I learn how to mooncake gamble, and win a giant package of toilet paper.
Bobing portents the fortunes of the people of Xiamen. The luck, or lack thereof, that someone is thought to have throughout the following year is thought to be directly linked to how well they perform in this game of dice. To win is to have luck for an entire year in addition to a prize, so, needless to say, the people here indulge this pastime with full-on enthusiasm.
Bobing, which literally means “gambling cake” and is generally referred to in English as mooncake gambling, is a game that consists of nothing other than 6 dice and a red porcelain bowl. It is played between 13th to the 18th of the 8th lunar month, a time which corresponds with the Mid-Autumn Festival. During this time you can hear the sounds of dice tingling in bowls and people screeching in joy wherever you go in this island city. In shopping malls, in grocery stores, restaurants, at places of employment, in the streets, and in homes the people of Xiamen are bobing.
I was first introduced to this game last year, around a month after I first arrived in Xiamen. “It’s a game that only Xiamen people play,” I was told. When I first observed it it didn’t seem like much: just some people tossing some dice in a red bowl in a supermarket to win some Kleenexes or something. One day my wife came home from work with a new dish set. “Why the hell did your work give you dishes?” I asked her. “They didn’t give them to me, I won them, bobing.” It wasn’t until much later on that I began to understand the underlying significance of the game.
Bobing requires a particular type of six sided dice that has the ones and fours in red and the rest of the numbers in black. Packages of mooncakes that are sold in this part of Fujian province will often come with a complementary set of bobing dice and instructions on how to play — which, it turns out, are often very important to have.
To play, people gather around in a circle and pass the red bowl and dice from player to player. When it’s each person’s turn to go, they toss the dice into the bowl and anxiously await the result, which will tell them if they won a prize or not. Though this is merely a game that consists of nothing but a set of dice and a bowl, it doesn’t mean it’s not complex. Bobing is a game that everybody in Xiamen plays during the Mid-Autumn Festival, but nobody seems to know the rules. You can watch people roll their dice, jump up and squeal, ask what they’ve won, and get told . . . nothing. So there is usually someone presiding over each bobing match who has recently looked up the rules or there is a rule sheet laying somewhere nearby.
The winning combinations
Depending on what rules a group is playing by, the top prize can go to any of the following dice combinations:
4 or more fours
4 fours and two 1s
6 of any number
5 of any number
The winning combinations get easier from there:
A straight gets a mid-level prize
3 fours also get a mid-level prize
4 of any number other than a four, gets a small prize
2 fours gets an even smaller prize
1 four gets the lowest prize of all
There are generally 63 prizes available in a bobing match which are divided into various levels that correspond in name with the ranks that students once achieved after passing the old imperial examinations. So if someone wins the top prize, they are called the Zhuangyuan, which was the the highest rank someone could receive in these exams. The number of prizes available in each level generally works on a pyramid system: the lowest level will have the highest number prizes, while the levels above will have proportionately less all the up to the top prize, which will only have a single winner. Typically, rolling a single four will get a player a prize from the lowest level, while the first player to roll four fours or more is usually enough for the top prize. The game is played until all of the prizes are won. If you win in a level for which all of the prizes had already been given out, you get nothing.
Traditionally, various types of moon cakes were used as the prizes for bobing, but today pretty much anything can be used. Things like a new dishware set, a blender, a hot plate, soap, toilet cleaner, and shampoo are typical prizes. Bringing home a bottle of laundry detergent, a giant package of toilet paper, and a few toothbrushes would be a common bobing take.
“Mooncakes were one of our prizes but nobody wanted them, they all wanted the soap instead,” my wife told me about the bobing match her employer just put on for her. Apparently, these mundane seeming prizes are not unappealing to the Chinese here: they rejoice jubilantly when winning toilet paper.
The top prize though is something that few people wouldn’t be joyful to receive: a red envelope full of cash. I suppose someone along the chain of centuries that this game has been played someone got the great idea that maybe a giant mooncake wasn’t a worthy enough of a prize for the Zhuangyuan. In the bobing matches that employers and some families in Xiamen put on, the winner can take home a purse of $100 to well over $500 — the first indication of the good fortune the person is expected to receive throughout the following year.
In Xiamen, bobing is one of the perks that employers offer to their employees. They will get everybody together during the Mid-Autumn Festival, sit them around in a circle, and let them roll for the pile of prizes that they’ve provided. In other parts of the country, employers just give their employees boxes of mooncakes, soap, and other household supplies during the Mid-Autumn Festival, but in Xiamen you have to win them for yourself.
The origins of bobing are said to stretch back 300 years to the time when general Zheng Chenggong was taking Taiwan back from the Dutch. While stationed on Xiamen, the general apparently felt his soldiers may have been getting a little bored and homesick. It was the Mid-Autumn Festival, and he decided they needed a new form of amusement. Bobing was what he came up with.
The game has stuck through the centuries, and the people of Xiamen are still bobing. You can see it being done in department stores, on little stands set up by promotion companies on busy sidewalks, and pretty much any other place that’s looking to draw a crowd. While many Chinese traditions, like those associated with Spring Festival, often occur in private settings, behind closed doors, bobing is something that is also done out in the open. The result is the sound of dice tinkling in a porcelain bowl, everywhere.
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