Saturday, September 13, 2008

Mooncake Game Origin and Rules

Adapted from “Discover Gulangyu”《魅力鼓浪屿》

Mooncake Game was started about 1500 years ago by scholars craving success in imperial exams. The total of 63 prizes, based on various dice combinations, was named after imperial titles earned from the exam:

One prize for #1 Scholar (Zhuangyuan) The seven prize levels:

Highest 1. Zhuangyuan with Gold Flower

2. Hongliubo (6 fours)

3. Yaodianliubo (6 ones)

4. Heiliubo (6 of the same, except fours)

5. Wuhong (5 fours)

6. Wuzi (5 of the same, except fours)

Lowest 7. Sihong (4 fours)

Two prizes for No. 2 Scholar (Duitang) A straight.
Four prizes for No. 3 Scholar (Sanhong) Throw 3 fours

Eight prizes for No. 4 Scholar (Sijin) Throw 4 of the same, except fours

Sixteen prizes for No. 5 Scholar (Erju) Throw 2 fours

Thirty two prizes for No. 6 Scholar (Yixiu) Throw 1 four

Rules and names of dice combos have changed little over the centuries, but chips have changed from common coins to Zhuàngyuán chips and cakes (Gǔlàngyú’s are most famous). Oddly, some people in N.E. Fújiàn’s Fúdǐng County (福鼎县) speak S. Fújiàn dialect, and still use “Zhuàngyuán Chips”.

Legend has it that one of Koxinga’s officers adapted dice game rules to create the mooncake game in order to preoccupy homesick soldiers, and according to many Qīng Dynasty writers, such as Zhèng Dàjiǔ (郑大久), in “Taiwanese Folk Customs” (《台湾民俗》), for centuries afterwards Táiwān folk stayed up all night shouting and tossing dice to compete for the large flour cake with a red “Yuán” character in the center.

Today the mooncake game is found not only in S. Fújiàn and Táiwān but also, it appears, wherever you find overseas Chinese of Xiàmén ancestry. A reader e-mailed me to say, “We play the Mooncake Game in the Philippines too!” Perhaps. But only in Xiàmén is the game preserved virtually unchanged. Even during the “Cultural Revolution,” when all “old” thinking and practices were frowned upon, Xiamen folk tossed the dice for mooncakes—though furtively!

In 2003, Gǔlàngyú’s first annual Mooncake Game Cultural Festival attracted crowds of locals, as well as domestic and overseas visitors and the media, and since then the game has become more popular than ever—though mooncakes are no longer the prize of choice (mooncakes, like fruitcake in America, are traditional but not necessarily all that tasty). Prizes today are usually more practical, like shampoo, towels, thermoses, blankets, or cutlery.

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