Monday, October 09, 2006

Of Dice and Mooncakes

Sunday saw my family's celebration of the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival, more commonly known as the Mooncake Festival, and probably much more commonly known as "that weird time of the year when the local Chinese buy a lot of egg-based pastries of different sizes".

The Mid-Autumn Festival is actually an acknowledgement of the Autumn Equinox, that time in the latter part of the year when the moon's at its biggest and brightest. The Chinese hold quite a lot of myths about the moon -- I daresay that we were probably responsible for that whole "man in the moon" perception in the first place. Mooncakes came into the scene around the 14th century, when they assisted in the overthrow of Mongol rule in China: Rebel conspirators used mooncakes to smuggle critical messages between agents of the Chinese resistance, and were therefore able to plan an exact date and time of revolution. (The entrie caper most likely remains one of the few historical events made possible by a bunch of pastries.)

The origins of the dice game, however, remain shrouded in mystery. I'll go out on a limb right now, though, and wager that it really has absolutely nothing to do with Mongols, revolutions, or orbiting lunar bodies.

From an international context, few people seem to know about the dice game. Its influence is most strongly felt in parts of Southern China as well as a number of Asian nations with a strong Chinese contingent; The Philippines happens to be well aware of the game in this regard, although not all Filipinos have actually experienced it. For some reason, my family has a long-standing habit of bringing one or two such guests to our Mooncake celebrations and having them join in the festivities.

The game is rather simple in execution: All you need is a wide-mouthed ceramic bowl and a set of six six-sided dice. Each of the dice must be marked with the standard pip-based formations of the numbers one to six, with the "one" and the "four" in red and all others in black.

Something like this:

All players then sit in a circle around the dinner table. The first player simply takes the six dice and throws them into the bowl, taking note of the numbers that appear face-up. Certain configurations win a prize for that player, after which the bowl is passed on to the next person and the cycle repeats until all the prizes have been won. If any of the dice jump or fall out of the bowl, then you lose your turn for that round; If all the prizes for a given configuration have run out, then future appearances of that configuration win no further prizes.

The prizes for the game are built on a system of six tiers, with each tier having a limited number of prizes available. There are 32 "sixth-place" prizes, 16 "fifth-place" prizes, and so forth... all the way up to a single "first-place" prize reserved for the luckiest of dice throws. The game is actually primarily based on occurrences of the "four" value -- the more fours you roll, the better the prize.

Sixth-place prizes are awarded to people who roll one four:

Fifth-place prizes are awarded to people who roll two fours:

Fourth-place prizes are awarded to people who roll three fours:

Third-place prizes are awarded to people who roll four of any number except four:

Second-place prizes are awarded to people who roll either a full sequence of all six numbers, or three of one number and three of another:

And finally, the first-place prize (zhungyuan) is given to the lucky soul who manages to roll four fours, five of any single number, or better:

As the game involves nothing beyond throwing six dice into a ceramic bowl, it is entirely luck-based (despite what the gamblers in the family would have us believe). This makes it impossible to touch on any sense of strategy for the game, but at the same time allows it to act as a virtual heaven for statistical analysts. From what I understand, the game's probabilities are actually slightly flawed, and it therefore presents a good endeavor for the mathematically-minded among us.

As with most dice games, this one also maintains the concept of an "ultimate throw" -- in other words, the best configuration possible. This is composed of either six fours, or six ones:

If you somehow manage to throw this configuration on your Mooncake festival dice, you get all the prizes in the game.

Let me repeat that just so that its magnitude can sink in: You win all the prizes in the game for that year, regardless of who has won them already. Some modern celebrations actually leave this rule out completely so that everyone can get their fair share of prizes, but the chances of such a throw are actually so rare that people will be all too willing to commemorate such an event. That, and they'll keep the set of dice for posterity's sake.

The Mooncake festival dice game doesn't seem to be practiced very often outside the confines of Asia, but it makes for an interesting exercise in thought and preparation. The prizes, for that matter, are almost always mooncakes in some form or another: Smaller versions make up the minor prizes, while the zhungyuan is invariably a massive three-pound monster that can't simply be consumed by one person. (The winner is encouraged to share his good fortune, after all.)

