BEIJING -- It's gambling. It's a waste of time. It encourages corruption and the bad element. It is one of the "Four Olds" -- old ideas, old culture, old customs and old habits -- attacked by the militant Red Guard under Chairman Mao Tse-tung.
For nearly a half-century, China's Communist rulers have tried nearly every tactic to discourage mah-jongg, the popular table game usually played by four people with 144 tiles -- inscribed with numbers, symbols and Chinese characters -- and a pair of dice.
The game was banned during the Cultural Revolution of 1966 to 1976, and players were persecuted publicly.
"If you wanted to play, you had to hide in a den like a criminal," recalled one player. The game is still banned, unsuccessfully, on most college campuses.
Despite all efforts, the clacking of the heavy plastic tiles can be heard behind closed doors in most apartment buildings and, increasingly, in salons set up for the game in many hotels.
Defeated in its crusade to ban it, the government has decided to play a new hand. Instead of trying to purge mah-jongg, authorities have decided to reform the game, reclassifying it as a "sport" and allowing public tournaments.
"Mah-jongg is a part of China's folk culture and a traditional form of entertainment that challenges players' wits," said Xing Xiaoquan, a State Sports Commission official in charge of "redirecting" the game into a healthy pastime.
Early last year, officials experimented with a new format for the game -- played in several versions around the world -- and staged secret mock tournaments for party cadres in high-security state guesthouses. This January, mah-jongg officially came out of the closet with the "Celebrity Red Bull Vitamin Drink Tournament" featuring, as players, prominent actors, crooners, chess stars and politicians, plus retired party cadres and a champion gymnast.
Smoking and gambling were banned at the tournament, supervised by 27 umpires. Yelling was outlawed. Players took an oath promising that the competition would be "rule-abiding, civilized, refined and fair."
Yan Bin, the Red Bull Vitamin Drink chairman, declared that the event should not be called "competition mah-jongg" but rather "healthy mah-jongg" or "hygienic mah-jongg."
Probably because of its gambling aspect, mah-jongg has had a clandestine, rebellious air that resists state intervention.
Zhao Qiang, 67, a retired widow who lives in Beijing, called the latest government plan just another example of the state trying to take the fun out of holidays and festivals, when the game is played constantly in most households.
"They should spend their time and effort on something else more useful and significant," Zhao said.
Many doubt the government's ability to separate betting from the game.
"There's got to be some money involved," said Shi Tao, 31, a business consultant in Beijing. "Otherwise there's no fun."
Pub Date: 3/30/98