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The Game People Played: Mahjong in Modern Chinese Society and Culture

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abstract: This article considers the discourse surrounding the popular Chinese table game of mahjong in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, using it as a barometer to trace social and cultural changes during the late Qing and Republican periods. After analyzing the connection between mahjong; its forerunner, madiao; and their antithesis, weiqi (go), it traces the changing position of mahjong in Chinese society from a game seemingly loathed by literati to a staple of bourgeois parlors. Drawing on a variety of journals, newspapers, and visual sources, the article further explores culture from class and gender perspectives in the late Qing and Republican periods, as mahjong moved from a visibly male activity to one largely associated with women. Finally, it considers the relationship between games and discourses of modernity, and the important changes taking place regarding leisure time in the twentieth century. The article argues that mahjong has been uniquely resistant to regulation and control. Enjoyment of the game spread across class and gender lines, despite the efforts of reformers, for reasons that reflect and embody key shifts from the late Qing dynasty through the end of the Republican period.
Cross-Currents: East Asian History and Culture Review
E-Journal No. 17 (December 2015) • (http://cross-currents.berkeley.edu/e-journal/issue-17)
The Game People Played: Mahjong in Modern Chinese Society and Culture
Maggie Greene, Montana State University
Abstract
This article considers the discourse surrounding the popular Chinese table game of mahjong in
the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, using it as a barometer to trace social and cultural changes
during the late Qing and Republican periods. After analyzing the connection between mahjong;
its forerunner, madiao; and their antithesis, weiqi (go), it traces the changing position of mahjong
in Chinese society from a game seemingly loathed by literati to a staple of bourgeois parlors.
Drawing on a variety of journals, newspapers, and visual sources, the article further explores
culture from class and gender perspectives in the late Qing and Republican periods, as mahjong
moved from a visibly male activity to one largely associated with women. Finally, it considers
the relationship between games and discourses of modernity, and the important changes taking
place regarding leisure time in the twentieth century. The article argues that mahjong has been
uniquely resistant to regulation and control. Enjoyment of the game spread across class and
gender lines, despite the efforts of reformers, for reasons that reflect and embody key shifts from
the late Qing dynasty through the end of the Republican period.
Keywords: China, Republican, Qing, mahjong, madiao, weiqi, go, games, leisure
In 1927, the eminent Chinese writer Hu Shi lamented the contrast between China’s national
pastime and those of other countries. England had cricket; America had baseball; Japan had
wrestling.And China? China’s national game,he wrote,is mahjong([1927] 1998, 45). Hu
Shi then suggested that the game was dangerous enough to the fledgling Republic of China that it
should be classed along with footbinding and opium as a great social peril. If each game of
mahjong required four hours, he famously calculated, the million games of mahjong played each
day in China wasted four million hours a day! Yetno onethought of mahjong as injurious to
the nation ([1927] 1998, 48). In fact, despite his critique, Hu Shi himself spent many an evening
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playing the game with friends. Perhaps it was this intimate awareness of how pleasurable a
diversion mahjong could be that informed his criticism.
Hu Shi’s early twentieth-century anxieties over mahjong were, in many respects, nothing
new. From the game’s emergence in the 1800s, Chinese moralists and reformers wrung their
hands as they complained bitterly of its popularity—while perhaps indulging in a few hands
themselves. In so doing, they harked back to an older strain of criticism: certain scholar-officials
had identified madiao, mahjong’s ludic predecessor, as one contributor to the Ming dynasty’s
collapse. These games seemed to be harbingers of dynastic downfall and destruction, their broad
popularity signaling society’s crumbling moral foundations. However, unlike footbinding and
opium, mahjong was not the focus of sustained campaigns of eradication. While tile games were
sporadically banned, few government entities tried to enforce control over mahjong in the home.
And yet mahjong was a ubiquitous topic, lurking quietly on the pages of radical Qing
newspapers and flickering across Republican movie screens. A silent symbol of declining
morality and wasted hours, mahjong moved from being a cause of China’s problems to being a
signal of a society in the throes of moral decay.
Mahjong was played by the wealthy and the poor, men and women, urbanites and
villagers; in short, it was a game that enjoyed nearly unrivaled popularity. A focused scholarly
examination of mahjong provides an opportunity to elucidate relationships of leisure and the
state, nationalism, and modernity, and sheds light on the social turbulence of late nineteenth- and
early twentieth-century China. Unlike other targets of reformers, such as opium use and
prostitution, mahjong may have encouraged morally harmful behavior, but it left no markers of
illness on physical bodies. Often played at home, in parlors and back rooms, the game was not a
public problem. Not was it popular only in China; it also spawned crazes in Japan and the West.
Mahjong was apatented product of China that attracted—and continues to attract—foreign
fans.
Games (particularly those with broad popularity) are unique media with which to
undertake historical inquiry. On the one hand, they are often described as trifling amusements;
on the other, their sheer popularity and broad distribution in society allow insight into varied
parts of society. Furthermore, as generally private activities, mahjong and other similar pleasures
were largely free from state intervention. Anti-gambling campaigns notwithstanding, mahjong
occupied a conflicted position in Chinese society, and it is this status that makes it a valuable
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object of historical inquiry. In this article I will not address changes to game play, but instead
show the utility of considering the social, cultural, and political position of games and other
leisure activities.
This article tracks changing criticisms of mahjong from the late Qing dynasty (1644–
1911) through the end of the Republican period (1911–1949), particularly concerning the game
as an urban phenomenon. In tracing criticisms of mahjong from the moralizing concerns of dour
Qing scholar-officials to nationalistic critiques leveled after 1911, I illustrate that mahjong is a
useful subject for historical inquiry because the game cuts across lines of class, gender, and
locality. In exploring why mahjong proved to be such an enduring problem for Chinese
intellectuals and politicians, I analyze mahjong; its forerunner, madiao; and their antithesis,
weiqi, through distinctions of class and gender. I examine the constructed relationships of
morality, time, and nationalism, and the attempts of reformers to imbue every aspect of daily life
with some redeeming progressive characteristics. These included adding notions ofnational
healthandwasted time” to the discourse on games and leisure during the Republican period, as
efforts to build a strong, modern nation took hold. I also investigate the shifting associations of
mahjong, which went from a staple of brothels and teahouses to a game enjoyed by bourgeois
families in their modern homes. I argue that this move from pleasure quarters to eminently
respectable bourgeois households provides one reason for mahjong’s enduring popularity, as
well as for its resistance to regulation and control. The discourse about mahjong reflects many
key shifts from the late Qing to the Republican era.
