Living in China is like an RPG


nerdy RPG dice

For a foreigner, living in China can be like a (classic, non-computer) RPG. Let me count the ways…

1. It offers an escape from an ordinary, monotonous existence

2. It appeals to nerds

3. There’s more than a reasonable amount of dice rolling going on (Chinese bars)

4. Money is counted in “pieces” ()

5. The fast way to do things is “on horseback” (马上)

6. Dragons are real (恐龙, lit. “terrible dragons”)

7. Players usually enter the game with special abilities (e.g. English, foreigner charm)

8. It’s really fun at first, but can get old pretty fast

9. It takes place in a magical world where people believe in mystical concepts like qi and fengshui

10. The people take legends very seriously (even 5,000 year old ones)

11. The word “peasant” doesn’t seem out of place

12. There are plenty of barmaids in the taverns and women of ill repute on the streets

13. The background story: a legendary kingdom has fallen under the control of a powerful, malevolent force, and heroes are nowhere to be found…


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. As a former D&D player, that was very funny. Especially the bit about the peasants. lol.

  2. Matt,

    Thanks. I only ever played “real” D&D one time, but I was always into that fantasy stuff. Growing up, I definitely walked a fine line between “nerd” and “normal.” The popular kids never grouped me with the dreaded “nerd” caste (I guess because I was good enough at sports and socially functional), but I was certainly never one of the popular kids, either. (If you ask my sisters, though, I was always a nerd.)

    I feel like I should have been able to think of more parallels between life in China and playing RPGs, without delving too heavily into linguistic stuff (I could have gone into things like 枪, 矛盾, etc.), but this is all I could come up with in the end.

    More ideas are welcome!

  3. I was surprised at how superstitious the Chinese are. On the first day of classes at my school, the owners would let off firecrackers at the front gate to scare away ghosts. After a series of accidents, the school had another ghost-chasing ceremony at the front gate. “Didn’t work the first time, ” I noted dryly to our American school director. I’ve never understood Westerners who read their horoscopes and swap signs either.

  4. Your overwhelming nerdness overwhelms me.

  5. Sometimes I feel it’s more Call of Cthulhu than D&D…

  6. chinamanshuffle Says: January 13, 2006 at 2:51 pm

    Here’s one:

    Those in positions of responsibility (the dungeon masters) are put there for mostly arbitrary reasons…

  7. Justin (Parasite) Says: January 13, 2006 at 5:50 pm


    I wish you could turn this into a giant troll which introduces a new ‘game’ to RPG nerdbombers. One that proports to introduce a new ‘game’ only to mention its name, China, at the very end. (Hey I’ve been thinking we need something about China for years anyways. Aren’t any of you guys jealous of the famous ‘So You Want To Learn Japanese ?’ (troll?)/essay.)

  8. riverjack Says: January 13, 2006 at 7:34 pm

    You might say that as a foreigner in China, just like an RPG, you will always have random people come up and talk to you and this is perfectly normal. Occasionally you get offered a job on the spot, rather like quests (but usually the pay isn’t as good when you’re through and it’s certainly not in gold! :-).

  9. “Lord of the rings” is a famous RPG game as well, so, considering that:

    14- Everybody is divided in “races” (ethnic minorities).

    15- There is a Middle Earth (Middle Kingdom).

    16- The “rings” are very important in Beijing (beijiners are always talking about them, if you live there you know what I am talking about).

    17- Little people, with hairs in their feet, have a mission. (sorry, I don’t know what is the correspondency with that in China. But… you believed I had one, didn’t you?).

  10. “The word “peasant” doesn’t seem out of place”

    OK, that made me laugh.

  11. In fact that was all pretty darn good. Nice one.

  12. Carl is right. People are really excited about this post though…which points back to #2. But, I think its ok to geek out on stuff, I do all the time, as long as you are self aware.

