Berkeley's novel approach boosts Chinese card game

Updated: 2012-08-03 07:53

By Chen Jia in San Francisco (China Daily)

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 Berkeley's novel approach boosts Chinese card game

Young people play Sanguosha, a role-playing card game from China based on Romance of the Three Kingdoms, in Beijing in April. Provided to China Daily

A popular card game from China is in this fall's course catalog at the University of California, Berkeley.

Sanguosha is a role-playing card game with Chinese elements. Sanguo means Three Kingdoms, and Sha means killers. The game is based on Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a classic Chinese novel from the Ming Dynasty (AD 1368-1644) that draws from events of the Three Kingdoms period (AD 220-280).

"I knew UC Berkeley had some pretty awesome courses, but this tops it all," said Andrew Tam, a 24-year-old graduate student, referring to the state university's main campus.

Each player takes a role card based on characters from the novel, equipped with distinct skills and weapons. War in the game is waged channeling the fury, intelligence and cunning of the novel's characters.

"Sanguosha is very popular in China because it's related to its cultural heritage," UC Berkeley law professor Robert Berring, the faculty sponsor of the course, said.

Berring believes it's important that students understand the novel, so he tries to get undergraduates acquainted with essential philosophy dating back to China's ancient dynasties.

"China has such a rich and special history. If you don't understand that, you cannot possibly understand China," he said.

Understanding the age-old system of rules exemplified in Sanguosha would help any student grasp the constant changes taking place in modern Chinese society, said Berring, who has taught Berkeley undergrads a course titled Chinese Law and Society for about 30 years.

Sanguosha is an elective offered through a university program that lets students, under the supervision of a faculty member, design and implement a course. Trevor Chou, Darian Ng and Katherine Pan, all senior undergrads, are the course facilitators.

Chou, 21, a Chinese-American, said the idea for the course sprang from his interest in the Three Kingdoms era, enhanced by playing the computer game Dynasty Warriors in middle school.

"The game introduced me to a lot of the names of famous historical figures in the Three Kingdoms period and I learned the fascinating stories of their exploits," he said.

Chou started searching for an English-language edition of Romance of the Three Kingdoms but couldn't find one. He first saw Sanguosha - which is similar to the modern game Bang! - being played by Chinese students on campus but didn't join them because he couldn't read Chinese characters well.

In China, the game is typically played in large groups of teenagers and young adults who huddle around tables in cafes and college bars.

Yoka Games, a Beijing-based developer, reported that sales of its popular version of Sanguosha totaled 20 million yuan ($3 million) in 2009. The figure rose to 100 million yuan in 2010.

Chou spent part of last summer in a study program at Peking University, where he met Ng, a fellow Chinese-American.

"He revealed to me his interest in Sanguosha," Chou said of Ng. "He also mentioned that, like me, he lacked the necessary skills in written Chinese to play Sanguosha."

But Ng told his new friend that he planned to buy a deck of Sanguosha cards and figure out a way to translate the game into English.

Back at Berkeley, Ng bought the cards and found a website that translated the game rules and role descriptions. The two young men were soon inviting American friends to learn the game.

As Chou played, familiar names would pop up again and again, rekindling his interest in the Three Kingdoms era. But he also noticed that Ng's friends, who had no prior knowledge of the era, were soon remembering the names of the characters and learning about them.

"My Sanguosha sessions made me see the game as a fun and engaging way to introduce people to the Three Kingdoms period," Chou said.

He brought up the idea for the course with Katherine Pan, a friend from high school, who suggested Berring as their faculty sponsor.

Sanguosha, the course, will be able to accommodate only 30 students once it begins on Aug 30. As of Wednesday, the university's online description of the course had been viewed more than 11,500 times.

Hu Guang, a teaching consultant with Tiandao Education, a Chinese company that advises on implementing Chinese study programs abroad, said the creative approach of the course design could inspire students.

Some native Chinese students at Berkeley, however, see the course as designed for non-heritage learners, those who didn't grow up exposed to the Chinese language at home or in their communities.

"Chinese students don't take it too seriously," a Berkeley sophomore from China surnamed Lei said. "It isn't a required course, just an easy option for Chinese students who want to kill time and get the two units."

"It's pure entertainment, so I didn't see any need to take the course," said Allison Huo, a Chinese undergraduate.