Thursday, June 10, 2010

Hua Quan : How to get drunk in Chinese

Michala recently had surgery on her ankle to repair damage to the cartilage in there. Having just had her cast removed last week, I noticed the twin scars on her ankle form a nice version of the Chinese character for 8: (bā).

This is considered a lucky character. I was going to say the reason why is because it is a pseudo-homonym with the word (fā) as in 发财 (fā​cái), "to get rich."​ But I am going to do a little research to see if that is true or not. ... Okay, essentially that is the answer, but my research has jogged my memory and led me in another direction.

Many numbers in Chinese culture have significance, but nowhere is this more evident - and important - than in the Chinese drinking game of "Guessing Fingers" (划拳 huá​quán or 猜拳 cāi​quán).​

Guessing Fingers is akin to Rock-Paper-Scissors, in that the players present some configuration of their hand to their opponent, and both players have to guess what the other player's hand configuration is going to be. In "Guessing Fingers," the hand configurations are basically 0-5 fingers extended. The goal is to guess what the total number of fingers extended will be: yours plus your opponent's. Both players have to call out their guess as they throw out their fingers.

For example, if you are going to throw 2 fingers, you might guess 6. So you both throw out your fingers, and as you do, you yell "6 obediences!" (it makes sense later*) and the other guy yells "5 greats!" If he extended 4 fingers, you win the round (4+2=6) and the other guy takes a drink. If he extended 3 fingers, he wins and you drink. If nobody won, you keep going.

Being a math whiz, I would often throw out 5 fingers and yell "4!" which is of course idiotic. This is known as "yellow hand" 黄拳 (huang2 quan2), and costs you a drink. Another penalty is if you change your throw after you see the opponent's hand.

*Now, calling out your guess is not just a simple matter of saying a number and sticking out your hand. You can play that way but it is slightly lame. In truth, each number has a saying or phrase that goes along with it. Below are a few of the sayings and what they mean (there are many variations), as well as the proper ways to display each number with your hand. Grab a drink and read on!

Each round starts with "the hat" (帽子 mào​ zi​). The hat is a phrase that both players chant together so they have the same rhythm and cadence as they continue the game.

Some hats:
兄弟好, 好兄弟 (xiōng dì hǎo, hǎo xiōng dì)
The brothers are good, good are the brothers

全福寿啊, 福寿全 (quán fú shòu ah, fú shòu quán)
Everybody's lucky and lives long, Lucky long life everybody (doesn't flow as well in English does it?)

哥俩好啊 (gē'r liá hǎo ah)
Two brothers friendly (this is the one we always used in Beijing)

----OK, on to the numbers! ----

Zero (closed fist) -
不伸 (bu4 shen1) "Nothing extended." Pretty straightforward.
We usually just said 没有 (mei3 you3), "none."

One (thumb only) -
一条龙 (yī tiǎo lóng) "One dragon." Sounds cool.
一心敬 (yī xīn jìng) "We toast as one." Supposedly from a Du Fu poem.

Two (thumb and forefinger) -
两相好 (liǎng xiāng hǎo) "Both sides friendly." A sign of camaraderie while getting hammered together. I love you, man!
哥俩好 (gē'r liá hǎo) "Two brothers friendly." Also used in the "hat."

Three (the "OK" sign) -
三星照 (sān xīng zhào) "Three stars shining down." This refers to the three Taoist deities of Fortune (福 fú), Wealth (禄 lù) and Longevity (寿 shòu), which also correspond to ancient constellations in Chinese astronomy.

Four (hand flat out, but forefinger bent in half) -
四鸿喜 (si4 hong2 xi3) "Four great happinesses." For the ancients, the four great happinesses were: 久旱逢甘雨 (jiǔ hàn féng gān yǔ) Sweet rain after a long drought; 他乡遇故知 (tā xiāng yù gù zhī) Meeting an old friend in a faraway place; 洞房花烛夜 (dòng​ fáng ​huā ​zhú ​yè​) One's wedding night (literally "night of lighting a candle in the secret bridal chamber"); and 金榜题名时 (jīn bǎng tí míng shí) Having your name appear on the list of successful imperial examinees for becoming an official. Not to be confused with the Five Great Happinesses of Being a Guy: 拉急尿; 屙急屎; 日屄; 搔痒; 掏耳屎. ("Taking an urgent #1, taking an urgent #2; having sex; scratching an itch; and picking your ear." I learned those at school in Nanjing. I should say I learned that saying at school in Nanjing.)

