CHENGDU China - From the moment you sit down at a mahjong table set up to play Sichuan's trademark style bloody mahjong, you know you are in for a different experience.
For an overview of the bloody mahjong rules as they were played in the Grand Prix of Bloody Mahjong, hosted by the Mahjong International League in Chengdu, Vitaly Novikov has prepared such an article which can be referenced here.
If you've never played mahjong in the Sichuan province of China before, the first thing you'll notice is the size of the tiles. Compared to tiles popular in the West, and especially as compared to the Japanese riichi tiles, the Sichuan tiles are immense! 54mm x 39mm x 28mm. That is huge. You could really hurt someone with these tiles. Literally, when they are stacked two tiles high into a wall, at 56mm (2 inches), you can't even see over it to look at your discards that are close to it, without leaning over. At first you might think that size can't be all that common, but all the automatic tables we encountered in Sichuan, either at the tournament, at our hotel, or at restaurants, all worked with this same giant size. It's just what they play with in Sichuan. That, and I imagine they toss some in the trunk of their cars for extra weight on the rear wheels in the winter. They were big. And making room for discards of that size was actually an issue. Once you've lined them up at six across, you run out of room, so they have to be perfectly lined up, or the sixth discard simply won't fit down on the table in the space allowed.
Once you get over the size of the tiles, the next thing you have to adjust to is the speed with which the players go. It is very fast paced. When even Tina Christensen from Denmark is saying they play very fast, then you know they play fast :) They often discard before drawing, which speeds up the pace considerably. This is especially true if you happen to be at a table where all three opponents are playing this way. With three opponents tossing out discards before grabbing from the wall, your turn comes back around to you literally in just a second, or two at the most, so that by the time you draw, and then discard, it's already time for for you to draw again!
The other thing about the Sichuan playing environment that one can notice right away is the atmosphere, which is very relaxed and social, even with the blistering speed with which they play. As compared to European mahjong tournaments, or those in Japan, which can best be compared to playing mahjong in a library, the Sichuan experience, even during the tournament, was more like playing mahjong in a pub. There is much discussion and laughter to help drown out the clacking (well, thudding really) of the tiles. Especially when the hand is over. Once the last tile is played, a whole lot gets said between the other three players and the referee, who invariably comes over to help score the hand. This discussion between the four of them often goes on for several minutes. Since I don't understand Chinese, I made it a habit to just sit and wait patiently while they energetically debate back and forth about who did what and when. It's ironic, really, that they play so blistering fast during the hand, but then take quite a bit of time up talking about it afterwards while they score it. While I generally had no idea what they were saying, before it ends, the referee always stops to ask me my score in English, to make sure my account agrees with my table mates. Multiply this process by a hundred tables, and you begin to see why the atmosphere is much louder and more boisterous than a library. All in all, it is a very fun and vigorous experience.
But as to how one plays bloody mahjong, I hope you have had a chance to take a look at the rules as laid out by Vitaly in his previous article here. Everything you thought you knew about tile efficiency and strategy you can just throw out, because this game plays very differently. To illustrate, consider my very first table in the tournament, where I started out as East. After my sixth continuance in a row as East, having won as many hands in a row, I thought I was going to be kicking butt in the standings, and I was feeling pretty good about myself. The 18 points that I was up for having had six 3-point wins in a row seemed pretty decent. That is, until the player across from me laid out a concealed kong, scoring instantly 6 points for that player, and costing me 2. Then I thought, wait a sec, this person hasn't ever beat me yet, and they are already back up to even? Then came another kong, and another. In no time, my points were in the hole, despite what I thought was a winning streak. And there was my lesson in bloody mahjong. Yes, winning hands is important, but it really comes secondary to making kongs, and now that I consider it, that explains why some players call Sichuan mahjong "kong mahjong". While I was busy making quick cheap chow-based hands, my opponents were all waiting on much slower kongs to appear, and pounded my winnings to nothing.
I took my beating at that table finishing 8 points in the hole, and I continued to finish in the negative for many more tables to come. Keeping with usual tile efficiency, I just couldn't get a winning hand worth more than just a couple points, while other players were bleeding me dry with much slower but much more valuable kong-based hands. Clearly, my strategy had significant flaws. It took me a good part of that first day before I had managed to adjust my strategy enough to realize I was better off throwing away perfectly good chows if that's what it took to keep a pair in my hand. This is because you can't make any kongs from a chow, and in bloody mahjong, kongs were king. In bloody mahjong, you need pairs, because only pairs can become pungs, because only pungs can become kongs. That's what bloody mahjong was really all about. The kongs. And pity the player who doesn't manage to make any kongs before the hand is over, because, as you may know, the hand continues after the first player makes a winning hand until only one player remains who hasn't. That is the "battling to the bloody end" part of things.
Having found my wisdom at the kong mahjong tables, it was time to venture out into the outskirts of Chengdu to seek out a more spiritual brand of wisdom in the famous Toaist temples that dot the countryside. With a sense of adventure in hand, Tina Christensen and I hailed a cab, and pointed at the tourist map we held to indicate our desired destination. We were pointing to Mount Qingcheng, dubbed 'the most peaceful and secluded mountain under heaven', and is considered one of the places from which Toaism originates. The teacher and founder of Toaoism by the name of Zhang came here just after the turn of the first millennium (20-220 AD). The legend is that he was imbued with great powers from a higher master, and he used that strength to battle and defeat the monster and ghost of the mountain. Since then, the area has continued to develop over the last two thousand years into an epicenter of Taoist philosophy.
With the Chengdu area being famous for both pandas and this mountain home for Taoist temples, this is the site no doubt that served as inspiration for the lofty mist-covered settings of the popular cartoon Kung Fu Panda. When we arrived at the foot of the mountain, sure enough the gate of Mount Qingcheng is exactly as seen in the cartoon, serving as entrance to the Valley of Peace.
We arrived at the foot of the mountain and prepared to embark on our accent. After passing through the beautiful entrance pavilion to the mountain, our journey began hiking around the perimeter of Yuecheng Lake, and all its misty lush green beauty. There was a boat ferry here that would cross the lake from time to time as pulled by a cable which stretched across the lake, but we took the route on foot, and carried on up the mountain.
Part way up the mountain, we passed other members of the Mahjong International League on their way back down.
The next destination we encountered on our journey upward was the Ciyun Paviliion. Here, moustachioed monks wearing traditional blue tunics and pillbox hats would ring a gong every time a sojourner would place a new burning incense into the altar in prayer.
Hiking up further still we came across the Tianshi Pool, where The Taoist Master, seeing the barrenness of the mountain, struck the Earth with great force, and brought forth a spring of water, which flows from this pool to nourish all the mountain in thick lush green landscape. It is this master that is said to have instructed the great Taoist teacher Zhang two thousand years ago. The cave where Zhang resided during his stay on the mountain is still accessible on a hike we didn't have time to complete.
Higher up the mountain, sitting at it's summit, resides Shangqinggong Temple, one of the most famous in all of China, built for the first time during the Jin Dynasty (265-420 AD) and rebuilt during the Qing Dynasty. Here is enshrined Taishanglaojun, and also here wood boards are carved with the full texts of the Taoist Classic of the Virtue of the Tao and Huangdi Yinfujing. Behind the temple are steps to the very peak of the mountain.
Hiking around the mountain would reveal more than a couple dozen other Taoist temples, none of which we had the daylight to visit. The hikes are long, and the day was short. By the time we got back down to the base of the mountain, it was dark, and we were glad to be met by entrepreneurial Chinese locals waiting for wayward travelers to take them the rest of the journey back home... for a reasonable fee.