While it may appear at face value that the name “Chinese Checkers” would denote a board game that originated from China or, at the very least, Asia, the game’s history would suggest an underlying racist tone. So is Chinese Checkers a racist/politically incorrect name for the beloved board game?
Because Chinese Checkers did not originate in China but instead came from Germany, this would suggest a culturally insensitive name for the board game. Furthermore, Chinese Checkers was a marketing strategy that arose due to the West’s obsession with “Orientalism” in the 1920s.
Understanding the history of Chinese Checkers and the era when it was invented/rose to prominence is vital in understanding why it was given the name Chinese Checkers. Including why the Chinese Checkers is a culturally insensitive term that has been subject to public scrutiny in recent years. Let’s explore twelve key considerations in greater detail below:
1. Chinese Checkers Originated From “Halma”
Before Chinese Checkers, a popular British game board game called Hoppity rose to prominence in the 1800s. However, upon its introduction into the American market in the 1880s, Milton Bradley changed the name from Hoppity to Halma.
Halma was named after the Greek word for “jump,” meaning that marketing campaigns leaned into the use of imagery from ancient Greece, such as the use of Hoplites, resulting in an increased emphasis on the strategic and perhaps “exotic” nature of the board game.
The success of the perceived exotic nature of Halma would act as a precursor to the role of Orientalism in the marketing strategy of Chinese Checkers.
2. Chinese Checkers Was Invented In Germany
Although Halma allowed for up to four players to play at once, the popularity of the game in Germany meant a market for a variant of the game that allowed for six people to play at once.
Consequently, a six-sided Halma board in the shape of a star was introduced by the Ravensburg Company in 1892.
3. Chinese Checkers’ Actual Name Is “Sternhalma”
Because the six-sided board is in the shape of a star, Ravensburg decided to name their six-player Halma variant Sternhalma, which translates to Stern (Star) Halma.
4. Asian Culture And Products Were Popular During The 1920s
As a result of improved diplomatic and trade relations between the West and Asian countries during the 1920s, there was a fluidity of movement, emigration, culture, and products between the East and West.
However, while open trade borders have improved understanding between cultures in the modern-day, the people of the 1920s saw the introduction and exposure to Asian people and commodities as distinctly different and unusual.
Therefore, this mix of appreciation, mistrust, and misunderstanding of Asian culture led to a fascination with “Orientalism.” Orientalism is a racist and inappropriate term for all things vaguely Asian, which included external influences of mysticism and magic, where previously there was none.
Although it may seem strange for modern people to understand the appeal of the deliberate misrepresentation of other people’s culture, Western people in the 1920s were in awe and wonder of Asian culture, which meant that marketing agencies fabricated Asian products to appeal to a wider audience.
In conclusion, the West’s obsession with Orientalism in the 1920s laid the groundwork for the subsequent introduction and popularity of Chinese Checkers in the West.
5. Chinese Checkers Was First-Called “Hop Ching Checkers”
When Sternhalma was introduced to the American game market in the early 1900s, the Pressman Company decided to change the name of Sternhalma to appeal to America’s fascination with Orientalism in the 1920s.
Therefore, the first variant of Sternhalma/Chinese Checkers that entered the American games market was “Hop Ching Checkers.” Hop Ching Checkers was a nonsense/made-up name that combined the description of jumping with the use of “Ching,” hoping that it would appeal to America’s association with checkers, combined with their recent desire for “Oriental” products.
However, Hop Ching Checkers was a failed product, meaning that the Pressman Company had to develop a new marketing strategy.
6. Chinese Checkers Was A Marketing Strategy
Because of the failure of Hop Ching Checkers to incite the American public’s fascination with Orientalism during the 1920s, the Pressman Company sought to explicitly appeal to this market by rebranding Hop Ching Checkers to “Chinese Checkers” in 1928.
The marketing strategy appeared to work, as Chinese Checkers became a global phenomenon and are typically the name associated with Sternhalma.
7. Chinese Checkers Is Not An Actual Variant Of Checkers
Despite having the word “Checkers” in its name, Chinese Checkers is not a recognized variant of Checkers. The only real association Chinese Checkers has with actual Checkers is Checkers, and Chinese Checkers are both board games that include the act of “jumping pieces.”
Consequently, the word Checkers in Chinese Checkers was mostly as a marketing plot to appeal to America’s understanding of a popular game, but with an “Oriental” twist.
8. Chinese Checkers Had Inappropriate Artwork
To promote the game and establish its Oriental theming, the artwork that adorned the box and/or board of Chinese Checkers was often inappropriate.
Namely, it was common for artwork to feature vaguely Asian symbolism and/or racist caricatures, such as the use of vaguely Asian symbols/letters, dragons, chopsticks, fireworks, etc.
Although packaging has changed (see number 10 below for further information), the packaging from the 1920s until the 1940s was often offensive and culturally insensitive.
9. Chinese Checkers Was Responsible For “Star Checkers”
Because of Chinese Checkers’ popularity in America in the 1930s, and in a bizarre reversal of influence, Chinese Checkers led to the development of Star Checkers.
Star Checkers was a board game very similar to Chinese Checkers, invented and distributed by American businessman L.G Ballard during the 1930s.
10. Milton Bradley Attempted To Rebrand Chinese Checkers
Due to the popularity of different variants of Chinese Checkers, such as Star Checkers, 1941 saw Chinese Checkers being patented by Milton Bradley. Therefore, Milton Bradley was given full ownership of the game and all its variants.
Along with the patent came the drive to reduce the use of Oriental imagery on the game’s artwork to appeal to a global audience and a shift in the representation of faux Asian imagery/cultural appropriation.
However, despite changing attitudes and marketing strategies, the name stuck and is still used today.
11. There Are Many Variants Of Chinese Checkers
The growth in the game’s global popularity has given rise to multiple variants of the game. Some notable and well-recognized variants of Chinese Checkers include:
- Fast-paced or Super Chinese Checkers (popular in France and China)
- Diamond Game (popular in Japan and South Korea)
- Yin and Yang.
While some of these variants are simplified versions of the game, others are more complex versions. Furthermore, certain variants allow for multiple players, while others only allow for two players.
Consequently, Chinese Checkers is a versatile game that promotes custom rules to make the game more accessible/complex as per people’s preferences.
12. Despite Its History, Chinese Checkers Is Popular In Asia
As eluded to above, Chinese Checkers is a popular game globally, with certain variants being particularly popular in Asian countries. In fact, China has its own variant/name for the game “Tiaoqi,” which loosely translates to “Jump Game.”
In conclusion, while Chinese Checkers is a fun game for the whole family, that does not explicitly encourage racist/politically incorrect messages. It would be amiss to acknowledge the game’s inappropriate history and continued cultural appropriation of Chinese/Asian culture.
Therefore, it will be interesting to see if Chinese Checkers undergoes further name or artistic changes in the future!