Five (all fingers extended) -
五魁首 (wǔ kuí shǒu) "Five greats." This probably refers to the Five Classics (五經 wǔ jīng) of Chinese literature: 诗经 (shī jīng, Book of Songs); 书经 (shū jīng, Book of History); 易经 (yì jīng, Book of Changes, aka I Ching); 礼记 (lǐ jì, Classic of Rites); and 春秋 (chūn qiū, Spring and Autumn Annals)

Six - 六大顺 (liù dà shùn) "Six obediences." According to the "左传" (zuǒ zhuàn, Zuo's Commentary on the Spring and Autumn Annals), the six obediences are: 君义, 臣行, 父慈, 子孝, 兄爱, 弟敬 (jūn yì, chén xíng, fù cí, zǐ xiào, xiōng ài, dì jìng): "The ruler is righteous; the minister acts appropriately; the father is gentle; the son is dutiful; the older brother is loving; the younger brother is respectful." Usually when I played, we would just say 六六六六 (liù liù liù liù "6,6,6,6!"). Slightly less literary.

Seven - 七个巧 (qī gè qiǎo) "Seven skills." This is a pun, and refers to 七夕节 (qī xī jié) Seventh Night Festival, or Qixi Festival. It falls on the 7th day of the 7th lunar month, and on this day, the literally star-crossed lovers 牛郎 (niú​ láng, Cow Boy, aka the star Altair) and 织女 (​zhī​nǚ, Weaver Girl,​ aka Vega) are allowed to see each other by crossing the magpie bridge over the Milky Way. Another name for the festival is 乞巧节 (qǐ qiǎo jié) "Beg for Skills Festival," since young girls are supposed to beg Weaver Girl for better sewing and other domestic skills. The words for "beg" and "seven" sound similar, hence the pun.
Or, 七仙女 (qī xiān nǚ) "Seven immortal maidens." This refers to the seven magical daughters of the Jade Emperor. They make an appearance in the classical novel "Journey to the West" (西游记 xī yóu jì). In the story, the Monkey King (孙悟空 sūn​ wù​ kōng​) ruins the Great Immortal Peach Festival by eating all of the immortal peaches in the Jade Emperor's garden. The seven immortal maidens were supposed to gather said peaches but Monkey ate most of them so the festival is ruined! Bad Monkey!

Eight - 八匹马 (bā pī mǎ) "Eight horses." According to legend, during the Western Zhou Dynasty (c. 1100- 771 BC) King Mu (周穆王 Zhōu​ Mù​ Wáng​) traveled in a chariot pulled by 8 horses far to the western reaches of his land, eventually reaching the Jade Lake (瑶池 yáo chí) on Mount Kunlun (昆仑山 kūn​ lún​ shān​). This was the domain of a goddess, the Queen Mother of the West (西王母 xī ​wáng ​mǔ)​. She was also the keeper of the Peaches of Immortality mentioned above. They hung out and had a few feasts together then he returned to the kingdom with a promise to go back to her. However, he apparently never did, even though he lived to be 105. Typical.

Nine - 快喝酒 (kuài hē jiǔ) "Hurry up and drink!" The word for alcohol (酒 jiǔ) sounds exactly the same as the word for 9 (九 jiǔ).

Ten - 满堂红 (mǎn​ táng​ hóng)​ Expression meaning "complete success in everything."
全来 - (quán lái) - "All of 'em!"
十全十美 (shí ​quán ​shí ​měi)​ - Expression meaning "perfect in every way." Literally "10 complete and 10 beautiful." 10 means "totally" in this context.

Well, there you go. As my Grandma Liz would say, "that's more about penguins than you ever wanted to know about penguins." Now start playing!



Susan Moger said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Susan Moger said...

It's not everyday you see Grandma Liz quoted in connection with a drinking game. I remember you were a renowned player of these games, esp. at Dewey's wedding among the in-law men.Of course, you always remembered to order an O'Douls, no?

Benjamin said...

Of course, I would have, if O'Doul's made Chinese moonshine aka 白酒 (bai2 jiu3). Man, just thinking about that stuff makes my liver hurt.

Unknown said...

We will have to play this game very soon...

siewgin_alan_tyler_cody said...

Ah.. i finally understand what all the shouting is all about when i see this game in the chinese movies as a child!

Anonymous said...

Hola Benjamin, I love your Hua Quan Post!
Thank you!!!

'm Ivó from Barcelona,
sorry about my english but if you speak chinese I hope you understand my spanish/english.

I'm a filmmaker and I'm working in a project about a game called MORRA, it's the same that Hua Quan, but practiced in some places in Spain, France, Italy, Egipt and the countries of de South Mediterranian.
It's also a drinking game but not as in China, less evident. People plays for fun, also childs... as an street game, and i saw a few championships.
I'm searching people and real places where HUA QUAN it's practiced in these days.
I leave yo my email:,
if you want, we can contact, I'm sure that you can help me.