Origins
Mahjong (majiang) is a game for four players, played with a set of 144 tiles grouped into
two major sets: thenumber” tiles and thehonor” tiles (figure 1). Number tiles are divided into
three suits, each representing different denominations of traditional coins. Each suit includes tiles
numbered one through nine. The honor tiles are not numbered and are divided into four
directionalwindsand threedragons. Both the honor and number tiles include four of each
tile, for a total of 136 tiles. Finally, sets include eight unique, optional tiles calledflower tiles,”
often fancifully decorated (Lo 2001, 3–4). The goal in all variations of the game is to create
winning hands by discarding and drawing new tiles (Lo 2001, 10). As in numerous Western
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trick-taking card games, there are many combinations that can make up a winning hand, with
rarer types worth more points (Gibson [1974] 2013, 7–8).
Figure 1. A modern set of 144 mahjong tiles, with “number” tiles in the first twelve columns
from the left and “honor” tiles in the four right-hand columns. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Figure 2. Du Yaquan’s genealogy of mahjong, beginning with various pai games on the right and
ending with what he considers modern mahjong, dated to the 1920s. Source: Du Yaquan, Boshi
(38).
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Mahjong’s precise origins have been lost to time, but its tile set almost certainly derives
from the older tile game of madiao. Writer and editor Du Yaquan’s influential 1933 history of
gambling suggests that mahjong grew out of the mixture of madiao with various other tile games
(pai) throughout the Qing dynasty (figure 2). Du identifies these two strains coalescing into what
he terms jiangma pai by the nineteenth century. He locates the origins of majiang pai—modern
mahjong—in the first decade of the Republican period. Du places mahjong’s rise in popularity in
southern China following the First Opium War (1839–1842) and the opening of treaty ports. In a
fluid environment where “buyers from every province” gathered alongside drifters without
permanent residences, the game of mahjong spread like wildfire (Du 1933, 33–34).
The author Xu Ke’s Classified Collection of Qing Notes also traces mahjong to mid-
nineteenth-century southern China, during the Taiping Rebellion (Xu [1917] 1984–1986 ).
Mahjong soon spread all over China, even finding passionate devotees in the Qing court (Xu
[1917] 1984–1986, 4906). While Xu’s anecdote of Manchu royalty and noblewomen enjoying a
mahjong game is possibly fictive, exquisitely decorated mahjong sets indicate that the game was
enjoyed by the elite. And although few sources offer concrete details of how and when mahjong
developed, there is a clear association with the traumatic years of the Opium Wars and the
Taiping Rebellion.
Mahjong, like its predecessors, enjoyed widespread popularity in Chinese society.
However, these games had already attracted the ire of scholar-officials by the end of the Ming
dynasty (1368–1644). The scholar-official Wu Weiye (1609–1671) wrote thatthe Ming dynasty
was lost—lost on account of madiao(Hu 1998, 47). The officials of the Ming were—in Wu’s
opinion—wasting time (typified by excessive enjoyment of the tile game) as their world
crumbled; we might draw parallels to the Western maxim ofNero fiddling as Rome burned.
The association of madiao and mahjong with decadent, frivolous pleasures—symptoms of moral
decay in a time of crisis, and a symbol of corrupt officials—would continue through the
twentieth century. But it is worth noting that the other famous table games of China, weiqi (better
known by its Japanese name, go) and xiangqi (similar to chess), receive no such vitriolic
assessment from elites. On the contrary, many viewed mastery of weiqi in particular as an
important and beneficial skill to cultivate.
Weiqi is a game for two players, played on a 19 ×19 grid. Using stones, players attempt
to encircle their opponents’ pieces, thereby removing them from the playing field (Lo and Wang
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2004, 187). Unlike madiao or mahjong, weiqi has legitimately ancient origins. Du Yaquan dates
it back to as early as the Warring States period (475–221 B.C.E). Although the archeological and
philological record does not support so ancient a beginning, the veneer of Confucian legitimacy
went a long way toward making weiqi a respectable game (Lien 2006, 567–568, 571). Not only
was weiqi well pedigreed, but by the Tang dynasty (618–907 C.E) it was regarded as one of the
“four arts”—along with calligraphy, painting, and playing the zither—that cultivated men were
expected to study (Z. Chen 2001, 200–201). Weiqi was even a popular subject for poetry. One
official mused on the lovely acoustic qualities of his bamboo tower:It is a good place to play
the [zither], for the musical melodies are harmonious…; it is a good place to chant poems, for the
poetic tones ring pure…; it is a good place to play [weiqi], for the stones sound out click-click
(Z. Chen 1997, 644).
Mahjong tiles, too, make a satisfying noise, but literati studiously refrained from waxing
rhapsodic on the pleasures of the game. Perhaps the suspect origins of madiao, and later
mahjong, were the root of the problem. While weiqi could befound(however spuriously) in
Confucian texts, madiao and mahjong enjoyed no such record of ancient origins and were often
associated with traumatic periods of upheaval and decline. Perhaps just as important was how the
games were played. Weiqi, despite being a game for two players, is frequently represented as an
individualistic activity. In the poem above, weiqi is grouped with other quiet activities. While
these may all be enjoyed with others, they are also solitary pleasures. It is the development of
individual skill and talent, through careful self-cultivation, not the dynamics of group play, that
is frequently emphasized in weiqi literature.
Equally important as this emphasis on self-cultivation were perceptions of game
mechanics. Mahjong would be critiqued in the twentieth century for being too combative and not
encouraging teamwork. Why, then, was weiqi, anintrinsically… antagonistic or warlike game,
not subject to the same criticisms? The literary scholar Chen Zuyan argues that because weiqi
was a gamegoverned primarily by skills developed in handling strategic operations and tactical
encounters,it satisfied the desire of men of letters to also be men of war (1997, 645). Weiqi’s
“approximationof military strategies supposedly gave it some weight as a training ground for
thinking in abstract patterns and developing an understanding of specific strategies (Z. Chen,
1997, 645–646). Surely, mahjong—a game that requires no small measure of strategy—could
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offer the same sort of utility? In the minds of many Chinese intellectuals, however, the answer
was “absolutely not.”
