Making a major of mahjong

By Zhang Yu Source:Global Times Published: 2013-1-29 17:28:01


Players from around the world compete at the Third World Mahjong Championship held in Chongqing last October. Photo: CFP
Players from around the world compete at the Third World Mahjong Championship held in Chongqing last October. Photo: CFP

Late last December, near the end of the semester, as final examinations loomed it should have been the quietest time of the year at Fudan University with students busy cramming in libraries and classrooms across the campus. But suddenly the university was under siege as Chinese media wanted to learn all about the establishment of a brand-new student club.

Approval for the first university mahjong club in the country had just been granted to three computer science majors at the acclaimed university after they passed the university's compulsory oral exam. The students set up a page on the social networking website Renren to announce that the Fudan University Mahjong Club had come into existence and city newspapers and television stations began following the story and asking questions about the first mahjong club to be established in a major university in China.

The media in turn provoked a controversy as to whether university students, seen as the country's hope of the future, should be playing mahjong, a game more often associated in China with gambling.

"We knew that a university mahjong club would be controversial. Anything new is greeted with controversy. But we have to live with it," said the head of the club, a student surnamed Ma. He said that about seven or eight newspapers and television programs had asked for interviews. Ma refused to disclose his full name and only agreed to an e-mail interview.

Official recognition

Mahjong is recognized as a sport in China. In 1998, the General Administration of Sport of China issued an official set of rules for mahjong competitions, acknowledging that mahjong, just like Chinese chess (xiangqi) and Go (weiqi), is a mind sport.

But this hasn't saved mahjong from the popular view that it is a bad influence on people, or even worse, that it has to involve gambling. This understanding of mahjong has been rooted in the public's mind since the founding of the People's Republic of China, when the government banned mahjong as a capitalist pastime that could result in antisocial activities like gambling. It was banned throughout the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) and remained forbidden until the mid-1980s. Along with mahjong, Chinese chess and Go were also banned, regarded as dregs of feudalism.

Wu Shaohong, a 60-year-old Shanghai citizen who plays mahjong casually, recalled: "During that period, mahjong lovers either had to stop playing, or played it in secret. If they were found playing, they'd be arrested."

Because of the historical prejudice against mahjong, the club insists that gambling is the first thing it will steer clear of. "Our club solely engages in competitive mahjong," Ma said.

And those who expect to hear the shuffling of mahjong tiles on campus will be disappointed, because most of the activities of the mahjong club will be held online.

Although Ma had played mahjong in childhood, his interest in the game was rekindled when a friend introduced him to competitive mahjong. "Competitive mahjong is to mahjong what contract bridge is to poker," he said.

"When I entered that world I was astonished to find many students had been playing it for a long time, but most played by themselves on the Internet. They tended not to talk about it openly and discussions were confined to small groups of students."

This inspired Ma to establish a platform for students interested in the game to talk to each other.

Media promotion

The response was huge. The controversies sparked by the club's formation didn't stop mahjong enthusiasts from joining. If anything, the media response promoted the club. In less than a month, the newborn club had become the hottest students' club in Fudan. Although official recruiting won't start until next semester, more than 130 Fudan students have joined the club's online QQ chat group, a platform for students to discuss rules and skills. More than 40 students have signed up for the club's winter vacation mahjong contests, the first activity planned by the club.

At Fudan, student clubs and societies usually recruit new members during the information fairs held at the beginning of each semester, when they advertise their clubs and compete for the attention of new students with leaflets and promotional activities. But the mahjong club hadn't done any of these. The students have all come to the club seeking membership.

On the club's Renren page, even students from other universities have asked to join. Ma said currently membership was restricted to Fudan students.

While media coverage and the club's presence on social networks certainly played a part, Ma said that the reaction also showed that there was a big demand.

Yao Xiaolei, the assistant to the secretary-general of the World Mahjong Organization, based in Beijing, said that he was happy to see China's new generation of elite undergraduates playing and promoting the "quintessence of Chinese culture."

"Mahjong is part of China's traditional culture. University students, China's future, have a responsibility to pass it down. But sadly, it might already be too late to save mahjong," he said.

"The true Chinese mahjong culture is dying. Although mahjong is popular in households, who can now tell the meaning of the different patterns on each mahjong tile? What do the red, green and white dragons (zhong, fa, bai) represent? Why are certain numbers, like three and 12, so important in the game? Few can answer these questions these days."

