Peng! Chow! Hu!
By Skye Deng
Photo by Skye Deng, from author’s personal collection
The game of mahjong is more than a pastime, but something beneficial to our health and well-being. Most people remembered themselves playing with building blocks or LEGOs at five or six years old. I was also one of those who loved building stuff during childhood, but I created my "castle" and "apartment" with a different kind of materials: mahjong tiles. Every Saturday and Sunday, my mother and I used to visit my grandparents' house. In the community they lived in, there was a big recreation center. With Chinese brush paintings hanging on the wall, it seemed like a place where people chatted and drank teas. However, when you stepped into the inner compartments, you were in a totally different world. It was the wonderland of mahjong. You heard the clacking and clicking of tiles, sometimes mingled with an exclamation: "Peng (taking others' tile to get three identical ones)!", "Chow (taking others' tile to get a sequence of three tiles)!", "Hu (I win)!" Then, you saw two mahjong tables in a cramped room with competitors sitting at the four sides of each square table. There were also people standing around them, eating sunflower seeds, observing carefully and giving the players advice on their strategies. Every time they had a break from the game to eat dinner, I would occupy the mahjong tables, playing with the tiles and using them to build a "Pyramid" or a "Roman Colosseum."
As I grew older, I began to sneak in with those who stood or sat beside the players. As I watched more and more, I spontaneously learned the rules. I was fascinated by how strategies, calculations and luck interplay to bring a victory. No longer using the tiles as "LEGOs", I was eager to join in the game. However, most of the time, I was expurgated from the table because my mom wanted me to study, so I downloaded this game onto my iPad and avidly played it on my own.
For those of you who have no idea what I am talking about, I had better give you a brief introduction to this game. It is somewhat similar to the American card game rummy (actually, rummy is derived from mahjong). It involves four players, each getting fourteen tiles. For each round, they discard one tile and draw a new one. A win is usually accomplished if the fourteen tiles are consisted of four melds and a pair. A meld can be achieved by exactly three identical tiles or three suited ones in a sequence. For every different geographical area, there are also slight variations of the rules and special cases to count as a win. The history of this game can be traced back to the 18th century Ming Dynasty. It has evolved and endured for over three hundred years and still remains one of the most popular forms of entertainments not only within Chinese society but also around the world, especially among older people.
However, the public perceptions of this popular game are not all positive. It is often regarded as an inferior pastime for idlers and a sign of over-indulgence and gambling. Modern Chinese historian Maggie Green explains: "For some critics, mahjong was at once a symptom of China's backwardness and moral decay and a symbol of detestable upper-class decadence" (10). Critics also perceived this game as "something that wasted the vast manpower of China" (Green 18). Annelise Heinz, a cultural historian at Stanford, also illustrates the common stereotype of mahjong as "a symbol of women who had nothing better to do" (Walters 1). Is mahjong only a good-for-nothing indulgence for idlers like those critics suggest? Are there any intrinsic benefits of this game other than a pastime?
At least for my grandma, mahjong means far more than just a game. She always says: "Mahjong is the elixir." My grandma is one of the most pessimistic people I have ever met. As she gets older in age, she suffers from health anxiety, often feeling sick and depressed. However, when she sits around a mahjong table, her illness and anxiety are suddenly cured. Her fingers become nimble and her voice turns strong. She manipulates the tiles vigorously and calculates the scores energetically. For my grandma, mahjong seems to be a better medicine than those prescribed by doctors. My grandma is not the only mahjong enthusiast who believes in the magical effects of this game. For example, according to a report from China Daily, the 103-year-old Wu Xiuqiong claims that mahjong "has kept her mind sharp and has contributed to her longevity" (Liu). Although it sounds absurd, a variety of research has been done to prove that the accounts by my grandma and Mrs. Wu are by no means nonsense or mere superstition.
Due to a variety of brain activities involved in this game, including calculation, memory, executive function and strategic thinking, the effect of playing mahjong on cognitive functioning has gained the interests of researchers over the past few years. Various studies have shown that playing mahjong is conducive to mental function and could prevent or even cure dementia, the symptom of losing memory commonly suffered by older people. For example, an exploratory study was conducted by Sheung-Tak Cheng, Alfred Chan and Edwin Yu in 2006 to investigate the effect of mahjong on the cognitive functioning of people with dementia. The researchers invited sixty-two older people "who met DSM-IV diagnosis of any dementia condition" to engage in the activity of mahjong for sixteen weeks. "Consistent gains across all cognitive performance measures" were observed by the researchers in these older people with dementia (Cheng, et al. 611). The researchers attribute this positive correlation to the memory and strategic thinking required in the game of mahjong: "One has to memorize the tiles on the floor and to anticipate other players' moves and use these to build a strategy to maximize the chance of winning" (Cheng Sheung‐Tak 612). They even recommend mahjong as an alternative therapy to traditional pharmacological treatment due to the minimum side-effects and low costs. In this way, the activity of playing mahjong is shown to be beneficial in treating diseases like dementia. A similar study was conducted in Japan in 2014. However, this study focused on eighty-nine elderly participants without formal diagnosis of dementia. Researchers suggest "potentially positive effects of mahjong on brain activities," which highlights the preventative power of mahjong from dementia (Machishima 505). These studies really highlight the value of playing mahjong in combating cognitive diseases and prove the benefit of mahjong, especially for elderly communities.
