‘Qualities’ of Gambling: Women Participating in Underground Lottery of Rural China
Abstract: In this research, I scrutinize the everyday, subjective experiences of women underground lottery players, and analyze how women work to justify their lottery consumption. By putting gambling experience of rural Chinese women into the discourse of quality (su zhi), which mirrors the post-mao governmentality, I conclude that women’s participation in underground lottery reflects their everyday practices to become ‘respectable’, where dominant ideologies are negotiated with local knowledge.
Underground lottery, commonly known as “mai ma” or “du ma”, has swept the southern rural China since the late 90s. Originated from the Hong Kong Mark Six (called “liu hecai”), the underground lottery has become an important part of Chinese underground economy with enormous cash flow, and endemic feature of local participants’ everyday life. It is estimated by local newspapers that in many rural villages more than 90% of villagers participate in underground lottery (Lin, 2005;Luo, 2004).
Both state and local government treated the widespread underground lottery as part of the illegal economy. In 2003, the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Public Security published Notice on Special Actions to Carry out Combat Illegal Lottery and other Gambling Activities, urging publicity departments at all administrative levels to publicize the harm of gambling. Supreme People’s Court, Supreme People’s Procuratorate, and Ministry of Public Security also formed a work force to conduct a five-month intensive combat. In the Notice on Special Action Concentrating on Combating Illegal Gambling and Criminal Activities, government officials claimed that illegal lottery could do serious harm to the social order and stability.
In official discourse, underground lottery is described as a dangerous lure for the peasants who try their hardest to get rich overnight. In accordance with official discourses, mass media depicted underground lottery as a social plague, by calling underground lottery economic cult, new opium, and bloodsucker, and publishing stories on how participating in lottery jeopardized local economic growth, harmonious family relations, and peasants’ healthy life styles.
Similar to the public condemn of underground lottery, researches of underground lottery has attempted to understand “pathological” or “problem” gambling, and has often explored the “state of mind” of the gambler. From various perspectives, such as economic (a lack of opportunities for rural surplus labor force) (Lin, 2009), political(a lack of government control on local levels), historical(a tradition of gambling in rural China) (Feng & Zhou, 2006), and personal(the dream of fortune overnight) (Zhang, 2004), those analyses simply assume the lottery is an irrational behavior. In such comments, gambling was often linked with exploitation and speculation into a morality tale of social decline (Bosco, Liu, & West, 2009). Discussions of underground lottery are often framed within moral discourses of pathology. Few attentions were paid to the everyday, ordinary experiences of people who gamble but who do not appear to be ‘problem’ gamblers.
In this paper, I try to provide a counter-discourse to mainstream accounts of ‘pathological’ and ‘deviant’ lottery play, to re-position gambling as ordinary and mundane, and to explore the analytic, domestic and everyday nature of the women’s underground lottery participation. Furthermore, I will probe women’s daily gambling as a cultural product elaborated by rural women, to see how women’s gambling activity echoes the culture of post-mao China.
Gambling is one of the least theorized areas of popular culture, and has traditionally been subject to little scrutiny from social critics (Douglas, 1995). The vast majority of existing theories of gambling have focused on psychological accounts of “addiction” (Rogers, 1998), problem gambling in Chinese community (Blaszczynski, Huynh, Dumlao, & Farrell, 1998) and economic interpretations of the gambling industry (Creigh-Tyte & Farrell, 1998). However, a liberal sociological analysis of gambling gained strength in the years following the Second World War, presenting a more positive explanation of gambling as a legitimate leisure activity (McMillen, 1996). In their works, we could see a long-standing history to conceptualize gambling, including lottery play, as a social and cultural product.
Lottery as a Cultural Product
Despite its apparent universality, the concept of gambling has no intrinsic meaning. Its meaning always depends on the socio-historical context in which it occurs (McMillen, 1996).
First, in contemporary academic convention, gambling is defined narrowly in terms of financial transactions—the staking of money, or an item of economic value, on the uncertain outcome of a future event. Lottery, by definition is a form of gambling, an aspect of ‘play’. In the classic work Homo Ludens, Johan Huizinga defines play as free activity occurring outside “reality” within its own spatiotemporal boundaries according to fixed rules (Huizinga, 1944). Based upon Huizinga’s definition of gambling as a cultural practice, Caillois (2001), in his work Man, Play, and Games, contends that game is free, circumscribed within limits of space and time, defined and fixed in advance, uncertain, creating neither goods, nor wealth, nor new elements of any kind; and, except for the exchange of property among the players, governed by rules, accompanied by a special awareness of a second reality or of free unreality as against real life. Games are a sort of artificial paradise like Disneyland, or some Utopian vision by which we interpret and complete the meaning of our daily lives. Games, like institutions, are extensions of social man and of the body politic, as technologies are extensions of the animal organism (McLuhan, 1994). Thereby, lottery is a form of game, an extension of social selves, where the present game rules reproduce themselves and participant would produce a make-believe identity (Huizinga 1944). However, in these theoretical frames, it is assumed that the primary determinant of gambling participation is individual choice. Social environment in which gambling occurred has been given little attention.
