More than just a game

Updated: 2011-09-02 09:03

By Liu Xiaozhuo (China Daily European Weekly)

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 More than just a game

Wu Xiuqiong, 103, who lives in Guizhou, plays mahjong every day. She believes the game has kept her mind sharp and has contributed to her longevity. [Peng Nian / for China Daily]

Mahjong is a deep-rooted cultural tradition that touches every level of society

Four old ladies are playing mahjong in a courtyard when suddenly the water pipes burst and the place is flooded. After plumbers are called the women go back to the table and continue playing. When the workmen arrive the players and those watching the game are knee-deep in water, their eyes fixed on the mahjong tiles. Then one player looks up and nonchalantly asks: "What took you so long?"

Chen Lu of Chengdu, the capital of Southwest China's Sichuan province, recalls this story with a smile.

For Chen the game is a tonic for the mind and soul, something that promotes an optimistic outlook, love and the union of family and friends.

In laid-back Chengdu it has been said that if you take a nap you are likely to be awoken by the crisp sound of shuffling mahjong tiles. In the city's streets a common sight is four people playing the game at a small table, surrounded by an animated and vociferous crowd of onlookers.

Such settings may underline the game's status as a pastime for the masses, but some scholars go so far as ranking it as an icon of Chinese culture alongside Peking opera.

To the uninitiated, the game of majhong may be as difficult to comprehend as the game of bridge, but that does not seem to deter people from wanting to take it up.

Whatever the motive for playing the old Chinese game, be it entertainment, socializing, relaxation, gambling or something else, it never seems to lose its luster for young and old alike.

Its fame and popularity has spread far and wide, aided by things such as the 1989 Oscar-winning movie Driving Miss Daisy, which featured scenes of four elderly American women enjoying the game.

In Amy Tan's novel The Joy Luck Club, four Chinese mothers who migrated to the United States from China when they were young play mahjong together regularly.

It is a symbol of their cultural background that their America-born daughters cannot fathom. As the women play, they recount stories of their early lives in China. The novel portrays the game as a symbol of harmony and unity in the minds of Chinese people.

Underlining the game's international pull, the World Mahjong Organization was founded in Beijing in 2005 and now has 23 member countries or regions, among them 16 European countries.

Jiang Xuanqi, the director of the organization, says that one of its main aims is to formulate competition rules with other mahjong associations. "Unifying rules is the key to helping the game develop internationally."

A competition the organization has arranged in November will have as a backdrop the Three Gorges of the Yangtze River. The Fifth China Mahjong Forum and Championship will be held on a five-star cruiser and has attracted players from more than 20 countries and regions, Jiang says. Two hundred players from both China and overseas will take part.

"This will be a grand meeting of mahjong culture, competition and leisure travel."

For Jiang Xuanqi, mahjong is a mind game, and beginners can learn fast as the rules are not complicated.

"Though it is easy to learn, to play it well is demanding. Though there are elements of chance, mahjong is a game of skill, strategy and calculation."

Such attributes are said to provide ample mental practice that help sharpen the mind.

Wu Xiuqiong, who lives in Southwest China's Guizhou province, plays the game everyday and pays tribute to its role in her longevity. She is 103.

But in mahjong, Jiang sees much more than a game and says it reflects Chinese society. "It is a tool for social communication."

Theories on the origin of mahjong are many and varied, but Jiang says it comes from either China's Tang Dynasty (618-907) or the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), and began to spread around the world at the end of the 19th century.

"The stories put mahjong's origination in places such as Ningbo in Zhejiang province and Liangshan in Shangdong province," Jiang says. "This shows how widely mahjong spread in the country."

He reckons that worldwide 600 million play the game, while those who play bridge, chess, I-go, draughts and Chinese chess total 700 million.

As mahjong spread, people began to gamble on it. In the late Ming Dynasty corrupted officials all over the country were said to be addicted to mahjong gambling, so much so that the emperor's rule came under threat.

The game was banned, but the measure failed to rescue the struggling imperial court. The later Qing Dynasty learned the lesson, and mahjong was outlawed.

So exactly what is it that so beguiles mahjong's aficionados? Jiang has an idea: for many the desire to win is irresistibly strong. "When people lose in one round, they just have to play the next round because they want to win."

Indeed, legion are the cases of those whose lives have been ruined by mahjong addiction, which may account for the low esteem in which many Chinese hold the game.

But Yu Guangyuan, 96, an economist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, has spent a lot of his elderly years in propagating mahjong, and is among its most stalwart defenders.

"It is the fault of people that they use mahjong to gamble, not the fault of the game," he says.

After the People's Republic of China was founded, especially in the period of the "cultural revolution" (1966-1976), mahjong was shunned as a symbol of the bourgeoisie.

People were arrested if they were found playing the game, which was officially regarded as something that represented unsound ideology.

The situation did not change until 1985 when the ban on mahjong began to be lifted and people plucked up the courage to play in public. The game began to flourish.


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