The Game of Mahjong

MahjongI look at the tiles in front of me, 16 in all, arranged in a straight line like Scrabble tiles. The type of mahjong I like to play is a bit like Rummy 500. You either create sets of three of the same suit in linear numbers (like having a 7, 8, and 9 of spades) or sets of three or four tiles of the same number or character (like having 3 or 4 aces). The tiles are big and thick, like little bricks. They have weight. There are four players at the square table, and each of them has a wall of bricks in front of them – two layers of tiles, arranged face-down in a long, horizontal row.

Chinese people love to play mahjong. It’s a a lot like playing cards but with tiles. There are so many different games you can play, but the most popular ones I know of are ones with 13 or 16 tiles in a hand.  The one with 13 tiles is a bit more difficult and takes more thought. With each one, of course, there’s always an element of luck involved because you never know what tile you’re going to pick. Everybody starts by first deciding how much money each point will be worth. Then eight arms stretch out towards the table, and you hear that kwala, kwala! sound of the mahjong tiles being shuffled in circular motions. Each person constructs his or her own wall (this is all done very quickly), and the game begins.

After I have picked my 16 tiles, I start arranging them in order, usually by the same suit. No one else can see my hand.  There are three suits – sticks, numbers and biscuits, and then there are a full set of three characters, which can be considered another suit. There are often two or more tiles that go together, like 3 and 4 of sticks.  I may have one 3 stick and two 4 sticks, which means I have 3 possible sets I could make (2, 3, 4 of sticks, or 3, 4, 5 of sticks or 4, 4, 4 of sticks), depending on whether someone else throws out the third tile to make my set. If someone throws out the right card, I yell out, “Peng! (hit!)” or “Chi! (eat!),” and everyone stops as I reach out to take the tile which I then match up with the pair from my hand. I then lay the entire set on the table in front of me for everyone to see.

Now, when people yell out “Peng!” or “Chi!” everyone gets very excited. You start watching as one set, then two, then three, start appearing on the table. As a person lays out more sets, they end up with less and less tiles in their hand. Other people around the table start to lean forward to examine the tiles on the table more closely, and you start hearing rumbles of, “Watch out!” or “Be careful…” or “Don’t fang pao! (don’t lose, or, figuratively, don’t blow the cannon!) Just because a person has many sets in front of them doesn’t mean they’re going to win. If you pick a tile that completes a set in your own hand, you don’t have to lay it out for everyone else to see. And sometimes, you can win without having Peng’ed! or Chi’ed! a single time. 

Each person takes turns in leading a hand in the game, and each hand takes about 5-15 minutes. As the minutes tick by, people start getting more and more alert because every person is completing their sets. Eyes start darting. Sometimes, the winning hand comes as a total surprise. 

When you win, you yell out, “Hu le!!” (won!) usually with a great deal of excitement on your face, and everyone else’s faces get excited, too. No one wants to throw out the losing tile because if you do, you have to pay money to the person who won. The person who throws out the losing card usually lets out an expression of their own and starts reaching for their stash of money which is now about to get a little smaller. Now, every so often, a person yells out, “Zi mo!” (self grab!), and this gets everyone very excited because it means that the person who zi mo’ed was lucky enough to pick his or her own winning tile. When someone zi mo’s, every person at the table has to pay the winner (and zi mo is worth an extra point, so the winner usually gets paid more than triple).

Taking the lead goes around in a circle to the left. A complete game goes for four rounds and usually takes 2 hours. In between rounds, some people get up and drink tea or go to the bathroom or get a bite to eat. It’s time to take a break. Oftentimes, when friends come over, people play two games in one afternoon or evening.

The money isn’t the reason people play, usually. There are, of course, many who play mahjong to gamble. But as a social game, the money’s just something that makes things a bit more exciting. If each person starts out with $10 in their purse, you could end up winning something like several dollars to $20 for the night (or lose a similar amount), depending upon how much everyone has agreed each point is worth. Some winning hands have a lot of points, and some hands have only very few points.  

During hands, people chat a bit and talk about their friends, families or whatever it is that they want to share. It’s not a quiet game like poker. There’s lots of Aiyas! (when someone has made a mistake) or Zhenmebang’s (What do I do’s? when people are wondering what their next move will be). Sometimes, people even slam down a tile onto the table in their excitement. There’s a lot of laughing (usually coming from the winners, but sometimes also from the losers or anyone else). It’s loud, from the tiles to the expressions. And then there are the frequent moments of silence in between, when people are concentrating or waiting, or when everyone is holding their breath to see what tile is coming out next onto the table.