The loose settings for the game tend to allow any kind of adjustment; Some families make up their own "house rules" as they go along. The prizes can just as easily be more useful objects rather than perishable pastries: Some families play for groceries or gift certificates, while the more financially successful clans may even play for money. (These practices, I think, are usually offset by the condition that the prizes each year must be provided by the first-place winner of the previous festival.)

All in all, the dice game that takes place during the Mid-Autumn Festival is, I believe, an integral part of the celebrations that does not seem to hold any discernible connection to tradition. To dwell on the point further, it's an event that probably creates its own tradition as it goes along. It's literally one of the highlights of the year for the local Chinese community, and it's a welcome repast for the few game theorists and mathematicians among our circle.

In short, it's also one of those nice festivals where you can throw six dice into a ceramic bowl without any consideration for strategy whatsoever, and not get accused of gambling your way into a bunch of prizes. That's probably why I look forward to it every year, I suppose. :)


pgenrestories said...

Hi Sean. Great description of the game. Hope you won your fair share this year. My wife's family will be having theirs soon. My daughter won at the kid's table last year, so I'm shelling out for the kid's prizes this year :(. My brother, who is based in Guangzhou and came home recently to attend a wedding, told us that the dice game is, curiously, not commonly known among the local Chinese where he is based. Perhaps it's a provincial thing that has died out in China but has spread courtesy of the overseas Chinese. "Ghost month" was long this year, wasn't it, lasting a full calendar two months. Good fortune to you!

Sean said...

pgenrestories: Yes, I noticed that the game was virtually unknown in both the American Chinese communities and the Mainland Chinese families; It makes me wonder as to whether or not it's an actual traditional practice.

That, and the "Ghost Month" was abnormally long this year. I can't remember the last time I played the game in October; It feels odd, somehow.

No, I didn't get lucky at the tables last weekend -- which isn't bad, really, seeing that I would have been floating in a sea of mooncakes otherwise. I wish you all the luck in your celebration, though, and hope that you're playing for money or something else instead. Heheh. :)

pgenrestories said...

Hi Sean. Your entry enticed me to research. Here's a link:
It is indeed a traditional practice, originating in Xiamen, where I think most of our ancestors came from. Yes, we play for money as well as items and mooncakes, but there's a compulsory "entry fee", and the kids' table is on me. Oh well, at least the food afterwards is usually good. Once more: good fortune to you and your family!

Sean said...

pgenrestories: That makes sense, I suppose. I'm pretty sure that my family doesn't come from Xiamen, but rather from the same area. Regardless, most of the local Chinese community does come from there...

And if you're handling the kids' table, then you have my deepest sympathies. :) Do you provide the mandatory adult supervision as well? :)

pgenrestories said...

Hi once more, Sean. Thanks for your sympathies. Yes, chances are, I'll be the supervising adult at the kid's table come dice time. Oh well, at least the kids will have a good time.

I found out from my friend that ghost month was longer this year because it's a time anomaly that occurs every certain number of lunar animal cycles (he forgot how many, every three rams or roosters, or something?). Anyway, it's like leap year on the western calendar, which happens every four years, only in the case of ghost month the cycle is longer. An extra month for the ghosts to party hearty! And then the calendar is re-balanced.

I'm still crossing my fingers that you may send something to me in time for the first issue... :) Thanks and take care!

Ailee Through the Looking Glass said...

My mom's side of the family plays the dice game every year. We used to play for hopia and mooncakes, but one year, for some reason known only to him, our grandpa plunked down an angpao containing P10,000 as top prize, and since then, we've been playing for increasingly extravagant items, from an iPod Mini to this year's Nokia N91. To prove the universe has a sense of humor, the N91 went to my 4-year-old cousin, who actually rolled 6 fours (see for photographic evidence). Mercifully, she let us keep our prizes. :)

Sean said...

pgenrestories: I've got a lot on my plate right now, but I'm still trying to come up with something...

Ailee: You've got to be kidding. (The P10,000 and the Nokia N91 top prizes, I mean, not the six fours.) I'll admit that everyone gets lucky for at least one stage of their lives, but getting lucky when those kinds of prizes have been laid out... well...

Ailee Through the Looking Glass said...

Sadly, I have yet to win any of those nifty prizes. The closest I got was last year, when I rolled a straight (1 to 6), and I got a cordless phone/radio/alarm clock. The year someone buys a MacBook for the grand prize, I hope it's my turn to get lucky. :)

Sean said...

