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After missing World Cup, now China is humbled at mahjong

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China is in search of a champion to restore the country's Mahjong honorPETER PARKS/AFP--Getty Images

Not fielding a team for the World Cup was bad enough for China. Now comes word that the country couldn’t even beat the world in a game it invented a couple thousand years ago and plays so often that any foreigner glimpsing into a home with a family crowded around the coffee table might guess what’s going on.

The game is mahjong, and France recently hosted the fifth European Mahjong Championship in beautiful Strasbourg, France. China was shut out completely. A Japanese man won the individual title, followed by a German in second place. The top Chinese player followed in 30th place and the best Chinese team ranked a lowly 37th.

“This type of result is equal to Brazil in the World Cup not qualifying out of team play!” wrote Literature City, a foreign Chinese news site, in an emotional tournament recap.

What in Chairman Mao’s name is going on? After failing to qualify for the World Cup finals since 2002, is China just not competitive in sports? After the country also had a weak Winter Olympics performance, there are only a spattering of Chinese athletes who enjoy global recognition, and the country’s reputation for sports success relies heavily on state-sponsored training. Or was it that the mahjong team was victimized by corruption—princelings taking the spots of able players?

You can rule out a couple of causes right away. The ubiquitous mahjong contests in the homes of Beijing and Chengdu are a testament to a vibrant amateur game, so declining popularity can be ruled out. And mahjong’s place in Chinese culture is as strong as ever. The Chinese often remind people that they taught the Europeans how to play–even if the same players are now beating them handedly.

Yao Xiao Lei, the assistant secretary-general of the World Mahjong Organization and a Chinese national, put a positive take on the championships.

“Although the results were not good,” he said, “we should see the very quick development of the European athletics mahjong in recent years. It showed that the promotion of Chinese mahjong has been rewarded.”

Any fair defense of the Chinese performance has to include bad luck. The game is based upon a set of about 140 numbered and honor tiles and is at best about 50 percent luck and 50 percent skill. The Chinese players may have run into a bad luck streak and not been able to pull themselves out. But given that four out of the top five spots went to Japanese players, that explanation only goes so far.

It certainly didn’t wash with the Chinese blogosphere.

“Even if I sent my mom and dog, they could have played better,” wrote one commentator on the Oriental Network website.

So one should look past corruption and competitiveness. Maybe China just got dealt a bad hand of tiles. Two years from now, at the next championships, we may be talking about how China reclaimed its rightful mahjong crown. But then again, that’s what the English have been telling themselves after every World Cup since 1966. And there’s still no sign of Greece getting back to the top of the Olympics medals table either…