What would you consider as some of the best representatives of Chinese culture? Perhaps the following popped into your mind – the twelve animal signs, Lunar New Year festivities, traditional outfits like qipao, and hot pot?
There are mixed views on whether mahjong should be considered the quintessence of Chinese culture due to its reputation as a tool of mass entertainment. While there may be many regional variations to this household tile game, we cannot deny its origins. Tracing its roots back to as far as the 1800s in Shanghai, China, it was believed that mahjong was inspired by carving different suits on tiles, instead of cards. These suits were based on money that the Chinese used – namely the Coins (筒子 tóng zi), Bamboo (索子 suǒ zi) to represent a string of coins, and Characters (萬字 wàn zì) that translate to 10,000. And that’s not all.
Some sources also claimed that mahjong was influenced by Confucius’ teachings because of the paradigm carried by the dragon tiles (the Red, Green and White Dragon). In fact, this threesome has several meanings derived from the Chinese culture :
- 红中 (hóng zhōng or Red Dragon) which connotes passing the imperial exam, a hit in archery and the Confucian virtue of benevolence.
- 發 (fā or Green Dragon) that makes up the word 發財 (fā cái or prosperity) also represents an archer releasing his or her draw and the Confucian virtue of sincerity.
- 白板 (bái ban or White Dragon) which signifies freedom from corruption, a miss in archery and the Confucian virtue of filial piety.
Back in the days, the ancient imperial examination, archery (a skill considered virtuous for the emperors) and Confucius’ cardinal virtues were a significant aspect of the Chinese culture. And so we say you can take mahjong out of China, but you cannot take China out of mahjong.
It could be the casual setting where a mahjong game takes place that underlies its status as a pastime for the masses. But it has proven to be more than just a game for entertainment. Passed down through generations, mahjong is a traditional game that brings strategy, decision making, communication, negotiation and socialising skills to the table. And when the elders in your family are avid mahjong players like mine, not knowing how to play the game is frowned upon; almost a family disgrace. In the words of my grandmother, knowing how to play mahjong is a life skill every Chinese ought to have.
Besides playing to win, we see how mahjong played a pivotal role in the rom-com film Crazy Rich Asians. Every detail in this scene was choreographed: the sitting arrangement of protagonist (girlfriend Rachel Chu) and antagonist (mother Eleanor Young); and the tiles they played. Different elements were signifiers of the tension between both characters and understanding the symbolism of this game certainly added depth to this climactic scene.
Whitewashing: From a Marketing POV
It wasn’t too long ago when I saw numerous reposts of a particular foreign-looking mahjong set spreading like wildfire on Instagram Stories. The situation blew into a social rage, and I cannot emphasise the number of times I saw the term “cultural appropriation” appear on social media for quite a while. But let’s do more than “cancelling” the three co-founders of The Mahjong Line by analysing what went wrong from a marketing perspective.
Founded by three ladies, the Dallas-based company, The Mahjong Line, sells brightly coloured versions of the game that got many of us wondering – why change something no one asked for?
One of the company’s founders, Kate LaGere, found that the “artwork of the traditional tiles, while beautiful, were all the same”. According to an archived version of the company’s website, Kate also “decided the venerable game needed a respectful refresh”, sparking their intent to “bring Mahjong to the stylish masses”. That gave rise to tiles that were entirely different and an obliteration of the Chinese culture and tradition. It’s as they’ve said, “Not your Mama’s Mahjong”.
Mahjong has been a quintessential part of the Chinese tradition for more than two centuries, where each and every single tile has a meaning to it. The Chinese diaspora is also able to find a shared set of memories in the game, from wherever they live. But these limited edition sets, priced between 325 and 425 USD were a perfect example of cultural appropriation. On top of the culturally insensitive copywriting, the upcharge only emphasised “the white rebrand as stylish luxury” and the disregard for non-American traditions.
The Cheeky Line, for instance, replaced the traditional Chinese symbols e.g. Coins (筒子 tóng zi) with bubbles, Bamboo (索子 suǒ zi) with the word “Bam!”, Characters (萬字 wàn zì) with lightning bolts and the flower suit with a bag of flour. If this started because of a language barrier, it could have been easily resolved by including Arabic numerals for players who are not literate in Chinese. (It might even be a good opportunity to learn some basic Chinese characters!) I know my grandmother would have flipped the table looking at these tiles.
In response to the backlash, the company has since apologised to the public, stating that they would “always [remain] open to constructive criticism”. The last we checked, the company has disabled comments on its Instagram account while continuing to sell its games.
Why Do Some Brands Succeed?
Mahjong has been adapted and reinvented many times as we see in varied regional styles of playing. It isn’t new seeing brands come up with their own renditions of mahjong sets. That is, without causing a conflict with tradition. Think about luxury brands like Louis Vuiiton, Gucci and Tiffany & Co. which charge a premium price for their limited edition mahjong sets. We’re talking about numbers between 1,000 and 100,000 USD. And fans are willing to pay for these tiles! So what’s the difference?
#1 Think globally, act locally.
These luxury brands “refreshed” their mahjong sets by adding a branded touch to the look and feel of the tiles e.g. the signature Tiffany blue hue, leather boxes to store the tiles and dice made with sterling silver.
The mahjong set launched by Singapore Airlines (SIA) earlier this year also paid homage to the centuries-old tradition with its Peranakan and batik motifs. The front of the tiles was designed to integrate brand elements e.g. seat maps and engines on the Bamboo and Coin suits respectively. For those who love looking out the window on flights, you will be pleased to find the classic White Dragon tiles represented by aircraft windows.
SIA perfectly showed us how a brand could reinterpret the tiles in their style, without defacing the Chinese tradition. Brand activation done right, we’d say. On the contrary, the PR nightmare faced by The Mahjong Line could have been avoided with research to make up for the lack of cultural understanding and expand one’s worldview.
#2 Language shapes the way we think.
As a linguistics major, I’d tell you that there are no true synonyms in this world. The words you choose to use either carry an additional meaning, vary in register or imply a certain connotation. So you’ve got to choose your words wisely.
What The Mahjong Line said about “bringing Mahjong to the stylish masses” reflected their impression of the traditional game as unstylish and behind the times. Not only did the lack of respect for the Chinese culture enrage many netizens, they were also upset by how the American culture was seen as superior to others.
I’m not just saying this because I work as a copywriter – but copywriting plays a fundamental role in branding e.g. conveying the brand voice, how the brand is perceived by the public and what the brand promises. Words can make or break. Just think of it as creating a first impression.
#3 Don’t just think about going viral.
For all you readers who work in a creative agency, “going viral” may be a mantra your clients live by. Content creators too. But just remember, having your content go viral can swing both ways.
As with The Mahjong Line, we observe how brands tread the fine line between coming up with their own rendition and preserving tradition. Social media may equip marketers with an additional tool and platform to reach their audience – but it also puts brands under amplified attention. Going viral in exchange for facing the wrath of social media users? Thanks but… no thanks.
In today’s “cancel” culture, it can get tricky trying to define the boundary between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation. So rule of thumb: ask and seek to understand the people of that culture, and the culture itself. Instead of making assumptions.
As the Content Creator at The Outsiders Co., Jasmine is a storyteller who translates her love for learning into content that is entertaining and relatable for the audience. She believes in connecting with the audience through the words she pens – or types.
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