The game studies scholar Dan Dixon has offered a reading ofDionysian playingand
“Apollonian gamingthat can be applied to mahjong, madiao, and weiqi, and suggests one way
of thinking about the different attitudes toward the games. Apollonian gaming—here, weiqiis
marked by the individualistic pleasures of problem solving, understanding a system, and so forth.
Dionysian playing—typified by madiao and mahjong—emphasizes a shared, social experience
(2009, 6, 10). Tile games were inherently social; game play was often less important than the
comradeship found around the playing table, standing in stark contrast to the perception of weiqi
as a relatively solitary activity, marked by self-cultivation and long reflection. Furthermore, the
fondness of China’s literati for mapping world order to games, or at least to weiqi, explains one
reason mahjong found so little favor. The parallels between cosmic order and a weiqi board—
summed up by a line of poetry reading,The cosmos is [a weiqi] board”—where order emerges
out of seeming chaos while playing the game—goes a long way in explaining the attraction to
and positive impression of weiqi (Z. Chen 1997, 650). This ability to render the opaque lucid is a
key element ofthe Apollonian.While it is safe to say that even the most worldly of late Qing
and Republican Chinese intellectuals were not pondering games in Nietzschian terms, the
interdependent relationship of the Apollonian and Dionysian helps explain why weiqi could be
praised for the same characteristics that mahjong was vilified for.
As the philosopher Robert John Ackermann has argued,the Apollonian is a mode of
representation… that allows human beings to have a grasp of the Dionysian in a bearable or
intelligent form (1990, 55). Apollonian games (such as weiqi) allow players to control, by
means of cultivation, the game environment; Dionysian games (such as mahjong and madiao) do
not. Furthermore, mahjong is always included as part of gambling (dubo) games; weiqi is not.
Dubo refers to games associated with money, to be sure, but is more problematically associated
with chance (Papineau 2000, 223–225). In the context of official life, such games (like madiao
and mahjong) underscore the capricious nature of fate: hard work and cultivation are not enough
to ensure success. It is possible that one’s competitors will have been dealt a better hand, and all
the talent in the world will not be able to make up for a starting deficit. Weiqi, on the other hand,
starts both players with a clean slate, and success comes through diligent practice. If thecosmos
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is a weiqi board, then players who have a mastery over strategy—one that has been acquired
through hard work, not passively received—will emerge victorious.
The ways in which mahjong and weiqi have historically been discussed underscore these
perceptions. Mahjong requires skill, but it also requiresclevernessandquick thinking,and is
unsuited to quiet contemplation. The anthropologist Paul Festa notes thatalmost without
exception,his mahjong-playing informants in contemporary Taiwan describe the outcomes as
“twenty-percent skill and eighty-percent luck(2007, 109). Weiqi, on the other hand, is seen as
confirmation that careful cultivation will triumph in the end—a sign that the cosmos is fair,
rational, and meritocratic.
The literati’s express distaste for madiao and mahjong belies their positions as games
inextricably tied to scholar-official life, for better or worse. Even disapproving literati had a
difficult time denying that the games enjoyed a wide popularity among political and cultural
elites. One seventeenth-century scholar noted that it seemed hardly a single person was not
playing the game in important political and cultural centers, positing that it was perhaps boredom
that led the craze (X. Chen 2009, 145). There was another aspect, however, to madiao and
mahjong’s social status. Xu Ke lists amediocre skill(that is, the ability to lose to superiors) in
weiqi and madiao as one of the keys to official success in provincial capitals ([1917] 1984–1986,
1595). It is not unreasonable to assume that mahjong had begun to supersede madiao as the other
game of official life by the late Qing dynasty (X. Chen 2009, 150).
This ability to play, but lose gracefully to superiors, recalls an incident among women in
the Qing writer Cao Xueqin’s novel Story of the Stone (Honglou meng), in which the younger
women conspire to lose to Grandmother Jia, delighting the older woman in the process (Cao
1977, 430–432). While the specific game is not named (it is simply noted as a generic pai), it is
not difficult to imagine the game as madiao or one of mahjong’s huapai forerunners. Though the
presence of the unnamed pai in a gentry household in decline would probably confirm the
opinions of Wu Weiye and others that the ardent playing of flippant games such as madiao was a
potent symbol of disaster—either national or familial—looming on the horizon, it may also be
read as showing appropriate respect for one’s elders or superiors, which may or may not lead to
material gains (promotion, money, elevation of status). In a less materialistic sense, thegain
could be the replication of proper social relations, even in a competitive setting. The anecdotes
also illustrate the social nature of mahjong and madiao: the group dynamic of the game is
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highlighted in Story of the Stone. The inclusion of mahjong ability (particularly the ability to lose
gracefully) in the list of Xu Ke’sten attributesfor official success further reinforces the
essential social aspect of the game.
The Dutch historian Johan Huizinga read these types of situations ascompetition for
honour,or acontest in politeness, whereby one could[demolish] one’s adversary by
superior manners, making way for him or giving him precedence(1971, 66). The fact that this
game-within-a-game apparently applied to weiqi as well as mahjong undercuts one of the
primary differences between the games (at least in how critics conceptualized them). Is the
winner of a weiqi match truly the most skilled, or did his position win the game for him? This
topic is not one madiao and mahjong critics brought up: the emphasis on personal experience
and cultivation to the exclusion of the social element of weiqi allowed fans to neatly sidestep
some of the potential unpleasantness of relations in the human world.
Combining the gambling issue with concerns over bad officials and greedy social
climbing may suggest yet another reason mahjong was so detested. While the ability to lose
gracefully at weiqi is, indeed, noted as a useful skill—this is one of the few times madiao and
weiqi stand side-by-side as near equals (notably, in a critique of bureaucratic culture in
general)—the literary and cultural precedents for weiqi’s position as a sublime pastime is one
that madiao and mahjong do not share. Madiao, from the waning years of the Ming dynasty
onward, assumes a negative connotation: the game that lost the dynasty. Mahjong was linked
back to this discourse as the Qing dynasty crumbled and acquired even more negative overtones
due to the period of its emergence. Mahjong is tied to traumatic events that signaled the decline
of the Qing: humiliating defeats in the Opium Wars, the opening of treaty ports, and widespread
destruction caused by the Taiping Rebellion. Weiqi rested comfortably on its Confucian heritage,
but mahjong had no such illustrious history and, in fact, had a host of associations most people
would be happy to forget.