In addition to the effect on cognitive functioning and treating dementia, playing Mahjong can also improve movement and physical coordination for older people. Although it is a static activity, mahjong actually requires significant hand movements and body reactions in shuffling, drawing and discarding the tiles with both speed and accuracy. A recent study was conducted by researchers William Tsang, Gloria Wong and Kelly Gao at the Department of Rehabilitation Sciences, Hong Kong Polytechnic University. They investigated the effect of playing mahjong on eye-hand coordination, an essential perceptual-motor function that declines with aging. Forty-one people in a community of older adults were tested on their abilities to "point quickly and accurately" towards both a stationary and a moving visual target. It was found that the mahjong players demonstrated "significantly better end-point accuracy" and "shorter reaction times" (Tsang 2955). The researchers state the "precise hand skills" required in this game with "building up blocks of tiles, getting a tile from a particular block and claiming a tile from the table" contribute to dexterity in hand movement and coordination (Tsang 2958). This finding indicates another significant health benefit of playing mahjong and suggests the potential for this game in contributing to physical therapies and rehabilitations.
Not only for treating the clinical diseases, playing mahjong also improves the mental health of older people. Due to their retirement, older people are inclined to feel lonely and excluded from communities. Some mental illnesses they suffer from such as depression and hypochondriasis can be the result of this feeling of loneliness. As the study "Loneliness, depression and sociability in old age" conducted by psychologists Archana Singh and Nishi Misra notes, "there was a significant correlation between loneliness and depression in the elderly people" (Singh 51). In response to that, the game of mahjong can effectively act as a social outlet for seniors to engage in communities, therefore reducing their loneliness and depression. To illustrate this point, the social scientist Kam-shing Yip offers a first-hand account of working with elderly people with depression. He helped his patient Mrs. Lam to identify mahjong as a source of strength to deal with the symptom of depression and hypochondriasis. Instead of using medicine or other complicated therapy, Yip only suggested the children of Mrs. Lam to play mahjong with her as well as invite the neighbors to participate. Mrs. Lam eventually recovered. As Yip indicates, the game of mahjong brings elderly people "integration and interaction within their own community," which can either prevent or cure them from anxiety and depression (Yip 344). Also, this finding testifies to my grandma's experience of anxiety and the happiness she identifies in playing mahjong. This game enables her to engage with family members and friends, therefore reducing the sense of isolation associated with health anxiety and instilling a sense of well-being. By improving mental health and reducing the risk of depression, mahjong-playing contributes to the higher life expectancy among elderly group.
Despite the ample studies showing the health benefits of mahjong among older people, the game of mahjong receives little credit in bringing benefits to young people. This lack of research can be explained by the lack of popularity of this game among young people. According to a survey conducted in Hong Kong, "only 2 per cent of those between 18 and 24" played mahjong as a leisure activity (Yeung). Partly due to the popularity among elderly people, younger generations often mistakenly consider this game as exclusively for retired seniors who have nothing fun to do. Most of my friends do not play mahjong because they think it is so outdated. Another reason for the unpopularity of mahjong among younger generations ties back to the negative stereotypes of indulgence and gambling associated with this game. The cartoonist and winner of the Printz Award Gene Luen Yang complained about his father's objection to his burgeoning interest in mahjong: "Mahjong is for kids who won't have jobs when they grow up" (Yang). The negative perception of mahjong as something useless indirectly prevents young people from experiencing even knowing this game.
I also remember during my primary school, I was often expurgated from the mahjong table and prevented from playing this game by my parents. Instead, they registered me for abacus classes to cultivate my talents in mathematics and harshly reproached me when I only used the abacus as a skateboard. They never realized I could practice mathematics simply by joining the game of mahjong. Even by watching them play, I participated in the calculation of melds and the computation of the scores. Besides being a substitute for LEGOs, the game of mahjong was also an early enlightenment for my mathematical and analytical brain as an accountancy and math major. Given the calculation and mental activities involved in this game, it is such a shame that mahjong is undervalued as a possible intellectual activity for young people.
Moreover, mahjong can even be superior to other traditional intellectual games like chess and Go in bringing intellectual benefits. According to mathematicians Yuan Cheng and Chi-Kwong: "Mahjong is different from chess and Go because the players do not have the full information of other players during the game. One needs to anticipate what other players are hiding in their hands and create their own game plan" (Cheng Yuan 10). Instead of responding to a given move like people do in chess, mahjong players have to consider every possibility and combination and come up with the best strategy after speculating the tiles from opponents. Therefore, mahjong cultivates even more advanced strategic planning than other games. However, these benefits of mahjong are neither sufficiently recognized nor incorporated into our intellectual education.
Mahjong is much more than a pastime. Playing mahjong benefits older people by stimulating their brain and hand activities and improving their psychological well-being. The value of mahjong in elderly communities should be appreciated as both preventive and corrective treatments for Alzheimer's disease, motor dysfunction and depression. Therefore, instead of complaining about the clicking of tiles, we should encourage mahjong playing among older people. However, the worth of mahjong should by no means be restricted within older people. Given the benefits of mahjong in terms of practicing intellectual activities, this game can be conducive to the mental development of children and teenagers, which may serve a similar or even higher function than chess. Therefore, more research and studies should be done to investigate the relationship between mahjong and intellectual education for young people. Playing mahjong on my ipad, I miss the clicking and clacking, the "Peng", "Chow" and Hu, the "Pyramid" and "Roman Colosseum," the touching of the tiles and dices, and the laughing of my grandma. I hope the values of mahjong can be more recognized and explored over every generation, and the glamor of this game can endure forever.