How Old is “Mah-Jong”?

The Answer Punctures a Few Picturesque Legends and Presents Some Pertinent Facts

By R. F. Foster

Mr. Foster will contribute to Asia a series of articles on “Mah-Jong” and will also answer inquiries from Asia readers. These articles will deal with the origin and history of the game, the nature of the tiles and other paraphernalia, as well as with methods and the finer points of play. Mr. Foster has made a life study of games and is one of the foremost American experts on bridge. He has entered enthusiastically into the study of Mahjong and regards it as a game that has come to stay in American life. He believes, not that it will supplant bridge, but that it will find a new place for itself alongside bridge, poker and other firmly established American games. Mr. Foster is one of the best known instructors in the game and is in touch with all its developments in this country. Inquiries about problems and methods of play should be addressed to the Editor.

We have borrowed a good many useful, ornamental, amusing and interesting things from China, among them tea, silk, paper, kites and fireworks. Only lately we have appropriated what has apparently become the national game of China, Mahjong. It has been brought to us as if it had only just emerged from the mists of antiquity. It may be interesting to glance at a few of the more popular tales with regard to its origin.

The writer who goes farthest back insists that Mah-Jong was played to pass the time in Noah’s ark. He points to two curious facts. During the forty days and nights which that vessel spent in an unprecedented rainstorm, east was the prevailing wind, and it has held the premier position in the game ever since. He also points out that one of the most popular “limit hands” in the game is known as “Noah’s Hand,” because it consists of a procession of tiles arranged two by two. The Chinese name for this hand is “Two by Two” or “Pair by Pair.” By Americans it has been christened “The Heavenly Twins.” Unfortunately for this legend, circumstantial evidence goes to show that it would have been impossible to play Mahjong in the ark, since there was not light enough on that vessel to allow players to see the discards. There was only one window, which we are told (Gen. 6:16) was only 18 inches square, although the ark was 450 feet long, 75 wide and 3 stories high. Besides, the door was shut fast, and the ventilation must have been very unsatisfactory. We all know the mental torpidity of a stuffy card-room.

“Mah-Jong,” in R. F. Foster’s view, evolved from old
Chinese card-games. Among playing cards are these of the game of “Ma-Tiao,” dating from the Ming dynasty

Another writer, evidently unfamiliar with the legend of the ark, has been good enough to fix the exact date of the invention of Mah-Jong in the year 472 BC. He fails, however, to give either his authority or the name of the inventor.

The game has frequently been attributed to Confucius. This fact led the Spanish writer, C. de Oteyza, whose work on Mah-Jong was first published in Manila, to investigate the subject while he was in China. He tells us that, with the assistance of a good Chinese interpreter, he has searched through innumerable Chinese documents for data that would permit him to name the inventor of Mah-Jong. He finds that the game was first played in China about 500 BC, which is pretty close to 472 BC, already mentioned. He says that the appearance of the game in various Chinese provinces coincides in time with the travels of Confucius, who was then teaching his new doctrines. If we analyze the game, we find its most valuable pieces are the three “Cardinal” cards, or tiles, which we know in America today as “Dragons.” These are Chung (Middle), the Red; Fa (Prosperity), the Green; Po (White), the White. These correspond to the three cardinal virtues taught by Confucius – benevolence, sincerity and filial piety. Ly Yu Sang, MA, of the Kwang-tung Economic Research Bureau, insists that they represent the three parts of the universe – earth, air and sky.

In the biography of Confucius, as set forth in the classics, is clearly emphasized Confucius’ fondness for birds, which presumably accounts for his giving to the game the name it still bears, “Sparrow,” or “Hemp Bird.” Those who consider the game too perfect to have been the work of any one man are reminded of the great philosopher’s favorite motto, “It is important to do well what is done.” Among the technical terms still extant in the game, probably the most familiar are Pung, Chee (also spelled Chih and in American usage generally Chow) and Kong. Mr. Oteyza calls attention to the fact that Confucius was of the Kong family, his full name being, in Mr. Oteyza spelling, Kong-Fu-Tze, usually written Kung Fu Tzu. He married a girl of the Ki-Koan family (Oteyza spelling), whose name was Che, and he adopted the term “Chee,” meaning “to connect” as in a sequence. It is unfortunate that Mr. Oteyza was not allowed to take photographs of the original documents that he consulted.

