One clear fact about Mahjong’s history is that it began in China. However beyond that, its true origin remains a mystery.
The game of Mahjong can be played with two people, known as Mahjong solitaire, or with four. It uses tiles and has remained a popular game through the years because it requires a combination of luck, intelligence, strategy, and skill.
The goal of Mahjong is to construct complete suits, usually three tiles, from 13 to 16 tiles. The winning tile then ends the game when a set of 14 to 17 tiles is built. When played well with hand-crafted tiles it is one of the most intricate and beautiful tile games ever.
Some of the theories surrounding the origins of Mahjong revolve around the game’s creator. Many think it came about in the dynasty era while many others think Confucius himself created it.
Mahjong came to the West in the 1920's and has come in and out of vogue as a recreational activity. The game played in the Western world is a modernized version compared to its original form. Recently Mahjong has been enjoying a comeback due in large part to its online version and its casino form.
Ancient Chinese Origins
The great Chinese philosopher Confucius may have created Mahjong around the year 500. This is the most common theory and is supported by the fact that the game showed up around the same time in a few Chinese provinces that Confucius had traveled to in that period. The main reasons for his travel were to teach his own doctrines, but along with those teachings he may have also taught a few people how to play this new game.
Another reason why this scenario works as the origins of Mahjong is because the game’s three “Cardinal” tiles are the same as the three cardinal virtues that Confucius would preach. Zhong (middle) is the colour red, Fa (prosperity) is the colour green, and Bai (white) is obviously the colour white. They represent the benevolence, sincerity, and filial piety Confucius would teach to his followers. It has also been said that Confucius was fond of birds and the name of the game, Mahjong, can be translated as hemp bird or more commonly, sparrow.
The game may also have been created in the court of the King of Wu. The timing overlaps with the time of Confucius. This theory says that in the Wu’s court was a beautiful woman who was kept hidden from view. To while away the time she created the game, carving domino like piece of bamboo and ivory. She then played the games with her maidens with each using 34 tiles. The rules are not clear but the scores may have ranged from 22 points all the way up to 389,928 points.
Mahjong and Early Chinese Games
Both theories, the creation of the game by Confucius or by a beauty in the court of the King of Wu, are intriguing and mysterious, but another possibility is that the game had a much plainer origin. Some facts point to Mahjong having evolved from a number of other Chinese games between the 1100s and 1800s.
In China, people have been playing tile games since 1120 and it has been a popular activity throughout the centuries since. Mahjong actually resembles the Rummy card game series even though it’s played with tiles instead of cards. Other card games in China used four kinds of card decks and players would win by collecting sets.
A game called Ya Pei was played during the Sung Dynasty (960-1279). That game was played with 32 cards that were made out of ivory or wood and were shaped much like the tiles used in Mahjong. Later on in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) came the game of Ma Tiae. This game used cards similar to what was found in Ya Pei but used 40 cards instead of 32. The cards came in four different suits and were numbered from 1-9 with four extra flower cards. The scoring in both games is very similar to that of Mahjong.
Formation of Mahjong
The game of Mahjong was documented in only three Chinese provinces before the year 1900: Anhwei, Chekiang, and Kiangsu. That may hold some clues as to the evolution of the game. Some others feel the true creator of Mahjong is rebel leader Hung Hsiu-Ch’uan. The head of the Cantonese rebellion who later on proclaimed himself to be the Emperor of Nanking was said to be a great fan of games and other forms of entertainment.
Yet another possibility in Mahjong’s creation comes from the makers of the tiles themselves. In Ningpo two brothers were charged with putting the patterns and shapes of playing cards onto ivory and bamboo tablets for use in playing Ma Tiae in the late 1800s. A magistrate from Chekiang province was an enthusiastic player and helped spread the enjoyment of the game through the region.
An American anthropologist named Stewart Culin wrote the first historical account of Mahjong’s creation in 1895. It was the first time the game was written about in English. By 1910 the game pops up in documents written in Japanese and French.
Mahjong in Japan
It was in 1907 that Mahjong arrived in Japan but it wasn’t until the 1920's that it was really a popular activity there. Like the version that would be played in the U.S., the game was made simpler to help it gain mass appeal. Although later after it had caught on new rules were added making it more complex. Over this period the game did undergo some alterations but the Japanese made sure it didn’t evolve too far away from the beauty and tradition of the original game.
The rules of Mahjong in Japan came in two different forms which were the official ones published by the Japanese Mahjong Association and the more popular but unofficial rules used in casual games. Both forms do veer away from the Chinese version by making the game a winner take all affair where the winner is paid by all players leaving the runner-up with nothing.
Mahjong Arrives in America
Mahjong was introduced to the U.S. when two brothers installed the game into the English clubs in Shanghai. This is how it first became popular with visiting Westerners and foreign residents in Shanghai. One of those from the West who saw the game’s potential was Joseph Babcock who worked for the Standard Oil Company but was stationed in Shanghai. He thought Mahjong would easily translate into an enjoyable activity for players all over the world and created a plan to bring it to the United States. In doing so he decided to make it a little simpler to play by getting rid of a few rules including the limit hand scoring. He is also credited with being the first to print both the rules and the tiles in English. The “Rules of Mah-jongg” is also known as “The Red Book”. Finally in 1920 Babcock obtained the copyright for the game.
Another American who saw Mahjong’s potential was W.A. Hammond who worked as a lumber merchant based out of San Francisco. In 1922 he created the Mahjong Sales Company of San Francisco and started importing as many sets as he could. This allowed more and more people access to the game and was the catalyst for the American Mahjong craze in the early 1920's. In fact, Mahjong sets were Shanghai’s sixth largest export to the United States in the year 1923 with more than 1.5 million sets sold.
The demand was so great that cow bone from Kansas City and Chicago was sent to Shanghai to provide another source of material to make the tiles from. This meant that not all the sets in this period had the detail and beauty of the originals. While some sets continued to be created using bamboo and ivory, others were now being made using wooden tiles while others were nothing more than cardboard and paper.
In their peak, Mahjong sets were being sold as soon as they arrived in stores. The retailers and importers were swamped with orders and began to attract an even wider audience by giving lessons and in-store demonstrations to explain the game to new players. For a while, Mahjong was the unofficial favorite game of the county. Clubs and other organizations were created to keep the rules consistent. The Standardized Committee of the American Official Laws of Mahjong was formed in 1924 with five different authors who all had experience writing books of rules.
Decline of Popularity
Like many trends that get too popular too quickly, Mahjong saw a decline in interest in the following decade. In the 1930's importers that couldn’t get enough sets for all their clients were now finding they couldn’t unload the games any longer. While it was no longer in the mainstream, many did continue to play and enjoy the game of Mahjong including those who created the National Mahjong League in 1937. Formed in New York City, the league put out various instruction books, rule books, and annual newsletters along with organized tournaments.
Mahjong still has a large following of dedicated players who continue to play the game very seriously. It is known today as a game of concentration and intelligence and has recently been introduced online. The online form is generally the solitaire form of the game. The appeal of Mahjong continues to be the beauty of the sets and its rich history, a history that continues as the game has found a comfortable home among those seeking a game with an intriguing touch of class and sophistication.