Forget football (soccer) or basketball. If you judge a nation’s national sport by the most popular sport or game, then Mahjong is, hands down, China’s national sport. This seemingly-complicated game can be seen being played everywhere, from Mahjong parlors, to street games on the sidewalk, to tables in the park.
Mahjong is extremely popular in two venues. First, when extended families come together, such as during Spring Festival/Chinese New Year, everyone plays Mahjong together every night of the holiday. Second, retired and older people in China like to play Mahjong on a daily basis with friends, often in public places. So what exactly is Mahjong, and why is it so popular? What are its cultural implications?
Mahjong is at least as old as the Ming Dynasty, around 1400 CE. It is a game played with tiles — ceramic or plastic — that are divided into two major categories in full, traditional tile sets. The first categories is numbers, represented by three suits: Chinese characters, sticks of bamboo, and circles. The second category is pictures and characters, divided into four groups: the four winds (north, south, east, and west); the dragons (red, green, and white); the flowers (plum, orchid, chrysanthemum, and bamboo); and the seasons (spring, summer, autumn, and winter). It sounds very complicated, but it is actually much easier than it appears.
The goal of Mahjong is to arrange tiles in like sets of three. Just like in American poker, the sets can be numbers in order, or similar pictures (suits). That is all there is to it, for the most part. There are a few other special rules, but they are not as complicated and confusing as the tiles seem to make them. It is a fast-paced game, and while gambling is officially illegal in China, most Mahjong players do gamble unofficially. Four players is the ideal number for a game.
The cultural implications of the game are fascinating. There are different theories as to why Mahjong is China’s national sport, each of which holds merit. The first idea is that the dynamics of Mahjong represent the Chinese way of thinking. Like poker, one’s observation of other players is essential: they might hold a tile that you need. Yet, you must work together with the other players to keep the tiles flowing, so that everyone has a chance at the greatest number of tiles possible. Like in Chinese culture and life, you are an individual inexorably linked to others and to the group, but it is only by your careful observation of the others that you can succeed individually.
Another theory is that a Mahjong game represents Chinese cultural life. There is a Chinese word, 热闹 (rè’nào), which refers to buzz or activity: what Chinese people like. For example, when you eat at a Chinese restaurant, you will not find soft-spoken couples quietly sipping wine. No, you will find a loud, boisterous, lively atmosphere. And so it is with Mahjong games. The four players are constantly moving, playing while drinking tea, beer, or liquor. And almost always, there is a crowd of people around them, watching, yelling, and making a big commotion. At people’s homes, the family watches the game, and in public spaces, the game usually draws a crowd of men. Yet within this cloud of chaos is an ordered game being played by shrewd, calculating people. This is a fitting analogy for Chinese culture and daily life.
Others take a historical view. During much of China’s history — both under the emperors and under Mao — the average person was poor and struggling. Most of life was spent working, seven days a week, to try to get enough food to feed the family. There was no time for recreation, relaxation, and frivolity. This attitude can still be seen today, as even middle-class and wealthy Chinese are very careful not to waste anything. But even in the lean years, human beings still needed some sort of happiness in life. So they took their joy in Mahjong — a game that could be played for almost no money, and that required nothing more than the presence of the family unit at night. And even though the game was outlawed during the Mao years, people still played at home anyway.
Then there is a new idea that focuses on the resurgence of Mahjong in modern China as a game played by housewives. Many Chinese housewives, especially those whose husbands earn enough, spend several hours each day playing Mahjong. They pay for tables at Mahjong parlors, and as they while away the hours and drink tea. During their games, they also like to gossip, laugh, share stories, and eat. In modern China, this could indicate a new sort of status symbol: free time. In a country where free time has traditionally been seen as the luxury of the ultra-wealthy and the noble, today many regular Chinese people are finding more or it, and so by playing Mahjong, they are making a social-status statement.
Each theory holds water. Mahjong is both deceptively simple, and deceptively complex. It is a game of people, of social interaction, of finding order in chaos. Like China, Mahjong is bold, colorful, active, and humanistic. And for those reasons, it truly is China’s national sport and pastime.