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Wei Liu: My Life in China 1.3: Mahjong, Chess Downstairs

Wei Liu: My Life in China 1.3: Mahjong, Chess Downstairs
   Wei Liu May 2013
   Surprisingly, it is outside my home that I may have more fun. Having had my supper, I put 7 or 8 candies into my pocket, stepping out of my home to downstairs, the first floor, to see whether I can have some fun. Usually I go to the home right under my home, which is Old Lady Liu’s home.

   Her home has 5 people, herself, her husband, who is an electrician of the hospital, which is at Lianglukou, Chongqing, China, her two daughter and a son. Old Lady Liu has been confined to bed for a long time. I cannot remember the time she stands or walks. I don’t know what kind of disease she has. She seems to feel the cold all the time and always in thick cotton-padded coat and thick cotton-padded pants.
   Now the darkness embraces the dormitory building. Staying indoors, I feel nothing frightening. The darkness even adds a cozy feeling for Old Lady Liu’s home. Her home looks different from others, which has only one room of 180 square feet. Her home is divided by a piece of thin wooden board into two, with the inner one about 50 square feet and the outer one 130 square feet. The inner room contains a cot, on which Old Lady Liu lies. Tonight she wears a black cotton hat, thick cotton-padded coat, with her legs covered under the thick cotton-padded quilt. The desk lamp gives off the yellow light, making the small room so bright. Some people, maybe her relatives sit or stand around her, talking to her. And now and then she reaches out her arm, takes up an enamel cup, opens the lid, and spit phlegm into the cup, puts the lid back on the cup and put the cup back on the end table. Then she makes a sighing sound.
   “Alas, I truly don’t know how to deal with my disease,” she said.
   Her voice sounds weak and broken. I don’t think she can recover. Perhaps she has been confined to the cot for several years or longer. But I feel joy for her. Her husband has created such a cozy place for her, many people care for her and she may lie on the cot, without anyone striking her or blaming her. I even envy her life, except the thick cotton-padded coat and the spitting cup.
   Leaving the inner room into the outer room, I feel more people, more sound and the light change from the yellow light to the fluorescent light. Like my home, Old Lady Liu’s home has the shabby furniture. The center of the outer room is a square table, with 4 people sitting there. Now their hands are mixing the brown mahjong pieces on the table covered by a white table cloth, sending out the sound of hua—hua—hua—hua—. This means they have finished another game of mahjong. A mahjong piece looks a rectangular shape, about 2.5 centimeter long, 1.5 centimeter wide and 1 centimeter thick, looking pretty much like a mini brick. Now 4 mahjong players are arranging the mahjong pieces into 4 perpendicular lines, with each line having two layers or two floors. The 4 lines of mahjong pieces or mini bricks are like 4 walls of a citadel or fortress. So the beginning of each mahjong game is like making a citadel or fortress. However, the game is not to see who can build the fortress more beautiful, but see who can make his pieces in a unit of 3 being consecutive numbers or same number.
   Some nights I see a kind of chess put on the table in the outer room. The pieces are round, about 1 inch in diameter. The color of the pieces is that of white rice porridge, almost white and almost transparent. I love it. I cannot tell what those pieces made from. The top surface of those pieces is engraved red or black Chinese characters. I don’t know those Chinese characters, but I see some pieces from both sides bear the same characters.
   Two young men are playing Chinese chess. Sometimes one holds 1 of his pieces and knocks on 1 of his opponent’s pieces, taking the latter out of the checkerboard, occupying the position of the one taken out. This should be the piece-killing. Sometimes I see a piece engraved with red “rook” dash from the bottom line of the red side, knock on one piece of the black. The black piece gets taken out and the red rook occupies the position of the black piece taken out. Oh, the rook is so powerful. It moves freely in both horizontal and vertical directions and kills the opposite pieces as it moves. Each side has 2 rooks. Other pieces are not as powerful as this.
   “What is this called?” I ask the two chess players.
   “Chinese chess,” one of them replies.
   “Oh, Chinese chess,” I say.
