The hundred-year-old game of mahjong, often called China's "national pastime," is beloved and played across the country, as well as in many overseas Chinese communities.
So when several Chinese cities tried to clamp down on it, people were up in arms.
The latest city to do so, Shangrao in Jiangxi Province, ordered mahjong parlors and poker rooms in Yushan County and Xinzhou District to be closed this week, as part of efforts to crack down on vice.
The mahjong parlors, the police said, were noisy and often involved gambling, which is illegal in China. Failure to comply with the order carries a penalty of up to three years in jail.
The orders are similar to others issued across China since January last year, when the government launched a national campaign against organized crime.
Last month, at least two cities in Hubei Province and one in Anhui Province issued similar announcements accusing mahjong parlors of providing a venue for crime.
"How am I supposed to kill time if there are no mahjong parlors?"He Shengli
The orders have triggered controversy in China, where the four-person tile game is considered an important pastime, especially for retirees, who use the game to socialize.
"How am I supposed to kill time if there are no mahjong parlors?" said He Shengli, a 70-year-old retiree in nearby Zhejiang Province.
But when is it gambling?
Because scoring in mahjong is based on points, games often involve a small amount of money, with the prize amount determined by the number of points. Just like in poker, many people play recreationally with small stakes.
He, the retiree, scoffed at the idea that mahjong parlors facilitated gambling.
"Gambling?" He said. "100 yuan ($14) is the most I'll lose in a single day even with bad luck."
Online, commentators called the one-size-fits-all approach lazy and questioned the legitimacy of the orders.
"(The mahjong parlors) are operating legally and have licenses from the government itself," one person wrote on Weibo, China's Twitter. "They pay taxes. And now they're going to close?"
There is no fixed definition on how big a bet constitutes gambling.
The uproar led Yushan County's police bureau to issue a clarification on Monday that registered mahjong parlors would not be affected by the order, and the aim was cracking down on gambling.
Although gambling is illegal in China, there is no fixed definition on how big a bet constitutes gambling.
A local official in Shangrao told the Global Times on Monday that the distinction between recreational mahjong and gambling remains unclear, but said a game among family and friends involving a small amount of money could be considered normal.
Under Chinese law, those who gamble or provide a venue for gambling for profit can be detained for up to 15 days or fined up to 3,000 yuan ($420).
There is also a criminal penalty of up to 10 years in jail for those who make a living by gathering people to gamble.
Adapted from an article first published in the South China Morning Post.
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