TALES OF THE TILE

麻将传奇

The World of Chinese - - Ed­i­tor’s Let­ter - BY SUN JIAHUI (孙佳慧)

Once banned as a form of gam­bling, mahjong ac­quired a seedy rap for gam­bling and crime. No longer crim­i­nal­ized, to­day's tile en­thu­si­asts are seek­ing more re­spect for their beloved game, even while some ad­mit their ad­dic­tion

作为国人最作为国人最爱的博弈游戏,麻将究竟是文麻将究竟是文化遗产还是赌博?有一群人正在有一群人正在试图为它正名

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or all of its his­tory-mak­ing mo­ments, the most dis­cussed scene from 2018’s Crazy Rich Asians, hyped as the first Hol­ly­wood film in tw two decades with an all-asian c cast, un­folds in­side a swanky ma mahjong par­lor filled with strateg strate­giz­ing se­niors and click­ing tiles tiles. There, the film’s pro­tag­o­nist, played by Con­stance Con Wu, con­fronts her an­tag­o­nist an­tag­o­nis­tic po­ten­tial moth­erin-law (Michell (Michelle Yeoh) over the tra­di­tional ta­ble table­top game, a scene that di­rec­tor Jon M. Chu says was de­lib­er­ately chor chore­ographed to re­sem­ble a wuxia fight scene. “I wanted the soun sound of the tiles in this rhythm, this perc per­cus­sion that was slid­ing and hit­ting hit­tin on the beats of this men­tal game as these two fierce women come he head to head,” Chu told Vul­ture magazin mag­a­zine, de­scrib­ing game­play as “fast,” “fi “fierce,” “strate­gic,” and “smart.” Half a cen­tury ear­lier, Mao Ze­dong had rhap­sodized about the ben­e­fits of one of his life­long hob­bies. “Mahjong is a phi­los­o­phy,” he claimed. “Through it, one un­der­stands the re­la­tion­ship be­tween chance and in­evitabil­ity; it’s also di­alec­ti­cal… even if you have the worst hand, as long as you are strate­gic and me­thod­i­cal, the in­fe­rior will be­come su­pe­rior; weak­ness will be­come strength.” Mao even claimed China had made “three great con­tri­bu­tions to the world”: Tra­di­tional Chi­nese Medicine, Cao Xue­qin’s Dream of the Red Man­sions, and mahjong.

Few find it sim­i­larly ode-wor­thy to­day, yet mahjong is def­i­nitely one of the most pop­u­lar pas­times in the world with over 600 mil­lion play­ers, most of them Chi­nese. Not ev­ery­one, though, is en­am­ored with the fast-paced call­ing and shuf­fling of tiles. In spite of its long his­tory, there are many crit­ics of the game’s as­so­ci­a­tion with gam­bling, cor­rup­tion, fam­ily feuds, and crime. One vo­cal naysayer is Liu Kuili, the vice-di­rec­tor of the Min­istry of Cul­ture’s in­tan­gi­ble cul­tural her­itage com­mit­tee, who op­posed a plan to in­clude mahjong on the na­tional her­itage list in 2012.

Based on a set of 144 tiles en­graved with char­ac­ters and sym­bols, mahjong is ideally played by four play­ers sit­ting around a square ta­ble. There are count­less vari­a­tions on the rules, de­pend­ing on the re­gion. Gen­er­ally, though, all four play­ers be­gin by re­ceiv­ing 13 tiles, then draw and dis­card more tiles in turns, un­til a le­gal hand is com­pleted us­ing a 14th drawn tile to form melds (a set of three iden­ti­cal ties or a three suited tiles in se­quence) and eyes (two iden­ti­cal tiles).

“Most peo­ple around my age know how to play mahjong, though not ev­ery­one plays it fre­quently,” says Lai Chuntian, a 50-year-old teacher from Liaon­ing prov­ince, who has played reg­u­larly for 20 years. Lai can’t re­mem­ber when she learned to play, but re­calls the game’s con­stant pres­ence in her child­hood, when par­ents, rel­a­tives, and friends played in her fam­ily home. After enough watch­ing, Lai “nat­u­rally learned how to play.”

As an adult, when some col­leagues in­vited her to “play a few hands” after

work, she agreed. That first game back in 1998 sparked her life­long pas­sion for mahjong. “Though the rules sound not very com­pli­cated, when you ac­tu­ally play, you will find that ev­ery game is dif­fer­ent,” says Lai, ex­plain­ing its at­trac­tion. “You need to cal­cu­late, eval­u­ate the risk of ev­ery tile you dis­card, ob­serve the fa­cial ex­pres­sions of your ri­vals, and re­mem­ber their moves...i can’t think of a more in­ter­est­ing game.”

