Social Chinese Games

Games play an important social role around the communities of China. Obviously most of my knowledge gleans from my time spend roaming the streets and alleys of Binhai. Yes, large gaming cafes dot the landscape, one resides right at the entrance to Xìngfú Shèqū, but those don’t interest me. They play MMOGs (Massive Multiplayer Online Games) together while alone, eyes locked on a screen before them, headphones drowning out the sounds of the others playing their own games.

Xiangqi playing board and  pieces.

Xiangqi – Defensive shift.

Those don’t interest me. Instead, the games played outdoors, huddled around small tables or across wooden boxes are where my gaze lingers. This is the realm of an older generation. Games of skill and chance, wherein the goal remains to win but that is secondary to the banter and interaction that occurs across the gameboards, helping to strengthen the bonds of these micro communities. Below are three games that dot the sidewalks and common areas of sidewalks and communities throughout China (and for that matter Asia – as I’ve seen variations on this in Vietnam, Cambodia, South Korea and Mongolia – Mongols love their chess).


Xiangqi – Counterstrike!

Xiangqi – Chinese Chess ( 象棋)
A bit of a surprise game lands first,since I thought it was Chinese Checkers but in reality it is Chinese Chess. Even better. The first game seen in my apartment complex being played by the older gentlemen here. There must be a ladder or seating system because they play a bit like lizards, moving with the sun when not moving their pieces. A two person game but when the gentlemen gather, a crowd of a half dozen or more surround them. The game plays in near silence, just the soft swish of well worn disks sliding along a lined wooden playing board with lines barely visible so frequently have the circular playing pieces traversed them.
I haven’t figured out the game at all, but like chess the gameplay revolves around strategy and a careful risk-to-loss ratio and setting up pieces for future moves; both defensive and offensive.
The playing pieces have different names and abilities and values, the biggest difference I can make from a cursory glance at wikipedia stems from ‘palace’ and ‘river’ areas upon the board.
I will likely never play a game but I can happily watch these men move their pieces, a palpable tension arising from players and spectators as these well known foes wage battle once more.
(When I took the photo, the watchers glanced at it, the players never took their eyes from the board.)

Collecting cards.

Collecting cards.

Card Games (many variations)
I can’t count all the versions of card games I’ve seen. I’ve even played with Mr. Sun’s son on Spring Festival Eve… it did not go well. It didn’t help that no one explained the rules to me. From what I’ve seen the games seem to be a variation of rummy; with runs and pairs and triples being required in order to lay down tricks. I’ve seen ‘full houses’ played that weren’t in order but no one raised a fuss so it must be a playable hand.
Today in the office two co-teachers played a version I hadn’t seen before, 108 cards (two decks plus jokers) and they drew seven cards, layed some down, picked up more, played, sometimes one player going multiple times in a row and being down to one card but not playing it.
More fun, to me, are the people around Binhai, where they play with fun, competitive fire. Clearly bragging rights play an important role. They slap down their runs and triples and tricks. Frequently one player seems to be hoarding cards hoping to play a ‘bomb’ (usually four or more cards the same number), nearly as often they end up third or forth, not finding that spot to get into the game.
(When I took the photo, the man gathering up the cards had no interest in seeing it. Heh.)

"MAHJONG!" I called this out as I left to a laugh.

“MAHJONG!” I called this out as I left to a laugh.

Mahjong (麻將)
A word common in English. And easy to speak. Here there are special sorting tables that will shuffle and stack the tile for the players in some ritzy establishments. When I went out with Mr. Han his daughter and his friend’s son took great glee in watching the tiles rise from within the game table and then dump them back into the hold so the next set of tiles could rise from the bowels of the machine.
I far prefer the manual version, where four friends gather around a table, shuffle and shift the pieces before selecting their starting hand. While it looks like dominoes due to the playing tiles, apparently it plays more like rummy. It reminds me, vaguely of Mexican Train which my parents and their friends love to play.
Another game I know very little about, but enjoyment of the people playing in good natured competition pleases me. Allegedly developed my Confucius, the Communist Party of China banned the game in 1949 for promoting betting, not until the Cultural Revolution was the ban lifted, and in 1985 bets could be made again. That’s not as important as the friends playing and people watching and socializing with neighbours.
(When I took the photo, after the hand was done, all wanted to see the picture and the main woman in the image gleefully giggled at seeing herself.)

I’m sure there are more games, although I have yet to see Chinese Checkers, but from my small sample size, chess, cards and mahjong are the games people play; mostly for fun, sometimes for cash.

Now I want to get my game on!
Let the cards fly, the tiles drop and the armies take the field!


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