Mahjong and Urban Society
From its origins in the crowded southern Chinese cities of the mid-nineteenth century
onward, mahjong appears to have been primarily an urban phenomenon, albeit one enjoyed by
players drawn from all classes of society. For reformers and moralists, it was mahjong’s position
in treaty ports and bourgeois parlors, and not the countryside, that was most concerning. When
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the writer Lu Xun described a fictional country bumpkin’s return to his small village from a
larger town, he emphasized the exotic nature of mahjong. Villagerscouldn’t manage anything
better than a game played with thirty-two bamboo counters. Here only the Fake Foreign Devil
knew how to play Ma John, but in town every little shitkicker on the block knew it up one side
and down the other(Lu 1990, 142).1
In August 1909, the newspaper Shenbao reported that the Ministry of Civil Affairs was
implementing a ban on gambling in Beijing. While mahjong is not specified by name, the ban
proscribed card gambling (paidu), a category that would include mahjong and other tile games
(“Minzhengbu1909). Of more interest is where implementation of the ban would begin: the
brothels of Bada Hutong, a notable Beijing red-light district. When the scholar Liang Shiqiu
asked his father about mahjong, his father responded sharply,Thinking about playing mahjong?
Go to the Bada Hutong!This response so frightened young Liang that he did not dare mention
the game again, and he retained abad impression of it until he became friendly with Hu Shi
and other expert players (Li 2009, 27). Mahjong’s status as a gambling game, and its association
with seedier elements of society, would carry over into the Republican period. Mahjong was
associated with excess and decadence: prostitution, drinking, and opium smoking. Yet it also
maintained a conflicted status, particularly as it began to saturate the domestic realm of
bourgeois housewives. Thus, for some critics, mahjong was at once a symptom of China’s
backwardness and moral decay and a symbol of detestable upper-class decadence.
Han Banqing’s sprawling 1892 novel Flowers of Shanghai (Haishang hua) centers on
wealthy patrons of Shanghainese brothels and the beautifulflower girlsthat serve them.
Drinking, opium smoking, and mahjong games make frequent appearances, alongside romances,
attempted murder, and numerous other dramatic turns. The image of total excess is clear:
“Sometimes, guests play [mahjong],complains one girl, “and I have to stay up all night. By the
time the game is over at dawn, they all go to bed.” (Han 2005, 184). Even servants and maids
pass the time between clients by playing a few hands. However, women are frequently absent
from the actual playing of mahjong in the novel. In one scene, only one girl remainson call”
during a mahjong game between male clients. She sits behind her client, mere decoration for the
game, which eventually begins after consumption of alcohol and opium and a significant outlay
of cash (Han 2005, 209–210).
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Mahjong was indeed an important activity in brothels. As primary sources of income for
courtesan houses, gambling parties and banquets encouraged a sensual atmosphere in which men
could enjoy the company of women and interact with other men in acongenial environment
(Hershatter 1997, 94–95). Unlike weiqi, mahjong was usually situated in an intensely social
context. Money and alcohol appear to have flowed quite freely, and madams preferred clients
who liked gambling and drinking (Hershatter 1997, 95). By 1939, one round of mahjong could
cost between 24 and 48 yuan (by comparison, a ticket to a Hollywood film at a plush movie
theater cost between 1 and 3 yuan). One decadent evening of drinking, eating, and mahjong
could cost patrons several hundred yuan (Hershatter 1997, 135). Tile games, once associated
with frivolous literati, could now be linked to sensual excess. Mahjong terminology even found
its way into descriptions of conflicts between customers over a courtesan (Hershatter 1997, 135–
136).2
But mahjong was also enjoyed beyond the elite pleasure quarters. The earliest extant
Chinese film, Laborer’s Love (1922, dir. Zhang Shichuan) offers a contemporaneous glimpse
into the underbelly of Republican Shanghai. The main character is an earnest fruit peddler trying
to find love on the mean alleys of Shanghai. His foils are the boisterous small-time crooks who
hang out in the little teahouse next door to his fruit stand, and the patrons and courtesans of the
all-night clubabove his apartment. One night, the peddler is kept awake in his modest
apartment by the activities upstairs. After showing a clock indicating it is close to 10 P.M., the
action moves upstairs to the club, where a mahjong party is going on. The implication is that the
clatter of tiles and party noise are keeping the hero awake. While four men are seated at the
mahjong table, the women merely look on and do not participate. The action grows more and
more animated as the first round comes to a close. Finally, one man jumps up in excitement,
declaring,Double sevens!”; the camera lingers on the table and the winner’s hand. The players
soon sit down for another round—until a fight breaks out among the spectators. Mahjong is
represented as part of the decadent world of urban clubs, set in stark contrast to the hard-working
fruit peddler and other residents trying to eke out a meager living.
The association between mahjong and baser social elements was not confined to Chinese
observers alone. In 1925, the Japanese professor Aoki Masaru commissioned a series of
paintings—later published as Pekin fuzoku zufu [Illustrations of Beijing customs]—depicting
many aspects of life in Beijing. One series of three images illustrates some pleasurable (and
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morally suspect) pastimes: sandwiched between two well-dressed gentlemen inspecting beauties
spilling out from behind a curtain in atea houseand opium smokers lounging while puffing on
their pipes is a lively game of mahjong (Aoki 1964, unnumbered plate). It doesn’t seem
accidental that mahjong is slotted alongside a teahouse of ill repute and opium. And yet, by the
twentieth century, mahjong not only was attracting players from the upper echelons of Chinese
society, but had fans in Japan and the West, as well. Despite being a trifling matter, mahjong was
a concern for reformers because it cut across class, gender, and geographical boundaries.