Also known as maque (麻雀, “Spar­row”), mahjong is be­lieved to have been pop­u­lar­ited some­time dur­ing the lat­ter half of the 19th cen­tury. How­ever, there are many dif­fer­ent tales of its time and place of ori­gin. Some trace it to the royal court; some credit its in­ven­tion to Taip­ing Re­bel­lion leader Hong Xi­uquan dur­ing the Qing dynasty; oth­ers claim its cre­ator was a man named Wan Bing­tiao (万秉迢), in­spired by the 108 char­ac­ters from the Chi­nese clas­sic Out­laws of the Marsh and who named the three suits after the three char­ac­ters of his own name— char­ac­ters (万), dots (饼, a homonym for 秉) and bam­boo (条, a homonym for 迢).

All of these leg­ends have sup­port­ers, but lack proof. In 2003, the then­pres­i­dent of the World Mahjong Or­ga­ni­za­tion (WMO) Yu Guangyuan of­fered a more widely ac­cepted ver­sion that traced the game to Taicang, Jiangsu prov­ince, a gra­nary in an­cient China. In or­der to pre­vent the grain from be­ing eaten, the govern­ment en­cour­aged peo­ple to kill spar­rows: Small bam­boo signs, which could be ex­changed for re­wards, were dis­trib­uted ac­cord­ing to the num­ber of birds killed, and peo­ple be­gan to use the signs as cur­rency for gam­bling.

Sup­port­ing this the­ory are many small de­tails of mahjong, which can be as­so­ci­ated with the hunt­ing of spar­rows. Among the three suits, the “dots” rep­re­sent guns, or bul­let holes; the “bam­boos” re­fer to the spar­rows; the pat­tern on the “One Bam” tile is a bird; and the “char­ac­ters” are units of cur­rency, sym­bol­iz­ing re­ward. As for the three “dragon tiles,” the Red Dragon is en­graved with “中,” mean­ing a shot spar­row; the White Dragon sym­bol­izes “empty,” or “shoot­ing blanks;” and the Green Dragon, “发,” means “re­wards.”

A 1893 paper by Amer­i­can an­thro­pol­o­gist Stewart Cullin con­tains the first recorded men­tion of the game in the English-speak­ing world. There are many who the­o­rize that mahjong was ac­tu­ally spread by sailors who trav­eled the In­dian Ocean with Zheng He, the fa­mous Ming dynasty eu­nuch­mariner, “but it’s just spec­u­la­tion; we still need arche­o­log­i­cal ev­i­dence,” Jiang Xuanqi, the sec­re­tary gen­eral of the WMO, tells TWOC.

In 1920, writer Joseph Park Bab­cock, who learned how to play in China, wrote Rules of Mahjong, which sim­pli­fied the sys­tem and pro­moted its sky­rock­et­ing pop­u­lar­ity abroad. After study­ing in the US for many years, Chi­nese scholar Hu Shi wrote in his 1930 es­say, “Mahjong,” that the game “has be­come a fad in the West­ern so­ci­ety. In gen­tle­men’s clubs, mahjong was placed on al­most ev­ery ta­ble. In book­stores, there were many kinds of brochures about mahjong play­ing… over­seas Chi­nese stu­dents could even make a liv­ing teach­ing it.”

In the mean­time, Hu ob­served, the craze was grow­ing even more out of con­trol in China. “The in­creas­ing com­plex­ity of the game made it even more ad­dic­tive, re­sult­ing in Chi­nese peo­ple, whether male or fe­male, rich or poor, spend­ing all their time on the 136 tiles, all year round,” wrote Hu, some­what of a mahjong ad­dict him­self.

The ed­i­tors of Opium, Gam­bling and Pros­ti­tu­tion in Old Shang­hai, pub­lished in 1990, wrote that dur­ing the early Repub­lic of China, China’s most de­vel­oped city saw nearly 20,000

MANY DE­TAILS OF MAHJONG ARE BE­LIEVED TO BE RE­LATED TO THE HUNT­ING OF SPAR­ROWS

peo­ple a day join­ing the mahjong ta­bles in Shang­hai’s 1,500 broth­els and casi­nos. Mul­ti­plied across the coun­try, this was a cause for con­cern. “[As­sum­ing there are] a mil­lion mahjong ta­bles in China, then even if ev­ery­one only plays eight rounds, that adds up to four mil­lion hours, which is 167,000 days wasted. Not men­tion the money won or lost, and the waste of en­ergy,” fret­ted Hu.

