Betting on dice was a popular form of gambling in China in the past. There would be five dice, made from animal bone or wood, with different colour sides and engravings. Different combinations of the sides would be worth different points, with the best being five black. Certain combinations would be given names such as pheasant or owl.
Han the Taoist lived in the Tianqi Temple within our county. A master of illusion, everyone called him an “immortal”. My late father was most friendly with him and whenever he went to town would always call on him.
One day, he and my late uncle had gone to the county and were planning to visit Han, when they happened to meet him on the way. Han handed them the key, saying, “Please go there first, open the door and sit down. I’ll be there shortly.”
So they did as he said. Arriving at the temple, they drew the bolt and Han was already sitting inside the room. He did various things of that kind.
Prior to that, one of our clansmen was addicted to gambling and because of my father knew Han. It happened that a monk came to Great Buddha Temple who was a professional dice shooter and would bet very boldly. The clansman was delighted to meet him and emptied his funds to go and bet, losing badly; ever more fervent, he mortgaged the produce of his fields and went again, and by the end of the night he had lost everything.
Depressed with his lack of success, he dropped in to visit Han, with dismal spirits and confused speech. Han asked him the cause and he told him the whole truth. Han said, laughing, “Gamble often and there’s no way of not losing. If you can give up gambling, I’ll get it back for you.”
The clansman said, “If you can return my property to me, I’ll crush the coloured bones with an iron pestle!”
So Han wrote a symbol on some paper and told him to wear it between his clothes and his belt. He warned him, “Just get what was yours and then stop. Don’t take Long and then covet Shu.” Then he handed him a thousand coins, agreeing for him to repay it when he won.
The clansman went in great delight. The monk inspected his capital and scorned it, disdaining to bet with him. The clansman insisted, asking for just one throw. The monk laughed and agreed. So he used the thousand coins as a single stake. The monk’s throw was neither a winning nor losing one, so the clansman took the dice and with one throw hit the jackpot.
The monk bet again, setting the stake at two thousand, and again lost. Gradually the stakes were raised to ten or more thousand. Dice combinations that were clearly owl, when exhorted, all became black or pheasant. As the clansman calculated his past losses, in a moment they were all won back. Thinking to himself that to win a few thousand more would be even finer, he gambled again, but the dice gradually worsened. Feeling strange about this, he got up to look up at his belt – the symbol had already gone. In great alarm, he stopped.
Carrying his money, he returned to the temple. Leaving out the repayment to Han, counted thoroughly, including his final loss, it exactly tallied with the original amount. So then he shamefully apologized for the loss of the symbol. Han laughed and said, “It’s already here. I warned you beforehand not to be greedy, but you wouldn’t listen, so I took it back.”
The Cryptohistorian says: Of all the ways to lose one’s home, there’s none quicker than gambling, and of all the ways to destroy one’s morals, there’s none greater than gambling. Once you enter into it, it is like sinking in an ocean with no known end.
Farmers and businessmen all have their own vocation, while poets and scholars must especially cherish their allotted time. Shouldering the plough and studying the classics are the correct path for making a home; gentle conversation and light drinking also are a means of sustaining one’s spirits. But gamblers consort with wanton friends, lingering long into the night.
Emptying their wallets and drawers, they seek reward in a perilous heaven; calling out ‘pheasant’ and ‘black’, they beg favours from the beguiling bones. On the board they turn the five woods, as if moving spherical pearls; in their hands they grasp many cards, like holding circular fans. Glancing at those to the left and turning to others on the right, they gaze with piercing, ghoulish eyes; the positive pretending to be weak and the negative acting strong, they use all their devilish tricks. Before their gate visitors are waiting, but still they linger in the gambling hall; in their home a fire is burning, yet still they delay by the dice cup. Forgetting to eat and neglecting to sleep, at length they become befuddled; with tired tongues and shrivelled lips, they look at each other as if they were ghosts.
When their entire armoury is lost, their fevered eyes peer in vain. Watching the game, they shout out strongly, itching to play the hero’s part; looking in their wallet, they find it empty, turning to ash their warrior heart. Craning their necks, pacing up and down, they feel the helplessness of having nothing; hanging their heads, cold and alone, finally in the depth of the night they return home. Relieved that she who would scold them is asleep, they worry that the dog will bark; suffering the hunger of their long-empty stomachs, they complain about the leftover soup.
Subsequently they sell their children and mortgage their land in hope of regaining their losses, unaware that fire has scorched their eyebrows off and they’re dredging for the moon in the river. Only after meeting defeat do they consider that they have already become despicable creatures. Should you ask who is the greatest among the gamblers, everyone will point to the gentleman with no trousers. Eventually, when their stomachs are unbearably hollow, they seek shelter with brigands, or, scratching their heads, have nothing to rely on except their wife’s cosmetics.
Alas! Degraded morals, misguided conduct, bankruptcy and loss of life – are these not what the road of gambling leads to?