Mah Chang: The Game and Its History

Living Age, September 1, 1923

From the China Weekly Review, June 30, 1923
(Shanghai Political and Economic Journal)

By J. B. Powell

Some three thousand years ago, according to the legend, there was a fisherman named Sze who lived on the shores of the East Chien Lake near Nignpo. There were many fishermen who lived about the shores of East Chien Lake, but Fisherman Sze was more enterprising than the rest, for he decided that more fish could be caught from a boat than by standing on the shore.

Sze’s family had considerable wealth and they backed him in the purchase of several boats. Then he employed a hundred fishermen from other villages and started out to try his luck. All went well until the wind began to blow and then Sze’s troubles began, for all of the fishermen were ‘land’ fishermen and unaccustomed to the rolling seas. They became seasick and had to be taken ashore.

It looked like bad joss to this early Izaak Walton, so a family council was held and it was decided that seasickness was merely a matter of the mind – imagination if you please – therefore the thing to do was to devise some method for getting the men’s minds off their mal de mer. Fisherman Sze and his nine brothers then thought long and seriously, and the result was a game which they called Mah Diau.

So there you have the origin of ‘Mah Chang,’ ‘Mah Choh,’ ‘Mah Jongg,’ ‘Mah Diao,’ ‘Mah Juck,’ ‘Pe Ling,’ ‘Mah Cheuk,’ or whatever you desire to call this game of the ancient Chinese which has taken America by storm and which is being ‘taken up’ in London, Paris, and other world centres, not to overlook Chicago and Hannibal, Missouri, and other points west. The game of Mah Diau, as originally played by the lowly fishermen in the employ of head-fisherman Sze, consisted of one hundred and eight pieces of cardboard and was played by four persons, and each held thirteen cards even as to-day is the practice in Shanghai, New York, and Washington, D. C. And according to the legend the fishermen became so absorded in the game of Mah Diau that they forgot their seasickness, and as a result Sze and his nine brothers prospered and founded a great family which lives even unto this day.

From this humble beginning the game ‘caught on’ and next we hear of one Chen Yu-mun, an officer in the imperial Chinese army who was also stationed at Ningpo, the provincial metropolis of Chekiang Province of China.

General Chen’s chief job was that of bandit-catcher and his army was known far and wide because of the white caps which they wore. But General Chen was sorely worried because of the habit of his soldiers of falling asleep during the wee sma’ hours of the night, at which times the bandits would slip through the lines and hold up trains, or whatever the means of conveyance were in those days.

Hearing of the wonderful game of Mah Diau, which was so fascinating that fishermen forgot to get seasick while playing it, he possessed himself of several sets and tried them out on his night guards. It worked moderately well; but due probably to the fact that soldiers, even in those days, were more blasé than simple fisherfolk, General Chen still had trouble, for some of his soldiers persisted in falling asleep when they should have been watching for bandits.

After great meditation the General solved the problem by inventing some new cards: chung (red), fah (green), pah (white), and north, south, east, and west. This brought the number of cards up to one hundred and thirty-six, and never again, says the story-teller, did General Chen have trouble with his soldiers falling asleep. They stayed awake all night and he is reported to have had trouble thereafter in pursuading them to go to sleep. They wanted to play the new game all the time.

As time went on, continues the chronicler, certain persons of low repute, gamblers they were called, took up the game and by means of the simple little cards took away the wages of the fishermen and soldiers. But the gamblers also made their contribution to progress, for it is said in the records that a famous exponent of profit by change, one Chang Shiu-Mo by name, also of the village of Ningpo, found that the number of cards was not sufficient. So he added some more: spring, summer, autumn, and winter, and Mei (plum blossom), lan (orchid), ruh (chrysanthemum), and chuk (bamboo). This made the game so terribly fascination that it spread to the far boundaries of the Celestial Empire, and has continued to this present day to be the chief method of recreation for officials and persons of the upper classes, and even into the lair of the bandits of Paozuku, who have found their diversion in the click and play of the little ivory and bamboo tiles as they move deftly from hand to hand about the table.

There isn’t much more to the history. Later on some enterprising manufacturer made a set from bamboo, and then his competitor across the street, remembering the white-capped soldiers, of the Ningpo legend, added white-bone or ivory caps to the bamboo; and thus we come to the modern days when the dull pages of the Chinese Maritime Customs returns are made more interesting by items telling of unbelievably large cargoes of this interesting Chinese game being exported to foreign countries by fast steamers.

Then the trouble began, – there is always trouble in every story of achievement, – for it developed that it is one thing to start a ‘craze’ and an entirely different matter to supply the wherewithal to supply the craze. Orders began coming to China for sets of this Chinese game, and the Chinese manufacturer looked up from his workbench, where he was turning out ‘characters,’ ‘bamboos,’ and ‘circles,’ all deftly but slowly done by hand in the manner of his fathers, and said, ‘No can do,’ and went back to his work.

Chinese manufacturers had been making this game for centuries, and they saw no reason for changing methods which the fathers, grandfathers, and great-grandfathers to the nth generation had found successful. Furthermore, there was a scarcity of labor. Each shop or ‘factory’ contained from a dozen to thirty workers, and each shop did one thing: that is, one shop sawed the bone into squares and another did the engraving, while still another sawed the bamboo, and so on through a maze of operations which through the centuries had slowly produced perfection.

So why change the system just because a lot of crazy foreigners wanted to play a Chinese game? And then there was another problem as expressed by one dealer, ‘No can get plenty bones.’ It seems that the white-bone faces on the tiles can only be made from a small section (about seven inches in length of the shin bone of the cow, and China’s cows, long accustomed to supplying a certain proportion of their framework for this purpose, refused to yield any more. The Chinese dealer had these foreign buccaneers then. ‘No can get plenty bones!’

