Historical Roots of Gambling in Chinese Culture

Gambling in Chinese culture has a storied history, deeply intertwined with ancient traditions and philosophies.

Ancient Chinese Games of Chance

Gambling activities in China can be traced back thousands of years, with evidence of rudimentary games of chance. The Chinese have been engaging in gambling activities since at least 1000 B.C. One of the earliest games included tile games, which evolved over the centuries. The propensity for these games was not only for entertainment but also as a reflection of societal structures, often enjoyed by nobility and the wealthy class as suggested by the historical accounts from ResearchGate.

Influence of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism

The evolution and acceptance of gambling in Chinese culture were further shaped by the philosophical teachings of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. Confucianism, with its emphasis on ethical conduct and social morality, generally frowned upon gambling. Taoism, on the other hand, with its more liberal stance towards life’s pleasures, did not strictly oppose gambling. Buddhism also tolerated games of chance, but the addictive nature of gambling and the suffering it could cause brought about an inherent caution against excessive gambling. These complex and often contradictory views led to a cultural landscape where gambling was both present and regulated, as noted in scholarship from Springer.

Cultural Significance of Gambling

Gambling holds a notable place in Chinese culture, intertwining with social interactions, celebrations, and a profound belief in luck and fortune. These aspects have shaped the attitudes and behaviors toward gambling in Chinese society.

Social Aspects of Gambling

In Chinese culture, gambling is often seen as a social activity that brings people together. It is not merely about winning or losing money but about the communal experience and the bonding it fosters among participants. This shared activity is prevalent across various social strata, and it’s common for friends and family to partake in games of chance during gatherings and celebrations.

Gambling and Chinese Festivities

Festivals and holidays in China, such as the Chinese New Year, see a surge in gambling activities as it is considered auspicious. Activities like playing Mahjong or card games are regular fixtures at these events. The gambling culture during the festivities is not just about playing games; it’s also a means of strengthening community ties and honoring traditions.

Beliefs in Luck and Fortune

The Chinese concept of luck (运气 “yun qi”) is deeply ingrained in the cultural understanding of gambling. Many believe that certain objects or numerals bring good luck, and rituals are often performed to increase one’s chances of winning. Predictive methods such as consulting the “Book of Changes” or relying on Feng Shui for selecting auspicious dates and places to gamble emphasize the cultural beliefs and values influencing attitudes towards gambling.

Gambling Etiquette and Superstitions

Chinese gambling is deeply rooted in tradition, with etiquette and superstitions playing a pivotal role. These cultural elements influence everything from how gamblers behave at the table to the way they select which games to play.

Taboos and Lucky Practices


  • Gamblers avoid counting money at the table, as it’s considered bad luck.
  • It’s taboo to touch another player’s shoulder during gambling.

Lucky Practices:

  • Wearing red clothing is believed to bring good luck.
  • A common practice is to bet on numbers that hold personal or cultural significance.

Feng Shui in Gambling

Casino Design: Many casinos cater to Chinese players by incorporating feng shui principles into the casino layout. Strategic placements of objects and certain colors aim to maximize the flow of positive energy.

Personal Feng Shui: Players often follow personal feng shui rituals like sitting in a lucky direction or carrying specific items that are supposed to bring good luck or ward off negative energy.

Popular Gambling Games among Chinese Players

In Chinese culture, certain gambling games hold significant popularity and have deep historical roots. They often combine skill, tradition, and luck, attracting players of various age groups across China and beyond.

Mahjong and Its Variations

Mahjong, a tile-based game that originated in China during the Qing dynasty, remains an enduring favorite among Chinese players. It typically involves four players and a set of 136 tiles featuring Chinese characters and symbols. The objective is to create a legal hand using the drawn tiles. Mahjong has several variations across regions, with some even playing it competitively.

Pai Gow and Chinese Poker

Pai Gow is a traditional gambling game played with a set of 32 Chinese dominoes. Bets are placed before the tiles are shuffled and stacked into eight piles of four tiles each. Players aim to defeat the banker with two sets of superior tiles. Chinese Poker, on the other hand, is a card game where players receive 13 cards and must split them into three hands which are then compared to the opponents’ hands to determine the winner.

Lottery and Sports Betting in China

Lotteries have a legal foothold in China, with the Welfare Lottery and the Sports Lottery being the only forms of government-approved gambling activities. Proceeds from these lotteries are often directed towards social welfare and sports development initiatives. Sports betting, predominantly on football and basketball, has gained traction, furthered by the popularity of these sports in China.

Government Stance on Gambling

Chinese government maintains strict regulations against gambling activities within its borders, reflecting a firm stance to curb any potential social issues resulting from gaming practices.