  13. Most Sinosplice commenters = nerds. Nothing new there. I also thought many didn’t grasp the concept of humor either, but apparently they find nerdy things funny.

  14. Awesome post, John. I’m half tempted to write about it on my blog. Here are a few more items to add to your list:

    15.) They both appeal to men far more so than to women.

    16.) Both are cheap, you just have to have time.

    17.) Outsiders may see you as strange, but you’ll make great friends to last a lifetime

    18.) Nobody likes complaining “rules-lawyers”.

    19.) Your family will complain at how much time you spend away from “the real world”.

    PS John, it seems that something on your web page is interpreting my numbers as an ordered list, and changing them (except for 17, for some reason). I originally typed 15, 16, 17, 18, and 19.

  15. Sooooo, are we going to the taverns next weekend?

  16. I like how Carl commented twice on this entry.


    So true…

    (Your numbers were interpreted as elements in an ordered list due to my use of Markdown. I added parens after your decimals to fix the problem.)

  17. My +3 vitality gave me the strength to post twice. LOLS!!!!1!!!

  18. john, i think nerds will inherit the earth, so certainly don’t think of that as a bad thing. (and i think i walked that line, too, though i did definitely earn the title of “bookworm” in school.)

    carl’s third post proves he fits right in w/ all the people he is accusing of nerdiness, although carl is a bit more of a “freak” than a “nerd.” we still love him, though (maybe it’s the hair…).

    even w/ limited knowledge of rpg’s, i enjoyed this post.

  19. john, i think nerds will inherit the earth, so certainly don’t think of that as a bad thing.

    I believe the correct phrase is: “The geek shall inherit the earth.”


  20. Carl = Pot
    John P. = Kettle

  21. I always thought it was more like ‘The Matrix’ than an RPG. Now I’m on the outside looking in I really can see how weird it really all is…

  22. @Doom


  23. […] Sinosplice’s list of things that make living in China like playing a role-playing game has warmed the hearts of China-involved nerds everywhere. […]

  24. I realize I’m behind the times, but I just have to comment that this post is one of the best I’ve ever seen. I’m totally going to blog about it. It’s a great blog in general, btw, I like it a lot. Mark introduced me to it at a party.

    Speaking of! Mark’s comment that both China and RPG’s appeal more to men than to women…why is that??? It’s true, I know…but why is it I’m the odd one in whatever I pursue…?

  25. I guess nobody really knows. It’s like why fantasy settings have always been more popular than sci-fi ones?

    Though in my part of the world, more and more girls have been interested in tabletop RPG… sorta following the “learning mandarin” craze that has been taking over my city (and probably other places in the world as well.) Except there are more peoples going for chinese than ones going for RPG for some obvious reasons.

    Anyhow, perhaps some questions aren’t meant to have an answer……

  26. Brilliant!

    Is the constant “mei you” for simple requests just a second-rate GM sending us back towards the plot?

    PS Zhan Anna, will you be my friend?

  27. hei long Says: May 29, 2006 at 10:47 pm

    Its funny how Americans (no Im not anti-American) like to put people into group and Classifie them, your a Nerd,oh and me think you a…Geek go over to the geek table so the rest of us dont get confussed. Your the Jock, Your the Cheer Leader. May I ask do these 60’s lables really exist or are they just colourful renditions of Hollywood reality?

  28. Da Xiangchang Says: May 31, 2006 at 2:33 am

    Hei Long,

    Well, I wouldn’t say “Americans” here. People worldwide group people according to whether they’re a nerd, a cool guy, a jock, a rocker, the player, etc. I’ve taught in Europe, China, and America, and I swear to you, the kids all divide themselves EXACTLY the same. The nerds worldwide share the same characteristics, the cool people cool-people characteristics, etc. There’s no difference whatsoever!