   I feel Chinese chess must have lots of fun and can bring happiness to people. Moreover, it does not cost a penny to play it. Every time after the playing, the player put the pieces back and next time he may use it again. This means that playing chess does not need more material, does not increase pollution, does not hurt people, which is really good.
   The game played more in the outer room is mahjong. Among the players, Lady Wang is a major force. Every night she sits by the mahjong table. She’s middle aged, living on the first floor. She has a son and a daughter, both older than me. Wang looks middle stature, always in the grayish black clothes. When she calls me, there is always kind smile on her face, looking good in this long dingy dormitory corridor.
   Look, now Lady Wang is tossing a dice. A dice has 6 sides, with each side having the dot from 1 to 6. The dice is leaving Wang’s hand, rolling over the white table cloth. It stops, with a red dot on the top surface. It means 1 for the dice.
   “I need to toss again,” Wang says.
   The other three players do not object. Then Wang puts the dice on the top of the two-floor fortress, bending her forefinger and thumb to form a circle. She releases her forefinger, which touches the dice, and the dice dashes forward, rolling, rolling, rolling on the white table cloth. This looks further than she simply tosses the dice. Finally the dice stops, with 5 black dots on its top surface.
   “Oh yeah, 1 plus 5 equals 6. It is your turn to take the pieces first,” Wang says, pointing at one of the other three players. Sometimes they toss the dice twice to decide who take the pieces first and sometimes only toss once. I cannot tell the reason. Now they are engaged in taking the pieces from the mahjong fortress. This time they are dismantling the fortress. Taking mahjong pieces is like taking the cards. Each player just take 1 piece at 1 time, and then it’s the next player’s turn to take a piece. In each mahjong game, in the part of taking the pieces, each player takes 13 pieces, 4 players altogether takes 13x4=52 pieces. So in each game, at the beginning it truly takes a while for the 4 players to get his or her 13 pieces. The one who gets the 13 pieces takes 1 piece from the fortress first and sends 1 piece out first.
   I don’t play and don’t know how to play it either. I walk around the 4 adult players and look to see what pieces they have. I see one player have many pieces engraved with stripes, another players have many pieces engraved with round circles, the third player have many pieces engraved with the Chinese character “ten thousand”, like “ten thousand”, “twenty thousand”, “thirty thousand”, “sixty thousand”, “seventy thousand”, “eighty thousand”. I like the character of “ten thousand”. Ten thousand means a lot. I have never dreamed of I can have ten thousand renminbi or yuan. At that time in 1974, ten thousand Chinese yuan equals to about five thousand U. S. dollars. The income of my dad and mom is about 40 some yuan per month respectively. Lady Wang and others should have about the same pay. From the broadcasting, I learn that Chinese people cannot do business on their own, saying that is capitalism, is crime. That is not joking. The broadcasting often tells us of some people doing business on their own get caught by the police. A person buying merchandise at one place and selling them at another place is called doing business on his own, an activity of capitalism, a crime.
   In China, all the entities are run by the regime/government, including the hospital where Lady Wang and my Dad work and the high school where my Mom works. We often hear that changing from one entity or unit to another is extremely difficult. If the leader in one unit of the two does not agree, then the employee cannot go. If he goes by himself, then he cannot live. The unit has many ways to control him. One of them is the food-purchase permit. Without it, the food stores all run by the government will not sell any food to him. And the food-purchase permit is issued by the unit leader who has the official stamp of the unit. If the original unit does not release the file of the employee, then other unit cannot issue him a food-purchase permit. All the leaders of the units are Communist Party Members. I seldom hear anyone successfully changed his unit. And when changing the unit, the employee is mostly concerned with whether his original unit would let him go. I feel these units are like prison. 10-odd years later when I grow up, I may undergo the same tribulation.

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