Ailee: It'll probably be a whole new generation before someone buys a MacBook for a grand prize somewhere... :)

pgenrestories said...

OK, thanks, Sean. Appreciate the effort.

Ailee, with prizes like that, the yearly dice game in your family must be something everyone looks forward to!

cstiu said...

I see a couple of people have made comments about the dice throwing tradition being unknown in other parts of China. As its mentioned that the tradition come from Xiamen, I believe that the tradition only exists for Fukienese Chinese. People in Hongkong and Guangdong are totally unaware of this tradition as I've found out when I moved to Hong kong years ago. Instead, they celebrate Mid Autumn by getting off work early (most, if not all companies, always let their employees off at 3 or 4pm during the day/night of Mid-Autumns festival) and gathering together with family members by eating an early dinner. Once dinner is finished, most families head off to parks with their makeshift lanterns (or buys them off the street.. hawkers abound everywhere near the parks at this time) to view the moon and spend the evenings at the parks with families. That's also why the day after the Mid-Autumn festival is declared a holiday - most families end up coming back home at 12 midnight or 1am after viewing the moon.

Its quite a packed event here, and on holidays such as this, I completely avoid parks - unless you want to be shoulder to shoulder with someone. Its that packed. Thank goodness our technology has enabled us to create battery powered lanterns instead of laterns with actual candles during the olden days - otherwise, its a fire incident waiting to happen ... especially when you let little kiddies hold them in the parks like they do know.

It may be a little late, but Happy Mid Autumn Festival nevertheless. Hopefully you didnt eat too much mooncakes. Are snowy mooncakes available back there too?

Sean said...

cstiu: A few days after the festival weekend, one of the local dailies called attention to the fact that about 85% of Chinese families had their origins in Fujian (Xiamen) province. That at least gives a clear number to our earlier estimates, although I find myself wondering why the Philippines maintains such an overwhelming concentration.

The practice of visiting parks is more along the lines of the international standard, I think. Seasonal festivals are usually spent outdoors, although I'm not sure where the practice of buying lanterns comes from. (Maybe they're a symbolic representation of the full moon? Hmmm.)

After over twenty years of the dice game, I'll openly state that I'm starting to get a little tired of mooncakes. They're good, mind you, but you don't want an entire load of them staring you in the face. (I'm not sure what a 'snowy' mooncake is, although I've seen some jellied ones being sold in the United States.)

danjulie said...

thank you for your GREAT description of the mooncake festival game. this year is my family's turn to host the game. we have been playing it for as long as i can remember :). but wanted to LIST down the rules, since that always slows us down in the beginning (with the older people arguing about the rules!). will make a big chart of your rules :)have been looking all over the internet and not many people explain it well.

thanks again!


Sean said...

Danjulie: Er.. the only reason as to why I posted the rules here was because I couldn't find them anywhere else online. I'm glad that it helped you in some way, though... feel free to ask if you need any more assistance.

Kat Olivares said...

Hi, Sean. Great post! Timeless...

I'm currently working for an online Chinese bookstore and I was looking around for Moon Festival Activities. I saw one blog about this dice game but yours is more complete.

I would like to add about this game to the site (for families who may also want to do this) and will credit your post.

Me, I've also decided to celebrate Moon Festival this year with my boys (we're non-Chinese) and the dice game sounds like fun... Will just have to be a little more creative about the prizes or the system since there'll only be 3 of us.

Thanks again Sean!

Sean said...

Kat: You're welcome to reference what you need from this post; feel free to link or take excerpts. (I've contacted you via e-mail in case you can't read this response for some reason.) I'll only require a link to this blog, and the web address of your site so that I can visit.

I find it funny, though, that people would still be reading this post even after two years...

Kenneth said...

our Church in Anaheim, Ca USA, is sponsoring a dice game on the 19th of September. If anyone wants to join us, pls email me for the details.

Mary said...

Hi Sean,
Thank you for the game guide. This is what i am looking for to our game this coming Saturday among batchmates. The Mooncake Dice Game is surely one way for great bonding among friends and relatives.

Sean said...

I'm personally surprised that this is still getting comments. :)

Roch said...

your post always comes out of google search results ;)

Thanks for the information :D I was able to use your post as reference too for mine ;)

annndie said...