Anthropological analysis of lottery or gambling put these theoretical work into contexts, by focusing on how game itself reproduce the existing social ideology (McLuhan, 1994) or how the rhetoric of games creates social order (Caillois, 2001). Adopting Caillois’ classification of games, Festa contends that majhong, both a traditional Chinese game and popular gambling activity, consists of agon and alea which animate dominant aspects of sociopolitical culture in Taiwan, and further conceptualizes how in men’s mahjong matches all four modes of play constitute the imaginary core of men’s social being, which is a constant source of imaginary realities which become social reality (Festa, 2007). Many studies of lottery and pyramid schemes in other parts of the world argue that one fact or promoting pyramid schemes and similar ‘‘occult economies’’ is the sudden arrival of the capitalist economy, which leads people to view the growth of money as magical and open to occult manipulation (Verdery, 1995). Bosco (2009), in his ethnography on Chinese underground lottery, argues that gambling mirrors and mimics the fantastic ability of the consumer capitalist economy to produce fantastic wealth through control of key nodes in the economy, rather than through production. The lottery captures the alchemy of neoliberalism: ‘‘to yield wealth without production, value without effort’’. And the lottery is another example of what Comaroff & Comaroff (1999) call ‘‘millennial capitalism – that odd fusion of the modern and the post-modern, of hope and hopelessness, of utility and futility, of promise and its perversions.’’
However, scholars, who look into gambling in rural China, point out that an explanation in terms of occult economies or ‘neoliberalism’ would overlook the everyday contention of local culture (Steinmuller, 2011). Although Bosco applied an analysis of underground lottery in the respect of capitalist culture, he oversimplified the popularity of underground lottery as a result of peasants’ fantasies of easy money and maladaptive for the new economy. For Steinmuller, discourses and practices around gambling in rural China epitomize the moving boundaries of the socially acceptable within local sociality, and the outside boundaries of local sociality itself. However the given analysis de-gendered gamblers, or more precisely, assumed a unified gambler profiles marked by male petty capitalists. For example, in Steinmuller’s (2011) work, high stake gamblers are precisely those who try hardest not to be peasants – that is, migrant workers, rural businessmen, and officials – who are the focus of such attacks. We can see that the subjects of gambling are classed and gendered. But little attention has paid to examine the gendered and classed nature of gambling in the context of rural China.
Hence, in contrast with gender erasure of current researches, I suppose a gender-sensitive analysis of gambling, seeing lottery as a critical part of women’s life. In this paper, I will adopt a feminist perspective on cultural study that a more comprehensive understanding of capitalist culture would emerge from more gender-specific theories of consumption, except for examining capitalism and class relations (LURY, 1995).
Rural Women and Lottery play
To date, very few empirical researches explored the profiles of underground lottery players. Zhonglu & Dongmei (2007) conducted an empirical study in Guangzhou, China, to examine the profiles of lottery players. The data shows that the typical lottery buyers are disproportionately middle-aged or young males (78.4% of the sample are male). Most of them (67%) are in good jobs, with monthly incomes between RMB1,000 and 4,000, placing them in the above-average income group. Their education levels also were above average. Although it only focuses on participants of the legitimate lottery, the data reveals that lottery per se is a both gendered and classed activity, where women appear to play less frequently than men and to stake less when they do play. A growing number of scholars have discovered a trend of women participating in gambling activities in a few cases of southern China (Biao, 2007;Fan, 2009).
However, current gambling research is severely limited in its refusal to acknowledge the gendered and classed nature of lottery play. In the category of gambling research, the vast majority of this research has been on male subjects. Gambling could produce distinctive significations to women, but gender of respondents has not been discussed, gender-related findings have not been reported, and mostly male-dominated gambling sites have been investigated.
Emma Casey’s study represents notable exceptions to the general neglect of the social and cultural dimensions of gambling. In her study of the women participating the UK National Lottery play, Casey specifically examines how ‘class’ and ‘gender’ are constructed around notions of ‘respectability’ and ‘caring’(Casey, 2006), and how working class women use the National Lottery as a means of negotiating their working class femininity(Casey, 2003,2008). In her writings, Casey considers National Lottery participation as one such leisure space, within which women have room to imagine, hope, dream, and which facilitates physical leisure spaces.
