The first time I came to China I bought a lot of souvenirs. One of
them was a Mahjong set. It was a very nice Mahjong set – good heavy
tiles, high quality leather case, the works. And it's been sitting on
display in a glass case in my bedroom ever since – over twenty years.
And I've never got round to learning to play the game.
Last night I did,
I was invited to go for a meal and then to the local Mahjong rooms
where a friend of our FAO would instruct us in the game. I'm not going
to go into the details of the meal beyond pointing out that my normal
moderate skill with chopsticks deserts me entirely when faced with
noodles so that I end up wearing more than I manage to eat. Nor am I
intending to discuss how you actually play the game though I will say
that it's relatively easy to pick up the principal -even when
explained in Chinese – but rather difficult to play well. I don't even
want to talk much about the night out beyond saying that it was a
thoroughly entertaining one and I had a great time.
No, what I want to talk about is the table.
At the Mahjong rooms the five of us – Me, Mike, Erika, the FAO Jane
and her friend were led into a separate room which was furnished with
two small glass trolleys for drinks, four comfortable chairs and what
looked like an unremarkable square green baize table. Closer
examination revealed a number of odd features about the table. To
begin with, in the centre there was a circular glass plate below which
there were two dice. This was held in place by a brass rim which had a
number of lights and buttons on it – four square buttons – one facing
each chair, and two circular buttons.
There also appeared to be a number of grooves in the surface parallel
to the edges.
The three of us, and our instructor sat – Jane remained standing. I
was a little puzzled. I have seen lots of people in the streets
playing Mahjong and it is a noisy game that involves 136 heavy tiles
that are clattered about the table with much vigour and speed. I could
see no tiles.
As the opening position of Mahjong is that each player has in front of
him a wall built of a quarter of the tiles, this was odd. Then I
discovered the true Genius of the table. Our host pressed one of the
circular buttons and the grooves in the table folded back and from in
the depths the already assembled walls rose smoothly into view in
front of us. We proceeded to learn the game. When we were sufficiently
instructed in the basics he pressed the button again. This time the
whole centre ring rose from the table so that we could push the tiles
from the game into the gaping hole below it. That done the ring
lowered it self and a new set of tiles appeared from the grooves while
there was a great rumbling and banging from the inside of the table as
the old tiles where shuffled and rebuilt automatically into walls
ready for the next game.
It was all damned ingenious and every bit as interesting as the game
itself. Erika videoed the whole process and when she lets me have a
copy of it I'll try to post it here.
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