Games of Chance

Gaming Sticks (zhuang yuan chou)
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Gaming Sticks (zhuang yuan chou)
China; early 20th century, or earlier
Various dimensions
Brooklyn Museum of Art

Chinese Promotion Games
While games of spiritual progress, similar to the Indian snakes and ladders, existed in China, by far the most popular race games were those whose aim was not spiritual development but material success. Since the road to material success in traditional China was through the official bureaucracy, it is not surprising that the theme of many of these games was promotion up the ladder of officialdom. China was unique in possessing a bureaucracy to which admission depended on passing exams and promotion on administrative ability.

The principle behind the game is simple. Players take turns rolling a pair of dice to determine where they begin on the bureaucratic ladder and then either get promoted or demoted on subsequent throws. There is one other crucial difference between Chinese promotion games and snakes-and-ladders-type games played elsewhere. In the latter, the number of positions that a player moves is exactly the same as the number yielded by the throw of the dice; thus if a player throws a six, he moves forward six positions on the board. In Chinese promotion games, on the other hand, there is no counting of squares. Instead, at each official position are listed possible movements to other positions, according to the outcome of specific dice rolls.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the game was that it incorporated the idea of meritorious reward and punishment, referring to the reasons for promotion or demotion taken from the official histories of the Han period. In a sense, the aim of Chinese promotion games is not totally dissimilar from that of Monopoly; the object of the former was to accumulate political power (and thereby wealth and glory), and of the latter to accumulate real estate. Yet, unlike Monopoly, Chinese promotion games also included a moral and didactic component.