First of all, in the often routine and ‘systematic’ systems of gambling employed by the women, women’s descriptions of the various ways in which they managed, monitored and budgeted the money to be spent on tickets, contradicts existing scholarship which has depicted National Lottery play as spontaneous and spur-of-the-moment. Casey thus positions the National Lottery as a ‘domestic’ leisure activity, which is embedded into women’s ordinary, everyday routines, and rituals and thus proposes an understanding of National Lottery participation as a subjective choice, rather than as a cultural product forced upon the women.
Moreover, by her in-depth interviews, Casey believes National Lottery represents a suitable space for leisure within these constraints. Women adapted the National Lottery so that it ‘fitted into’ the material and ideological constraints placed on women’s lives. In order to illuminate the coexistence of structural constraints and subjective agency in working class women’s experiences of National Lottery play, (Casey, 2003) adopted an intersectional analysis of gender and class, exploring how class played a central role in the women’s lives, and how their class positions were constantly refined, re-defined and reproduced as they performed their everyday cultural activities. The women constructed alternative discourses to the dominant middle class critiques of the National Lottery as a meaningless and wasteful form of spending (Casey, 2008). Seeing it as a formation of middle class identity, Casey further noted that women, in her study, contrasted their dreams of winning the jackpot with a fear of the consequences that this would have on their everyday lives. In particular, “one important aspect of this fear lay in the feeling that winning money and ‘becoming rich’ would damage relationships with friends and family”(Casey, 2006). All those strategies mentioned above served as everyday practices for working class women to negotiate their ‘respectable’ working class femininity.
Casey paves the way for research into the subjective experiences of women who gamble in a broad range of different ways. Her thorough research has considered National Lottery play in terms of class and gender, but, as she noted in her publication, more works need to be done to examine the extent to which race and ethnicity, as well as many other factors such as globalization and poverty, function as important factors influencing people’s decisions to play or not to play, and their various experiences of play.
Thus I will extend Casey’s gender and class analysis in the context of underground lottery in rural China, where state power and hegemonic ideology of development and modernity meet the local narratives of mystery, luck, fate and quality (su zhi).
In my analysis, I contest the logic of the pathological argument which sets up the practice of gambling as a rather deterministic process of addiction and exploitation. Instead, I will adopt a more Foucauldian understanding of the way in which women produce themselves through discourses and practices.
Location of Research
I suggest the location’s cultural background, demographic structure, and popularity of women gambling all provide the complexity to develop an instrumental case study which helps to provide insight into an issue or to redraw a generalization (Denzin & Lincoln, 1994).
Longli Village, located in southwestern China, Guizhou Province, became a tourist village in 2005, under the policy of village development. According to local narratives, because of its thick Han culture and a hedonistic tradition, people there value leisure and kinship networks in community. Since the market reforms from late 70s, young labors have been migrating to big cities to work in factories or construction sites, leaving the housewives, children, and elderly behind. In Longli, as in many other rural villages, people place bets, discuss the betting, and exchange information in the open, even though it is illegal. The Longli Village lottery is based on the Hong Kong Mark Six. The gambling relies on Hong Kong only for picking the number; the prize money is paid (profits made, and losses sustained) by local bookies. Each round, gambler would place bet on the bonus number of the current issue of Hong Kong Mark Six, in which one number will be drawn from 1 to 49. The numbers are grouped in Chinese zodiacs. These bookies, which usually operate in their own house, are organized through social networks. In turn, they usually spread some of their risk (and benefits) by being linked with larger bookies in larger towns. Underground lottery is prevalent in almost every household, where women serve as a huge gambler base.
In this research, I adopt ethnography as research method, while using participant observation and informal interviews in fieldwork, to collect information. I suppose ethnography, as a research method, can tell the subjective experience of rural women, by giving voice to people in their own local context (Denzin & Lincoln, 1994). The story can be told through the eyes of local people as they pursue their daily lives in their own communities. Meanwhile, in ethnography, the researcher adopts a cultural lens to interpret observed behavior, ensuring that the behaviors are placed in a culturally relevant context. In this aspect, ethnography helps me to interpret subjective experience of rural women in a meaningful local context (Fetterman, 2009).
In order to scrutinize meanings of gambling as an everyday activity to rural women, I actively participated in the daily life of rural women, and carefully observed their and various significations of gambling process as a way of obtaining material for this study. Participant observation combines participation in the lives of the people under study with maintenance of a professional distance that allows adequate observation and recording of data. This method was widely believed to produce documentary information that not only true but also reflect the natives own point of view about reality (Fetterman, 2009;Tedlock, 1991). Field notes and memos were taken throughout participant observation.
