An apparent police ban on all mahjong parlours in a Chinese city led to panic among aficionados of China’s national pastime.
Police in Yushan in southeast China first announced the ban at the weekend, saying it was to curb illegal gambling and “purify social conduct”.
This led to shock and outrage with many calling the strategic, tile-based game the “quintessence of Chinese culture”.
Police then clarified that only unlicensed parlours would be shut.
It comes after several other cities also announced parlours encouraging gambling would be shut.
Mahjong is one of the most popular games in China, especially with older people.
While it does not have to be played with money, it is common for players to gamble with small amounts. A typical mahjong game could see players bet anywhere from $1 to $15.
‘People can gamble with anything’
On 20 October, police in Yushan, a small county in China’s southeast Jiangxi province, issued a statement announcing that all mahjong parlours in the county would be “closed” by 22 October.
Authorities said the ban would be enacted in an effort to “push forward the campaign against crimes and gangs… [to] solve the gambling and noise problem [and] purify social conduct”.
Gambling is illegal in China but under Jiangxi province law, those who engage in “win-loss entertainments such as mahjong and poker involving a small amount of money… shall not be punished”.
However, the law adds that people who “[gamble] money of more than 200 yuan ($28; £21)” could be subject to punishment.
It wasn’t long before the backlash kicked in.
Some people pointed out that while China does face a widespread problem of illegal gambling dens, many mahjong parlours are in fact, legally operated with licenses.
Another commenter on social media site Weibo said: “Not all people play mahjong for gambling,” according to state media ECNS.
“My grandparents play mahjong as part of their daily entertainment”.
Others said it was a “lazy” solution by the government in an attempt to curtail illegal gambling.
“Mahjong [itself] is not a problem. People can gamble with anything,” said one comment on Weibo.
But one social media user saw the positive side of the ban, saying: “Finally! I have been woken up numerous times [by] mahjong players.”
Mahjong is known to be quite a noisy game, as the heavy tiles often make clacking sounds as they are shuffled around.
But their joy was short lived. Just one day after they made the announcement, Yushan authorities revised their statement, saying licensed mahjong parlours would not be affected.
They also clarified that the ban was meant to target places that encouraged “illegal gambling”.
Despite this, some licensed parlour owners told local news outlets that they were also not operating amid the clampdown, but it was unclear whether that was voluntary or enforced by officials.
Several other cities in Jiangxi have also banned mahjong in recent days, but had made it clear in their announcements that registered mahjong parlours would not be affected.
What is mahjong?
- Mahjong is a game played with a set of 144 tiles based on Chinese characters and symbols
- It developed in the late 19th century, during China’s Qing dynasty, but became popular in the 20th century
- It is conceptually similar to the western card game Rummy
- Luxury brands have also attempted to capitalise on China’s love for the game. Hermes for example, has a $40,200 mahjong set made in “solid palissander wood” for sale on its website.
The game has also gone on to gain popularity in the West – and has recently made several appearances in mainstream pop culture.
It was featured as part of a pivotal moment in the Hollywood blockbuster Crazy Rich Asians, where two main characters met for a showdown of a game at a mahjong parlour.
Television show Fresh Off the Boat, which centres around an Asian-American family, also dedicated an episode to the game.
Additional reporting by Ellen Jin