Desmond Lam writes about the cultural and historical influences of gaming among Chinese people
It’s not hard to figure out why Chinese are known around the world for their high propensity to gamble. You just need to look back through time and will quickly realise that the Chinese people have a long documented history of gambling. The first record of gambling can be traced back to the first Chinese dynasty some 4,000 years ago. Gambling was recorded in every dynasty since then. In fact, many modern games like lottery, pai gow, fan tan, and mahjong are thought to have originated from China. Simple but innovative ancient Chinese games like liubo, shi pai and gu pai laid the foundations for later Chinese gambling games.
From the middle of the 1800s to early 1900s, Shanghai was a magnet for many Chinese gamblers. They played a variety of local and foreign games including roulette in Shanghai’s large gambling complexes. These establishments could be found in the Shanghai International Settlement and Shanghai French Concession. At the same time, Macau’s Portuguese government legalised gaming in 1847 and hundreds of gambling dens began to flourish. While civil war in China eventually led to communist rule and hence the end of all commercial gaming there, Portugueserun Macau became a “permanent gaming region” in 1961.
An examination of history shows a strong need for gaming entertainment among Chinese officials and commoners for thousands of years. Surely, very strong demand must have led to the massive supply of games and gaming venues across Asia. To examine Chinese gambling would require us to look beyond Chinese gambling history. I believe culture plays a key role in Chinese gambling. Yet it is incorrect to say that Chinese culture has directly encouraged Chinese people to gamble more than other cultures. On the contrary, traditional Chinese values as advocated by Confucius should have discouraged gambling since gambling, as a human activity, was deemed to be wasteful and could potentially lead to social disorder. In the past, social order was important for the management of large Chinese societies. Ancient rulers always strived to achieve social order, leading to gambling being subjected to controls and sometimes bans over the history of China.
Culture can take different forms and have different effects on people. A number of studies have shown that Chinese gamblers have an exceptionally high illusion of control. They believe they can control the outcome of gambling events, be it baccarat, blackjack, sic bo, or lotteries. This characteristic of Chinese gamblers may have to do with the influence of Chinese beliefs and values. Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, folk religion, and ancient beliefs all play a crucial role in shaping modern Chinese people. Confucianism, in particular, laid the foundation for modern Chinese values.
It seems that the ancient beliefs in heaven/earth and rituals to please the gods are starting point for the further development of Chinese people’s obsession with the supernatural (e.g. luck, feng shui, fate, and destiny). Three major religions, namely Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism, adopted many ancient beliefs and practices. While Confucius’s philosophies hold a central role in shaping modern Chinese thoughts and behaviour, Taoism’s obsession with longevity and/or immortality has made the religion seem almost too supernatural. While ancient Taoism focused on ‘The Way’ for individuals to live in harmony with the world, modern Taoism has evolved dramatically. Buddhism, an imported religion from India, also has its fair share of supernatural and magical folk tales (like Taoism). These three religions and/or philosophies (Confucianism in particular) have, over thousands of years, shaped the thoughts and behavior of Chinese people (as well as Japanese, Koreans, and Vietnamese).
One of the many Chinese traits that may have resulted from these influences is an external locus of control. Chinese people were found to have a higher external locus of control than their Western counterparts. It means that Chinese people believe that luck, destiny, chance, and powerful others have more control over their lives than they themselves do. An external locus of control can potentially lead to a higher illusion of control on the gaming table.
Superstition aggravates the illusion of control. Chinese people’s unique form of superstition regarding lucky/unlucky objects, feng shui, and numbers has added to their high illusion of control. However, this has also enhanced the value (i.e. entertainment, fantasy, and escape) that Chinese people obtain from gaming. A high illusion of control may then lead to high risk taking and/or more gambling. Chinese gamblers’ illusion of control is often portrayed in Chinese gambling-themed films. There are at least 60 Chinese gambling-themed films produced since the 1960s and a number of television drama series that feature Chinese gambling as their main theme.
While culture plays an important role in shaping the Chinese people, external forces may also explain why Chinese people gamble as much as they do. The transition from poverty to prosperity, the widening gap between rich and poor, and the negative real interest rate all explain to a certain extent why Chinese people take such excessive monetary risks when they gamble in Macau. However, many nationally representative studies have found a large percentage of Chinese people in Hong Kong, Macau, and Singapore claim to gamble for fun and entertainment; and not for money. Very few studies, however, have investigated the aptitude of mainland Chinese gamblers. We can, though, get some cues from those mainland Chinese who gamble in Macau, and who seem very keen to beat the house and win money.
To the Chinese, gambling is a very common social activity. Mahjong, for example, is played by Chinese around the world. It is said to help older Chinese people think better and is a joyful activity during Chinese wedding dinners and even funeral wakes. It is a celebrative game for all Chinese people. Gambling is also perfectly acceptable for anyone, including the young, during festive periods such as Chinese New Year. The attitude towards social gambling could be a reflection of Chinese values and culture. Gambling is simply a social activity that has been practiced by the Chinese people for thousands of years. There is fundamentally nothing wrong with it. Still, it is considered taboo to indulge in it excessively. A Chinese person who falls into pathological gambling is viewed as a morally bad person. There is no sickness; he is just weak-willed.
Interestingly, research conducted in several countries found a higher problem gambling rate among local Chinese populations compared to other ethnic groups. This may be linked to the illusion of control and environmental factors as explained earlier. The recent explosion of casino gaming in Macau has many observers wondering whether problem gambling has increased proportionately with an expanded market. This, coupled with the notoriously high risk-taking nature of Chinese gamblers, makes Asian gaming regulators and the public increasingly worried about the adverse consequences of legalising and expanding gaming. Media coverage of mainland Chinese problem gamblers in Macau, who squandered millions in illgotten public funds and committed other gambling-related crimes, appears to be on the increase since the liberalisation of Macau’s gaming market.
The world of Chinese gambling is huge and expanding. As gaming businesses and government regulators struggle to manage an expanded Chinese market, more should be done to better understand Chinese gamblers. A thorough understanding of the market is obviously key to formulating successful business and government policies. By examining Chinese gambling from a historical, socio-cultural, psychological, and environmental perspective, one can begin to understand why Chinese gamblers behave the way they do and how their gambling consumption can be managed.