TO many Chinese, the unthinkable and unimaginable just happened. At the 5th Open European Mahjong Championship two weeks ago in Strasbourg, France, no Chinese ended anywhere near the podium in either the individual or team events.
Team China finished an embarrassing 37th while the top Chinese player, Yan Wenying, was ranked 30th. A Japanese player won the individual competition with a German second.
The result has sparked somewhat of a fury among many Chinese, who wonder how foreigners can beat them at the national pastime — a game often synonymous with gambling in the modern age.
Many peoples are not even aware mahjong is played in places like Europe. They find it unfathomable that the nation which invented the game fared so poorly in an international competition. Some even consider the results humiliating.
Others see it a good thing since it shows aspects of Chinese culture are spreading around the world.
“I was surprised when I first saw the news online,” says 63-year-old Chen De, a retired teacher and mahjong fan in Shanghai. “But isn’t it also a good thing that Europeans are organizing such large mahjong events and playing so well? And since it's a European event, there will obviously be more European than Chinese players, so the result kind of makes sense.”
True. Players in the event cover their own traveling costs. Only 10 players from China traveled to Strasbourg for the tournament.
Since the European Mahjong Association was set up and organized its first championship in the Netherlands in 2005, no Chinese player has finished in the top three although a Chinese team did finish second in Austria in 2009.
The World Mahjong Championship was first held in 2002 in Tokyo, Japan. China has hosted the event twice — Chengdu in Sichuan Province gaining the honor in 2007 and Chongqing in 2012.
To be fair, China does fairly well at the world championships. Jiao Linghua won in 2010 when the tournament was hosted by the Netherlands and his compatriot Duan Yanbin won in 2012.
Yao Xiaolei, assistant to the general secretary of the World Mahjong Organization that selected the Chinese players for this championship, says China’s role as inventor of the game raises expectations among general fans.
“If we won the competition, maybe nobody here would know about it because it’s expected,” he told the media earlier. “It has made the news back home because we didn't do well. To some extent, losing has significance. “We will definitely work harder and do better in the world championships that will be held next year.”
Mahjong's exact origins remain unknown, but there are a few legends about the popular pastime.
One says the word comes from maque, or sparrow, which has a similar pronunciation, and the game derived from shooting sparrows in ancient China.
In ancient times, grain house officials awarded bamboo cards to sparrow shooters, who accumulated the cards in exchange for money. The cards were inscribed with numbers and symbols to indicate the number of sparrows killed.
Many people started playing games with the cards. Tong, or can, is inscribed to indicate a gun barrel. String, or suo, was used to bundle sparrows together, which is why the pattern for one suo is a bird.
And wan, or 10,000, indicates the number of prizes. This legend also explains the relationship between various mahjong terms and shooting sparrows.
Other legends are similar and explain how mahjong was invented based on other games popular in the old days. Overall, it is commonly accepted that mahjong was invented as early as the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).
Mahjong has evolved into more than 50 regional varieties, with a similar general rule, after hundreds of years. For example, players in Shanghai, Sichuan, Hong Kong and Taiwan all follow different rules. In some places, even the number of tiles is different.
The international tournaments, such as the European and world championships, follow Mahjong Competition Rules, which have made it easier for players from all over the world to compete.
China's national game has slowly expanded in Europe since it was first introduced to the West through American merchants in the 1920s.
Tina Christensen, president of the European Mahjong Association, says the game is spreading fastest in France among European countries.
“There are currently 800 players in the European Mahjong Association, but many others play privately,” she tells Shanghai Daily. “France has shown the fastest spread of organized mahjong players and has had great success in teaching mahjong to new players and in training players to reach a competitive level.”
The number of players in the championship has also almost doubled from 108 in 2005 to 204 this year. The Netherlands, France, Germany and Italy are among the countries where the game has been most popular, with new mahjong clubs appearing frequently.
“It is a fascinating game, because you can continue to improve your skill level,” Christensen says. “There are always new strategic details to discover. Whenever you turn up your starting tiles, there is a new riddle to solve, a new adventure to explore. This fascination is global.”
Back in China, mahjong has also long been associated with gambling. A typical image associated with mahjong is of an unemployed middle-aged man who plays mahjong day and night, ultimately losing all his money and then his family.
Most mahjong players will gamble something. Good-natured games between friends may see stakes of 1 yuan (16 US cents) although games with serious gamblers may see tens of thousands of yuan changing hands.
The game is also more often associated with older people. There have been concerns that many young people don’t know how to play anymore.
“We don't gamble,” says 27-year-old Jason Chen. “I learned the game to play with my grandfather, who plays a few times a week to keep his ‘brain alive,’ as he calls it.
“But I don't really go around and tell people that I play mahjong, especially not my colleagues. I’m worried they might get the wrong idea,” he adds.
While the game has different regional versions, some dos and don'ts are nearly universal.
Don't visit a bookstore, study or read a book the day before and day of the game. The character for book, shu, has the same pronunciation as “lose.”
Don't lend money to others before playing a game because it indicates you are giving money away.
Don't pad the shoulders because it may cool down the winning fire.
Don't sit with your back facing the door. It's considered unlucky.
If you are losing, go to the bathroom to change your luck. Or order some food to be delivered or, if you smoke, give out your cigarettes.
Shock and embarrassment
Qingqi: We lost because all Chinese aunties have gone plaza dancing!
Jiadqn: How can we lose in mahjong? We lost in soccer and we lost in basketball, but this is much more heartbreaking.
Dengmiyisi: It’s time they invite our family treasure Ñ my grandpa Ñ to compete with the Europeans!
Gunner Yu: How we feel about the defeat is exactly how Brazilian fans felt about the 1-7 loss to Germany at the 2014 FIFA World Cup.
Dayuda: It’s a shame the younger generation is paying less and less attention to this game. We are losing our national treasure.
Sheep: It’s unbearable. This is the only game all 1.3 billion people in China practice every day. My mom once got a muscle strain in her right shoulder because of this “great cause.” Even when she was hurt, she still played every day. And she’s just one of the millions of middle-aged women who are avid mahjong players. China can lose in any game, but never in mahjong.
Uncle Yun: I think regional TV stations should promote mahjong as much as possible by launching various programs such as “Where Is Mahjong Going?” to revive China’s international status.
KOP: It’s much more humiliating than when the men’s national soccer team screws up.