In addition to participant observation, I conducted in-depth interviews, throughout the ethnographic study, to look into the motives of rural women, and also to discover the categories of meaning in local culture. Also, informal interviews will be conducted, in order to identify shared values in the community—values that inform behavior as well as establish and maintain a healthy rapport (Fetterman, 2009). Field notes are noted down as major materials of analysis.
It was difficult to conduct formal interviews in the village, because underground lottery is very sensitive to talk about when locals confront outsiders. Since Longli village had been developed into a tourist village, I lived in one of the family hostiles. My host, who I was friended with me, and her neighbor, who is running a local underground lottery business, served as my informants and the gate keeper. Her neighbor’s house was be one of my observation spots, because gamblers will gather there at result night to probe inside information and talk about hints of the bonus number. By this means, I came to know more gamblers in the neighborhood, with whom I conducted informal interviews.
Because of her well-regarded family connection in the community, my host introduced me to other local bookies in nearby neighborhoods. By observing how bookies operate their business, I was be able to expand my scope, get to know more gambling women, and pull together a picture of how underground lottery functions on both community and individual level. To protect the informants’ and interviewees’ privacy, all names are referred as pseudonyms in this paper.
Research Findings and Discussion
‘Analytic’ and ‘Domestic’ Gambling
In the discussion of women gambling, Casey (2003) pointed out that knowing they are vulnerable to criticism from surveillant others, working-class women will negotiate their right to participate in this leisure activity by arguing lottery is a legitimate and respectable leisure activity. In this research, rural women demonstrated the analytic, domestic, and recreational nature of their gambling, so that it was presented as a rational leisure activity, rather than as an extraordinary, or deviant pastime.
The Joy of Calculation and Analysis
In line with researches of Chinese underground lottery (Bosco et al., 2009), the result is commonly believed to be rigged.
Calculation and analysis encompass the most important process of these women’s gambling experience. Participants will refer to a variety of materials, mainly hint sheets (see Fig. 1) distributed by bookies, which contains carton pictures, riddles, charts, diagrams. It is believed that inside information are out there somewhere in these materials.
Mrs. Yang: There are a lot of skills involved when we are betting. Look at this issue of the lottery newspaper, I guess the right number will be chicken.
Jin (myself): If the number can be calculated, wouldn’t there be a lot of people winning the lottery? The organizer will bankrupt.
Mrs. Yang: Only very brilliant people can predict the right number. It is like a test for people around the country, not just you. Only few people are brilliant enough to guess the right number. You are a college student. So you stand a higher chance to win the lottery than us. But to make sure you are going to win, you should follow the dealers from Hong Kong. They have inside information. I barely win, because I don’t know these dealers and I’m not well educated as you are. The few times I won, I was so happy. It is a result of my analysis and calculation.
Aside from emphasizing how they rationally and carefully selected the numbers, women in this research also expressed leisure from underground lottery. It is important to note that lottery is barely called as gambling (du ) but as playing (wan) in local context. A bookie in the neighborhood expressed her concerns with business and playing (wan) with me.
I had a chance to sell Taiwan lottery tickets. But I gave this business opportunity to my neighbor, by introducing him to my upper bookie. I am already selling Hong Kong lottery. It is draining me. I cannot stand another business. You know, Taiwan lottery sells on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, meanwhile, Hong Kong lottery sells on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. Now I can at least play Taiwan lottery, otherwise I have to work every night.
Statistically speaking, gamblers can win or lose, but bookies usually win the most. However, this woman gave up a profitable business in order to have more ‘fun’ with lottery play. Another incident in the neighborhood also exemplifies women’s belief of calculation and analysis, rather than boldly taking risks.
One night, a man in the neighborhood bet on all the even numbers, each for fifty yuan. At last, he won five hundred yuan. His risk-taking opportunistic became a topic that night. Usually less than 5 people were able to bet on the right number. But the revenue stays less than 100 yuan. But his gain did not receive much respect from the neighbors.
Mrs. Yang: He’s gambling (du), putting his family save in danger. We will never do something like that. We only play (wan), nothing much to gain and nothing much to lose. We never buy all the numbers on the chart. It’s risky and not rational. We calculate and we narrow down our options.
Caillois asserted that alea (risk) was the dominate factor in lottery play, which affords an alternative hope, a counter rationalization, and a spirit of imagination(Caillois, 2001). Whereas, narratives of this bookie and women’s attitude towards high-stake gambler challenged the many scholars’ assumption of lottery as peasants’ fantasy of fortune in the Chinese neoliberal economy. The joy of calculation and analysis constitutes women’s counter-discourse that gambling is analytic and intellectual. In this case, women are not hedonistically dreaming about getting rich overnight, but rational calculating to making their economic situation easier.
