In the old Soviet film, “The Trust That Burst” (“Trest, kotoriy lopnul”), based on the O. Henry Story “A Noble Swindler”, contained a character singing a song about “three whales” upon which the earth rests. These whales symbolize politics, love and gambling. This representation of the character of the world is truer than might initially appear. Nobody would argue about love in the broadest sense, or about politics, as there are, always and everywhere, ample examples of each stressing their significance. As regards gambling, the situation truly is almost the same.
Even if we were to take into account such fateful historical events, such as the return of Napoleon from exile on the island of Elba, the reforms of Peter I in Russia, the waging of the two World Wars, and many other similar ones, did they not all contain major (or even huge!) elements of gain, risk and gambling? All these components are widely present around us, and do not remain concentrated within the purvey of casinos and special gaming locations. As regards these places – it goes without saying.
Where else could those whales be manifest as bright and obvious as on the territory of one of the oldest existing civilizations – the Chinese? All well-read people know about the rich political history of China. As concerns love, the situation differs a bit from other civilizations, as an extremely developed form for of the traditional family affects the people. However, this is a peculiarity of the tendency, as opposed to the lack of one. Allow us to assume that our reverent public knows but little about the “gambling” whale in the case instance of the Chinese. Moreover, the current image of Chinese people as very industrious and thrifty seems to allude to the idea that these people should be indifferent to gambling. Yet, this is not quite true.
For a long time, many foreign travelers have mentioned the peculiar propensity of the Chinese towards gambling. The more Europeans communicated with the Chinese, the more evidence accumulated as proof of the above. The historic literature has mentions about the ban of the Chinese government on arranging the lotteries that had existed in the nineteenth century. Nonetheless, the whale of gambling found a loophole through which it returned to the Middle Kingdom: the Portuguese administration of Macao moved gambling among the Chinese to a serious level for the first time, starting with the organization of lotteries. Ernest von Hesse-Wartegg, a German traveler, and expert on China, wrote at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries (“China and the Chinese”, Saint Petersburg, 1900): “The Portuguese literally made huge fortunes for themselves while remaining lackadaisical, and the colonial administration annually received millions [of marks] in taxes levied on lotteries.”
But this situation [of easy money] did not last long. The Chinese government reacted to the gambling and commercial initiatives of the Portuguese administration in Macao in order to prevent their subjects from losing the nation’s fortune to the colony. Eventually, this ban of the Chinese government was lifted even inside China itself, and the Portuguese began having powerful competition in the form of newly founded lottery enterprises operating in one of the largest cities in southern China, Canton (currently known as Guangzhou). Mr. von Hesse-Wartegg wrote: “[So] little by little the Portuguese lost this dishonorable source of income, which had been newly introduced by them there. Instead of the previous millions, the Portuguese administration barely brought in 200,000 marks per year.” Indeed, if defeating the vice of one’s own nation, then let it work for the needs of the homeland. Nevertheless, following Macao’s loss of its monopoly of lotteries, the gambling business prospered in both Macao and Canton. In both cities one could always run across Portuguese and English clerks from Hong Kong, and especially many Chinese people.
The Chinese casino differs from the European model even in the key elements – they play Chinese games. The most popular game is fan-tan. One of the witnesses described it thus, “Players sit at a table, upon which the numbers 1, 2, 3 and 4 are placed along each side. They place their bets on one of these numbers. On [a square in] the middle of the table rests a pile of small coins, beans, stones, or other items [that the croupier had placed down in a double handful] covered by a metallic bowl [called a tan koi]. After the wagers are made, the croupier removes the bowl and begins counting out four of the small items that had been underneath. If finally there remain only one, two, three or four of these items on the table, then the winners are those who had staked themselves on that number. However, should the pile be evenly divided by four without any remainder, then the house keeps the bets.”
In Chinese gaming establishments, visitors could play a number of games for which the government had established a monopoly for certain enterprises: bones, dominoes, bamboo sticks, and the little Chinese cards. Which are no longer than the length of a finger, and were of two kinds. “One type is printed with dots, much like on dominoes, and consists of 32 cards, while the other variant has 36 cards, and is used for playing the game ao-bai, which has been played by the Chinese for a thousand years. These are probably the oldest playing cards in the world.”
According to witnesses, in neither Macao nor Canton, nor in any other place within the vast nation of China, did people limit themselves to play only within organized gaming halls. They played everywhere. This passion was quite democratic within the empire. Everyone played, regardless of social status, including men and women, old and young, and “everyone up to the last coolley (an unskilled worker).” The Chinese could be found playing these games everywhere – in the middle of a street, onboard a boat, in the yard of a church, and so on.
However, in our opinion the most interesting point about the Chinese love of gaming is that this is not based simply on the game itself, as is understood in Europe, which is to say some kind of contest for the most skilled and cunning player, but on the concept of trying ones luck. Whatever occurs, let it come. Chinese gambling was sort of fatalistic. Just think of the game fan-tan. An example described by Mr. von Hesse-Wartegg is much more enlightening. One time at a fruit market, he noted a group of Chinese who were intensely watching one of their number peeling an orange. The fruit was divided into its sections, and everyone began to attentively count the seeds. As per the results of this collective orange peeling, some participants began passing coins to the others. “These six Chinese had placed a bet on the quantity of seeds contained within the orange.” Do you agree with me that this is quite an interesting anecdote.
However, that was not the most amusing story of its kind. People in Japan were [also] very much infected with the gambling bug, which also came in unusual forms. Ellis A. Reclue, a famous French geographer, commented on the issue: “Passion for a game is awakened in the Japanese for any reason.” Thanks to this, some European merchants gained excellent revenues from exporting rabbits to Japan. The Japanese enjoyed betting on the fertility of female rabbits (“The Earth and People”, General Geography, Saint Petersburg, 1900).
In modern times, gambling in the Far Eastern countries has not disappeared. Quite the opposite in fact, as the industry has expanded to a grand scale. Nowadays, everyone would prefer to win and lose on the back of the gambling whale. Nobody except businesspeople from Hong Kong would even consider the purchase of an unfinished Soviet-era aircraft carrier from the Ukraine for the purpose of converting it into a casino. Current researchers of China note that this tradition has persevered. Andre Devyatov, a former Soviet intelligence officer and now a business man, who has resided in the country for a long time, wrote in his book about the high rate of gambling prevalent among the Chinese (“The Specifics of China: How I Understood Them in the Intelligence Service and Business, Moscow, 2002).
Regarding Chinese gambling, in our opinion two points are of interest, both being probably derived from the peculiarities of the national psychology. First of all, as has been already mentioned, is fatalism (though does this still exist?). Secondly, even at this high level of gambling interest within the Chinese population, one does not see a resulting destructive effect. However much observers describe the passion towards gambling of the people, nobody ever mentions – in any known source – about a Chinese person who had lost everything due to gambling, or about those who contracted a massive addiction because of it. This is a type of Chinese experience that should be spread around, as not all can do without this whale of gambling.