Bringing history down to later dates, we find a sudden descent in the mental scale from the intellectual genius of a great philosopher to the homely mind of a common fisherman. He was a man named Sze, and he lived on the shores of a lake near the city of Ningpo. There were many fishermen in that locality, buy Sze was more enterprising than the others and studied the details of his business with greater attention. It occurred to him that, instead of wading in from the shore with a net, he would do better to fish from boats. His family, being wealthy, lent him the cash to invest in a number of boats, and he employed a large number of helpers from other villages. All, however, were strangers to the water. He had excellent luck until bad weather struck his little fleet. At that, his fishermen all grew seasick and had to stop fishing and come ashore.

Since the family finances were involved, a council was held to determine what should be done about this strange sickness. It must be a matter of the mind; for the fishermen were otherwise in perfect health. It was necessary, then, to devise something that would take their attention off the rolling motion of the boats. Accordingly, Sze and his nine brothers put their heads together and, after mature deliberation, devised the game of Mah-Jong, in which the fishermen became so completely absorbed that they no longer thought of seasickness.

The only thing about this legend that comes anywhere near the truth is the statement that the game originated in the neighborhood of Ningpo. It may also be noted that the name “Sze” is part of the name of a famous statesman, Sze Ma Wen Kuang, to be mentioned presently as probably the real inventor, during the Sung dynasty, of the forerunner of Mahjong and the first to use “bone cards.”

When I was first shown Mah-Jong, I did not believe it so old as it was usually stated to be. All games belong to certain families and have certain traits that mark off their relationship. Mahjong belongs to the Mah-Jong family, as you please. Conquian, which is the national Mexican game, I played in Texas more than fifty years ago, and it was an old game then. The conquian family embraces all those games that are won by forming sequences, triplets and fours. Poker is one of them. Cribbage and piquet are others. All are old games. Games of cards having this feature have been known and played in China for centuries. Chinese playing-cards are small, long and narrow, about the size of one’s middle finger. In the course of some forty years devoted to the study of games, I have always found that well-settled principles are an indication of age. If there is much difference of opinion about any point, that feature of the game is new. When Mah-Jong was first properly explained to me by Chinese experts, I was particularly impressed by its want of equitable adjustment of values. This seemed to me to indicate that it was a relatively new game and had not been studied with sufficient thoroughness. Some parts of it were evidently recent additions.

I was reminded of the earlier days of poker, when the comparative difficulty of getting the various hands was unknown. One had to ask, for example, before beginning to play, whether threes beat a straight or a straight beat threes. The fact that players still dispute the rank of hands made with the aid of “deuces wild” clearly indicates a new feature of the game, the probabilities of such hands not being as yet widely understood. I believe I was the first to make the mathematical calculations that put all poker hands in their proper relation to one another. I am engaged on the same task with regard to Mah-Jong, and the results of my labor I shall give to readers of Asia in a future article.

Peculiarities similar to those in poker can readily be found in Mah-Jong. Take, for example, the ear-marks of a recent addition to the game, the Seasons. The fundamental counts are established for triplets, fours, Winds and Dragons. But for one of the player’s own Flower or Season, some are doubling and others requiring a pair. Some are giving only one double for the set of four Seasons or Flowers; others, two doubles or three doubles. All these values are evidently guess-work and have not yet been checked up by calculation. The odds against holding one of your own number Season are only 3 to 1, whereas the odds against getting a double with three Dragons or Winds are about 23 to 1. The odds against getting a pair of your own number Season under the same conditions, namely, the original 13 tiles and an average of ten draws from the Wall, are about 28 to 1, which is pretty close to the odds against getting three Dragons, both being doubles. It is thus apparent how illogical is the practice of some players in giving a double for only one of their own number Season. The Chinese give only one or two doubles for the four Seasons or Flowers. The odds against getting this set are about 209 to 1, even if a player is allowed for a single Season, we should allow at least 70 doubles for the set, to keep things in proportion.

