Chinese culture scoring points abroad with mahjong

By Erik Nilsson ( China Daily ) Updated: 2014-11-01 07:41:01

 Chinese culture scoring points abroad with mahjong

Players compete in the 2010 World Series of Mahjong at the Venetian hotel and casino in Macao. Mahjong's rules vary from place to place throughout China, and even more widely around the world. Ed Jones / AFP File

A joke in Sichuan province says passengers aboard any plane descending upon the capital, Chengdu, will hear clicks and clacks.

The punch line plays up Sichuan's omnipresence of mahjong - a game making international headlines as local media urge officials to refrain from playing and foreigners are beating Chinese at international tournaments.

Netizens responded to calls for civil servants' abstention by half-joking: "How will Sichuan's officials live?"

Six months after the 2008 earthquake - the first of 15 visits - I peered into the windows of temporary houses to find survivors gathered around mahjong boards. Locals told me many resumed gaming the day after the disaster. Tables were set up even before rescue tents.

The most successful livelihood project recipient of an NGO assisting people disabled in the disaster was a mahjong shop opened by a man who lost his arm.

Another NGO working with heroin addicts in Sichuan's Emeishan told me the beneficiaries' No 1 wish was a mahjong table for their center. But the organization felt it couldn't oblige, since it'd appear it was sponsoring sloth among drug users.

While Sichuan is China's mahjong capital, China is the world's. China's stinging defeats at this year's European Mahjong Championship agitated dispute about luck versus skill.

Personal experience suggests that, while providence plays in, aptitude matters. Chinese friends love playing me - because they always win. To hone my abilities, I turned to apps.

Every app labeled "mahjong" in English I downloaded proved a misnomer. The dozen I sampled were matching games that had nothing to do with the Chinese pastime beyond featuring tiles. I had no such problem when I searched using Chinese characters.

This points to a market need for real mahjong apps in English and other languages, which could accelerate the pastime's internationalization - the briskness of which can already be tallied by the European tournament's rankings.

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