Mahjong’s devotees were not simply patrons of urban brothels. Harking back to the
seventeenth-century critiques of madiao, Chinese warlords like Zhang Zuolin were said to be
passionate about the game. Zhangappears at crucial times in his career… to have withdrawn
into seclusion, where with his closest cronies he devoted himself to [mahjong], opium, and
singing girls(McCormack 1977, 253), an odd echo of earlier imperial criticisms of those
officials who gave themselves over to diversions in the face of crisis. Mahjong was a constant
feature of Zhang’s life, even when he wasworking,” as he and members of his administration
enjoyed the game nightly (McCormack 1977, 308).
Had mahjong been confined to teahouses, brothels, and nightclubs, and its players
restricted to courtesans’ clients, debauched warlords, and seedy urban elements, perhaps
reformers and modernizers would not have troubled themselves with such strident denunciations
of the game. The fate of traditional teahouse culture in Republican China offers one blueprint of
what might have been. New cultural elites were disdainful of the backward,decadentteahouse
andeverything it stood for(Shao 1998, 1010). Bydenigrating teahouses and their patrons of
the uncouthother’(Shao 1998, 1010), critics relegated teahouses to the lower strata of society,
thus largely erasing them from the modern social landscape. This mirrors the furor over mahjong
in many ways, not least in the insistence that teahouses—like the tile game—were considereda
negative influence on the new, Republican age (Shao 1998, 1021). But unlike teahouses,
mahjong was not sliding down the social ladder. On the contrary, its popularity seemed only to
grow—even among new cultural elites like Hu Shi. The problem with mahjong was that it was
equally at home in teahouses and brothels as in the new, modern parlors of the bourgeoisie.
Mahjong was so dangerous because everyone, as reformers stressed, seemed enamored of the
game.
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In comparison to other forms of gambling, like dice or cock fighting, mahjong could be
played in the comfort of one’s home, making regulation difficult. Furthermore, the very nature of
the game seemed to attract players, such as bourgeois housewives, who would never dream of
betting on a dice game. A 1940 article from a highbrow women’s magazine laid out the
differences between mahjong and other kinds of gambling. The author divides gambling games
into two categories: fast games, in which money comes and goes quickly, and slow games (like
mahjong) in which money ebbs and flows more gradually (Mei 1940, 17). The cautious person
wouldn’t dare start a fast game; the dangers of such kinds of gambling seemed obvious. But
mahjong’s more sedate pace and smaller transactions—stories of fantastically expensive brothel
gatherings notwithstanding, most people played for token sums—meant that even cautious
people were happy to play.Old-style elderly men and women, middle-aged men from every
profession, [and] a good number of housewivesall numbered among fans of the game—even
“totally new modern youthsenjoyed it (Mei 1940, 17). Mahjong was a hidden danger, because
many people didn’t recognize it as a problem. And it had a place in the homes of perfectly
modern men and women.
In a 1904 article in Zheijiang’s radical Alarm Bell Daily News, one anonymous late Qing
reformer suggested that, owing to mahjong’s broad popularity, it could be used to edify the
population, not simply to ensnare them in vapid evenings of gambling and socializing.3 The
article, tucked between dispatches on the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905) and important
national matters, provides a more rational assessment of the game and its place in Chinese
society, as well as its potential power, than can be found in most other critiques.In observing
the rise and fall of nations, one should not observe matters of great importance,the author
wrote,but instead look at trifling things (“Majiang pai1904). Noting the difficulties of
eradicating old customs entirely and tackling large issues, the author suggested that mahjong
could make an excellent tool for education, with some modifications. As a broadly popular
game, mahjong could be the perfect vehicle for reform on a small scale. The proposed new game
needed to hit a sweet spot between alienating erudition and boring simplicity. Based on its
sophisticated theme and complicated rule set, it was likely aimed at the relatively educated,
urban consumer.
The earnest educational game dreamed up by the anonymous author of the article bore
little resemblance to any variation of mahjong (figure 3). The dragon tiles were replaced with
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government types (autocracy, constitutional monarchy, and republic), while the directional tiles
were mapped to four classes of people (farmer, worker, merchant, and soldier). The three
traditional suits were assigned to continents (Asia, Europe, and the Americas); the nine tiles of
each suit were assigned a country and corresponding government type (e.g.,China—
autocracy, England—constitutional monarchy”). A variety of other tiles were included: the
five inhabited continents, the five major oceans, and modern forms of technology (steamship,
railroad, printing, telegraph, and hot air balloon).
Figure 3. Tiles from the proposed version of reformed mahjong in the Alarm Bell Daily News.
From the right, tiles include government types, classes of citizens, countries, continents, oceans,
and technology. Source: “Majiang pai(1904).
The rules were also complex. But the essence of play was that republicanism and
technology ruled the table. Players facing a hand of autocratic nations or, worse yet, colonized
Australian or African tiles had a nearly impossible task before them, being placed at a
disadvantage in terms of the ability to draw new tiles. Dominance in this reformed mahjong—
and, by extension, the world of the late Qing—required the right government and the right
technology. The player stuck with Africa or Australia had no hope of competing with the
enlightened continent of Europe, and possessing technology alone would not save an autocratic
China. While the rules make some logical sense, it is difficult to imagine anyone willingly
settling down for a game ofimperialism in action. Unsurprisingly, reformed mahjong
apparently made it no further than the pages of the paper.
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The anonymous proposal was relatively singular in a period that saw mostly complaints
about the game, not ideas to make it more educational. In many ways, the general late Qing
discourse surrounding mahjong is merely a continuation of earlier anti-madiao grumblings. Yet
the emphasis that everyone—not just elite gentry and corrupt officials—was playing mahjong
indicates a change in the discourse. Of particular importance was the position of respectable
women (as opposed to courtesans). Intimately tied to the health of the nation, both in rhetoric and
for their position as mothers, wives, and keepers of the household, social reformers laid special
emphasis on women’s enjoyment of mahjong. Brothels could be shut down and fastgambling
games could be regulated into extinction, but mahjong in the Republican period would not be so
easily rooted out of social clubs and urban, middle-class parlors.
Mahjong and Women
Women appear to burst onto the gambling scene in the Republican period. While they
were certainly playing mahjong and its forerunners at home during the late imperial period, they
received little or no attention from the moralists who turned a disapproving eye toward frivolous
games. And while courtesans and madams made money from hosting gambling parties for
wealthy male clients, the role of women seems to have been largely confined to sitting beside or
behind players.
