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Chinese man Xue Shengli, 57, invents English mahjong game for learners

Updated: 15 Apr 2011
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Read more on English mahjong game   Xue Shengli  
 
A gray-haired man stands beside a shabby table covered with mahjong tiles outside the Beijing University of Technology's west gate almost every afternoon.
 
The tiles are individually wrapped with paper printed with English letters.
 
The table, which belongs to 57-year-old retired taxi driver Xue Shengli, is usually surrounded by curious passers-by.
 
Xue invites onlookers to try his new take on the traditional game.
 
His version preserves the conventional rules but also includes tiles that "form groups" to display English words.
 
For example, tiles printed with the letters "B", "G" and "A" can be considered a "group" that spells the word "bag".
 
The winner of a four-player game is the first to spell four words, in addition to having a pair of two tiles of the same letter.
 
Groups can also by formed by such acronyms as "UN", "SARS" and "KFC".
 
Xue's studies were interrupted by the "cultural revolution" (1966-76), which started when he was in third grade.
 
He was employed as a driver for his entire working life, starting at what was then called the Ministry of Aerospace.
 
Shortly after the reform and opening-up, he took a job at a joint venture. He became a taxi driver in 1993.
 
He became obsessed with English when taxi drivers were encouraged to study the language before the 2008 Olympic Games. He also promised his daughter and wife he would not quit studying.

But he found memorizing the words to be tedious, so he developed games as an entertaining way to learn the language, first incorporating English into poker.
 
"The beauty of the games is that the larger one's vocabulary, the more chances he has to win," Xue told METRO.
 
To master the game, Xue has built a vocabulary of more than 1,200 words over the past five years - an exhausting task for the grade school dropout.
 
One wall of his home is entirely covered with handwritten vocabulary posters. He sometimes murmurs himself to sleep by uttering recently learned words.
 
He has found some tiles with certain letters are basically useless for forming words. So, he entered those strange letter combinations into his electronic dictionary and was delighted to find some create actual words.
 
Consequently, a considerable part of Xue's vocabulary comprises rarely used words, such as "vug" (a geological term for a cavity).
 
Xue said his biggest problem is that he cannot pronounce English words.
 
"English pronunciation rules are way too complex," he said.
 
"The letter 'A' has various pronunciations in different words, such as in 'have' 'hate' and 'ask'. I cannot say most of the basic words, even though I know what they mean".
 
Xue explained that the main reason he sets up his game at the university entrance is to ask students to help him with pronunciation.
 
Many declined his request, because they have the same problem, he said.
 
Xue believed this testified to a problem greater than his. "What has happened to our education?" he asked.
 
He later expanded the scope of the "group" to include the symbols of chemical elements and substances, such as "Fe" (iron) and "Na Cl" (sodium chloride, which creates table salt).
 
Although he had to scrape to get enough money, Xue applied and received patents for his beloved innovations in 2007.
 
"Patent applications are time and energy consuming," he said, holding up his certificate. But the process was worth it, because it has allowed him "to make a difference", he said.
 
"I am at the stage of life when one is no longer occupied with material gains and losses," Xue said.
 
"When I reached my 50s, I started to realize that the only thing that ever matters is one's reputation, which hinges on the contribution you've made to society. I simply want my fair share, no matter what form it comes in."
 
Xue said he has been driven by a new philosophy since this revelation.
 
"If my English mahjong or cards became popular with ordinary people, it would be my wildest dream come true."
 
 
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