Default Social Activity: Murder!

It wasn’t until after I’d been in China a while that I started thinking about a culture’s “default social activities.” Friends like to get together, and there’s often no special occasion, so they tend to rely on the defaults. If you’re sports fans or gamers, you might have ritual activities, but most people I knew growing up in Suburbia, USA relied on a small number of default activities:

1. Go to a movie
2. Go to a bar
3. Go to a party
4. Go bowling (or mini-golfing)

After staying in China a while, it took some time to realize that most Chinese people don’t go to movie theaters often, hardly ever go to bars, and don’t really do the party thing. Bowling only happens on rare occasions. China’s “default social activities” list looks more like this:

1. Go to dinner
2. Play cards (or mahjongg)
3. Go to karaoke
4. Play 杀人游戏 (“the murder game”)

It wasn’t until recently that I realized the status and ubiquity of the 杀人游戏 (a game usually known as “mafia” in English). A few years ago I thought it was just a fad, but I just keep hearing about it everywhere, from all kinds of people. It’s just not going away. Recently my friend Frank brought to my attention that some players in China are so fanatical about it that they join clubs (with 6000 members), and even pay to play.

Anyway, if you live in China, definitely give it a try. It’s almost certain that all your young Chinese friends know the game, and you can play it almost anywhere. If you ask me, it’s way better than cards, mahjongg, or karaoke, and if you’re learning Chinese (or your Chinese friends are learning English), it’s good fun practice.

I’m not sure how many versions are played nowadays (it’s been a while since I’ve played), but the Baidu Baike page has an extremely lengthy “version history” with tons of different roles. All you really need to get a game going, though, are the words “杀人游戏.”


John Pasden

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


  1. Word on the street is that a card game called “U Know” and another game called 三国 are becoming very popular as well.

  2. I didn’t know that mafia was so popular in China. When I studied abroad there last semester, I was surprised to find that all the Chinese people I know knew it, and I was really happy to play in Chinese, since I got to practice my language skills, but I just assumed that they learned it from American friends. Guess I was wrong.

  3. I’ve always wondered what the Chinese really do as social activities. You summed it up very well! When I was in Beijing June/July on an international summer school, we played Mafia with some Chinese students in the park. It was so much fun. Although we sometimes play Mafia back home with our friends which is way more complex due to our better understanding. It was funny that when we played with our Chinese friends, they spoke English, so couldn’t give complex reasons, so all they said was, “He is the murderer, ’cause I think so”. Again and again. It was really funny!

    Also, I wish karaoke was more popular in Western countries, but the small intimate kind with all your friends, not the kind we usually have in front of a whole bar.

    I talked to my Chinese 老师 what he thinks about our social activities. We often go to bars at night and drink then bar hop to the next place. He think it’s absolutely absurd to go “out”. You can do that at home (drink and talk to friends). Even worse is, how we can even consider drinking at one place, then going to a next one. When you think about it, it is actually weird, but I guess that’s what we do by default.

  4. Matthew Stinson Says: December 17, 2009 at 6:48 pm

    We usually call it “Killer” in Tianjin but everything you said holds true. Talk to twentysomethings about their favorite activities and many will rank 杀人游戏 way above clubbing or any “normal” activity for their Western counterparts. We also have the gaming clubs here, and you can join and pay people to teach you how to play.

  5. Petter Åström Says: December 17, 2009 at 9:42 pm

    I understand that they like to play it, just like I sometimes like to play beer pong. But a couple of times a week? And even online? Come on… 过分!

    The first time I encountered it was when I saw a poster with some cool looking eyes and guns etc. I thought it was some cool new video game thingy and pretty eager to try, realizing it was just the plain old “mafia” game sure was a disappointment.

  6. The first time I played it (in Asia) was in Hong Kong about five years ago. I used it teaching English classes a few times and spent a long night in Chinese coffee shop with a dozen college students playing it. Still, I didn’t realize it was a fixed part of many Chinese lives until I read Zachary Mexico’s “China Underground.” He has a fifteen page chapter about it titled ‘The Killers.’ It is interesting to speculate about why people groups tend to like the activities they like.

  7. One thing that has always interested me about the Chinese is how much they enjoy drinking games at bars. At certain bars in Kunming populated by both Chinese and laowai you can see a clear difference- the Chinese invariably have dice or cards on hand while the laowai are merely sitting and talking. Does anyone have a convincing sociological explanation for why this is?

  8. If you ask me, it’s not better than karaoke. I can do 通宵 karaoke until they kick us out at dawn and not get tired of it. So far, I’ve avoided playing Mahjongg–television has taught me it is probably the #1 source of gang-related debt :p

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