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Gambling in China

It’s no surprise that gambling was first recorded in China. Like the cross bow, gunpowder, the potter’s wheel, and toilet paper, the first betting and lottery games came out of the Middle Kingdom. Games like keno, mahjong, and paijiu were played back as far as Shang Dynasty, and through the centuries the Chinese concocted ways [...]

It’s no surprise that gambling was first recorded in China. Like the cross bow, gunpowder, the potter’s wheel, and toilet paper, the first betting and lottery games came out of the Middle Kingdom. Games like keno, mahjong, and paijiu were played back as far as Shang Dynasty, and through the centuries the Chinese concocted ways to bet on nearly everything, from horse races to cricket fights. Today, many of these games continue being played and gambling is still a dynamic part of Chinese culture.

Though gambling is technically illegal in China, but the laws are not applied to “friendly games,” which means informal gambling in private residences. You can see them in the streets, in homes, in markets and in the parks of China: people sitting around small tables seriously playing tile or domino games. Mahjong and Paijiu are traditionally gambling games, though today they can be played with or without money this does not mean that the gambling culture here has gone dormant. To the contrary, gambling is still a vibrant part of Chinese culture, and can be seen daily in the country. It is even a popular activity during weddings, funerals, the New Year festivities, and the old are encouraged to partake in gambling to keep their minds alert and nimble.

Many Asians — especially Chinese — consider gambling an accepted practice at home and at social events, even among the young. Chinese youths often gamble for money with aunts, uncles and grandparents. –Asian Nation

From traveling and living in China, from reading extensive amounts of Chinese literature, it is clear that gambling is more extensively practiced here than perhaps anywhere else in the world.

With over 450 million users, China has the largest online community in the world. This, combined with the rise in expendable income and the cultural inclination towards gambling, online casinos marketed to Chinese users have been popping up with rapid frequency. Through a loophole in the legal system, online gambling is only illegal in China if it’s through a site that’s hosted in China. Though the government censors may block popular gaming sites in China, just about everyone here knows how to subvert their control.

There is only one place in China where you can find legal brick and mortar casinos, and that’s Macau. After taking the colony over from Portugal in 1999, there was little question about what the Chinese authorities would do with gambling. Like everything else in the country, they developed it. Today, Macau casinos rake in more money than Vegas.

So why is gambling so widespread in China? In their work entitled, Examination of Chinese Gambling Problems through a Socio-Historical-Cultural Perspective, professors Samson Tse,*, Alex C.H. Yu, Fiona Rossen, and Chong-Wen Wang suggest:

“. . . to examine Chinese gambling successfully would require us to look beyond Chinese history. An increasing volume of studies has suggested that the Chinese tend to have a higher external locus of control than their Western counterparts regardless whether the research participants were university students or clients presenting to problem gambling services. The higher external locus of control has a potential to lead to a higher illusion of control and distorted thinking, and may increase an individual’s level of participation in gambling. If the gambler wins a lot of money, it will affirm the belief that he/she is destined to be a winner. However, if the person loses money, he/she would say, “One day my turn will come.” . . . Locus of control may explain why social gambling is a very common activity among Chinese societies. Superstition is another factor, indeed, that may increase the propensity for excessive gambling. Many Chinese believe that one’s success and wealth depends on fate, luck, Feng Shui (certain architectural styles that could affect one’s fortune), and/or accumulation of good deeds. According to the Analects of Confucius, life and death are a matter of fate; riches and poverty depend on heaven.”

Though it’s my impression that they gamble for the obvious reasons: the stimulation, the community cohesion, the thrill, and, of course, the simple fun of it.

Filed under: China, Culture and Society

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3574 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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