The Chinese word wanju can refer to two different things in English. The first is “toy,” such as a child’s plaything but it can also mean “curio,” a kind of ornamental plaything or knick-knack.
Traditional toys and curios refer to those hand-made items whose production methods have been handed down from antiquity. Toy-making was treated as a family craft and these traditional items used to be produced in the workshops of individual families, sometimes for generations. Materials that might be used include clay, wood, bamboo, stone, fabric, flour, metal, and fur. The traditional toys and curios are closely related to folk customs and share similar histories. Their form and design might celebrate themes reflected in traditional Chinese culture such as dramas, legends, and popular literature.
As noted earlier, there are two types of wanju: the ornamental object—curio, and the plaything for entertainment—toy. In general, the former was made to a higher level of artistry with special attention paid to the workmanship and the elegance of the coloring. The latter was quite often a casual work made for the occasion. However, many of them were of excellent workmanship and quality.
Wanju are an important category of folk art and take various forms depending on the season, social occasion, agricultural festivals, and daily life. As a folk art, they often absorbed influences from other crafts; for example, their colors and shapes might be borrowed from Chinese New Year paintings or from wooden puppets or sculpture. The influence was mutual and an easy-to-spot similarity is the use of simple and unsophisticated shapes, and bright, strongly contrasting colors. It was common for men, women, and children to carry curios about on themselves. They integrated many functions of folk art—they were entertaining, ornamental, and educational. Their places of origin were reflected in the design and workmanship. In general, curios made in the Yellow River valley areas of north China show rustic and vigorous characteristics. On the other hand, those made in the Yangtze River valley areas of south China represent a different style—fine and delicate with soft and gentle colors. Exquisite curios made from the highest quality materials were reserved for emperors, high ranking officials, and political dignitaries. Such items reflect court taste.
Wanju are not only a simple folk art. They link up folk customs and beliefs, the seasons and festivals, etiquette and ritual, production, and commerce. They also integrate scientific and physical knowledge into the life experience of the people. They are the best companion for children, and help them to grow both intellectually and physically.
Wanju are an integral part of folk culture. They may be made for specific activities but their form and design can help people appreciate traditional culture in more tangible ways. They integrate popular appeal, artistry, and knowledge, into one object.
Games are an important way for children to learn about life. In playing games, children learn how to work together, how to help each other out, build up their sense of competition, learn proper manners and morals, and have their creativity and intelligence stimulated. Whether it is a traditional or a modern game, they all benefit child development. Games are a child’s first lesson.