as well, and may even originate from da tuoluo, linked by the historic Japanese toy Koma).
It seems that no matter what culture or time period you inhabit, whether you’re pinching a toddler toy between your fingerstips, or striking a 1000kg chinese spinning top with a whip, there remains something oddly satisfying about toys that spin.
The art of spinning a top for as long as you can is no strange concept to the children of the Beyblade era, nor the kids of the Fidget spinning era. And although the crack of a whip is in-arguably intimidating, it can be likened to the sweet swoosh of a basketball skimming net, or the pop of tennis ball bouncing from a racket.
So, if you’re in China and you run into someone cracking a whip late into the evening, rest assured they aren’t preparing for any assault. They’re more likely just one among the many who are looking for ways to stay in shape and have fun while doing it.