The Origin of the Mooncake Dice Games
(Excerpted (with revised translation) from the plaque beside the sculpture of four military men playing the dice games; Gulangyu, Xiamen, October 2010)
The custom of tossing dice to compete for Zhuangyuan dates back to the Sui and Tang dynasties. It started as a game designed by scholars who craved success in the imperial examinations. The names of the dice combinations originated from the imperial examination system, with the highest being Zhuangyuan 狀元 (highest ranking scholar), followed by the Duitang 對堂 (榜眼, the 2nd rank), four Sanhong 三紅 (探花, 3rd rank), eight Sijin 四進 (進士, 4th rank), sixteen Erju 二舉 (舉人, 5th rank), and 32 Yixiu 一秀 (秀才, 6th rank), 63 in total.
The names of the dice combinations and the rules of the game haven’t changed much over the past millennium, but the chips used for the game have undergone constant change, ranging from Zhuangyuan chips, common coins, Zhuangyuan cakes, to objects of all sizes and shapes.
Legend has it that over 300 years ago, during the drills by national hero Zheng Chenggong (a.k.a. Koxinga) of his naval forces in Xiamen, Hong Xu, his associate and some subordinates in the War Ministry invented the “Mid-Autumn Mooncake Gambling Game” to relieve the homesickness of the soldiers. After consultation with his officers, Hong Xu adopted an ingenious combination of dice game rules and mooncakes.
The Mid-Autumn Mooncake game prevailed in south Fujian and Taiwan for many years, but it has experienced its ups and downs in different regions. Today, Xiamen is the only place where this culture is preserved in its entirety [Nope– it lives on among the Chinoys! –ACD]. A classical Xiamen ballad about the Mid-Autumn Mooncake game goes, “On the evening of the Mid-Autumn festival, the moon is full; you got Sanhong and I got Sijin, but who on earth got Zhuangyuan?” Every Mid-Autumn Festival, quiet evenings in Xiamen are punctuated by the ringing of dice in large porcelain bowls as families gather around tables to compete for the mooncakes. Year after year, the strength of the mooncake dice game tradition has created an ever more perfect Mid-Autumn Festival, and brought a sense of laughter and joy, family bliss, and expectant hope to the people of Xiamen.