Please keep in mind that due to mahjong’s EXTREMELY convoluted and sketchy history, there may be a few errors in this posting. I’ve done my best to find out as much as I can through documentaries, videos and online articles, but even these sources were incredibly scant on full details.
Ask anybody to name something uniquely Chinese, and they’ll probably come up with…chopsticks. Silk. Gunpowder. Paper. The compass. The wheelbarrow. Discount electronics. the ‘xiao hong shu‘ (little red book), or maybe, fireworks!
Ask most people to name the most famous Chinese game in the world, however, and without any hesitation, almost everybody will say: ‘Mahjong!’
But what is mahjong? How do you play it? How long has it been around for? Where did it come from!?
If you last to the end of this posting, you MIGHT just find out. So, shuffle your tiles, make your walls, and choose which pieces you cast and keep, to build your winning meld…we’re about to look at the history of mahjong…
What does ‘Mah Jong’ actually mean?
The word ‘mahjong’ in Chinese literally means ‘sparrow’, or ‘chattering sparrows’, depending on which translation you take to heart. Possibly it earned this name from the clattering rattling sound that the tiles make when they’re shuffled, with players thinking that it sounded like the clicking of beaks and fluttering of little wings. That said, the real history of mahjong is so shrouded in mystery that we may never know for sure.
The History of Mahjong
Despite being the most famous Chinese game in the world, the origins of mahjong are virtually unknown. The format of the game (picking up and discarding tiles in order to build a winning hand by completing various melds, or combinations of tiles) is similar to various European card-games (in particular: Gin-Rummy, or Poker); the first participant in a game to make a complete hand and declare this to the table, is the winner! But apart from that, the history of the game is shrouded in a fog of uncertainty.
The oldest sets of mahjong tiles as we might recognise them today, date back only to 1870, and written records of the game (produced by Western expats living in China in the 19th century) mention the game only as far back as maybe the 1840s and 50s. Prior to this date, its history is almost completely unknown.
“Why?” You Might Ask!
Part of the reason had to do with something that happened in the early 1900s. After the Boxer Rebellion at the turn of the last century, all things Chinese started becoming wildly popular in the West, hitting a peak in the 1920s and 30s. Red was called ‘Chinese Red’. Yellow became ‘Mandarin Yellow’, silk, Chinese motifs, Chinese food, Chinese tea, chopsticks and yes – Mahjong – became INSANELY popular.
The ‘Charlie Chan’ books (later, movies), displayed popular literature and Hollywood’s take on the wave of ‘sinophilia’ sweeping the world. Instead of heavy stereotypes or casting Chinese characters as the villains, Charlie Chan was a successful, globetrotting detective from Hawaii. Although he was played by a white actor, many members of the supporting cast (mostly Charlie’s family), were played by Chinese-American actors, in an attempt to give the films authenticity.
The influence of Chinese culture and mahjong can even be seen in popular music of the era. Here’s “Ma is Playing Mah Jong”, from 1924. Keep in mind that this song is nearly 100 years old, therefore, the overly offfended should probably not listen to it. The lyrics aren’t exactly racially sensitive, but they do give a pretty good idea of the grip of ‘sinophilia’ that existed in the West at the turn of the last century…
It was into this climate that mahjong swept the world in the 1910s, 20s and 30s. Already massively popular in China, the game was imported into America and other western nations, often in cases or boxes which came with instructions, usually with wildly fantastical ‘History of Mahjong’ chapters inside.
You can figure out where this is going, can’t you?
So many ‘histories’ of mahjong were created, to satisfy the Western obsession with the game, that along the way, the true history of mahjong – whatever that was – was lost to history! So many fictional accounts were created, saturating the market, that the truth has basically been buried by it.
The Spread of Mahjong
What we do know about Mahjong’s limited history is that it was popular in big cities in China. Places like Shanghai, Tientsin, Canton, Nanking, Peking and so-on. It was here that the game thrived, and where it gained its unbreakable link with gambling. Western expatriate communities in these cities would’ve caused the game to spread from China back to America, England, around the British Empire, and to other Western countries. Meanwhile, Chinese migrants would’ve spread the game further afield to places like Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Japan, Korea and Taiwan.
Mahjong spread around the world, carried to far-off shores by migrants and expats, but by the mid-20th century, it was coming under attack in the country of its birth. In the 1960s and 70s, the playing of mahjong was banned by the ruling Chinese Communist Party, during the Cultural Revolution. It was seen as ‘counter-revolutionary’. It was an old habit, a wasteful habit, an extravagant habit, which served no purpose other than to fleece players of their time, money and productivity, and was therefore outlawed in China.
Regardless, the playing of mahjong continued in Chinese overseas communities, and in America, where it had been introduced in the 1910s and 20s. The ban on mahjong was lifted in China at the end of the 1970s, when the Cultural Revolution ended, and the Chinese government pursued a policy of openness, both with the West, and with its own citizenry, in order to better manage the country’s affairs.
