Fantan 番攤 is a Chinese gambling game based on a draw from a random number of hidden coins or tokens, requiring the player to guess a number out of one, two, three or four. It currently survives only in Macao, but during the Late Qing and Republican periods, fantan was one of the most popular games in South China. Through the investigation of a wide range of sources, this article challenges the bias of standard accounts of gambling, which emphasize its corrupting influence and depict players as powerless victims cheated by the unscrupulous operators of gambling houses.
The reality was less negative. Cheating by proprietors was by no means common and fantan was considered a socially acceptable leisure activity. For many people, it was part of daily life, and tanguan 攤館, the establishments where it was played, were popular venues both enjoyable and secure. They generated a specific kind of conviviality derived from complex interactions among participants. By underestimating the role of fantan (and gambling more generally), one risks overlooking a socially significant activity, something that influenced the way not only heavy gamblers but also ordinary people perceived their own lives and destinies.