Tue, April 13, 2010
Lifestyle > Culture

Mahjong mastery clicks and clacks - with expats

2010-04-13 10:36:28 GMT2010-04-13 18:36:28 (Beijing Time)  China Daily

Participants in a mahjong course learn how to play the ancient Chinese game while understanding more about local culture and language. Photos by wang Jing / China Daily

Mahjong playing course for expats is newly opened in town.

"Hu Le", Daisy Weidmann shouted excitedly as she drew a circle eight from a pile of tiles arranged like a wall.

The term, meaning "I won" in Chinese, is typical mahjong jargon.

It was Weidmann's first victory in the traditional Chinese game since she learned that her Chinese language instructor had begun a mahjong workshop.

The sessions aim to enhance the understanding of Chinese language, culture and history through mahjong play.

"When I first arrived in China, I often heard many friends - both Chinese and foreigners - talking about mahjong," said Weidmann, an admissions officer at the British School of Beijing and a Swiss national who has lived in Beijing for one and a half years. "I was very curious and wanted to learn how to play."

Now she's finding the game, the oldest and most popular in China, simply irresistible.

Mahjong mastery clicks and clacks - with expats

Weidmann, who was joined by three other expatriates around the table during the recent workshop at the Bell Beijing International Training Center in Dongcheng district, said she enjoys the game because the rules are not complicated and because she is able to learn Chinese through such means as counting numbers.

"Most remarkably, I understand that the game is a very useful networking tool for Chinese," Weidmann said. "During family reunion times, such as Spring Festival, all the family members play it while chatting. Retired people often get together and play it as a way to pass time and keep their brains active."

The art of playing mahjong likely dates to about 500 BC, when Confucius, the greatest Chinese philosopher, developed the game. Still, there is little evidence about the game's origin.

According to myth, the appearance of the game in various Chinese states coincided with Confucius' travels as he taught his doctrines. The three dragon tiles also correspond with the three virtues bequeathed by Confucius. Hong zhong (red middle), fa cai (prosperity), and bai bing (white board) represent benevolence, sincerity and filial piety, respectively.

Using mahjong as a fun way to learn the Chinese language is a relatively recent phenomenon, said Erin Chen, academic director of the Bell Beijing International Training Center, which offers the program.

Many foreigners signed up for the workshop because they are curious about the game, which appears often in Hollywood films with Chinese settings, said Chen.

An American participant once told her that he wanted to learn mahjong because he saw the animated film Kung Fu Panda. The main character dreamed of inheriting a noodle shop his great grandfather had won in a mahjong game.

Before leading the class, Chen usually provides handouts about the history and rules of mahjong.

During the workshop, she first explains how to recognize all 144 tiles in each game set and explains the rules. Players then shuffle the tiles and draw 13 tiles each. In the class, the four players show their tiles to their opponents during the first round to familiarize themselves with the rules. From the second round on, they will keep the tiles to themselves and play in earnest.

Two Chinese teachers provide guidance, and teachers and participants are required to speak Chinese throughout the two-hour workshop.

"Students are learning a new language and culture, but also having fun," Chen said. "Isn't it the best way of learning?"

The results of the class are apparent. Those who didn't know a single word of Chinese learned to count numbers after one workshop.

They also are able to grasp the rules and form strategies by the end of the workshop, she added.

With mahjong proficiency, a foreigner can easily find Chinese friends to play with, "which is a good scenario to practice Chinese", Chen added.

The workshop is still recruiting. It opens once every month and it is free of charge at present. To sign up or obtain more information, call the Bell center at 6409-6582.

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