Revisiting ‘Domestic Gambling’
In the research of UK women playing National Lottery, Casey established the concept of ‘domestic gambling’, by arguing that lottery play is constructed within women’s complex discourses of familial money management, respectability and caring. Likewise, I suppose, underground lottery resembles a ‘domestic’ leisure activity, embedded into women’s ordinary and everyday routines.
First, lottery fit into a strict social constrain for women. ‘Time’ is conceived as a gendered and classed concept. Feminist research into women’s leisure experiences has demonstrated that, in order to negotiate leisure spaces, women look for activities which easily complement rigid time structures and schedules (Deem, 1986). Woodward and Green (1988(Woodward, Green, Wimbush, & Talbot, 1988) have also argued that women choose leisure activities which involve the family in order to avoid feelings of guilt and selfishness that can accompany an active leisure life apart from the family. A women’s discussion of lottery shows how underground lottery is played mostly on occasions where it clearly does not conflict with other demands.
Mrs. Zhang: I will never put my family finance in danger or left behind my housework. I only play lottery when everything else is done in my family. Today I already finished farming, laundry, cooking. So I come here to play.
The accusation of wasting time instead of doing productive work almost never appears here. Women play or discuss lottery only on the right occasions – that is, after daily housework, when chatting with neighbors.
Woman’s preference of underground lottery confirms lottery fits into their often rigid time demands. Mahjong is also very popular in the neighborhood. However, when comparing mahjong with lottery, Mrs. Wang prefers lottery over mahjong:
I also like to play mahjong. But I don’t really have that much time to play it. Usually, mahjong last for the whole afternoon or the whole night. But I have to do house work that time. So playing lottery works better for me because I can take advantage my scattered time.
Second, rural women associated gambling with family finance management, as part of their business. All the informants were quick to stress that motive of gambling is not having ‘enough’ money and they always avoided spending money that was not ‘spare’.
Mrs. Yang: My husband never bought any lottery tickets. We, women, should manage their family finance. Lottery is like investment for the family. There are stories in the neighborhood about investment failure.
By involving the family in this way, the women were able to gamble without being accused of ‘selfishly’ pursuing their own choice of leisure activity. They set up the concept of an ‘irresponsible other’ gambler who flaunted the usual norms of rationality and respectability by gambling in a way that put their families’ financial resources at risk. By setting up the concept of an ‘irresponsible’, deviant ‘other’, women also worked to further make ‘acceptable’ their own gambling behavior.
Mrs. Yang: I heard in the county, a woman committed suicide because she lost a lot of money. I don’t think she’s a good woman. She should take care of her family. If she’s not able to calculate the right number, she should not put her family finance at risk. That’s irresponsible.
Gambling has often been understood as a temporary ‘escape’ from the everyday struggles and frustrations experienced by the working class and the poor (Casey, 2006). However, the ways in which women engaged in underground lottery put this generalization of gambling in question. Underground lottery is, in fact, rooted in women’s femininity. By emphasizing on timely appropriateness and family management, they worked to create a ‘suitable’ gambling space.
Women frequently worked to construct alternative meanings behind their lottery participation, which contradicted the often negative critiques of gambling and lottery play. It helped the women to argue that their own gambling was both legitimate and acceptable, and unmasked structure and agency that exist simultaneously in the women’s lives. By doing so, these women performed an image of ‘good women’ that is consistent with ‘acceptable’ playing habits.
Nevertheless, the framework of ‘domestic gambling’ presumed a homogeneous experience of women. Consistent with feminism’s commitment to opposing universalism modes of thought, while analyzing the operation of power within everyday experiences of women (Fraser & Nicholson, 1989), I intend to provides a non-universalist piece of knowledge opposed to a unitary notion of rural women’s experiences of oppression and feminine gender identity by locating women’s experience within their period of history (Mills, 2000).
In the next part of analysis, by putting women’s everyday gambling experience and discursive practice into a bigger socio-historical context, I will examine how the gambling experience of women echoes governmentality of post-Mao Chinese state, how rural women negotiate the boundaries between hegemonic ideology and local knowledge, the rhetoric of quality and women’s agency in the field of lottery playing.