Since 2005, the organization has been trying to have Chinese mahjong added to UNESCO's World Heritage List. It wants to demolish the negative views of mahjong and have mahjong recognized as a mind sport that demands tactical skills and intelligence.

'Moral quality'

In its 2006 rule book, the organization states that: "Players should be of high moral quality, comply with moral requirements, play the game fairly, obey the rulings of the umpires, respect other players, and improve themselves mentally during the game." It also suggests: "All players should dress neatly and behave politely. Smoking is prohibited."

Today, the winners of the organization's World Mahjong Competition still don't get prize money or anything valuable - just a certificate and a trophy. "We don't want people to misunderstand and think we are gambling," Yao Xiaolei said.

"Any game can be used for gambling. It's not the fault of mahjong, but the fault of the people who gamble while playing it," he said.

To date UNESCO hasn't listed mahjong as a world heritage, but Yao said that the organization is not overly concerned about this. "Our goal is just to restore the good name of mahjong through promotion and competitions."

Yao said that the 2006 organization rules aimed to minimize the role of luck and maximize the importance of skill.

"Under the 2006 rules, luck has a less than 50-percent influence on a mahjong game," he said. "Of course, any sport involves an element of luck, including football, and it's impossible to eliminate that. The rules include many aspects designed to test the players' skills."

As well as these rules, there are the modern Japanese rules, the Riichi Competition Rules, which are also popular among competitive international mahjong players.

Shanghai man Zhang Ming has been playing competitive mahjong for more than 10 years. He's the only Shanghai contestant who played in the Third World Mahjong Championship last October in Chongqing. To participate, he took a week's leave from his work and paid for the air tickets and accommodation himself. He came fourth in the championship.

"The big impression I had from the championship was the number of international contestants - there were foreign faces all over the competition hall. And most of them played rather well," Zhang said.

Among the top 20 players, nine were from foreign countries. In the team competitions, a Dutch team was placed second and a Japanese team came fifth.

Too complicated

Zhang said that he's been introducing competitive mahjong to friends and colleagues, but not with much luck so far. "Most thought the rules were too complicated, and several gave up after one or two sessions.

"Competitive mahjong needs logic and a basic understanding of statistics. One also needs to know how to keep a poker face. Many of the really good competitive mahjong players are science graduates from leading universities," Zhang said. He himself graduated from the East China University of Science and Technology, majoring in automation.

At the Fudan mahjong club, Ma said the ratio between science and humanities students joining the club was about 10 to one. "The ratio doesn't mean anything - what's important is that the members are truly interested in the game," Ma said.

Although it is clear that Fudan's mahjong club will not involve gambling, there are still some commentators who don't like the idea of students playing mahjong. Ren Yuan, a professor at Fudan University's School of Social Development and Public Policy, said: "Personally I think the establishment of a mahjong club is shameful for a Chinese university. Some say it shows our openness, but I don't think it is commendable at all.

"The aim of university students should be to acquire knowledge. In top foreign universities like Harvard, students work hard pursuing academic excellence. It's these students and scholars that make the names of these universities. In China, students are much more relaxed and less conscientious, which is a sign of a relatively low quality of education. Of course, it's the students' freedom to set up clubs, and this should be allowed," he said.

Taking the tiles in hand

If you're interested in mahjong here's a simple guide to the game. There are 144 tiles in mahjong, divided into three categories, bamboos, characters and circles. These suit tiles run from one to nine. Each is replicated four times, and these 108 tiles make up most of the tiles in a mahjong set.

There are also honor tiles - wind tiles (east, west, north and south winds) and dragon tiles (red, green and white dragons). There are 28 honor tiles.

The others are eight bonus tiles, patterned as the four seasons and four different flowers. They function like wild cards and add points to a game.

Once you've learned the patterns, remember the combinations: three identical tiles are called a pong, four identical tiles a kong, and three same-suit tiles in numerical sequence a chow.

The object of the game is to form scoring patterns and achieve a "mahjong hand," which normally consists of four sets of tiles plus one pair of identical tiles. The four sets of tiles should be a pong, a kong or a chow.

In mahjong, the players around the table are identified as East, South, West and North. After the tiles are shuffled, each player draws 13 tiles except the dealer (the player in the East seat) who begins by discarding a tile and drawing a fresh one from the wall or stack of remaining tiles. Then each player in order picks up a tile, either the one discarded by the last player or from the wall, and discards a tile. The first player to form a mahjong hand is the winner.


Posted in: Metro Shanghai

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