Mahjong on a train to Xi’an

A few years ago we caught an overnight train from Beijing to Xi’an, the home of the Terracotta Warriors. We shared a compartment with two Chinese men, probably in their 50’s. I had bought a small mahjong (májiàng, 麻将)  set in one of the markets – more ornamental than practical, but when I took it out to see whether it had any English instructions – which it did – the two guys got seriously animated and set about teaching us how to play! They had zero English and my Mandarin wasn’t very good at that stage and I’m not sure I would have been able to work out their dialects or accents anyway. But language was no barrier as the 4 of us huddled over this set of tiny tiles at the minute table in the train compartment. So with loud and enthusiastic shouts of (鸡) and chī (吃), we spent a memorable couple of hours. Luckily they did not insist on adding money into the process, because I don’t think we would have come away unscathed… At one stage they seemed to become frustrated that we weren’t grasping the intricacies of the game quickly enough so they subtly took over our tiles as well and played on our behalf against themselves!

As the evening progressed, the news spread throughout the train about the lǎowài playing mahjong and we soon had a crowd of interested observers hanging through the compartment doors and windows. Eventually in the early hours of the morning after trying unsuccessfully to hint that we wanted to get some sleep, I had to start packing the tiles away in order to get all the spectators out of our compartment. Every time I look at the mahjong set in our display cabinet it makes me smile to think of this unique train experience – it is definitely one of our treasured China memories.


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November 2010
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