In China and elsewhere, many older people like to play mahjong, and it’s very common for people to play mahjong in elderly homes and in the parks. They say that it keeps their brains nimble and helps to fend off dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. It makes sense, in a way. Mahjong doesn’t require too much thought (like Chinese chess), but it keeps you on your toes. For each new hand, you physically have to stretch out your arms and move them around in circular motions to shuffle, and then you have to reach out to get the tiles to build your wall. You have to stretch out your arm each time you pick up a tile or throw one out. And you usually sit up straight when you play. So mahjong is physically good for you, too. You end up chatting and laughing and making all kinds of expressions throughout the game. When you add all these things together, no wonder many people think mahjong is healthy for mind, body and spirit.

If you win, that’s even better. You can treat your friends, perhaps, or just keep your winnings in your pocket. But by the end of the evening, everyone usually leaves satisfied, knowing they just had a good time.

The Best (Online) Chinese Dictionary

nciku-name

If you’re learning Chinese, this is by far the best dictionary I’ve found: www.nciku.com. Here’s a brief overview of why and how you can use NCIKU as a great reference tool and resource in helping you to learn Chinese.

Why It’s the Best  

  • English-to-Chinese translation.  If you type in the word, “restaurant,” for example, NCIKU will give you just what you need to know in a clear and easy to read fashion: the characters of the word in Chinese, how to pronounce the characters, and the context of how the word is used in sentences. (NCIKU is also an excellent Chinese-English dictionary.  However, for this article, I’m going to focus on NCIKU for people who are learning Chinese.

Preview of “restaurant in Chinese, restaurant translation by Nciku Chinese Dictionary” copy

  • Most popular word in everyday usage is listed first.  Sometimes, there may be more than one translation of a word. NCIKU gives you a brief definition of each translation to make it easier for you to pick the right one. Better yet, NCIKU takes it one step further and generally lists the most popularly used term first. So, in general, you’re pretty safe with clicking on the first translation. If that doesn’t seem like the right one, go back and look at another translation of the word.
  • Easy to use (all-in-one) translation bar.  At the top of the site, there’s a toolbar. Just type in the word you want to translate. You can use the same bar to:
  1. type an English word to translate into Chinese;
  2. copy and paste Chinese characters (or type in the Chinese characters if you know how to do this with your keyboard) to translate words into English; or
  3. type in pinyin (a bit more on this later).
  • The “Listen” icon.  This icon is superific. Next to each word, you’ll see the “Listen” icon. When you hit the icon, you’ll hear how each Chinese character is pronounced. (The pronunciation is in Mandarin, which is the official national spoken language in China and the internationally recognized spoken Chinese language). The quality of the sound is good and clear. You can also hit the “repeat” button to hear the word repeated several times (in both female and male voices). The “Listen” icon appears everywhere in NCIKU, for both English and Chinese words and sentences.
  • Examples of the word used in sentences. I love how NCIKU gives many examples of how a word can be used in context. Usually, you’ll get at least 5 or more Chinese sentences, using the word you looked up, with the sentences translated into English underneath, along withe “Listen” icon (although I usually find the quality of sound less clear in sentences). This gives you a great idea of how a word is practically used.  Using the “Listen” icon is also a great way to train your ear to listen to the different intonations in Mandarin. If you hover your mouse over a Chinese sentence, NCIKU gives you the pronunciation in pinyin, which I have found to be extremely helpful. 
  • Learn how to write a Chinese character. Have you ever wondered what stroke
    English: Animation of stroke order for Chinese...

    English: Animation of stroke order for Chinese character 叫. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

    to draw first or second when you sit down to write a Chinese character?  There is a rule of thumb as to how you write a Chinese character. Within a square space, you go, in stroke order, from the top left of the character progressively to the bottom left and then from top to bottom of the right side of the character. It may be harder to explain, though, than perhaps to simply see it in action, which you can do here: http://blog.nciku.com/blog/en/nciku-random-character-generator/. As you watch the characters being drawn on the screen, follow the strokes and draw the character in the air with your finger. You’ll eventually get the “hidden” logic behind writing a Chinese character.  After writing 20 characters or so, you will have a good sense of how to write a Chinese character in the right stroke order.

  • The coolest writing tool. This handwriting feature absolutely makes NCIKU different and special from any other Chinese dictionary I’ve used. If you see a Chinese character somewhere and want to know what it means, you can use your mouse to write the character into the grid.  (If you don’t see a square grid, click on the “Handwrite characters” button next to the toolbar). As you write, NCIKU begins automatically populating characters to the right that you can choose from. This means that, most of the time, you don’t need to write out the entire character but draw just enough strokes for NCIKU to recognize what that character might be. Once you see the character you’re looking for appear on the right, click on it. It will automatically be populated into the translation bar. Click search (or return). Tada! You’ve found the meaning of a Chinese character that you couldn’t even recognize (or, can I say in jest, looked like Greek).  Note: This feature is not free if you want to download it onto your smartphone. 

