Life on the tiles

Play­ing mahjong is be­com­ing in­creas­ingly pop­u­lar over­seas

China Daily (USA) - - FRONT PAGE - Con­tact the writer at zhang_yi@chi­

Since Wang Guiy­ing re­tired 13 years ago, she has made it her mis­sion to en­sure she has in­ter­est­ing things to do to keep her oc­cu­pied. Now, she is one of the world’s lead­ing play­ers of mahjong, a Chi­nese game, whose near­est Western equiv­a­lent is the card game bridge, where con­tes­tants at­tempt to col­lect groups of col­ored tiles.

In July, in Baden, a spa town in Aus­tria, Wang cap­tained a team of eight se­nior play­ers to win the 11th Aus­trian Mahjong Open. Team mem­ber Tian Ying, 71, took the top spot at the com­pe­ti­tion, which was held on July 9 and 10, while an­other mem­ber, Cao Li­hua, 72, came third. Wang was placed 10th.

Ev­ery player on Wang’s team is age 67 or older, with the old­est be­ing 77-year-old Qing Zhey­ong. The av­er­age age of the team is 71.

With the help of about 180 fel­low en­thu­si­asts, Wang runs the Shaanxi Mahjong As­so­ci­a­tion, which was es­tab­lished in Xi’an, cap­i­tal of Shaanxi prov­ince, in 2003. On Wed­nes­day, the 67-year-old will lead her as­so­ci­a­tion’s team at a re­gional com­pe­ti­tion in An­hui prov­ince.

“I needed to feel ful­filled af­ter re­tire­ment. Many peo­ple sug­gested that I should fol­low my se­nior peers and take part in square danc­ing in the city park, but I thought I could do some­thing more chal­leng­ing to keep my brain tick­ing over. Now, I re­ally love play­ing mahjong. In my opin­ion, it’s a healthy men­tal work­out for se­nior peo­ple and a nat­u­ral way to de­velop friend­ships,” the Xi’an na­tive said.

Fail­ure and suc­cess

“Win­ning a cham­pi­onship doesn’t hap­pen overnight. We had a dis­as­trous fail­ure at an in­ter­na­tional com­pe­ti­tion in France two years ago. We learned a good les­son from that,” Wang said.

At the fifth Open Euro­pean Mahjong Cham­pi­onship, held in Stras­bourg, France, in 2014, the high­est-rank­ing Chi­nese player claimed 30th place, while the team came in 37th. Given that mahjong orig­i­nated in China, it was a hu­mil­i­at­ing re­sult.

“Our team ar­rived at Stras­bourg just one day be­fore the com­pe­ti­tion. We were ex­hausted from the long flight and couldn’t over­come the jet­lag. As a re­sult, we didn’t per­form well,” Wang said.

In con­trast, she and her team ar­rived at Baden three days be­fore the com­pe­ti­tion, so they had two full days of rest be­fore com­pet­ing against some of the 60 con­tes­tants from 10 coun­tries.

Few in­ter­na­tional mahjong com­pe­ti­tions are spon­sored, so the play­ers had to pay for their own trips. De­spite the cost, they en­joyed the visit and re­garded the event as cross­bor­der com­mu­ni­ca­tion about Chi­nese cul­ture, ac­cord­ing to Wang.

She said play­ers take part in mahjong com­pe­ti­tions out of their love for the game, and her as­so­ci­a­tion has about 60 reg­u­lar mem­bers who play ev­ery Tues­day. Bet­ting on the re­sults of games is strictly out­lawed.

Brain ex­er­cise

Team mem­ber Tian is one of the reg­u­lar play­ers.

“I prac­tice with as­so­ci­a­tion mem­bers ev­ery week. Mahjong is good brain ex­er­cise. I be­lieve that play­ing the game re­duces the risk of se­niors de­vel­op­ing de­men­tia,” she said.

“Life dealt me a few blows sev­eral years ago. Play­ing mahjong helped me through fam­ily tragedies. With the help and sup­port of the mem­bers, I have be­come more so­cia­ble since I joined the as­so­ci­a­tion, more ex­tro­vert and op­ti­mistic,” she added.

Jiang Xuanqi, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the or­ga­niz­ing com­mit­tee of the China Mahjong Open, said the game’s grow­ing global pop­u­lar­ity is a chan­nel that con­nects China with the rest of the world.

Last year, play­ers from more than 20 coun­tries and ter­ri­to­ries par­tic­i­pated in the fourth World Mahjong Cham­pi­onship, held on Jeju Is­land, South Korea, ac­cord­ing to Jiang, who said the num­ber of com­peti­tors at in­ter­na­tional events is con­stantly ris­ing.

In re­cent years, Alexan­der Dop­pel­hofer, an Aus­trian player who was ranked sec­ond in the Baden com­pe­ti­tion, has par­tic­i­pated in nu­mer­ous com­pe­ti­tions around the world, as well as games in China, in­clud­ing those held in Chengdu, cap­i­tal of South­west China’s Sichuan prov­ince, and the western mu­nic­i­pal­ity of Chongqing.

Jiang said mahjong is be­com­ing in­creas­ingly pop­u­lar in Europe and at least 50 ma­jor events are held across the con­ti­nent

I don’t speak a sec­ond lan­guage, but we were able to com­mu­ni­cate through the lan­guage of mahjong.” Wang Guiy­ing, 67-year-old re­tiree in Shaanxi prov­ince and a world lead­ing mahjong player

ev­ery year. He be­lieves the game is one of China’s lead­ing cul­tural ex­ports.

“When I was as­signed the job of or­ga­niz­ing mahjong ac­tiv­i­ties as a sport more than a decade ago, I didn’t fully un­der­stand the game’s charm and phi­los­o­phy. Af­ter a fewyears of play­ing and or­ga­niz­ing games, I re­al­ized mahjong in­volves a high de­gree of in­tel­li­gence and a bit of luck. It also helps peo­ple in other coun­tries to de­velop an in­ter­est in Chi­nese cul­ture through an en­ter­tain­ing game,” he said.

Com­mu­ni­ca­tion chan­nel

Wang said play­ers from all over the world like to chat dur­ing breaks at in­ter­na­tional com­pe­ti­tions, and ex­change sou­venirs and small gifts with play­ers from other coun­tries.

“A ca­sual game and the rep­e­ti­tion of tile se­lec­tion make mahjong an ef­fec­tive way of learn­ing a lit­tle Chi­nese,” she said.

“I have re­ceived dolls, small bot­tles of al­co­hol, wood­cut flow­ers and glass crafts. In re­turn, we give away Chi­nese knots, pa­per carv­ings and shadow pup­pets, as well as other hand­made craft items. Dur­ing breaks in the games, for­eign play­ers usu­ally ap­proach us, point at tiles and ask how to pro­nounce their names in Chi­nese. Idon’t speak a sec­ond lan­guage, but we were able to com­mu­ni­cate through the lan­guage of mahjong.”


Con­tes­tants from 20 coun­tries and re­gions com­pete in the Third World Mahjong Cham­pi­onship in Chongqing in 2012.


Chi­nese play­ers Tian Ying (sec­ond from left) and Cao Li­hua re­ceive their awards at the 11th Aus­trian Mahjong Open held in Baden, Aus­tria, in July. Tian, 71, took the top spot at the com­pe­ti­tion, while Cao, 72, came third.


A player stud­ies his tiles dur­ing the Third World Mahjong Cham­pi­onship in Chongqing.

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