Mahjong Around the World!
As the 20th century progressed, mahjong became increasingly popular, despite the events in China. Its popularity in many countries has resulted in several versions of Mahjong today, each with subtle differences in the rules. This is possibly another reason why the history of the game has been so difficult to trace. Japanese mahjong, Chinese mahjong and American-style mahjong, while essentially the same game, have different rules which regulate them, achieving more or less the same end-game through different means.
Given all these twists, turns and changes throughout its clouded history, how does one actually play mahjong?
The most common variation of mahjong is Hong Kong or Cantonese-style, which gained popularity in Hong Kong in the 1940s after the end of the Second World War. Chinese fleeing cities like Peking, Nanking and Shanghai during the revolution, war and political instability, brought the game with them when they left their homeland.
It is the closest thing to ‘traditional’ or ‘original’ mahjong that we have today. Real, traditional Chinese mahjong (the kind exported to America in the ’20s) is hardly ever played anymore, due to the constant rule-changes imposed on the game by the countless cultures which have adopted it, and made it their own. Because of this, Hong Kong-style is the closest thing in the modern mahjong-playing world.
Instruments of Play
A traditional mahjong set, like those used to play Hong Kong style, are comprised of some 150-or-so different pieces, usually stored in their own box or case. In expensive sets, these cases can be very elaborately constructed.
The first element are the tiles. A traditional mahjong set has 144 tiles, divided into different suites:
Flowers, bamboo, characters, dots (or circles), winds, seasons and dragons.
Not all sets have 144 tiles. American and Japanese sets have more, some Asian sets have less, but 144 is the standard for most sets around the world.
The next element of the game are the dice (used to decide who goes first). Of these, there’s usually two, sometimes three.
The third element are the markers indicating the current round of the game (there are four rounds, just like four winds: North, South, East and West).
The fourth element of the game are the tally-sticks, used to keep scores, marked on them with dots corresponding to points won.
The last element of the game is the gaming table. While mahjong can be played on any suitably-sized table, there do exist specially-made mahjong tables, with drawers for holding counters, tiles, the dice, money and so-on.
What are Mahjong Tiles Made Of?
Mahjong tiles must put up with a lot of clacking, bumping, shuffling, stacking and tossing around. Because of this, they have to be pretty tough, so that they don’t crack, chip, flake or otherwise disintegrate during play. These days, the vast majority of mahjong tiles are made of a hard, chip-resistant plastic. In the past, however, mahjong tiles were made of either wood, or a combination of bone, and bamboo.
In very rare cases, ivory was used as well, but since bone was cheaper and readily available, it was usually the material more favoured. Today, some manufacturers in China still make the traditional bone-and-bamboo tiles, but as these can only be made by hand, they’re considered a luxury and come with a premium price-tag attached.
How To Play Mahjong?
The aim of Mahjong is to win by gathering combinations of the various tiles of which the game is comprised. These combinations or groupings are called ‘melds’. To win, you must make a total of five melds. The different types of melds which can be made are:
PONG – A set of three tiles, which are identical. (Three 4s of the same character, for example).
KONG – A set of four tiles, which are identical. (Four twos of Circles, for example).
CHOW – A set of three tiles in sequence (say: 1, 2, and 3 of Bamboo, or Circles, etc).
PAIRS – A pair of matching tiles.
Once the correct number of melds has been achieved, they are displayed to the other players. The first person to do this is the winner. The building of one’s melds is done by gathering and discarding tiles, and building the most suitable combinations, given the tiles in one’s possession when the game starts and as it progresses. A player who is one tile away from forming his perfect wall of melds will call out ‘Riichi!’ (‘Ready’ or ‘prepared’), to declare to the table that he is on the cusp of making a win, and that the others had better watch out!
In this respect, it’s much like Poker, or Gin-Rummy. Due to the large number of tiles, a variety of combinations can be made to secure a win. Combinations of tiles which make up a sequence, collect a particular suite, or aim to collect all tiles of a particular type (for example, all bamboo, all numbers, etc), are considered winning hands.
Is it Fun?
Yes. Yes it is.
I played mahjong when I was in highschool with friends. We didn’t have much else to do, there being no smartphone games and such in those days, so when my friends discovered I had a set of mahjong tiles at home, they convinced me to bring it along. Nobody else in my family played or was interested in playing, so I knew the set would not be missed. I packed it into a carry-box and brought it along. One of my friends taught the rest of us how to play, and we used to gather and chat and play in the school library.
“I want to play mahjong! Where do I get a set?”
Cities or countries with large Chinese populations are your best bet. Keep in mind that there are several different varieties of mahjong. The one most people think about is Hong-Kong style, the closest to the original, which is barely played anymore.