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Great Walls: Playing Mahjong in Beijing

Stroll through any Beijing park, or venture down any hutong (narrow alley) and you are sure to spot them right away: four players hunched over a square table with a mass of decorated tiles the rough size of dominos.  This is Mahjong, China’s national pastime: a four-person game of skill, strategy, cunning, some luck, and the occasional sneaky maneuver.  It’s known to stave off dementia or bring on epileptic attacks.  It spread abroad like wildfire once missionaries and diplomats discovered it and today is played all over the world.

Mahjong may look like dominos with its 144 tiles decorated with Chinese characters, but the objective of the game itself is more like rummy:  to collect complete sets of tiles and prevent the other players from doing do.  It’s been helping the Chinese pass the time since 500 B.C., when, many Chinese believe, Confucius himself invented the game.  The Communists outlawed Mahjong when they came to power in 1949 in an unsuccessful attempt to curb the national obsession with any form of gambling.  Mahjong was forced underground for almost 40 years until the ban was lifted in 1985.  These days, Mahjong players can be found everywhere.

Playing Mahjong is a great window into to life in China.  Enterprising expats have set up a school for aspiring foreign Mahjong players in Beijing, and visitors to the capital can attend an introductory class, or more advanced sessions, designed to get you out on the streets and playing with the locals in no time. 

Mahjong tiles and their decorative boxes have long been prized souvenirs from China.  Antique Mahjong tiles made from bone or ivory have become fashionable jewelry accessories in recent years, which has made their already steep prices soar – but be careful as importing ivory into the US is no longer permitted.  More recent vintage or modern plastic equivalents are more affordable and can be found for reasonable prices at Hongqiao Market (The Pearl Market) near the Temple of Heaven and the sprawling weekend Panjiayuan Antique Flea Market. 

Alexander+Roberts offer a range of travel experiences in Asia, China and Beijing, including our China Sampler which offers a unique chance to go off the beaten track through the older hutong neighborhoods of the Chinese capital.

Posted: 6/17/2015 10:43:56 AM by Alexander + Roberts