Un­der the Prc—chair­man Mao’s ad­mi­ra­tion notwith­stand­ing—mahjong was banned, to­gether with other forms of gam­bling that were be­lieved to rep­re­sent cap­i­tal­ist cor­rup­tion. “In the past, I used to see mahjong as some­thing evil, some­thing to do with feu­dal­ism, cap­i­tal­ism, and re­vi­sion­ism,” re­calls Jiang, who lived through those op­pres­sive years.

In 1985, when it be­came le­gal to play mahjong again, the Bu­reau of Pub­lic Se­cu­rity is­sued a doc­u­ment stat­ing, “Though mahjong and cards are likely to be used for gam­bling, they are also tra­di­tional forms of en­ter­tain­ment... We should strictly for­bid gam­bling, but not nec­es­sar­ily ban mahjong and cards.”

Even after its le­gal­iza­tion, the game con­tin­ues to see oc­ca­sional crack­downs, es­pe­cially at the lo­cal level. In 2017, Wuhan be­came the first Chi­nese city to clar­ify its def­i­ni­tion of “mahjong as leisure”—that is, games be­tween fam­ily and friends, with 10 par­tic­i­pants or less, and bets of less than 1,000 RMB per head—and “mahjong as il­licit gam­bling,” which could be pun­ished by up to 15 days of de­tain­ment. In the past years, mahjong par­lors in places like Shen­zhen and Jiangxi prov­ince have been or­dered to close in the name of pub­lic se­cu­rity.

The decades-long ban and sub­se­quent crack­downs has left a stigma on mahjong, which Jiang be­lieves is un­fair. “Gam­bling is peo­ple’s prob­lem, not the tiles’,” Jiang ar­gues. “Should we ban foot­ball or bas­ket­ball games be­cause peo­ple also bet on them?” Since 2006, Jiang has been try­ing to ap­ply for Na­tional In­tan­gi­ble Cul­tural Her­itage pro­tec­tion for the game. After the failed 2012 at­tempt, he told re­porters that he wants to “vin­di­cate the name of mahjong.”

Mahjong fans have been work­ing since the 1990s to change mahjong’s per­cep­tion by stan­dard­iz­ing the game rules. In 1998, the China State Sports Com­mis­sion pub­lished a new set of rules, nor­mally re­ferred to as “Guo­biao” (Chi­nese stan­dard)

“AS­SUM­ING THERE ARE A MIL­LION MAHJONG TA­BLES IN CHINA, THEN EVEN IF EV­ERY­ONE ONLY PLAYS EIGHT ROUNDS, THAT ADDS UP TO FOUR MIL­LION HOURS WASTED”

Mahjong, which laid out the three ba­sic prin­ci­ples for play­ing—no gam­bling, no drink­ing, and no smok­ing.

In 2006, the WMO was founded in Beijing. The fol­low­ing year, the first World Mahjong Cham­pi­onship was hosted in Chengdu, at­tended by 144 par­tic­i­pants from all over the world. Over the past 10 years, the or­ga­ni­za­tion has con­tin­ued to pro­mote mahjong as an in­tel­lec­tual sport in­ter­na­tion­ally. They are now pre­par­ing for the up­com­ing sixth tour­na­ment in Italy next year.

Out­side the in­ter­na­tional spot­light, the game also has le­gions of or­di­nary sup­port­ers all around China. “I never feel like we are gam­bling,” says He Min, a retiree who has been run­ning her own mahjong par­lor in Liaon­ing prov­ince for two years. “Play­ing mahjong is just a way to spend one’s leisure time.” At He’s par­lor, there are seven mahjong ta­bles, all equipped with au­to­matic tile-shuf­fling sys­tems. She can count on hav­ing at least four or five ta­bles oc­cu­pied ev­ery day from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Cus­tomers are mostly re­tirees, as well as a few who are self-em­ployed and have “plenty of time to kill.” He, too, waxes on about the in­tel­lec­tual as­pects of the game. “I be­lieve it can pro­tect peo­ple from Alzheimer’s disease. When you play mahjong, you ex­er­cise your brain and your arms.”

