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15: Games And Gambling

Chinamen suffer horribly from _ennui_--especially the first of the four classes into which the non-official world has been subdivided.[*] They have no rational amusements wherewith to fill up the intervals of work. They hate physical exercise; more than that, they despise it as fit only for the ignorant and low. Yet they have not supplied its place with anything intellectual, and the most casual observer cannot fail to notice that China has no national game. Fencing, rowing, and cricket, are alike unknown; and archery, such as it is, claims the attention chiefly of candidates for official honours. Within doors they have chess, but it is not the game Europeans recognise by that name, nor is it even worthy of being mentioned in the same breath. There is also another game played with three hundred and sixty black and white pips on a board containing three hundred and sixty-one squares, but this is very difficult and known only to the few. It is said to have been invented by His Majesty the Emperor Yao who lived about two thousand three hundred and fifty years before Christ, so that granting an error of a couple of thousand years or so, it is still a very ancient pastime. Dominoes are known, but not much patronised; cards, on the other hand, are very common, the favourite games being those in which almost everything is left to chance. As to open-air amusements, youths of the baser sort indulge in battledore and shuttlecock without the battledore, and every resident in China must have admired the skill with which the foot is used instead, at this foot-shuttlecock game. Twirling heavy bars round the body, and gymnastics generally, are practised by the coolie and horse-boy classes; but the disciple of Confucius, who has already discovered how "pleasant it is to learn with a constant perseverance and application,"[+] would stare indeed if asked to lay aside for one moment that dignified carriage on which so much stress has been laid by the Master. Besides this, finger-nails an inch and a half long, guarded with an elaborate silver sheath, are decidedly _impedimenta_ in the way of athletic success. No,--when the daily quantum of reading has been achieved, a Chinese student has very little to fall back upon in the way of amusement. He may take a stroll through the town and look in at the shops, or seek out some friend as _ennuye_ as himself, and while away an hour over a cup of tea and a pipe. Occasionally a number of young men will join together and form a kind of literary club, meeting at certain periods to read essays or poems on subjects previously agreed upon by all. We heard of one youth who, burning for the poet's laurel, produced the following quatrain on _snow_, which had been chosen as the theme for the day:--

The north-east wind blew clear and bright, Each hole was filled up smooth and flat: The black dog suddenly grew white, The white dog suddenly grew--

"And here," said the poet, "I broke down, not being able to get an appropriate rhyme to _flat_." A wag who was present suggested _fat_, pointing out that the dog's increased bulk by the snow falling on his back fully justified the meaning, and, what is of equal importance in Chinese poetry, the antithesis.

[*] Namely, (1) the literati, (2) agriculturists, (3) artisans, and (4) merchants or tradesmen. [+] The first sentence of the Analects or Confucian Gospels.

Riddles and word-puzzles are largely used for the purpose of killing time, the nature of the written language offering unlimited facilities for the formation of the latter. Chinese riddles, by which term we include conundrums, charades, _et hoc genus omne_, are similar to our own, and occupy quite as large a space in the literature of the country. They are generally in doggerel, of which the following may be taken as a specimen, being like the last a word-for-word translation:--

Little boy red-jacket, whither away? To the house with the ivory portals I stray. Say will you come back, little red-coat, again? My bones will return, but my flesh will remain.

In the present instance the answer is so plain that it is almost insulting to our readers to mention that it is "a cherry," but this is by no means the case with all Chinese riddles, many being exceedingly difficult of solution. So much so that it is customary all over the Empire to copy out any particularly puzzling conundrum on a paper lantern, and hang it in the evening at the street door, with the promise of a reward to any comer who may succeed in unravelling it. These are called "lamp riddles," and usually turn upon the name of some tree, fruit, animal, or book, the direction in which the answer is to be sought being usually specified as a clue.

Were it only in such innocent pastimes as these that the Chinese indulged, we might praise the simplicity of their morals, and contrast them favourably with the excitement of European life. But there is just one more little solace for leisure, and too often business hours, of which we have not yet spoken. Gambling is, of course, the distraction to which we allude; a vice ten times more prevalent than opium-smoking, and proportionately demoralising in its effect upon the national character. In private life, there is always some stake however small; take it away, and to a Chinaman the object of playing any game goes too. In public, the very costermongers who hawk cakes and fruit about the streets are invariably provided with some means for determining by a resort to chance how much the purchaser shall have for his money. Here, it is a bamboo tube full of sticks, with numbers burnt into the concealed end, from which the customer draws; at another stall dice are thrown into an earthenware bowl, and so on. Every hungry coolie would rather take his chance of getting nothing at all, with the prospect of perhaps obtaining three times his money's worth, than buy a couple of sausage-rolls and satisfy his appetite in the legitimate way. The worst feature of gambling in China is the number of hells opened publicly under the very nose of the magistrate, all of which drive a flourishing trade in spite of the frequent _presents_ with which they are obliged to conciliate the venal official whose duty it is to put them down. To such an extent is the system carried that any remissness on the part of the keepers of these dens in conveying a reasonable share of the profits to his honour's treasury, is met by _a brutum fulmen_ in the shape of a proclamation, setting forth how "it having come to my ears that, regardless of law, and in the teeth of my frequent warnings, certain evil-disposed persons have dared to open public gambling-houses, be it hereby made known," &c., &c., the whole document being liberally interspersed with allusions to the men of old, the laws of the reigning dynasty, and filial piety _a discretion_. The upshot of this is that within twenty-four hours after its appearance his honour's wrath is appeased, and croupiers and gamblers go on in the same old round as if nothing whatever had happened.