These “limit hands,” “Calling Nine Cards” (left) and “The Three Scholars” (right), illustrate the illogical scoring-system in “Mahjong”

An interesting point that I have been unable to clear up is the date at which the limit was introduced to the game. That it is a new thing is evidenced from the difference of opinion as to what it should be: 300-600; 500-1000; or 1000-2000. We know when the limit was introduced to the game of poker, and also to bridge, before it was auction, and why. No attempt has been made to adjust the rank of the fifteen or more “limit hands” in the Chinese games. Take the two examples – “Calling Nine Cards” and “The Three Scholars” – pictured in the illustration.

“Calling Nine Cards” is a hand that will be completed by matching any one of the tiles from the 2 to the 8. This hand will then be worth 288 points on its face, which is 12 short of a 300 limit. The other hand, variously called “The Three Scholars,” “The Major Three” or “The Large Three Honors,” is worth 3,328 points, with anything at all for the final pair. If this final pair should be Winds, the hand would be all Winds and Dragons and would be entitled to another double, making it worth 6,656. That is eleven times the limit of 300, but it collects no more. The first hand must be made up of 13 specified tiles out of a possible 36; the second, of 12 tiles out of a possible 16, with 124 more to fill the “Eyes”; total, 140. Here we have two players, one required to get 14 tiles out of 36 to win the limit, the other required to get 14 out of 140 to get the limit, although his hand is worth at least seven times as much as the other.

But however new the limit and various other features of Mah-Jong might be, the game was not of recent origin. That fact I had to admit with further study of the subject. On abandoning the realm of legend and trying to find out the truth, I was fortunate in meeting Mr. T. E. Pun, head of the firm of Nanyang Brothers, Inc., in New York. He is thoroughly conversant with the game of Mah-Jong in its native land, and I am indebted to him for the following summary of his investigations.

One of the old Chinese games, known as Yeh-tzu Pai, is probably the first of the many which, through a gradual process of evolution and selection, finally led to the present game of Mahjong. In an old Chinese book, called Tien Lu Shih Lu, it is said that the Princess of Chang Kuo, in the Tang dynasty, was exceedingly fond of the game of Yeh-tzu Pai. We can therefore be certain that this game was in existence as early as twelve hundred years ago. Later, in the reign of Hui Tsung, of the Northern Sung dynasty (1101-1125), a certain statesman proposed to establish a game called Ya-Pai, played with 32 cards. This game is said to have been officially adopted by Kao Tsung, a later emperor, and proclaimed to the people. The cards were made of either ivory or wood, in an oblong shape, similar to that of our present Mahjong tiles, and were commonly called ku pai, or “bone cards,” at that time. According to a rare old Chinese book on games, by Chang Chao, a certain Szu Ma Kuang, famous as a statesman during the Sung dynasty, is to be credited with originating this game, although there is a legend in the city of Kashing that a native there, Chu Mai Chen, was the inventor. In the reign of Hsi Tsung, in the Ming dynasty (1621-1628), a game called Ma-Tiao, played with 40 cards similar in appearance to those of the game of Ya-Pai, was invented. There were 40 cards in four different suits, numbered from 1 to 9, with four extra Flowers, in the same way as the suits of Bamboos, Characters and Circles in the present game of Mahjong.

Mr. Pun further states that two brothers in the city of Ningpo, forty or fifty years ago, are said to have originated the game of Mahjong, developing it on the lines of the earlier game of Ma-Tiao, which is still played in China. Two brothers whose families were leaders in society in Shanghai finally took it up and introduced it to the English-speaking clubs in that city, and thence it came to America.