Mahjong And The Chinese Mind

Mao Zedong once cited the "philosophy" in the Chinese parlor game of mahjong. It still happens to also be a mass pastime for millions of folk, both in China and among the diaspora. For others, it may be a way of understanding the unique

What's she thinking? (Charles Chan)
Li Li

BEIJING - Anytime, anywhere, if there are Chinese people around, the sound of mahjong won't be far. That's the sound of ivory (or plastic) tiles being knocked together.

While mahjong is seen today as a distraction for the masses, the game's place in early 20th-century China was in the hands of the elite: from the Dowager Empress Cixi to Soong Mei-Ling, the First Lady of the Republic of China and the wife of Generalissimo Chang Kai-Shek; from Mao Zedong to Zhu De; or even Liang Qichao, the influential Chinese philosopher…all were mahjong players.

Others didn't play but took great pleasure in following the game, like Liang Shih-Chiu and Hu Shi, two other prominent turn-of-the-century scholars. The former admitted "I don't play. Not because I consider myself more noble, but because I'm too slow at keeping up with other people's reactions." The latter made the remark that Britain's national game is cricket, America's baseball, Japan's wrestling, while China prefers mahjong.

Life around the mahjong table

Mahjong is played by four players. Along with the onlookers, they form a miniature society. The idea is that if people have time to play or watch these games, they must be doing well, and only a peaceful society allows such a lifestyle.

A lot of Chinese stories, whether in literature or on screen, are told through the mahjong table. In Ang Lee's Lust, Caution, mahjong games are a leitmotif. Whether it's rival wives sizing each other up, or a man and a woman exchanging glances, it all happens over a mahjong table.

In The Joy Luck Club, the 1993 feature film based on Amy Tang's best-selling novel depicting Chinese immigrants in the United States, the narrative structure is determined by the order in which the players are seated, and their tiles. The four families are the four major figures of the movie. Like in the game, they take turns in telling their respective stories.

Though it involves gambling, mahjong is first and foremost seen as a social occasion. For many Chinese, playing mahjong is an opportunity to see friends and get to know people better. In pre-communist Shanghai, it was even considered as a good way of choosing a son-in-law for one's daughter. It is believed that the game is a sure way to determine someone's character. Losing a game can bring out the player's flaws, like impatience and lack of manners, which cannot be the mark of a true gentleman.

Philosophy in those tiles

Mao Zedong once said "Don't underestimate playing mahjong. If you know how to play it, you'll have a better understanding of the relationship between chance and necessity. There's philosophy in mahjong."

Elizabeth Bambino, a French scholar, says the game is a window into Chinese manners. "The metaphor of mahjong culture, its egalitarian driving force, the dizzying sounds and gestures, as well as the tea-sipping, wine-drinking and the immersive atmosphere while playing it, all this takes away the feeling of a doomed destiny and the relationship between people and the secular power," she explained.

Even today, mahjong is still the most important form of recreation in Chinese society, and is played by ordinary people as well as officials. They organize their life and communicate with each other through the mahjong table. They also practice military strategies on the table.

Mahjong winners aren't just "lucky", they are calm and analytical. The careful observations of others, finding order from the disorder, are all manifestations of traditional Chinese thinking.

An American businessman introduced the game to the West in the 1920's. His book on "mahjong rules' has been dubbed the "little red book." Since then mahjong has been recognized as a sport in the West and led to bona fide leagues, competitions and team uniforms. One could imagine that both Chang Kai-Shek and Mao Zedong would wince together at such a sight.

Read the original article in Chinese

Photo - Charles Chan

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Reading Rumi In Kabul: A Persian Poet's Lesson For Radical Islam

Born some eight centuries ago, the famed poet and philosopher Rumi offered ideas on religion that bear little resemblance to the brand of Islam being imposed right now in Afghanistan by the Taliban regime.

The work of 13th-century poet Rumi still resonsates today

Mihir Chitre

Among the various Afghan cities that the Taliban has invaded and apparently "reclaimed" in recent weeks is Balkh, a town near the country's north-western border. Interestingly, it was there, about 800 years ago, that a man called Jalal ad-Din Mohammad Balkhi, better known as Rumi, was born.

Some see the grotesque exhibitionism of the Taliban advance as a celebration of Islam or a "going back to the roots" campaign. As if followers of Islam were always like this, as if every willing Muslim always propagated austerity and oppressiveness. As if it was always meant to be this way and any shred of liberalism was a digression from the quest of the religion.

In fact, a look at the history of the religion — and of the region — tells a different story, which is why there's no better time than now to rediscover the wisdom of the poet Rumi, but without doing away with its religious context.