More Reasons to Use NCIKU

  • Simplified and traditional Chinese characters. The People’s Republic of China has simplified many Chinese characters so that many characters require less strokes to write. Taiwan and Hong Kong still uses traditional Chinese characters in its writing, and traditional Chinese is still used in many contexts (such as in many Chinese names). Most schools in the United States now teach reading and writing in simplified Chinese characters. NCIKU will display the word in both simplified characters and the traditional Chinese characters (in parentheses to the right). This is very useful for people who may know simplified Chinese characters but would like to know what the traditional Chinese characters are or vice versa.
  • Pinyin. If you know pinyin or are learning pinyin (the most popular system of transliterating pronunciation of Mandarin, using the Western alphabet), NCIKU displays in brackets how each word is pronounced in pinyin next to the Chinese character(s). In the case of “restaurant,” for example, you will see “[cānguǎn]” next to the Chinese characters. You can also type pinyin into the toolbar (no need to enter intonation symbols).  This is very useful for those who may know how to pronounce a word in Mandarin but don’t know the Chinese character(s) for the word.
  • Vocab lists allow you to review Chinese words easily. You need to register with NCIKU for this feature, but there’s no catch to registering, no unwelcome advertisements, and it’s free. You can easily create your own vocab lists under the “My Vocab Lists” tab. You can either 1) have NCIKU automatically save every word you look up (the default option), or 2) choose to create your own lists manually. If you want to create your own lists, uncheck the “Autosave Words Viewed” box. Each time you look up a word, you can click on the “Add to my vocab list” button to save it to a list you’ve created. NCIKU also allows you to “grab” words from vocab lists that other people have compiled. Some are very popular and labeled “Top for Beginners” or “Basic,” et al. The most popular lists are displayed in order by how many “grabs” they have had. In addition, NCIKU offers memorization tests based on your own lists to help build and strengthen your vocabulary. There are 4 tests, and I definitely like some of them more than others. It’s hard to go wrong with the first test (“Learning Definitons”). It gives you the Chinese characters for a word, and you choose the right answer in multiple choice format. The next 2 tests aren’t really a good fit for beginners and requires that you have either a knowledge of pinyin or how to use a Chinese keyboard, and they have some drawbacks, such as needing to be totally precise with NCIKU’s translation. Try out each of the tests and see which ones you like or are or aren’t a good fit for you. 
  • “Print” icon = easy flashcards.  If you prefer the old true-and-tried method of using flashcards for learning Chinese, you can click on the print icon next to each word that you look up (tip: use the largest size setting). It’s relatively easy to make your own flashcards with the print feature, either by physically cutting and pasting the printed words onto a card or by downloading a flashcard program onto your smartphone or computer.
  • Google Chrome extension. You can also download the NCIKU extension onto your Chrome browser so that you don’t have to leave the web page you’re on to look up a Chinese word or character and to use the character writing tool. At this time, this extension is only available for Google Chrome and not for other web browsers.  (Not to be confused with NCIKU apps which can be downloaded onto your smartphone.)  Click on the “Tools” tab and then click on “Toolbar” to download this function.

What It’s Not

  • A translation platform.  Besides the most basic phrases, NCIKU presently does not translate entire phrases (outside of idioms) and sentences for you. It is primarily a dictionary that translates a single word that you look up and gives you examples and contexts of how that word may be used. It is not a translation platform like Google Translate (which I presently give 2.5 out of 5 stars for accuracy).
  • For profit. For those of you who really know or have learned to appreciate the value of what NCIKU offers, please note that NCIKU depends solely on donations to continue to offer and expand its services.

NCIKU has some other cool features. You can search for Chinese idioms (or chengyu), for example, which are commonly used Chinese idioms. The site continues to develop and evolve, and there have been features added in the past year such as games, some community goings-on and other. (Some of these additional features of the site seem better left out to me for now, but it’s still interesting to look at and to investigate. Who knows? There might be something of interest to you.)

Finally, for those who still like the good old touch, feel and smell of books and aren’t huge fans of online dictionaries (or if you’re somewhere without power), I would strongly recommend the Oxford Chinese Dictionary as the best dictionary to put in your backback or keep on your bookshelf. Like NCIKU, it’s both an English-Chinese and Chinese-English dictionary.  You need to know pinyin to use the Chinese-English half of the dictionary or to understand how to pronounce Chinese words. You can find it here: http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_ss_i_1_14?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=oxford+chinese+english+dictionary&sprefix=Oxford+Chinese%2Caps%2C236. (The pocket sized one costs quite a bit less than either the most recent hardback or the previous desk hardback edition, which is ok if you’re willing to SQUINT A LOT.)

