Mahjong History

Mahjong History

Mahjong is a game of Chinese origin which can be played in fours or in pairs. The game played in pairs is usually referred to as Mahjong solitaire. Mahjong is a tile matching game which requires skill, calculation, intelligence and also a bit of luck. The aim of the game is to build complete suits, normally three tiles, from between 13 to 16 tiles; while the winning tile ends the game with a set of 14 to 17 tiles.

Much intrigue is associated to the game of Mahjong because of its questionable origins. Many people believe that the game was developed by Confucius, while others think that the game only originated in the era of the dynasties. No matter where the game originates, everyone agrees that in its original hand-crafted form, it is one of the most beautiful and intricate tile games in the world.

A modernized version of Mahjong was introduced to the Western world in the 1920s and has since seen many ups and downs. A recent revival of the game thanks to the popularity of casino and online games is currently being experienced and Mahjong now has a strong and dedicated group of followers.

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Ancient Chinese Origins

It is said that Confucius, the great Chinese philosopher developed Mahjong in approximately 500 BCE. This theory is compounded by the fact that the appearance of Mahjong in several Chinese provinces corresponds to the route of Confucius’ travels around the country teaching his doctrines.

Mahjong’s three ‘Cardinal’ tiles are parallel to the three cardinal virtues preached by Confucius – Zhong (middle) is red; Fa (prosperity) is green and Bai (white) is white. These tiles represent benevolence, sincerity and filial piety as taught by Confucius. Confucius was also said to be fond of birds and Mahjong’s name literally means sparrow or hemp bird.

Another theory that overlaps with the development of Mahjong during Confucius’ time was that the game originated in the court of the King of Wu. It is believed that within Wu’s court lived a beauty that was kept in seclusion. In order to save herself from complete boredom, the beauty invented a game for which she carved domino shaped pieces of ivory and bamboo. She invited her maidens to play the game with her, and each player was handed 34 tiles with which they created a wall. The rules of the game remain unclear but the scores are thought to have been at the lowest 22 and the highest 389,928 points.

Mahjong and Early Chinese Games

The theory that Mahjong developed from the Confucian period might add intrigue to the game’s history, but the facts indicate that it more likely developed from various Chinese games over a period of a few hundred years – starting in the 1100s and through to the 1800s.

Tile games have been played in China since 1120 CE and have been documented as a very popular pastime over the centuries. While Mahjong is played with tiles, it actually greatly resembles card games in the Rummy family. Many card games were played in China also using four types of card decks, and requiring the players to collect sets.

During the Sung Dynasty (960-1279 CE) a game called Ya Pei was played which used 32 cards made out of wood or ivory and shaped similar to the Mahjong tiles. During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 CE) Ma Tiae was invented which used 40 paper cards which resembled the cards used in Ya Pei. The forty cards were divided into four suits, had numbers from 1 – 9 and four additional flower cards. The scoring of these two games was also similar to Mahjong.

Formation of Mahjong

There are a number of different theories regarding the actual formation of Mahjong into a game of its own right. One theory states that Mahjong originated in the provinces of Kiangsu, Anhwei and Chekiang, due to the fact that there was no recorded presence of Mahjong in any other part of China before 1900. Others believe that Mahjong was invented by Hung Hsiu-Ch’uan, the leader of the Cantonese rebellion, known for his love of games and entertainment, who later proclaimed himself as the Emperor of Nanking.

An additional theory into the actual formation of Mahjong is that two brothers from Ningpo were responsible for transferring the shapes and patterns from the playing cards used for Ma Tiae onto bamboo and ivory tablets in the late 1800s. The game was then popularized by a magistrate of the Chekiang province who became an avid player.

In 1895, Stewart Culin, an American anthropologist wrote the first account of Mahjong in English and this was the first time that the game was ever documented in a language besides Chinese. At the beginning of the 20th century, Mahjong was still only really known in the original area of its development, but by 1910 there were already accounts of Mahjong in French and Japanese.

Mahjong in Japan

Mahjong first arrived in Japan in 1907 and became a hard fast fad in the 1920s. Just like in America, the game was simplified in order to make it more attractive to the masses and then made more complicated with new rules. The Japanese, however, managed to alter the game subtly over this period without straying too far from the original beautiful nature of the game and without compromising too much on the traditions.

Mahjong’s Japanese rules come in two forms – the official rules according to the Japanese Mahjong Association, and the unofficial but more popular rules used by the casual players. The rule change away from the Chinese version is apparent in both forms of Japanese rules, whereby the winner is paid by all the players, leaving no points for a runner-up.

Mahjong Arrives in America

The West was exposed to Mahjong after two brothers introduced the game in the English clubs of Shanghai. The game gained popularity amongst the foreign residents and visiting Westerners. Joseph Babcock, the Soochow representative of the Standard Oil Company in Shanghai, decided that Mahjong was a game which could easily be enjoyed by players all over the world and began making plans to export it to the United States. He simplified the game by doing away with the limit hand scoring and kept only the basic scores. Babcock is also believed to have started the practice of putting English numerals on the tiles. In 1920, Babcock finally copyrighted the game and put the rules into print in English for the first time, titled “Rules of Mah-jongg” and also known as “The Red Book”.

In 1922, W. A. Hammond, a lumber merchant from San Francisco, formed the Mahjong Sales Company of San Francisco and began mass import of the sets. This was the start of the Mahjong craze in the United States and by 1923, Mahjong sets were the 6th largest export from Shanghai, totaling more than $1.5 million. In order to meet the demands of producing these sets, cow bone was shipped from Kansas City and Chicago to Shanghai. Not all the sets that were produced had the same beauty and detail as the original sets – some were in traditional bone and bamboo, some were wooden tiles in boxes, some were cardboard and some were paper.

Swamped by orders and crazed clients, Mahjong sets were being grabbed up as soon as they arrived in the stores. The importers and retailers began providing in-store demonstrations and lessons to help explain the game to potential new players and the game became the unofficial national pastime of the country. Mahjong clubs and organizations were set up in order to standardize the rules. In 1924, the Standardized Committee of the American Official Laws of Mahjong was formed consisting of five men who had previously written their own books of rules.

Decline of Popularity

The 1930s saw a decline of popularity in Mahjong and the intense craze seemed to fizzle out. Importers found that they were stuck with several thousand unsold Mahjong sets as the game faded out of mainstream entertainment circles. A strong following of devout players, however, continued to be loyal to the game and in 1937, the National Mahjong League was formed in New York City. The league was responsible for publishing instruction books, annual newsletters and revisions of the rules. The league also organized annual tournaments and Mahjong related cruises and trips.


Today, Mahjong has a strong group of loyal players and league members who take their game very seriously. Mahjong has experienced a slight surge in popularity as a game known for intelligence and concentration. An online version of Mahjong has also been introduced in recent years, generally in the solitaire version. The rich history and beauty of the original Mahjong sets continues to make it a game which offers players much intrigue and an aura of class.

Posted by CCJ Team