  29. hei long Says: May 31, 2006 at 5:43 pm

    But when I was in school, People would discriminate about the individual, and everybody mix rather than grouped, of coarse their best friends would always be of the same type as them, But its the classifications that America have, and sadly export to the rest of the world trough media, film…. Im sure if I went back to school now, I would hear terms such as ‘Nerd’ or ‘Geek’ going around. I went to school about 9 years ago in Ireland and at that time people were grouped but were never labled and would mix alot more than if they had a lable.

  30. lol…this is great. the new update to your site makes it fun to uncover gems like this…

  31. …no heroes to be found, yet. That means the position is ripe for the taking 😉

  32. Top Eleven Signs You’ve Been Living In China Too Long

    Alcoholic beverages below 50% aren’t strong enough
    You spit on the floor (six months in China)
    You spit on the floor in a restaurant (one year in China)
    You spit on the floor in your own home (two years in China)
    Putting hot shish kebobs directly into a plastic bag seems normal
    Squat toilets feel more comfortable than the sit down ones
    You forgot what ‘Kung Pao’ chicken tastes like
    You rush to the hospital in a panic because you DON’T have diarhhea
    You catch yourself saying Taiwan Sheng (台湾省)
    “The sun? What sun?”
    You can’t access your own blog

  33. Nice comparisons, John. Do people still play D&D? Has anyone here tried the Dark City Games (

  34. What a crap China existence you guys must have. For me it’s more like Monopoly.

  35. I so love the idea of random quests…zelda style. Get the book of Tongues from the library for me..but wait it is guarded by the empires thugs (triads I suppose), so you will need to buy a mallet from fan shui the shopsman, but I hear ever since he lost his son to a horrible mallet accident he will not even speak of them..if only he had some mermaid tears

    But alas life stops me with its tedious chores…constant random battles at work,low wages and high prices, where or where is the reset button and why on earth am I on this website?

  36. […] coming to China, I see these 5 characteristics as helpful. Maybe that is why Sinosplice says that Living in China is like an RPG, and Tom Melcher says that China is like a video game and why Meg Stivison says that China is Like […]

  37. […] coming to China, I see these 5 characteristics as helpful. Maybe that is why Sinosplice says that Living in China is like an RPG, and Tom Melcher says that China is like a video game and why Meg Stivison says that China is Like […]

  38. […] a certain similarity between my reading matter and my life. Some of the reasons overlap with Sinoplice’s brilliant “Why China Is Like An RPG”. Travel in China, like fantasy books, offers an escape from a monotonous life. Money is counted in […]

  39. […] Related: Travel in China is like a Fantasy Novel, Living In China Is Like an RPG. […]

  40. I see half-concealed political criticism on this article… especially points 13 and 10 (depending on what you meant exactly!) Nicely done!

  41. Gray Hat Says: June 16, 2010 at 10:32 pm

    Great post, but you had me scratching my head over what it would be like to live inside a rocket-propelled grenade. I guess the answer would be, boring for a while and then suddenly much too exciting. 😉

  42. Mountain Dood Says: July 14, 2010 at 5:07 am

    das’ racis’!

    (Yeah, I know it’s tongue-in-cheek. But if someone ACTUALLY felt that was true, it’d be pretty fucked up.)

  43. As a teenager I played computer games and Dungeons & Dragons a lot (including the live version with foam swords), but then I went to China and found out that real life in China was much more fun than games, and haven’t gone back to RPG since. At night walking through the dark old streets of Fuzhou was like being in an medieval city, and no one noticed that I was a foreigner. Being pointed out for being a foreigner wherever you are is like you’re a different creature, like an elf or a dark elf.

  44. […] to come out. I might have subconsciously been inspired by John’s great analogy between living in China and Roleplaying on […]

  45. […] yes, and living in China is like an RPG. Other metaphors are welcome! Leave a comment. Posted at 8:46am. Posted in language Related […]

  46. […] did eventually get the hang of it in the practice sessions, before people started showing up.  If living in China is like an RPG (and despite what that link says, I think it’s also like a CRPG), then I just did the dancing […]

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