mahjong


mahjong
Game
Mahjong (majiang; also maque [sparrow]) is a popular game normally played by four people using dice and 144 tiles which have numbers and suits—the winds, dragons, Chinese characters, bamboo and circles. At the beginning of the game, the tiles are arranged face down in a square ‘court’ which has four walls, each eighteen tiles long and two tiles high. The walls, which are jokingly called the Great Wall, are built indiscriminately. The player taking the last wall breaks the square by extracting two tiles. From this point the players start making sets and sequences of tiles by taking fresh tiles in turn (thirteen in all) and discarding unwanted tiles into the court. Points are given according to the value of the tiles and of the various sets and sequences. In the past centuries Mahjong was introduced to Japan, America and other countries, where rules are modified. There are many mahjong clubs in and outside of China, e.g. the Beijing Mahjong Club, and one can also play online in different languages. Due to variations in play and scoring from place to place or even from house to house, people who do not often play together may have to agree on the rules beforehand. The Shanghainese, Cantonese and Taiwanese versions are well known.
Many Chinese are mahjong addicts, but many also, especially in the PRC, look down on mahjong as gambling associated with the criminal underworld: Edward Yang’s film Mahjong (1995) is about corrupt expatriates and the low life among Taipei gangs. In fact, mahjong was discouraged after 1949 in the PRC, and even forbidden during the Cultural Revolution (1966–76) because of its association with a decadent life. It was still frowned upon during the 1980s, when people had to play indoors. In Shanghai’s community centres, where neighbours like to play mahjong, one can still see the ‘No gambling’ (buxu dubo) signs displayed. Interestingly, with the popularity of computer games, mahjong has not declined, especially among senior citizens. Probably for the purpose of distinguishing mahjong from gambling, the PRC government recognized it as a competitive athletic sport (tiyu jing ji xiangmu), and in September 1998, the State Sports General Administration (Sports Bureau) announced the ‘Chinese Mahjong Competition Rules (for Trial Implementation)’ (Zhongguo majiang jingsai guize, shixing). National and regional contests have been held according to the official rules. The game is often a social event with wining and dining, and games may last for days. A shunkouliu (doggerel verse) satirises cadres:
Zui, xing fende shi kai qiecuo (majiang) hui,
Zui xiaosade shi zoujin yezhonghui.
The most exciting thing is to hold a discussion [playing mahjong] meeting;
The most natural and unrestrained thing to do is go to a nightclub.
What they do at those places is vividly described in examples (2) and (4) under the entry shunkouliu.
Papineau, E. (2000). ‘Mah-jong, a Game with Attitude: Expression of an Alternative Culture’. Trans. M.Black. China Perspectives 28:29–42.
HELEN XIAOYAN WU

Encyclopedia of contemporary Chinese culture. . 2011.

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