Gambling Laws in Mainland China

In Mainland China, all forms of gambling are illegal. This includes online gambling, as well as opening and operation of casinos. The Criminal Law of the People’s Republic of China enforces severe penalties for gambling offenses, which can include fines and imprisonment. The only legal forms of gambling are state-run lotteries, such as the Welfare Lottery and the Sports Lottery. These are heavily regulated and monitored by the Chinese government, providing funding for social and public welfare projects.

Special Administrative Regions: Macau and Hong Kong

Macau stands as an exception to China’s strict anti-gambling laws. It is the only place under China’s jurisdiction where casino gambling is legal. Macau’s economy is heavily dependent on tourism and gambling revenues, with numerous world-renowned casinos operating there. The region’s legal framework is distinctly separate from Mainland China, drawing countless visitors from the mainland and abroad.

In Hong Kong, while traditional casinos are illegal, horse racing, football betting, and lotteries are permitted. The Hong Kong Jockey Club holds a government-granted monopoly on these gambling activities, and similar to the mainland, the revenue generated is used for community and charity works. The gambling environment in Hong Kong is tightly controlled, with a focus on responsible gambling measures and preventing illicit betting activities.

Socio-Economic Impacts of Gambling

The incorporation of gambling into society has been associated with both positive economic contributions and negative public health issues.

The Gambling Industry and Economic Growth

Historically and in modern times, the gambling industry has been a significant source of economic activity and has contributed to economic growth in several regions. For instance, like the growth highlighted in mainland China, the gambling sector can contribute to the economy through the creation of jobs, increase in tourism, and as a source of tax revenue. The industry often funds public services and infrastructure projects.

  • Job creation: Casinos and betting establishments are labor-intensive businesses that create numerous jobs, ranging from customer service to security roles.
  • Tourism: Regions with established gambling facilities often become tourist hubs, attracting visitors from across the globe.
  • Tax revenue: Governments collect taxes from gambling operations, which can be a substantial part of a region’s revenue.

Here’s a comparison of gambling in China versus New Zealand:


  1. Legal Restrictions: Gambling is largely illegal in mainland China, with the exception of state-run lotteries. These include the China Welfare Lottery and the China Sports Lottery, which are government-sanctioned and offer games such as scratch cards, lotto, and sports betting.
  2. Special Administrative Regions: The two Special Administrative Regions of Hong Kong and Macau are exceptions to China’s strict anti-gambling laws. Hong Kong allows betting on horse racing, football matches, and a lottery, all regulated by the Hong Kong Jockey Club. Macau is known as the “Las Vegas of Asia” and has a vast array of casinos that generate more revenue than any other location in the world, including Las Vegas.
  3. Online Gambling: Online gambling is also illegal in China, and the government actively tries to block access to international online gaming sites.
  4. Cultural Aspect: Despite the restrictions, gambling is a popular activity during social gatherings, especially during the Chinese New Year, although it’s often at a small scale and seen more as a form of social entertainment.

New Zealand:

  1. Legal Framework: Gambling in New Zealand is regulated by the Gambling Act of 2003, which allows various forms of gambling including lotteries, casino gaming, sports betting, and racing. All forms of gambling are required to benefit the community in some way, according to the law.
  2. Casinos: There are several land-based casinos in New Zealand which offer a variety of gaming options, including slot machines (pokies) and table games like poker, blackjack, and roulette.
  3. Sports Betting and Racing: The New Zealand Racing Board (TAB) manages sports betting and racing, and it’s the only entity legally allowed to offer sports betting services.
  4. Lotteries: The New Zealand Lotteries Commission operates the national lottery, which includes Lotto and scratch card games known as Instant Kiwi.
  5. Online Gambling: Online gambling is legal in New Zealand as long as the online casino is based overseas. Residents can play at international sites without legal repercussions.
  6. Regulation and Community Benefit: A significant aspect of New Zealand’s gambling laws is the emphasis on community benefit. A portion of the profits from gambling must be returned to the community, typically through funding for charitable causes.

In summary, China has very strict gambling laws with limited legal options primarily in the form of state-run lotteries and the special administrative regions of Hong Kong and Macau. In contrast, New Zealand offers a wide range of legal gambling options, with a regulatory framework that emphasizes community benefits and responsible gambling practices. Online gambling is illegal in China, whereas in New Zealand, it’s legal to use overseas-based online gambling services.

Problem Gambling and Public Health

Conversely, problem gambling presents a serious risk to public health that affects individuals, families, and communities. It is associated with psychological issues, including stress, anxiety, and mood disorders. On examining Chinese gambling problems and socio-historical perspectives, the potential strain on public health services becomes evident.

  • Psychological issues: Problem gamblers may suffer from stress-related illnesses, leading to further healthcare costs and workforce productivity losses.
  • Family impact: Gambling addiction can disrupt family dynamics and financial stability, creating a cascade of socio-economic challenges.

The key to maximizing the positive economic impacts while minimizing the negative public health consequences lies in effective regulation and support services for problem gambling.