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  • Will Vagari

Gambling with Fate for Status and Fire

Or how to appropriately stir the social heat

Gambling is more than a money-related matter in China, especially in the countryside, where traditional sociability patterns persist the most.

First, because the law is less easily enforced in remote areas. Second, because this activity is more appealing in areas where distractions are scarce. Third, because the rise in disposable income enables individuals to partake in gambling.1

In these instances, gambling appears as a codified social practice, far from being characterized by chaotic interactions. This proper way of gambling relies on three concepts: fate, status, and fire.

Manifesting success and status through fate and luck

Both fate 命运 mingyun and luck 运气 yunqi – which determine a game's outcome - partially depend on elements individuals have control over: one's good deeds, proper behavior, and capability.

Players showcasing their gains over the course of a game can thus be understood as retribution for their past actions and an indicator of their overall economic success. Gambling indeed has a lot in common with business (it requires an initial bet, skills, the proper attitude, and a tiny dose of luck),2 and since economic success is traditionally associated with status, it also asserts players’ position within the community.3

Playing the social game at the gambling table

As any other social activity, gambling follows specific codes, especially when it occurs during receptions. In this regard, the social interactions and the setting in which they occur are as important as the amount of money put on the table.

It can be seen in the way players are seated in formal settings, they are placed according to their sex, age, rank, and status within the community. Through such practices, status and roles are either reasserted or their evolution acknowledged.4

The unwritten rules of social gambling also appear in the ways hosts are expected to show hospitality: in addition to the necessary majiang tiles or playing cards, they are expected to provide food and cigarettes, in other words to arrange the proper setting to stir a lively atmosphere.5

Gambling according to these norms does not result in rigid social interactions. On the contrary, warmth and liveliness are essential.

Gambling as fuel for social heat

Traditionally, gambling is a social, community-oriented activity, which explains why it is meant to stir a 热闹 renao (noisy and hot) atmosphere, prone to reinforce social ties and provide lively distraction to the attendees.

Nevertheless, not all forms of gambling are believed to excite “social heat”6:

  • wan (play) refers to social gambling and the celebration of community. This form of gambling is the preferred one since it is associated with maintaining “social heat,” a vital part of rural life.

  • du (bet) describes the act of betting and playing for the sake of money. In this form, it does not contribute to social heat and is often considered problematic.

Even though these two practices can coexist, they are not perceived in the same way.7 Since the 玩wan form of gambling is believed to contribute to community life, this type of games unsurprisingly sprout during banquets, weddings, funerals, family reunions, rainy days, or idle periods such as the Spring Festival.

Even though 玩wan still persists in rural communities, certain groups, especially older generations, have noticed and regret the increased popularity of 赌 du.8 This evolution echoes more widespread dualities between rural and urban China, between tradition and modernity, and between old and new generations. Faced with the sudden success of some of their peers and the inequalities between rural and urban communities, young generations might turn toward gambling in the hope of making easy money, symbolically at the expense of more community-oriented practices.

References / To go further:
  1. Cheng Tijie, The Sociology of Gambling in China. (Beijing: Social Sciences Academic Press, 2011).

  2. Hans Steinmüller, “The Moving Boundaries of Social Heat: Gambling in Rural China,” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 17, no. 2 (2011): 263–80.

  3. Basu, “Profit,” 227–59.

  4. Steinmüller, “The Moving Boundaries,” 263–80.

  5. Basu, “Profit,” 227–59.

  6. Steinmüller, “The Moving Boundaries,” 263–80.

  7. Steinmüller, “The Moving Boundaries,” 263–80.

  8. Joseph Bosco, , Lucia Huwy-Min Liu, and Matthew West. “Underground Lotteries in China: The Occult Economy and Capitalist Culture,” in Economic Development, Integration, and Morality in Asia and the Americas, Research in Economic Anthropology 29, (Emerald Publishing, 2009), 31–62.


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