On the advent and spread of the game Mah-Jong

Written by Sam Pekats

Invented mysteriously in mid-19th century China, there is much uncertainty regarding the Mahjong’s origins.[1] For much of Mahjong’s early history, China’s rulers regarded its gambling nature as vulgar and corrupting, so there exist few historical records chronicling the game’s development.[2] Speculations abound that date Mahjong’s origins before 500 B.C.E. —so Confucius could have played it—or even before 2350 B.C.E., placing Mahjong as contemporary with Noah’s Ark.[3] Even the spelling of the game’s name is inconsistent: sources use “Mahjong,” “Maahj,” “Mah-Jongg,” and “Ma Que,” in addition to numerous other names to describe the game.

The earliest forms of Chinese games belonged to a category of dice games called Yezi, meaning leaves.[4] When the first references to card games appeared in Chinese records in 1294 C.E., they too were called Yezi, likely due to the cards’ resemblance to leaves. Dice still play prominent roles in many traditional Chinese games, including Mahjong.

By the 12th century, the popularity of card games in China accelerated to the extent that cards overshadowed dice games. Early Yezi card games had three suits: coins, strings of coins, and ten-thousand strings of coins.[5] In 1580, during the reign of the Ming emperor Wanli, the game of Ma Diao evolved from a three suit Yezi card deck,[6] with an added suit, known as shi.[7] With ten cards in each suit, Ma Diao utilized 40 cards in gameplay.[8] This card game eventually lost its fourth suit, shi, allowing for the formation of the games of Mo He[9] and Peng He Pai.[10]

Peng He Pai is especially significant in Mahjong’s development: four sets of three suits comprised its deck;[11] these Peng He Pai cards are direct predecessors of most Mahjong tiles. Over time, Peng He Pai’s suits were transformed into current Mahjong suits:[12] coins became dots, strings of coins became bamboos (usually named “bams”), and ten-thousand strings of coins became the character suit (usually named “cracks”). The prevailing theory on Mahjong’s origin holds that, sometime around the Taiping Rebellion era (1850-1864), an official named Chen Yumen living in Ningbo, China, took Peng He Pai card’s and added the zhong card (known in the West as the “Red Dragon”), and a directional suit, called winds, along with other cards that are now obsolete.[13] Another individual from Ningbo, Chang Shiu-Mo, also added other cards—flowers and seasons—to the set.[14]

As Ningbo is a coastal city, a local sailor had the misfortune of having his playing cards blown into the sea. Recognizing this problem, Chen Yumen carved his modified Peng He Pai deck into tiles to keep the wind from ruining gameplay.[15] As a rank three official under the Daoguang Emperor, Chen Yumen had learned English, which enabled him to teach visiting British Consul General F.E.B. Harvey the game in 1861. Owing to imperial Chinese disdain for the game, Harvey’s accounts of Mahjong are some of the earliest documents chronicling Mahjong. The games leading up to Mahjong’s invention are seemingly inexhaustible. As one looks closely at Mahjong’s history, predecessors of the game seem to appear exponentially; it is impossible to trace where one game’s variations gave rise to a completely new game.

It seems suspect, however, that the one individual who happened to teach a British visitor the game is remembered as the creator of the game. Had someone else known English and come into contact with Harvey, would they, instead, have been remembered as Mahjong’s creator? Since games at this time where taught by word of mouth, information connecting individuals to the invention of specific rules is nonexistent.

Mahjong is a game of both luck and skill requiring players make strategic patterns with their tiles that conform to a given set of winning hands, like the game of Poker; while any player may receive a favorable set of tiles in the deal, only skilled players can maximize their score, and effectively foil other players’ success. At the beginning of a round, the tiles are placed face down on a table and shuffled. Once thoroughly mixed, the game’s four players line the tiles into walls in front of them. One player is designated dealer; he deals out thirteen tiles to each player, but fourteen tiles to himself. He then begins the game by discarding one of his fourteen tiles. From then on, each player takes a tile clockwise from the wall and then discards his least desired tile, similar to Rummy’s gameplay. The turn then travels counterclockwise. Directly after a player discards a tile, other players are given the option to steal that discard if it completes a meld they have within their hand. Play continues until a player’s hand conforms to one of the mandated combinations constituting a win.

Mahjong’s grand introduction into Western households (mostly in America) largely owes thanks to post-WWI Shanghai oil-executive Joseph Babcock; Babcock witnessed Chinese and Western expatriates playing the game all around him and decided to take efforts to import the game to America. Babcock trademarked the name “Mah-Jongg,” and in 1942 he eventually began commissioning sets’ manufacture and shipment from China through W.A. Hammond’s Mah Jongg Sales Company of America in San Francisco. In order to make the game more accessible to Western audiences, Babcock added Western indices (Arabic numerals and Roman letters) to the tiles, and heavily simplified the Mahjong’s rules.[16]

American competitors of Babcock’s Mah-Jongg soon emerged, giving rise to various “knock-off” names for the game; Robert Foster’s “Mahjong,” a variation of Babcock’s original spelling, became popular[17]. As Babcock’s “Mah-Jongg” imitators arose, these competitors would often travel to China, noting discrepancies between Babcock’s rules and the many Chinese variants, incorporating these differences into their own rulebooks, creating divergences in gameplay among different players. Then, Foster’s book, Twenty-Point Mahjong introduced the use of flower tiles in hands as integral components, rather than just bonus tiles.[18] At this point, less men began playing the game. Women went on to play the game socially, abolishing various complexities of scoring, such as the chow (a run a player makes from previous player’s discarded tile, if that previous player happens to be on her left).[19] Around the country, women began compiling their own lists of acceptable winning hands, causing even more inconsistencies among players.

