Mahjong in China

Lately I realized how important mahjong is to the daily life in China, especially in that village where my mom lives.  It’s not an overstatement that, mahjong has become one of the popular games there.

If people just play it as a regular game, that’s totally fine.  It’s one kind of entertainment, and helps people to sharpen their minds.  But sometimes, the game becomes a way of gamble.  When money is involved, it changes the whole meaning of the game.

I lived at my mom’s place for 3+ months, and witnessed how mahjong is part of the village life there.  During the winter, the farmers have more free time.  Many choose to play mahjong.  On most of the mahjong tables, there is money flowing around, big or small.

The games affect many families in that village.  In some families, only the husbands play it.  In some households, only the wives love it.  It’s not uncommon to see both the husband and wife get involved, nice teamwork.  The resentment surfaced out when the spouse lost money.  Only quite a few families stay away from mahjong.

To many folks, “not involved” is not an option.  If they have money, and like to take the chance, they would sit at the table to participate.  For those who love the game, but don’t want to lose the money, they are the sincere audience.

My dad and mom never had anything to do with mahjong.  My brother and I don’t know anything about it either.

Out of curiosity, one day, I liked to see how a mahjong place looked like.  I dropped in at the most popular mahjong place in that village.  The hostess is my classmate’s mom, and she knew me.  I heard that, the host family takes small commissions from each round of the game.  Sure, they had to run extra utility to host the games.

At the entrance, I was hesitant to walk in, as there were 2 dogs in the yard.  The barking dogs alerted the people in the house, and many stood up to check what’s going on.  I guess they were nervous about being caught by the cops.

Theoretically, it’s illegal to gamble over there.  Offenders and host families could be fined or jailed if caught.  But the fact is that, even some of the cops could be gamblers, once they are off duty.

Anyway, false alarms.  The hostess came out and greeted me, and the game resumed.  The whole room was about 250 square feet, and 20 people were there.  One table was on, with 2 guys and 2 gals.  And the rest were the quiet observers, either sitting or crouching there.  Each guy smoked like a chimney.  The air in the room was horrible.  I guess the ladies in the room didn’t mind the dirty air.

I recognized one guy on the table.  He is my friend’s husband, with a typical poker face.  My friend told me earlier that, her husband was a frequent client of that place.

The gambling had a lot of impacts to her family.  At the beginning of their marriage, she was very mad at her man’s gambling.  She tried to change him, and failed.  I guess lately she accepted him as is, and started playing the game, too.  Can’t beat them?  Just join them.  There are two old Chinese sayings to mimic this scenario:  use poison to attack poison; once you are on a pirate boat, just be a pirate.

Mahjong is a well-beloved game, not only in that remote village, but also in many cities in China.  The games in the cities are more an entertainment, and probably no money is involved.  3 years ago, I was visiting the West Lake in the city Hang Zhou, a beautiful place.  On the south side of the lake, there was a game corner.  Some played mahjong, and others played Chinese chess.   Retirees gathered there, chatted, had fun, and enjoyed the lake scenery.  That was cool.

One time I saw a picture someone took in the city Cheng Du.  It was an extremely hot summer.  The residents brought out the tables and chairs, and set them up in a creek.  With the pant legs rolled high, feet cooled in the running water, they played the mahjong.  It looked like a life in the paradise.

Why do the people in China like mahjong?  That’s a question related to sociology, psychology, history, and home economics.  I really don’t know.  Probably they want to win?  Or just for socialization and entertainment?  Or they are bored, and don’t have a better hobby?

Dear readers, have you heard about the mahjong game?  Do you know how to play it?

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10 Responses

  1. Interesting Helen. I have not heard of it. Sounds like a social and fun way to pass the time! Tom

    • Retire Early Helen says:

      Hi Tom, I was just back home from China. Yeah, mahjong is very popular in China, and has become a sort of national game. Even many kids know it. It’s fun to watch the players and hear the sound of the card shuffling.

  2. Refugee from Academia says:

    Mah jongg was a big fad in the 1920s in the US. In New York City, they still play it and I think in Florida, where many retire. When I went to China in 2016, they were surprised I had even heard of the game. Not from New York, so no one I ever personally knew played it.

    • Retire Early Helen says:

      Thank you for sharing your thought. It’s interesting to know mahjong was a big fad in US in 1920s. In China, probably the game is more popular in the small cities or villages than the big cities. It has become a kind of mahjong culture, especially in the winter time.

      I don’t know much about the game either. Before finishing this blog, I asked my mom’s neighbor if they had the mahjong cards, so I could take some pictures. Interestingly they do. It was fun to touch and look at those colorful cards.

  3. Dragon Guy says:

    I love playing mahjong. Dragon Gal taught me how to play the game early in our relationship. We now play with her parents if they are around. The set she taught me with did not have any digits on the tiles, so I had to learn the written 1 through 9 in Chinese. I’ve gotten to the point now where I can announce all of the tiles in Chinese. I knew I had really made it when I was able to play with Dragon Gal’s grandma years ago. She like to play at a fast pace, so it was an honorable moment when I could finally play with her.

    • Retire Early Helen says:

      Hi Dragon Guy, that’s amazing you can announce all the tiles in Chinese. I have a hard time even recognizing how many dots or bars on each tile. It must be an honorable moment when you were able to catch the fast pace with Dragon Gal’s grandma. Mahjong is a cool game, some joked it like stacking the Great Wall. Thanks a lot for sharing your experience.

  4. GYM says:

    Did you watch the scene in Crazy Rich Asians movie about the Mah Jong? I wish I knew how to play Mah Jong, it looks really interesting and strategic. I tried to learn but never got the hang of it. You can also play online too I think.

    I guess it’s kind of like Warren Buffett’s bridge playing!

    • Retire Early Helen says:

      Hi GYM, I heard about that movie, and never watched it. It’s amazing so many people like playing it. Definitely it’s good for the brains, and is fun.

  5. Fascinating story. Jewish women “of a certain age” in places like New York and Florida often played Mah Jong. Perhaps it is an outgrowth of the informal “tradition” among many Jewish families to have “Chinese food” on Sunday evenings. The theory is that this tradition evolved given that New York City’s traditional Chinatown was located close to neighborhoods once largely populated by Jewish immigrants. (I once ate at a “glatt kosher” vegetarian Chinese restaurant in Manhattan.) The first time I saw Mah Jong being played in China was in Shanghai in the mid-1990’s. A group of older women were playing in the courtyard of an apartment complex. (Typical six story walk-ups…) No money was involved.

    • Retire Early Helen says:

      Hi Bill, thanks a lot for sharing your story. It’s interesting to hear mahjong was being played at some Jewish communities. Different cultures do have some overlays. Yeah, mahjong has a long history in China. Though I don’t know how to play it, I love to observe and read the players’ faces. It’s like reading a book.

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