After the establishment of the Republic, anxiety over women playing mahjong and
anxieties about modernity collided in places where respectable modern women gathered. The
implications fornew Chinaof wives and mothers playing mahjong instead of focusing on
maternal duties were terrible to contemplate, at least according to reformers. Urban women
playing mahjong thus became symbols for all that was wrong with a modernizing China. If the
delicate, footbound sing-song girl of Flowers of Shanghai could be written off as an old, decrepit
China fading from view, the educated housewife with her high heels and fashionable clothes was
a different problem altogether. Not unlike Wu Weiye’s critique of madiao as a game that lost the
Ming dynasty, controlling mahjong became a matter of national health and survival.
In 1935, the moralizing film Little Angel (dir. Wu Yonggang) presented a different
picture of mahjong than the one seen in Laborer’s Love. While the mahjong game in Love is no
doubt bad for the health of the nation—prostitution and lavish banquets hardly being hallmarks
of modernity—the game gets a new setting and acquires more explicitly negative overtones in
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Angel. Revolving around the titularlittle angel,the film follows the exploits of a young
paragon of selfless do-gooding. Although his family is poor, in part because his father is doing
his patriotic duty by serving in the army far from home, their affectionate interactions paint an
idyllic picture of a household uncorrupted by polluting foreign or bourgeois influences. This
poor-but-morally-intact family is contrasted with their next-door neighbors, who seem to have it
made, with their large house, stylish modern parlor, and fashionable clothes. But all is not as it
seems. Our first indication that this family has fallen into the trap of modern moral decay is the
mahjong table lurking in the corner of the living room. As the historian Paul Pickowicz has
described it,The children are neglected, the women sit around playing [mahjong] all day, and
the adulterous husband is… lusting after young women in the local night clubs, where he
smokes, drinks, and dances to Western music (1991, 62). At last, having stayed up all night
with a sick child while her husband was out boozing, the bourgeois mother, in a fit of frustration
and shame, flings her mahjong tiles out the window.
Although some features of the film run counter to what many forward-thinking reformers
were advocating, the connection of moral decay, national health, and mahjong would be at home
in any number of contemporaneous liberal journals. Mahjong became convenient shorthand for
the many negative qualities of the bourgeois home. In less than fifteen years, the representation
of the game’s setting went from brothels to urban parlors; while other holdovers fromold
Chinalike footbinding and opium smoking were clearlybad, for many players, mahjong
seemed to be an innocuous pastime. As the game became increasingly associated with elite,
thoroughly modern segments of society, the consequences of a nation engaged in mahjong
playing seemed ever more dire.
At the same time, some writers recognized that mahjong was merely a symptom, not the
cause, of problems faced by urban residents, particularly women. In a compelling Women’s
Voice article from 1947, the reader is drawn to a cartoon labeledStill Comrades(“Naiyi
1947, 18). Four women hunker down over a mahjong game, complaining about their husbands.
My husband’s a refrigerator,one says.My husband is as cold as the snow of the Himalayas,
grouses another, while the next states that her husband is like a block of marble.My husband is
hot as a volcano, declares the last,but he only uses his heat on the body of his secretary.
Mahjong is simply a facilitator for the conversation happening at the table, and it is this social
quality that the article takes up in discussing mahjong clubs. Although the article takes a stance
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against mahjong associations, considered excessively popular among women, the author notes
that love of the game springs from social causes. Outlining a number of sad stories, it is hard not
to sympathize with women who found an escape from daily life with their mahjong friends.
Some stories could come from any period—the cooling of marital affection, or the depression
created by a cheating spouse—but a few seem unique to the modern age. One woman, described
as bright, educated, and outgoing, was stuck at home with a husband who refused to let her work
outside the home. Her neighbors noticed she was deeply unhappy and pulled her into their
mahjong circle, giving her something to look forward to. Another woman convinced her husband
to join in games, theorizing that if they were playing mahjong together, he could not be out
carousing.
While driving home all the negative consequences of mahjong in rather dramatic terms—
chiefly, neglecting children—the author also notes that the root causes of such unhappiness need
to be addressed. Mahjong is here merely a symptom of a society in trouble. Educated women
were being driven into the arms of mahjongcomrades” as an alternative to suicide: what was it
about Chinese society that was allowing this to happen? The author does not say, but mahjong—
which was well-traversed ground for critics searching for a scapegoat—and the women who
played it were convenient figureheads for bigger problems facing wartime China in the
tumultuous 1940s. The implication that women would be better served by joining women’s
associations—–presumably ones addressing social or political issues—instead ofwasting time”
playing mahjong is one connection to earlier harsh critiques of mahjong and madiao. However,
the pleasure of mahjong for the women discussed is not the game itself, but the community and
opportunity for socializing. Would—or could—purposeful women’s associations serve the same
role? Or was the space created by mahjong societies attractive precisely because it was free from
“productiveactivity, and offered the chance to escape from daily life?
Nationalism and Mahjong
The concern over what people did with their free time, and the corresponding idea that
leisure time ought to be taken up by meaningful activities, is a unique feature of Republican-era
discourse when compared to earlier periods. While Qing critiques give the impression that
authors felt there were, perhaps, better activities for scholar-officials to be engaged in (such as
weiqi), there is little trace of the “time-wastingdiscourse that dominated writings on mahjong
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from the late 1910s onward. Qing moralists may have looked upon mahjong as something
beneath the educated gentry, but Republican nationalists perceived it as something that wasted
the vast manpower of China. Concerns over nation building collided with private life in ways
that echoed the discourses surrounding etiquette, education, and child rearing. But attempts to
reform attitudes toward mahjong were, by and large, confined to the pages of journals and
newspapers: actions to get rid of the game were few and far between.
One of the sharpest critiques came in 1914, in the form of a faux classical history.