In a world where Islam is a popular villain and lots of terrible acts across the world in the name of the religion have fueled this notion among the West and among people from other religions, it's paramount that we understand the difference between religion as a personal or spiritual concept and religion as an institution, a cage, a set of laws created to control us.

Why do you stop praying?

To begin with, and largely due to the film Rockstar, the most famous Rumi quote known to Indians goes like this: "Out beyond the ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there's a field. I'll meet you there."

Rumi's original Persian verse, however, uses the words kufr (meaning infidelity) and Imaan (meaning religion), which was translated as "wrongdoing" and "rightdoing." To me, the original verse surpasses the translation with a vital, often missed, often deliberately forgotten, interpretation, which is to highlight the fact that there is humanity, love and compassion or a certain kind of mystical quality to life beyond the concept of religion and that is the ultimate place, the place where Rumi invites us to meet him.

It would be incorrect now to read this and think of Rumi as irreligious. In fact, he was quite the opposite. But his interpretation of religion was personal, spiritual and not institutional or communal or exhibitionist.

In one of his poems, translated by Coleman Banks as "Love Dogs" in English, a man who has stopped praying to God because he never got a response meets "Khidr," an angel messenger, in his dream:

Why did you stop praising (or praying)?

Because I've never heard anything back.

This longing you express is the return message.

To me, through this poem, it's clear that Rumi advocates for a personal relationship with God. In fact, he goes on to say that being true to God is to long for his validation or nod, that life is longing.

A copy of Rumi's spiritual couplets at the Mevl\u00e2na Museum in Konya, Turkey

A copy of Rumi's spiritual couplets at the Mevlâna Museum in Konya, Turkey — Photo: Georges Jansoone/Wikimedia

Don't sweep the history of Islam with the broom of radicalism

For those familiar with the European literature of the 20th century, I could say that this echoes the ideas of Samuel Beckett. But remember: Rumi lived 800 years ago, at the heart of what we call the "Muslim world." To equate Islam on the whole with repressiveness and hostility, as many of us do today, might just be a criminal contradiction then.

It's also interesting to note that after the Quran, Rumi's is probably the most widely read work in the Islamic world, which suggests that Rumi's ideas, which may sound too progressive for anyone remotely associated with Islam in today's world, have, in fact, been accepted and cherished by the Islamic world for centuries. Sweeping the whole history of the Islamic world with the broom of radicalism wouldn't then be the fairest assessment of either the religion or of radicalism.

This physical world has no two things alike.
Every comparison is awkwardly rough.
You can put a lion next to a man,
but the placing is hazardous to both.

(From the poem: "An Awkward Comparison")

It's tragic that the Taliban has ravaged the same place with their own power-hungry, totalitarian interpretation of the religion which once produced a mind that embraces it with wide arms of warmth and peace and refuses to be compared with other followers of the same.

How to cure bad habits?

It is vital for us to separate groupism or communalism, which often escalates to barbarism, from the thought it is based on. It is vital then to read and reread that what Rumi sees as religion is the private association with God. It is also vital to mark the emphasis on individuality in Rumi's thought.

All the Western ideas of liberalism are based on the idea of individuality, which in turn is based on post-renaissance European thought. Asian philosophy is contrasted with its Western counterpart in the fact that it is rooted in mysticism as opposed to individuality.

Islam itself has long had a tradition of mysticism that is known as Sufism. Sufism is a sort of an inward dimension of Islam, a practice that encourages a direct, personal connection with the divine, a spiritual proximity to the omniscient that transcends the physical world and temporarily subverts immediate reality.

Sufism is the quest for the truth of love and knowledge, without necessarily always distinguishing between the two. Rumi was known as the Mevlana (Maulana) and his poetic collection Masnavi meaning "the spiritual couplets" is known as the Persian Quran. He was no doubt a mystic, a Sufi, and one who strongly endorsed the personal, for the most intimately individual is the truly spiritual.

Rumi might remain unparalleled in not just the Islamic world but also in the world of philosophy and poetry across the globe. Another thing that he will remain is dead. The Taliban, on the other hand, at least for now, looks rampant and alive.

It is now up to us, the other people who are alive, and the ones who are going to be born — not just Muslims but everyone else as well — to choose which interpretation of Islam we uphold or react to, how we read history, and what we borrow from it.

How to cure bad water? Send it back to the river.
How to cure bad habits? Send me back to you.

(From the poem: "My Worst Habit")

I think what we, as a world, need now more than ever is to be sent back to Rumi.
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