A Brief History

Whether it’s called Mahjong, Mahjongg, Mah Jongg, Ma Diao, Ma Cheuk, Mah Cheuck, Baak Ling, or Pung Chow the history of this game is as intriguing as the game itself.

Throughout history many theories have been presented regarding the origin of the game. One suggests that it had been played on Noah’s Ark during the 40 days and nights of rain. East had been the prevailing wind during the storm thus becoming the dominant seat in playing the game. This theory would suggest that the game would date back to around 2350 BC.

Another very interesting story suggests that Confucius the great Chinese philosopher had developed the game about 500 BC. The appearance of the game in various Chinese provinces coincides with Confucius’ travels at the time he was teaching his new doctrines. The three “Cardinal” tiles also coincide with the three Cardinal virtues taught by Confucius. Chung (middle) the Red, Fa (prosperity) the Green, Po (white) the white, Benevolence, Sincerity, and Filial Piety. Confucius was said to be fond of birds, which would explain the name Mah Jong (Hemp Bird).

Terms used in the play of the game “Pung,” “Chee,” and “Kong” also add support to this theory. Confucius was of the Kong family his full name being Kong-Fu-Tze, he married a girl named Che and adopted the term “Chee” meaning ‘to connect’ which occidentals corrupted into “Chow”.

Although these as well as various other stories lend themselves to a very interesting background to the game, the most logical theory suggests that the game had been developed from various Chinese games. During the Sung Dynasty (960-1279 AD) a game called “Ya Pei” which is played with 32 cards made of either wood or ivory, and are oblong in shape similar to the present day Ma Jong tiles. During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD) a game called “Ma Tiae” (Hanging Horse) was invented. This game was played with 40 paper cards similar in appearance to the cards used in the game Ya Pei. These forty cards were numbered 1 to 9 in four different suits along with four additional flower cards are quite similar to the numbering of mah jong cards today. It is thought that roughly around 1850 AD in the city of Ningpo two brothers had created mah jong from the earlier game of ma tiae.

The introduction to the western world is thought to have begun with two brothers named White, which in the early 1900’s introduced mahjong to the English clubs of Shanghai, where it quickly gained popularity among the foreign residents. Importation of mahjong tiles began with Joseph P. Babcock, who at that time was the Soochow representative of the Standard Oil Company. He simplified the game eliminating most of the limit hand scoring, and retained only the essential basic scores. Mr. Babcock is also credited with starting the practice of putting English numerals on the tiles, and in September of 1920 he copyrighted and put his rules into print for the first time. It wasn’t however until two years later a lumber merchant from San Francisco named W. A. Hammond formed the Mah Jongg Sales Company of San Francisco and began importing large quantities of sets.

1923 marked the height of the mah jong craze in the United States, mahjong sets numbered 6th in exports from Shanghai totaling in excess of $1.5 million. During this period cow bone was actually shipped from Kansas City and Chicago to Shanghai to meet the demand for production of new sets. Companies formed across the United States to meet the demand of the growing craze. New sets where manufactured in every imaginable style, from the traditional bone and bamboo housed in a rosewood cases, box wood tiles with painted paper faces housed in cardboard boxes, to paper playing cards. A number of American companies also began production of mahjong sets, Parker Brothers, United States Playing Card, and Milton Bradley to name a few. It’s said that mahjong rescued the ailing Milton Bradley Company from the brink of bankruptcy and had its factories working 24 hours a day to help meet the demand for new sets.

Importers and retailers provided in-store demonstrations and lessons to help prospective players gain interest. Unrelated companies such as banks, and even funeral homes used mah jong to advertise their services by providing complimentary scoring cards, tablets and rulebooks.

Before long mah jong was being played across the country, games where demonstrated in retailer’s shops, street corners, and clubs. Mah Jong became the new national past time being played everywhere by everyone, and served as a great diversion during the hard times of the great depression. By the end of 1923 just about everyone playing the game had adopted their own unique set of rules. Country clubs, banks, hotels, steamship lines, and specialized mah jong clubs all published their own sets of rules for play at their clubs.

A number of books where published attempting to standardize the rules, and in 1924 the Standardization Committee of the American Official Laws of Mah-Jongg was formed to write a standardized set of rules. The committee consisted of M.C. Work, Robert Foster, Joseph Babcock, Lee Hartman, and J.H. Smith. All of these gentlemen had previously written their own book of rules, and the American Official Laws of Mah-Jongg were published in 1924.

Through the next fifteen or twenty years mah jong under went various changes to the basic game as described in Mr. Babcock’s Red book of Rules. Mah Jong instructors sprang up as quickly as clubs during this period each incorporating a little different strategy and rules to coincide with their strategy despite the existence of the standardize set of rules. Some groups added additional flower and joker tiles to the sets, and adopted standard hands for scoring and winning while others just added colorful limit hands to the basic set of rules.

Although the popularity of mah jong slowly faded from the mainstream, the game has maintained a steady and devout following that continues today. Two organizations that incorporated adaptations of the traditional rules have also maintained a strong following, The National Mah Jongg League, and The Wright-Patterson Officers Club.

The National Mah Jongg League originated in New York City in 1937 when a group of interested players met, standardized their rules and scoring, and formed the league. The league publishes instruction books, annual newsletters, and revises their standard hand cards yearly. They also organize annual tournaments, and specialty cruses and trips.

The Wives Club of the Wright-Patterson Officers Club also created their own version of the traditional rules. The Wright-Patterson rules follow the traditional rules closer than the National Mah Jongg League’s, and do not incorporate any additional joker or flower tiles like the National Mah Jongg League does. They do however incorporate a “Charleston” (a kind of passing of unwanted tiles between players prior to the actual game play), and a set of standardized limit hands. They first copyrighted their set of rules in 1963, and have updated them regularly.

Throughout the years since Joseph Babcock first thought of importing this intriguing and addictive game, mah jong has become an intricate part of the American history. The sound of the tiles clicking together will stir many memories of the weekly mah jong games, more than just games, a time that family and friends gathered sharing their lives centered on the game.

Now, nearly 80 years after the game’s introduction to the western world a whole new generation is discovering “the game of a hundred intelligence’s”. Through the popular computer solitaire games that utilize mahjong tiles that began appearing in the early 1980’s, and now through the subsequent introduction of versions incorporating the traditional four-player game, a resurgence of the game is beginning in the United States. Player’s of the computer versions are becoming intrigued with the beauty and detail of the hand crafted sets of the 1920’s and 1930’s and are searching antique shops and flea markets for sets of their own. Many new players’ are being introduced to the game solely through the solitaire versions and are slowly realizing the intrigue and challenge that the traditional game offers.

As we enter the new millennium mahjong is beginning its second wave of popularity in the United States, and with a new generation discovering the joy of this intriguing game it is securing its place in western history.