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In Chongqing its all in the cards
By Raymond Zhou (China Daily)
Updated: 2004-04-09 23:42

You thought only teenagers get addicted to games. But in the city of Chongqing, everybody is hooked on one particular card game.

The game is called "doudizhu," or literally "battling the landlord," and it is more than just a pastime in the hilly city, situated on the triangle of land where the Jialing River empties into the mighty Yangtze. It is an obsession that grips most residents regardless of age, profession or social status.

Preferred game

Card games are popular everywhere, and there is nothing unique about doudizhu, which is a variation of a game played throughout China. The rule is: whoever gets rid of all the cards in his or her hand first is the winner. What distinguishes the Chongqing phenomenon is its ferocity.

Residents in Chongqing play game of "doudizhu". [newsphoto]

A random browse at any newsstand will get you in touch with the reality:

Zhang Xuan, a female fan of the game, because of the lack of human beings to play against, likes to sharpen her skills online. One time she went at it for 72 hours straight, with no sleep and only water and bread to sustain her. By the fourth day, when she got up to use the bathroom, she fainted and had to be taken to hospital.

In February, a doudizhu competition was sponsored by an online gaming firm. As many as 100,000 people participated. There are 17 levels of "wealth," and players can fight all the way up from "dire poverty" to "Bill Gates rich". Members, reminiscent of those in cults, have evolved into 197 categories, crusading against one another in the spirit of having a jolly good time.

In Wushan, one of the outlying towns of Chongqing, some officials were caught playing the game during office hours. Even though the stakes were small, ranging from 10 to 30 yuan (US$1.20-3.60), they were nonetheless disciplined by authorities.

No one knows exactly where or when this game originated. Some say it started in the neighbouring provinces of Hubei and Anhui. But Chongqingers claim that nowadays their city boasts the largest number of loyal players. No data is available as to the exact number of die-hards in the municipality, but in addition to the games in living rooms and on the sidewalks, there are more than 300 teahouses in the urban centre, by one estimate, that feature the game as their staple entertainment.


When asked to explain the craze, most locals cite the unemployment rate. The city with its economy based on old-style machinery manufacturing is going through growing pains, with factories either being shut down or restructured to meet market needs. In the process many have been laid off.

However, the abundance of leisure time goes way beyond the underemployed.

When Xinzhoukan, a Guangzhou-based lifestyle magazine, did a survey of a dozen Chinese cities, it found that Chongqing is not a city known for its sophisticated pastimes. It is not teeming with "party animals," according to the magazine. Chongqingers enjoy what the magazine called "grassroots recreations": simple joys like drinking the local baba tea or playing doudizhu.

Although the article tries hard not to sound snobbish, it does make storm in some of the local elite's cups. Luo Jinghong is one of them. A woman with impeccable taste, she enjoys classical music and impressionist paintings. She is also a municipal official who has a firm grasp on the cultural pulse of the city.

"I used to hate it when my husband played doudizhu for long stretches of time. I thought it crass, but now I know better," she confided to China Daily.

Culture should not be divided into high and low class, she says. Whenever a mass hobby takes shape, there must be something meaningful behind it. doudizhu is part of our local culture and we should study the reasons behind it rather than denounce it outright.

According to Luo, the game is first and foremost a way of relaxing. After a day's hard work and tension, one needs to unwind.

More important than that is the significance of human interaction. Luo contends that many friendships are maintained through the game. "It is a form of communication. It is like Cantonese having dim-sum, Germans drinking beer or Parisians hanging out in sidewalk cafes. You don't usually do it alone. You always have someone you can talk to or even confide in. I guess it saves us a psychiatrist's bill," she quips.

As a means of communication, doudizhu is prone to abuse just as is any other means of communication. When business associates play it, it can evolve into an informal business meeting where deals are made. When people of disparate ranks engage in it, it can turn into a mini drama where a subordinate may strategically lose in order to appease the ego of a superior. When large sums of money are "lost" in this way, it constitutes virtual bribery, not by any means unheard of.

Most people bet five or ten yuan on a game, which may be a bargain for the amount of fun it brings to them. However, when it gets out of hand, it can also have serious consequences. There are sporadic reports of people losing thousands in one night and resorting to violence to settle disputes. But authentic players thumb their noses at such behaviour, saying it spoils the true spirit of the game.

Looking for identity

When Chongqing residents talk about their own city, they usually make comparisons with Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province.

Before 1997, Chongqing was part of Sichuan. The two cities have always had a lot in common, such as the penchant for hot and spicy food, but Chongqingers felt they were number two, since Chengdu was the provincial capital.

The elevation of the city's status to zhixiashi, or municipality directly under the Central Government, in 1997, gave the local economy a shot in the arm and a boost to the residents' egos. Investment has been pouring in. Infrastructure is being developed on a massive scale. Gleaming towers stand side by side with old houses. It offers an image of change and promise.

However, Chongqingers pride themselves on their old ways as well. Many would cite the restaurant business as the case in point. When coastal cities started booming, outside cuisines were introduced and voraciously gobbled up by locals who would try anything different for a change. Not Chongqingers. Restaurants of other regional cuisines are opened but quickly fold.

"We simply won't touch anything that's not numbingly spicy," said Luo Jinghong.

Xinzhoukan magazine considers Chengdu the cultured city with swarms of artist types. "People in Chengdu are more laid-back," concurred Luo. "But we in Chongqing are more intense. We are like the northern people. We work hard and play hard."

But that can hardly justify the widespread love for mahjong in Chengdu. The passion with which Chengduers play mahjong easily rivals, if not surpasses, Chongqinger's doudizhu fad. There is one gag that alleges, exaggeratedly of course, that the only sound one can hear on a plane passing over Chengdu is the clatter of mahjong tiles.

Chongqingers have an explanation. "A few years ago, the mahjong mania was present here, too, but we outgrew it. We wanted to play something different, different from what Chengdu people love. We do not have to be like them in every way," said a local resident.

For one thing, mahjong is more structured. You have to have four players and a square table whereas doudizhu is freer in form. Three people are enough, and any venue will do. Another difference is that Chongqingers tend to play their game for serious fun, while Chengduers do it strictly for fun.

"You may say that our way of playing cards is not the most refined, but you cannot doubt our sincerity and our goodwill. We want to make sure our friends truly enjoy themselves," said Luo.

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