Ms. He earns more from the par­lor than her old job, but doesn’t re­gard mahjong as a busi­ness. “It’s more like so­cial­iz­ing. When you get old, you need to find some­thing to en­ter­tain your­self,” she says, com­par­ing the game to other retiree ac­tiv­i­ties like square-danc­ing. She stip­u­lates that this is cer­tainly the case for Ms. Jin, a fre­quent cus­tomer in her late 70s, who gets dropped off by her son at the par­lor ev­ery morn­ing the morn­ing and picked up in the af­ter­noon. “Some peo­ple say play­ing mahjong is not a good hobby. But how else can she kill time dur­ing the day?” asks He. “Here, she can have some­one to talk to.”

Re­fer­ring to her cus­tomers as mayou, lit­er­ally “mah mates,” He feels a spe­cial kind of ca­ma­raderie with them. She of­ten per­son­ally cooks the free lunch that the par­lor pro­vides

“SOME PEO­PLE SAY PLAY­ING MAHJONG IS NOT A GOOD HOBBY. BUT HOW ELSE CAN SHE KILL TIME DUR­ING THE DAY?”

the play­ers ev­ery day, and or­ga­nizes a Wechat group for the fre­quent cus­tomers, from which “backup play­ers” can be re­cruited if a ta­ble lacks one or two peo­ple.

In spite of its le­gal­iza­tion, mahjong’s gray zone in the eyes of the au­thor­i­ties is wor­ri­some to He. She has heard news of par­lors shut down by the po­lice for or­ga­niz­ing gam­bling ac­tiv­i­ties. “It ba­si­cally de­pends how much money is in­volved,” ex­plains He, who has con­sulted with lo­cal po­lice in­spec­tors. Sup­pos­edly, they as­sured her that if games in­volve less than 100 yuan, there won’t be a prob­lem. “We don’t play ‘big’ here. Nor­mally, even if you play all day, you won’t win or lose more than 100 kuai. It’s very rare some­one loses hun­dreds per day,” says He.

But Lai points out that the dan­ger is real. “Mahjong is def­i­nitely ad­dic­tive. The long­est time I ever played con­tin­u­ously was nearly 16 hours. It was ex­haust­ing, but I just couldn’t stop,” she re­calls. “At that point, I couldn’t say that play­ing mahjong was healthy.”

Lai also re­peats anec­dotes of peo­ple who lost huge amounts of money and had to bor­row re­peat­edly from friends. “But, can we just blame all of this on mahjong?” she asks. “It’s just a game. It’s the way you play it that’s right or wrong. It’s right to pro­mote healthy life­style. But do you re­ally think it’s smart to de­mo­nize such a pop­u­lar game?”

Jiang tells TWOC that, aside from try­ing to achieve in­tan­gi­ble cul­tural her­itage sta­tus, the WMO is pro­mot­ing mahjong as a cul­tural prod­uct abroad. “When for­eign­ers learn to play mahjong, they will know the Chi­nese char­ac­ters on the tiles, and use Chi­nese mahjong ter­mi­nol­ogy,” he ar­gues. “We be­lieve mahjong is a medium to spread Chi­nese cul­ture to for­eign coun­tries.”

At home, Jiang also hopes peo­ple can pay more at­ten­tion to the core cul­tural value of mahjong, which he be­lieves is in­trin­si­cally no­bler than the cur­rent rep­u­ta­tion of the game sug­gests. Jiang proudly re­cites “The Tenet and Spirit of Mahjong,” a 56-char­ac­ter dog­gerel: “Be­fore play­ing mahjong, you must re­fine your char­ac­ter...do not be ar­ro­gant when you win, nor be petty when you lose...do not let emo­tions af­fect your voice and fa­cial ex­pres­sions; keep a broad mind and be gen­er­ous...”

“This is what our an­ces­tors left us through mahjong. It’s ab­so­lutely not un­healthy,” says Jiang.

“WHEN FOR­EIGN­ERS LEARN TO PLAY MAHJONG, THEY WILL KNOW THE CHI­NESE CHAR­AC­TERS ON THE TILES, AND USE CHI­NESE MAHJONG TER­MI­NOL­OGY”

Women in the 1920s play­ing mahjong

Mahjong played in a Sichuan tea­house

A player wins if a le­gal hand can be com­pleted with the 14th tile

The 2014 World Mahjong Masters Tour­na­ment held in Kun­ming, Yun­nan prov­ince

A startup in Chengdu teach­ing for­eign­ers to play mahjong

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