Playing on both a standard literary style and mahjong’s alternate name of maque (sparrow), the
article by the pseudonymousYabi” appeared in the appropriately titled Pastime Magazine. The
title—“Annals of the Sparrow King”— plays on classical histories with its use of the term benji
(Chinese dynastic histories), and the contents read as an imitation of official histories.In the
waning years of the Qing,the author writes in a high literary idiom,control [of the empire]
was lost. All under heaven was agitated; a group of heroes rose up, and this was the reason for
the fall of the dynasty(“Yabi1914, 7). The dubious heroes of the story include the kings of
pornography, railroads,wild chickens(prostitutes), and opium, who each raise an army in
various corners of China. Yet until mahjong—the Sparrow King—flies onto the scene, no one
can unite the country: only mahjong manages to pull together the North, the South, the East, and
the West (a reference to the four directional tiles of the game) in combat. In language borrowed
from antiquity,Yabiskewers the game of mahjong, China’s long-standing social problems,
and the fall of the Qing in one fell swoop. Yet even in the midst of exceedingly literary satire, the
author underscores the great fear regarding mahjong: its insidious ability to attract players from
all walks of life, all ages, and both genders. The message was one that would be repeated over
and over: while big problems, like chaotic political systems and Western imperialism, may have
captured the lion’s share of attention, seemingly inconsequential matters were perhaps even more
serious issues.
In many respects, the new Republican discourse shared striking similarities with
discussions of madiao and mahjong from the Qing, and even the old foil of weiqi emerged once
again as an appropriate pastime for citizens of a new China. The same false dichotomies
remained, but with an added emphasis on the health of the nation and regulation of leisure time.
And yet mahjong, in contrast to casinos, dog and horse racing, and other fast forms of gambling,
was not the focus of sustained governmental efforts to regulate gambling (Wakeman 1994, 24–
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25), perhaps because of its more private nature. Because mahjong required only a table and a tile
set, one was able to enjoy a single hand or eight without leaving the house. Mahjong’s innocuous
nature—to the point that the game hadceased to be seen as gambling at all,” at least in some
areas—had become part of a normal, bourgeois domestic scene (Ho 2005, 209).
Still, reformers and intellectuals in Republican China were consumed with the business of
shaping a new nation, from the political system to the domestic sphere. Efforts to control leisure
time and spaces were part of the effort to createa modern municipal culturethat was one piece
of thenational effort to makecitizens’… out ofpeople’(Wakeman 1994, 20). Creating
citizens required more than just shaping urban residents who did not spit on the floors of movie
theaters or spend their savings at the racetrack. The problem Republican reformers bumped up
against with mahjong was that the game seemed to symbolize some deeper moral deficiency that
getting rid of the game could not fix.
In Hu Shi’s essay on mahjong, which included his calculation that four million man-
hours a day were lost to the game, he considered it’s spread to Japan and the West.Who would
have imagined, he marveled, thatthose hundred and thirty-six mahjong soldiers [tiles]
([1927] 1998, 46) would be the first piece of Asian culture to conquer the West? And yet the
craze quickly cooled. He asked an American friend why the mahjong fad faded so quickly and
was told thatwomen really like mahjong; however, men opposed it, and at long last, the men
won out([1927] 1998, 46). Hu Shi does not dwell on this gendered perspective too long, since
the problem goes far deeper than Chinese women’s fondness for the game.Hardworking,
“ambitiousWestern people (which probably ought to be read as men”) would neither become
“disciples of norsubmit to mahjong([1927] 1998, 46). Mahjong was a uniquely Chinese
problem: thepatented productof anintellectual civilization (Hu [1927] 1998, 46) that did
not value time and preferred loafing about. Unlike the Qing critics, Hu Shi is not proposing a
more appropriate use of time via weiqi. Contemplating the universe on a weiqi board would
likely be nearly as wasteful as playing mahjong—the emphasis on the individual, either in
contemplation or private pleasure, took away from the emphasis on the nation. This idealistic
vision, even if partially tongue in cheek, ignored the reality that people, no matter how
industrious in spirit, could not work all the time.
But not everyone parroted this discourse thatpatented productsof China’s intellectual
past were a waste of time. Weiqi still enjoyed some status as an appropriate pastime, and one
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1939 article entitledChatting about weiqioutlined why weiqi was themost opportune pastime
for today’s youth(Han 1939, 60). It was anational product(but with a much more positive
cast than mahjong received in Hu Shi’s assessment), it was inexpensive, and it could be played
anywhere at anytime. Furthermore, even though there were only two players,many morecould
sit by and watch. The article goes on to discuss why weiqi—despite the opinion of some people
that play had no place in the war of resistance—was in fact an appropriate pastime, since one
could hardly expect people to do nothing but read books and study. Once again, the supposed
applicability of weiqi’s broader lessons garnered it a position as anappropriatepastime,
particularly as such lessons could be located in the classics and classical literature (Han 1939,
62). Perhaps it was this reliance on classical precedents to justify somewastefulgames and not
others that led the Shanghai publication Movietone to publish a little satire called theMahjong
Analects(“Majiang1940). Parodying the Analects of Confucius, the first line reads:The
Master said: ‘Playing mahjong for a long time, is this not a joyous thing?’”
Mahjong players countered official perceptions of their pastime as a nefarious time
waster. As described by historian Virgil Ho, devotees in Guangzhou protested a 1936 ban on
gambling that included a prohibition on mahjong. Mahjong was described, just as it was in the
Women’s Voice article a decade later, as a highly social game that allowed for the deepening of
social bonds. And, in an eminently practical manner, the petitioners pointed out that mahjong
provided revenues for local governments, as well as for restaurants that allowed the game to be
played on their premises (Ho 2005, 211).
Presentations of mahjong as a pleasant diversion competed with essays decrying the
dangerous nature of the game.I didn’t used to like mahjong,the pseudonymous author
“Bingshengwrote in the early 1940s.I couldn’t stand watching classmates play(1941, 385).
But, from 1937 onward—the so-calledOrphan Islandperiod between 1937 and 1941, when
Shanghai maintained some autonomy in the midst of the Japanese invasion—things were busier
than ever, and the pleasures of the city were more difficult to come by.Of course people can’t
only work and have no fun… It was at this time I started to play mahjong(Bingsheng 1941,
385). The simple observation that people need free time is one that rarely comes up in harsh
critiques centered onwasting time.” In some ways, this piece is a mediation of many earlier
critiques. On the one hand, the author recognizes the addicting power of the game and believes
some sort of reform is necessary. Yet his acknowledgment that mahjong is not going to
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disappear, and that people are never going to devote the entirety of their lives toproductive
matters, is rare among Republican criticism. His simple fix for mahjong is to remove the
gambling aspect from the game, noting that the Japanese picked up mahjong as entertainment,
and not as a form of gambling. Bingsheng notes, too, that mahjong is simplytoo common” to be
changed on its own; for reforms to stick, reforms of mahjong would have to be carried out at the
same time as larger social reforms (1941, 389).
