- Beatrice Tamagno
A woman’s place is at the Majiang table
Why do left-behind women make up the majority of players in rural areas?
A curious phenomenon has been observed in the past twenty years or so: women slowly started taking over men, and they now make up the majority of majiang players in rural areas.
Although many associate 麻将 majiang with gambling, since players mostly bet small amounts of money it is completely legal in China and even protected as part of the cultural heritage.1
As opposed to gambling, majiang is mostly played as a pastime and is regarded as a way to make money. But why are so many women now playing in the Chinese countryside?
Who are the left-behind women?
“Left-behind women” (留守妇女 liushou funv), similarly to “left-behind children,” describes those women who have stayed in the countryside to take care of other members of the family and gave up the chance of migrating to the city for work (出去打工 chuqu dagong).2
These women, together with the elderly and children, often make up a significant percentage of villages’ population and are frequently engaged in informal labor that can be done without leaving home (farming, weaving, etc.). This division of labor within the rural family is labeled男工女耕 nangong nvgeng (the husband works and the wife ploughs) and is regarded by many as oppressive towards women. Although some point out that left-behind women enjoy a “laxer and freer” lifestyle compared to female migrant workers, the value of their domestic labor is scarcely recognized by society and their “freedom” is confined to the village. The expression 半工半家 bangong banjia describes left-behind women’s life: work and family care both take place in the domestic environment.3
Why do they love playing majiang?
It is in this context that the trend of femininization of majiang took place. Majiang is either played in commercial dedicated locations (麻将棋牌室 majiang qipaishi) or at home, the former being mostly chosen by men and more crowded during the evening, the latter being women’s favorite.
Majiang not only can be enjoyed at home while taking care of children, but it also is one of the few leisure activities available for women in the countryside, where traditional cultural activities have been erased by decades of urbanization. Unlike watching TV or short videos on 抖音 Douyin or 快手 Kuaishou, majiang is a way of recreation that helps strengthening social bonds. The players are often neighbors or family members, and the majority of women plays several hours every week or even on a daily basis.4
On the one hand, majiang, similar to other games, can easily lead to addiction and doesn’t help women emancipate themselves from the domestic environment, potentially leading to their further marginalization. However, in rural areas it often represents the only chance for women to enjoy recreation and each other’s company and, to some extent, can ease the burden of a rather monotonous life. Hopefully China will go in the direction of a rural development that takes into account left-behind women, the elderly and children and their needs in terms of social security, healthcare and education but also culture and recreation.
References / To go further
Anise Wu, Joseph Lau, “Gambling in China: socio‐historical evolution and current challenges”. Addiction 110, no.2 (2015), 210-216.
卢青青, “半工半家,” 406