Contextualizing Gambling: Lottery and Women’s ‘Quality’(su zhi)
Cultural Context: Raising Women’s ‘Quality’
In context of modernization and globalization, state power and its implication of neoliberalism should also be considered as a factor related to rural women’s condition. Barlow (2004), in her study of the Chinese 20th century women movement, noted that in the emerging Chinese state feminism tradition, women are constantly defined as an intrinsically defective subject. Women, except for being a failing absent subject, are not able to create the bright future for the nation state as a unique social group (Rofel, 1999). Thus, rebuilding women’s personality and quality became the main theme of the women’s movement in the 20th century (Rofel, 1999). The state believes, by expanding education opportunities, more educated workers and managers will be produced, which in turn, would transform the stagnant and predominantly agricultural society into an industrialized modern society (Jacka, 2006). Rural women, in this aspect, have become the target of development, the symbol of poverty, and the cause of nation’s underdevelopment (Judd, 2002).
Since the early 90s, a series of national wide campaigns are started to ‘raise women’s quality (tigao funu suzhi)’. The ‘quality (su zhi)’ discourse, as a new valuation of human subjectivity specific to China’s neoliberal reforms (Hairong, 2003), embodies a profoundly elitist attitude toward social change and development. It arises in discussions about population control and desired kinds of children (Anagnost, 1995), about neoliberal capitalism and the kind of Chinese subject capable of making wealth, as a way to constitute proper bourgeois subjects, and to mark the divisions between urban and rural. ‘Quality’ is not only part of post-Mao strivings for development and modernity, but also central to the notion that a person’s and a nation’s ‘quality’ are not fixed, and that they can either fall behind others’ or be raised. This feeds and answers to new, very powerful, desires and anxieties in the populace. The possibility of attaining higher levels of ‘quality’ for oneself, of competing with others over who has the most ‘quality’, of feeling superior because of one’s ‘quality’ and looking down with either sympathy or contempt on those who have less, has formed a social stratification in terms of people’s quality.
This discourse, on one hand legitimated inequality faced by rural women, on the other generates desires and anxieties over ‘quality’ on family and individual level, contributing to a powerful form of governmentality based on pressures toward self-regulation and self-development that are internalized amongst the people (Jacka, 2006). Although the campaign has improved the material lives of many women, it does not in any way challenge the sexual division of labor that is fundamental to the social position of women in rural China (Rathgeber, 1990). This approach worked against the improvement of rural women’s self-confidence and agency. In short, rural women are facing a dominant discourse that not only demonizes their gambling activity, but also put those women into dichotomies, such as backwardness vs. progress and hedonistic dreaming vs. rational calculations.
Lottery play mirrors all these dichotomies, and as such, offers an excellent example of a contemporary form of consumption which is entwined with the hegemonic ideologies and local knowledge.
Consuming Lottery, Consuming Quality
Calculation and Probe
Existing researches into the motivations and experiences of Lottery players considered those who gamble only as ‘individuals’ and not as social and cultural beings. Coherent with existing scholars’(Baudrillard, 1998;Sennett, 2007) contention that in contemporary capitalist society, one of the key ways in which individuals gain status and respectability is via the acquisition of consumer goods, Casey (2008) strongly supports the idea that by purchasing commodities, individuals are able to gain status and respectability, which resembles earlier scholars’ theory of the games’ cultural function (Caillois, 2001;Huizinga, 1944).
Participation of lottery first signals an attempt to gain respectability by acquiring ‘quality’. As I descripted in former arguments, information on hint sheets is believed to be hints left by insiders. In order to win, people need to calculate skillfully.
Mrs. Li always participate in the discussions about lottery. But she seldom buy any lottery ticket. Mrs. Li: I don’t bet on lottery. I’m illiterate, not able to read or calculate. I will lose a lot, if I purchase any tickets. I’m useless cannot make any money, cannot afford waste any money.
Mrs. Li believes only people we are able to read and calculate can benefit from buying lottery tickets. Also many advertisements appear on the hint sheets. In these advertisements, ‘insiders’ claim they could tell you inside information. Names of reference and cell phone number were left in every page of the newspaper. But few women would actually call those numbers to buy more accurate inside information.
Mrs. Yang: I never called. They would charge you a lot of money. I cannot afford that. It’s not real winning, if you bought your information instead of calculating it. You lose the sense of lottery.
Calculation and analysis is rural women’s fiction of ‘quality’. Being capable of calculating, rural women could identify themselves as having the quality. Except for calculation, anther guessing strategy represents how ‘dichotomy of quality’ affects women’s action in gambling.
Probing is another way to decide which number to bet on. Women will probe other people’s calculation by discussing with neighbors. As I mentioned, in the quality discourse, a person either have low or high quality. Known as a college student in the neighborhood, I became the target of probing during my fieldwork.
In the bookie’s house, where lottery tickets were sold, everyone was trying hard to calculate or probe what numbers other people are buying. My lottery ticket became their reference. One informant just grabbed my ticket, bet on exactly the same number that I chose.