Seeing the need for a unified set of rules ensuring all Americans could play the game with the same winning hands,[20] Viola Cecil, Dorothy Meyerson, Herma Jacobs, and Hortense Potter, formed the National Mah Jongg League (NMJL);[21] Viola Cecil then published an official rulebook, Maajh, The American Version of an Ancient Chinese Game. The league started publishing a new set of winning hands each year that a player must use to win the game, which it still does to this day. During WWII, the National Mah Jongg League began donating the proceeds of these scoring cards to patriotic and charitable causes, which is a legacy that continues today. The NMJL also started adjudicating disputes and governing other aspects of gameplay. For example, in 1961, the NMJL added jokers to the tile deck and stripped the special designation of flower tiles,[22] which is a large departure from the Chinese way of playing the game. In 1971, after variations in number of jokers and flowers arose within different playing groups, the NMJL standardized the tile deck’s composition.

The demographics of Mahjong in America tell an interesting picture. Although the game is a Chinese invention and export, Jews, not Chinese, comprise the largest demographic of American Mahjong players. Between 60% and 70% percent of all NMJL Mahjong players are Jewish.[23] In fact, a stereotype exists that Mahjong players are usually old Jewish grandmothers. Some of the Mahjong players Babcock witnessed were Jewish refugees in Shanghai;[24] Russian Jews began coming to Shanghai in the 1920’s and 1930’s to escape the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia.[25] Later, more Jews arrived in Shanghai seeking refuge from the Holocaust during WWII, and some of these Jews would learn Mahjong. When Babcock’s Mahjong arrived in America during the Roaring Twenties, it quickly spread within the cities. At that time, the majority of Jews lived in New York City, and thus many learned the game. The combination of Mahjong within the Shanghai Ghetto and New York City helps explain the game’s prominence within the Jewish community. This connection was further solidified after four Jewish women founded the National Mah Jongg League. In terms of age demography, turbulence in the 1960’s occupied young women with many pressing tasks other than learning Mahjong from their mothers. Thus, an age gap ensued as many people began seeing Mahjong as a game for elderly women, causing Mahjong to fall out of favor with younger crowds, which cemented its reputation as a game played in nursing homes.[26]

However, Mahjong is currently experiencing a resurgence that very well may resuscitate the game’s popularity, reëstablishing it as a significant pastime. Across the world, friends and family come together, and generational divides are traversed as eager players of all ages and backgrounds partake in Mahjong in diverse locales around the world, preserving the game’s relevance and legacy in a world progressively less interested in face-to-face recreation and interaction.


Endnotes

[1]  Sloper, Tom. The Red Dragon & the West Wind: The Winning Guide to Official Chinese & American Mah-Jongg. New York: Collins, 2007.

[2] New Frontier Documentary. 2008. September 14, 2011. Accessed November 10, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nzxxpvPoH0Y.

[3] Miller, Scott D. Mahjong from a to Zhu. 2012.

[4] Sloper, Tom. The Red Dragon & the West Wind: The Winning Guide to Official Chinese & American Mah-Jongg. New York: Collins, 2007.

[5] Ibid

[6] New Frontier Documentary. 2008. September 14, 2011. Accessed November 10, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nzxxpvPoH0Y.

[7] Miller, Scott D. Mahjong from a to Zhu. 2012.

[8] New Frontier Documentary. 2008. September 14, 2011. Accessed November 10, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nzxxpvPoH0Y.

[9] Miller, Scott D. Mahjong from a to Zhu. 2012.

[10] Sloper, Tom. The Red Dragon & the West Wind: The Winning Guide to Official Chinese & American Mah-Jongg. New York: Collins, 2007.

[11] Ibid

[12] Ibid

[13] Ibid

[14] Ibid

[15] New Frontier Documentary. 2008. September 14, 2011. Accessed November 10, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nzxxpvPoH0Y.

[16] Sloper, Tom. The Red Dragon & the West Wind: The Winning Guide to Official Chinese & American Mah-Jongg. New York: Collins, 2007.

[17] Ibid

[18] Ibid

[19] Ibid

[20] Gettinger, Ellie. “Behind the Card: The National Mah Jongg League and the Making of the Card.” Jewish Museum Milwaukee. July 26, 2016. Accessed November 15, 2018. https://jewishmuseummilwaukee.org/behind-the-card-the-national-mah-jongg-league-and-the-making-of-the-card/.

[21]  Sloper, Tom. The Red Dragon & the West Wind: The Winning Guide to Official Chinese & American Mah-Jongg. New York: Collins, 2007.

[22] Ibid

[23] Ibid

[24] Ibid

[25] Griffiths, James. “Shanghai’s Forgotten Jewish Past.” The Atlantic. November 23, 2013. Accessed November 15, 2018. https://www.theatlantic.com/china/archive/2013/11/shanghais-forgotten-jewish-past/281713/.

[26] Sloper, Tom. The Red Dragon & the West Wind: The Winning Guide to Official Chinese & American Mah-Jongg. New York: Collins, 2007.

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