BEIJING - Anytime, anywhere, if there are Chinese people around, the sound of mahjong won't be far. That's the sound of ivory (or plastic) tiles being knocked together.

While mahjong is seen today as a distraction for the masses, the game's place in early 20th-century China was in the hands of the elite: from the Dowager Empress Cixi to Soong Mei-Ling, the First Lady of the Republic of China and the wife of Generalissimo Chang Kai-Shek; from Mao Zedong to Zhu De; or even Liang Qichao, the influential Chinese philosopher…all were mahjong players.

Others didn't play but took great pleasure in following the game, like Liang Shih-Chiu and Hu Shi, two other prominent turn-of-the-century scholars. The former admitted "I don't play. Not because I consider myself more noble, but because I'm too slow at keeping up with other people's reactions." The latter made the remark that Britain's national game is cricket, America's baseball, Japan's wrestling, while China prefers mahjong. 

Life around the mahjong table

Mahjong is played by four players. Along with the onlookers, they form a miniature society. The idea is that if people have time to play or watch these games, they must be doing well, and only a peaceful society allows such a lifestyle.

A lot of Chinese stories, whether in literature or on screen, are told through the mahjong table. In Ang Lee's Lust, Caution, mahjong games are a leitmotif. Whether it's rival wives sizing each other up, or a man and a woman exchanging glances, it all happens over a mahjong table.

In The Joy Luck Club, the 1993 feature film based on Amy Tang's best-selling novel depicting Chinese immigrants in the United States, the narrative structure is determined by the order in which the players are seated, and their tiles. The four families are the four major figures of the movie. Like in the game, they take turns in telling their respective stories.

Though it involves gambling, mahjong is first and foremost seen as a social occasion. For many Chinese, playing mahjong is an opportunity to see friends and get to know people better. In pre-communist Shanghai, it was even considered as a good way of choosing a son-in-law for one's daughter. It is believed that the game is a sure way to determine someone's character. Losing a game can bring out the player's flaws, like impatience and lack of manners, which cannot be the mark of a true gentleman.

Philosophy in those tiles

Mao Zedong once said "Don't underestimate playing mahjong. If you know how to play it, you'll have a better understanding of the relationship between chance and necessity. There's philosophy in mahjong."

Elizabeth Bambino, a French scholar, says the game is a window into Chinese manners. "The metaphor of mahjong culture, its egalitarian driving force, the dizzying sounds and gestures, as well as the tea-sipping, wine-drinking and the immersive atmosphere while playing it, all this takes away the feeling of a doomed destiny and the relationship between people and the secular power," she explained.

Even today, mahjong is still the most important form of recreation in Chinese society, and is played by ordinary people as well as officials. They organize their life and communicate with each other through the mahjong table. They also practice military strategies on the table.

Mahjong winners aren't just "lucky", they are calm and analytical. The careful observations of others, finding order from the disorder, are all manifestations of traditional Chinese thinking.

An American businessman introduced the game to the West in the 1920's. His book on "mahjong rules" has been dubbed the "little red book." Since then mahjong has been recognized as a sport in the West and led to bona fide leagues, competitions and team uniforms. One could imagine that both Chang Kai-Shek and Mao Zedong would wince together at such a sight.

Read the original article in Chinese

Photo - Charles Chan