Jin: I just randomly picked these numbers. Don’t think you are following the right guy.
Xiao Xia: You are a well-educated college student. You are the best source. I didn’t even finish elementary school.
Mrs. Yang took over my tickets, looking at my numbers: why would you buy monkey and chicken?
Jin: I just randomly selected these numbers. They don’t have any sense at all.
Mrs. Yang: You can’t win this time. I calculated.
At last, I got one number right. My informant was excited for her ‘right’ decision to follow my pick. Mrs. Yang felt a little down.
Xia Xia: This guy is a college student, well-educated. He is capable of picking the right number. Mrs. Yang: You should teach us how to calculate. You must have your secret method. Tell us. We will become more educated.
Mrs. Wang: I noticed you are always checked you cellphone earlier. Can your cellphone receive signals from the sky, telling you which number to bet on?
Since I won, people in the neighborhood start to talk about my skills in rational calculation. Mrs. Yang even put me as an example to educate her granddaughter to study hard.
Mrs. Yang: you should learn from him. He is a college student, every good at lotteries. Put more attention to school, you will be a college student someday. Make a lot of money by intellectual labor, not by physical labor.
In order to become respectable, rural women emphasize the use of modern technics in decision-making to become respectable in gambling. Rural women also link lottery with ‘continuous learning, improving quality’ to justify their gambling activities.
Mrs. Wang: I like lottery better. In lottery, I can get to read the newspapers, which is a recreational way to learn new things.” their belief in rational knowledge.
The women’s discussions about skills of purchasing lottery tickets provide counter-discourses to the traditional interpretations of gambling behavior as deviant, spontaneous and irresponsible. On the contrary, these women see a college student as someone with ‘quality’ and the target of probing, which in turn confirms their belief in ‘the quality (su zhi) of people can make them get rich’. They elucidated how consumption of lottery tickets is a way to demonstrate ‘quality’, thereby making lottery a tool to show off the quality within, contradicting the often derogatory critiques of gambling and lottery play.
Skills and Luck
Although rural women are convinced that with knowledge and modern technics one could figure out the lottery number, winning remains an empty dream for most women. As Bosco (2009) described, a striking feature of the lottery fever was that people always felt they had just missed the right number; women justify lottery consumption by stressing their lack of knowledge and luck.
Lottery is believed about luck and skills (Bosco et al., 2009;Steinmuller, 2011). Rural women ascribe their loss to the lack of luck and ability to calculate. They are eager to prove they almost had the right number, as long as they had more skills, they would have won.
The discussion will continue after the results are revealed. Women will share how they almost picked the right number. One day an old women came by to argue how she just missed the right number.
“I guessed the right number. But I didn’t bet on it. There is a riddle on the newspaper: a cow with no body( yi zhi meiyou shenti de niu Jiaozuo shenme niu). The answer is ‘a head of cow’ ( yi tou niu). there would be 10 strokes if you add up all the strokes in three Chinese characters. In this case you should bet on 10, 22, 34, 46( in Chinese zodiac, every twelve numbers forms a cycle; the number share the same property if they are in a twelve-based arithmetic progression). But today the bonus number is 31. Look, if I add a “it’s ( shi)” into the riddle answer, it would be “it’s a head of cow”(shi yi tou niu). The total strokes would be 19. In this case, I would have bet on 19, 31, 43. Add one character into the answer, I would have won.”
The bookie lady sneered at her, “You would have earned a Ph.D., if you know how to calculate the right number. Nobody knows how to calculate before the results are revealed. Once the results are shown, everyone knows how to calculate the right number.”
The sarcasm of bookie lady vividly described how people tried to reinterpret various ‘hints’ in order to justify their loss.
One old women explained that in the last drawing she had correctly guessed dragon, but she only bet on two numbers, she did not get the right one. A girl listening nearby nodded knowingly, “to win, you have to understand ‘heaven’s will’ (tian ji). I don’t think those who won really got the inside mysteries, they are just being lucky.”
One night, there is a rumor among women that the result will be from the riddle in the newspaper: four, two, three, five are close to each other (si er san wu zui xiangsi). The answer could be any number. Later that night, another rumor claims that the bonus number is 21. People are convinced 21 would be the real number, because ‘4×2+3×5=21’. The bonus number that night is 5. because they did not deduced the right number, they missed their shot at winning.