But mahjong resisted reforms. The general public never saw it as a dangerous scourge,
but rather as a pleasurable, innocuous diversion. The government could go only so far in
regulating public life, and mahjong was usually a private activity, played within the confines of
one’s home. Mahjong remained firmly entrenched in parlors and living rooms, secure in an area
that the state—particularly in a period of upheaval—had difficulty controlling. The problem
must have been maddening for enthusiastic reformers, particularly when the game could be used
as cover for subversive activities. In 1949, the leftist intellectual Wu Han managed to host
gatherings to discuss politics and current events at his home, even though he wasunder the
constant gaze of [Nationalist] security forces(Mazur 1993, 46). How? By hosting mahjong and
bridge parties. The clattering of mahjong tiles could, and did, cover up conversations on many
topics.
The Game People Played
Why did mahjong so arouse Qing moralists and Republican reformers? Few critics
enumerate their displeasure in a straightforward manner. For critics in the Qing dynasty, the
game’s link with madiao—the game thatlost the Ming—and the game’s birth during a period
of foreign incursion and domestic turmoil seem to be likely reasons for a deep-seated, if not
entirely rational, dislike of the game. Lacking a Confucian pedigree and emphasizing chance
over cultivated skill, mahjong had neither the blessing of sages nor the promise of self-
improvement. It was social, noisy, seemingly lacking in virtues. The cosmos, at least as many
scholars wished to envision it, was emphatically not a mahjong table. If weiqi allowed players to
retain control over their fate in a match, mahjong and madiao taunted them with the truth that
nothing could make up for a bad hand. Mahjong’s rise, though mostly obscured in the record,
came during a period marked by China’s humiliating defeat in the Opium Wars and the
devastating Taiping Rebellion. The game, from its ties to madiao to its emergence in this period,
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carried more than a small whiff of failure. Perhaps moralists’ anxiety was underpinned by an
unconscious recognition that madiao and mahjong reflected the world of the late Qing, where no
amount of cultivation and refinement could make up for imperialism and decline.
By the waning years of the Qing, the game’s association with the seedier side of Chinese
society obscured mahjong’s place in the social life of the elite. The Republican period inherited
the expressed disapproval of the game, and in the early years, moralists were primarily
concerned with backward pleasures like courtesans and opium. However, it was the realization
that mahjong could not be ascribed solely to one part of society that proved the most enduring
and frightening aspect of the game for Republican critics. While opium smoking and footbinding
receded into China’s past, mahjong remained firmly in its present. In 1934, an article declared
that mahjong wasan authentic example ofChinese learning as the substance’(Hai 1934, 4–5),
a sarcastic reference to failed attempts at military and political modernization in the Qing. It was
complicated, not standardized, and emphasized combat. The fact that people could while away
hours upon hours on a silly game of so little substance was baffling—and concerning.
In the People’s Republic of China, the game was generally discouraged after 1949 and
finally formally banned in the 1960s, along with other kinds of gambling (Wang 1995, 160–161).
In Taiwan, the Nationalists likewise banned all forms of gambling, and mahjong with it. Paul
Festa notes the peculiar position of mahjong in contemporary Taiwanese society, which could be
read as a somewhat natural outcome for a game that has occupied a conflicted status in Chinese
society from its very origins. Hu Shi’s sarcastic note that mahjong was thenational game of
China has been taken on by the Republic of China quite seriously: mahjong is banned, and yet it
is included on theexclusive list of approved activities forArt and Folkway Associations’
([1927] 1998, 97). Festa writes ofmahjong dragnetsthat Republican critics could only have
dreamed of:ongoing and dramatic raids on mahjong gambling rings with police kicking down
doors and brandishing rifles [that] are captured live by the media—in what [informants] insist are
staged performances—and featured on the evening news([1927] 1998, 98). Would earlier
critics be disturbed to learn that, even with formal bans in place, mahjong remains auniversally
popular illegal activity(Festa 2007, 99)? Mahjong still provides an example for later ludic
descendants: games that exist in an uneasy space between the sanctioned and the proscribed.
Maggie Greene is assistant professor of History at Montana State University.
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Notes
1 Any English translation misses Lu Xun’s emphasis on the foreignness of mahjong to this
peasant: the characters he uses are also pronounced majiang, which means “sesame
paste” (Lu 1994, 99).
2 Gail Hershatter describes the “white-board face off” (baiban duisha) situation, in which
two men compete for the attention of a single courtesan. Mahjong sets “included four
blank tiles, nicknamed ‘small white faces’ (xiao bailian)” (135), which the historian
explains was also a term for handsome young men who patronized brothels. In order to
make a set of blank tiles during a mahjong game, a team needed three of the four tiles;
situations where each team held two blank tiles—and the ensuing stalemate—were
termed “white-board face offs” (1997, 135–136).
3 This early attempt at creating “edutainment” in many ways foreshadows contemporary
attempts by governments to regulate digital game spaces and turn them into areas for
productive leisure.
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... It appears that older males are more likely than females to play cards/mahjong, and this corroborates with findings for older Chinese living in Chinese communities in Chicago and Sydney (R. Chen et al., 2015;Zheng, Walker, & Blaszczynski, 2010). Playing mahjong often involves money, with the amount pre-determined among the players (Greene, 2015;Paul, 2007). The cost involved may explain why the game is more popular among the young-old, the urban dwellers, and those with some education who tend to have more financial resources for the game, as compared to their counterparts who are older, living in rural areas and with no education. ...
... Coincidently, financial resources have been found to be positively associated with happiness among Chinese people (Wei et al., 2015). Winning the card/mahjong game may not be an important motivation to play the game for some people and most people played for token sums (Greene, 2015). Although, there is a tendency for players to gamble on mahjong, especially among males (Zheng, Walker, & Blaszczynski, 2011). ...
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