In the United States we have the right to free speech and assembly; in China they have the right to sports. The government of the PRC takes sports so seriously that they’ve written it into their law, guaranteeing the opportunity for every citizen to get physical. And due in part to their successful hosting of the 2008 Beijing Olympics (51 gold medals for China, compared to 36 for the United States), producing world-class athletes remains a top priority for the government. It will only take one good beating in table tennis by a seven-year-old for you to realize how important the game is to the culture.
The number-one sport in the country is soccer, which the Chinese claim to have invented. They also claim to have invented golf, which is quickly growing in popularity among Chinese yuppies. Table tennis has played an important role not only in recreation but also in modern politics: It was a table tennis tournament in 1971 that was the catalyst for opening diplomatic relations between the United States and the PRC. It will only take one good beating in table tennis by a seven-year-old for you to realize how important the game is to the culture. Basketball has gained a tremendous following in China; courts are filled at all hours with young men hoping to be the next Yao Ming.
Among Chinese table games, the one that is most well known is mahjong, similar to the gin card game but using carved tiles instead of cards. Mahjong has a rough reputation among the Chinese since the game is used for gambling. The Chinese also have their own version of chess, xiang qi, with rules and characters that are similar to the Western version. Xiang qi typically uses wooden disks carved with the piece’s title, so to play you’ll have to learn to recognize about a dozen Chinese characters. Knowing how to play either—or both—of these popular games is one of the best ways to make friends with the locals, who are always delighted to discover a laowai (foreigner) who can play.
Excerpted from the Second Edition of Moon Living Abroad in China.