Confirmation bias such as this makes one select data that fits the known number, making it appear that one was close to getting it right, and that with a little more cleverness one could have picked the number in advance. Those who temporarily won the lottery were just being lucky; otherwise they would have been educated as descripted by the bookie lady. Reinterpreting the known lottery results provides an opportunity to practice skills in calculation, which is regarded as part of the ‘quality’. In other words, if they lost because they do not have enough ‘qualities’, they at least had some ‘qualities’ to be able to come close to the right number. The women kept their hopes up to improve their qualities.
As noted by (Bosco et al., 2009), there are various types of guessing technics in underground lottery. Everybody is desperate to look for hints or inside information even from informal publications, dreams, TV programs, etc.
The mysterious ways of guessing the right number is spread by rumors. The terms indicate that there are messages out there in daily life and that these messages are sent by some kind of higher power that determines people’s destiny (Bosco et al., 2009). People seek ‘‘messages’’ to understand their destiny and their luck at that moment, and to see if it is their destiny to win the lottery. I contend that by examining the technics of number guessing, we can see a more comprehensive picture of how gender, class, pleasure, and local concepts of luck, fate, and mystery interact in the native context.
Dreams are one of many magical ways to seek signs. For example,
Mrs. Wang: One day my son dreamt of his grandfather. His grandfather was waving his hand to him. My son had no idea what it meant. Guess what, the bonus number is 5 the next day. But he didn’t buy any lottery ticket. Otherwise we would be rich.
People claim gods or ancestors can tell them the number in their dream. Other magical methods include listening to people with psychological disorders, children’s meaningless babbling, and interpreting the images people see while they are halfway between wakefulness and sleep. These strategies indicate that there are messages out there in daily life and that these messages are sent by some kind of higher power that determines people’s destiny. People seek ‘‘messages’’ to understand their destiny and their luck at that moment, and to see if it is their destiny to win the lottery.
Mrs. Li: Yesterday, when I was watching Teen TV, I saw a dog in that cartoon program. You know what, today’s number is also in the dog zodiac. I also watched the cartoon program today. It’s dragon.
The whole program is about dragon. It has to be dragon tonight.
Jin: How often you get the right number by watching TV?
Mrs. Li: A couple of times. But every time, I did not bet on what I conclude from TV. There are many hints you know. You should choose which one to bet on. I guess it’s my fate. I just cannot win even though I can foresee it.
Scattered information of life was translated into opportunities for clever people to get rich. Women claim their strategies are rational. However, the interpretation of dreams, TV shows, and random incidents has gone far beyond what is commonly believed to be rational. Mysteries are interpreted as the messages out there, which were understood through the concept of fate. Within the interpretation, fate, a hegemonic concepts in Chinese ideology, an idea that both gave justification to the rule of the current elite and provided petty-capitalists with the hope of social mobility within the existing system (Harrell, 1987), became the resources of cultural negotiation. By combining hegemonic ideology of ‘quality’ and local concept of fate, rural women were able to negotiate the boundaries of gambling and work against the general accusation of being ignorant gamblers.
In tradition, gambling is understood as a social pathology of moral decline, a temporary ‘escape’ from the everyday frustrations by the working class and the poor, or symbolic resistance to authority and social norms. The women of this research constructed counter-discourses to the dominant critiques of the underground lottery. Their participation did not represent an ‘escape’ from their everyday lives, rather it was embedded in their domestic routines. There was thus no easy separation between the women’s participation in gambling activity, and their working class, feminine selves.
Rural women’s participation of underground lottery was deeply inscribed into neoliberal China, where belief in rationality, money and fate is presented as the embodiment of neoliberal governmentality. For rural women, lottery reflects the subordination to neo-liberal governmentality, where the discourse of ‘quality’ reproduced. The hint sheets and mysterious stories of guessing numbers are cultural products on raising women’s quality. Together, they provide a possibility of getting rich by raising qualities for rural women.
At the same time, rural women brought local knowledge of luck and fate into their understanding of quality. By negotiating a ‘respectable’ gambling behavior, they were able to contest dominant elitism knowledge and critiques of their gambling behavior, and to demand access to this pleasurable space.
In China’s market reform, quality abstracts and reduces the heterogeneity of human beings by coding their value (worth) for development (Hairong, 2003). In this process, women are constructed as human subject as lacking, in need of constant readjustment, supplementation, and continual retraining (zhongsheng xuexi). However, insufficient and inadequate ‘participation’ in ‘development’ was not the cause for women’s increasing under-development; it was rather, their enforced but asymmetric participation in it, by which they bore the costs but were excluded from the benefits (Shiva, 1989).
During the colonization of development, women in my study worked hard to construct alternative meanings behind their lottery participation. Women’s discursive actions and local cultural negotiation not only proved their rich imagination and agency, but also challenged the legitimacy of the binary quality discourse, provoking alternative possibilities for women.
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