Whether you’re just beginning to learn Chinese or an advanced Chinese learner, I think you’ll learn to love NCIKU as much as I do.  

This article was not endorsed or sponsored by either nciku or Oxford University Press or any related entity.

Why I Practice Chinese Calligraphy

Chinese character safeI sit down and arrange a few things before me – paper, ink, inkstone, brush and zi tie, which literally means “word obedience” or “word submission” but can be translated into “word copybook.” (The zi tie is a printed copy of an original work of calligraphy, usually done by a master. This copybook serves as the model for calligraphers.) I pour a bit of ink into the well of the inkstone. 

I then take the brush, which is made of wolf hair or goat hair, dip it into the ink which I have poured into the well of the stone and gently wipe it across the surface of the stone to get rid of any excess ink. I gather myself. Before the attack, I relax, concentrate, breathe.

My goal is is to copy the characters I see on the zi tie as best as I can. I use one zi tie religiously, which was recommended to me by my father. He said, if you can learn to copy these characters well, then you can write any calligraphy well. “Write” is not quite the right word, I think. Perhaps “draw” is more appropriate. You are, after all, using a brush to draw each stroke of each character.

At any rate, I realize that with every stroke of the brush, I am making an attack. I need to concentrate in order for the brush to obey my will and do what I want it to do. Once you make a stroke, you cannot modify it or take it back. You have only one chance. When the stroke appears on paper, it is what it is.

The first thing I’m aware of when I’m writing calligraphy is whether my stroke is balanced or not. Every character in Chinese requires balance. In fact, a single unbalanced stroke can make an entire character look unstable, as if it would fall easily if you were to push it gently with your hand. Each character should stand upright so that it has poise.

The second thing I’m aware of is knowing that certain strokes aren’t as good as I’d like or even complete failures, but I can’t paint over them. I can’t change them, so I keep going. Even if I’m disappointed, I finish the rest of the character as dutifully as I can, and I try to keep in mind that each new stroke is another chance at doing well. When this happens, I realize that practicing Chinese calligraphy is a metaphor. Accept what happened, move on and try again.

I keep dipping the brush in the ink and wiping the excess ink away on the stone and copying the characters until I have a full page of characters in front of me. That’s when I realize something else. For the whole time that I was practicing this art, I forgot everything else – all my worries, my troubles, unfinished chores or what I needed to do later. I was completely absorbed in a simple act of copying characters.

The written Chinese language is so poetic. When I write in general, I feel alive. But when I write Chinese, I feel it even more keenly because when you write in Chinese, you need to pay attention to how you construct every word. If you miss a dot or a line is too long or too short, it can change the character into a completely different one. Writing Chinese requires you to remain aware and stay balanced. Chinese characters are pictorial in origin. It is the only major modern language which remains so and has no alphabet. Therefore, each character is known by memory.  

However, many characters actually make sense in their separate parts. For example, if you place the character for “woman” under the radical for “roof,” you arrive at the word that means “safe,” i.e. a woman under a roof is “safe.” Now, if you were to write this character, and you put the roof too high above the woman or the roof is crooked, it might not look or feel “safe.” You need to write the strokes so that they look and feel like they go together. In other words, you achieve a sense of harmony. 

When I practice calligraphy, something magical happens. I don’t know how to explain it exactly. But it is a sense of peace and of being alive that infuses me and travels through my brush. If you practice every day, you start to notice something else about your characters. They start to gain strength. Not just balance, but real strength. Now that you are better at taming your brush, you can channel your energy so that the soft tip of hair becomes like a sword and can carve sharp lines into the paper. It is said that a great master can literally carve characters with his brush into a wood table. I think this is an exaggeration, but it also contains some truth. Calligraphy is, in fact, a type of kung fu. It uses the same principles. Energy is channeled in the same way so that with practice and concentration, you can achieve balance, flexibility, focus, awareness, a sense of harmony and strength through simple actions.

But more importantly, writing calligraphy helps me realize that what’s important is now. It is this stroke before me that I want to make and am making. You can’t think of your last stroke with pride or disappointment if you want to do well because you have to concentrate on this single moment. So focus. In the end, for the half hour or hour that I sat down to produce a sheet of copied characters, I feel calm. I feel like I disposed of a lot of garbage in my head.  

I remember something my father said when I first tried writing Chinese calligraphy when I was young. I said the character for “one” which has only one stroke, looked easy to write. He replied somewhat mockingly, “It’s the easiest that is the hardest.” I think I understand now what he meant. Your characters express what is going on with your body, your imagination, your character and the discipline you have gained. It is entirely visible to the world in that one, single stroke. You can’t balance it out with another stroke or dot. It is naked in the moment in time that you created it. It takes courage to write the character “one.” I’m still working on it. 

Chinese brush inkstone           Chinese calligraph