The case was settled and he went back to his work again.

But at this point American enterprise stepped in. ‘We’ll get the bones for you,’ the buyers shouted; and Messrs. Swift, Armour, Cudahy, and Libby in Chicago, Kansas City, and Omaha got urgent cables from China for rush orders of shin bones, and the orders kept up until it is said that the great American beef-barons have neglected their sausages and porterhouse steaks in order to supply Shanghai with shin bones for the manufacture of Mah Chang. Even the elephants down in India and Siam are said to be in a panic due to the threatened raid on their protruding front teeth because of the demand for ivory sets.

But this didn’t help much. A Chinese manufacturer who has always operated a one-room shop, just like his forbears did, is a pretty difficult problem when it comes to persuading him that he should double, quadruple, and octuple his output.

Enterprising foreigners in Shanghai tried to start factories, but to no avail, for skilled workers refused to be enticed away from the benches of their fathers. The Mah Chang skies remained overcast. If the laborers will not leave their little factories, why not move the whole factory? This was the clever idea possessed by a little group of Americans and Britishers in Shanghai, and a few months ago they did just this. The factory of the Mei Ren Company is now located in Paoshan, just beyond Hongkew Park in Shanghai. This interesting enterprise, which has developed in a few short months to the place where it employs more than four hundred skilled laborers, is really a combination of more than a dozen little Mah Chang factories all gathered together under one roof, and provides an interesting example of what Western ingenuity can accomplish in China when it really tries.

Undoubtedly the most interesting element in this factory, as in all factories, is the labor. Practically all of the four hundred and more workers were brought to Shanghai from Soochow, Wenchow, Hangchow, Yangchow, and Ningpo in small groups, and before they consented to leave their home surroundings it required much persuasion – of the kind common to China. Briefly, it required much silver in the form of Yuan dollars. It was necessary to guarantee each man a certain income (everything is done by piecework), and it was also necessary to provide railroad fare to Shanghai and return if desired; and then it was found to be still further necessary to provide both food and lodging in Shanghai at the factory, and then it was found that a ‘bonus’ ranging from $50 to $100 per man was still further necessary in addition.

It should be stated that this is a ‘complete’ factory, for the reason that every operation from the manufacture of the box to the packing of the ‘sets’ is done here, with the single exception of the rectangular pieces of bamboo which form the backs of the tiles, which are purchased outside from a bamboo-dealer who guarantees that his product has been dried and seasoned for at least eighteen months. The first operation which greets the eye of the visitor is that of a primitive saw. The operator takes the pieces of shin bone, which previously have been bleached to a snowy whiteness, and saws them into pieces about 1 1/2 inches in length. Then next to him are a number of other gentlemen with iron chisels in their hands, who deftly split these pieces into two or three sections. The chisel and a block of wood are the only tools used here.

Then another group of artisans take these little sections of bone and shape them roughly into flat pieces. These pieces of bone are then graded as to thickness, for you probably discovered when you purchased your Mah Chang set that the price is determined largely by the thickness of the bone ‘face’ on the tiles. This is due to the fact that the average shin bone only yields one or two ‘thick’ pieces, the remainder being an average of 1/8 inch, 3/16 inch, and 1/4 inch in thickness.

The next operation is the difficult one of dovetailing the bone face into the flat side of the bamboo which forms the back of the tile. To see the primitive tools, which consist of a file and a hammer, one would never suspect that such a fine job of joining could be accomplished; but with one or two operations, performed so quickly the eye can scarcely follow, the job is finished.

The ‘dovetailing,’ sometimes called ‘tongue-and-grooving,’ is done by filing the ‘tongue’ in the bone and the ‘groove’ in the bamboo. Then the two pieces are forced together so closely that the seam is practically invisible. Another operation then takes these rough pieces of bone and bamboo and smooths down the edges by filing. After this operation the little rectangles, now exactly 1 1/4 inches long and 7/8 of an inch wide, are placed in a frame for polishing.

And the polishing – again primitive methods produce a fine result. With a piece of sandpaper, the first roughness is removed. Then a piece of skin from some sort of fish which has a fine rough surface is used to take off the next coat, and finally a piece of rush or species of marsh-growing plant is used for the finishing operation, which produces the fine polished surface so pleasing to the finger tips of milord or milady Mah Chang player. Here the tiles are again regarded as to thickness.

Now comes the engraving, and with the exception of the making of the ‘circles,’ which is done with a drill or primitive auger, the engraving of the ‘characters,’ ‘bamboos,’ ‘winds,’ and other tiles is done by hand, mostly by boys ranging in age from twelve to eighteen. Each boy does one figure and is known in factory language as a ‘circle-maker,’ ‘bamboo-engraver,’ and so on.

Following this operation comes that of coloring. Native colors – red, purple, and green – are used, and they are applied by roughly daubing the entire face of the tile with the colors desired. Then the face of the tiles is wiped with a cloth and then scraped with a fine chisel. The coloring only penetrates where the bone has been engraved, thus producing the attractive face of the tile. Each set packed by the Mei Ren factory contains one hundred and fifty tiles, the extra ones being blanks for use in case some are lost.

One interesting and amusing phase of the popularity of Mah Chang in the United States came from a rumor which gained wide circulation that each of the various Chinese names employed by various importers referred to a different game, or, in others words, that the Chinese played several kinds of Mah Chang. This dispute waxed hot and furious, and according to gossip frantic appeals were made to the Far Eastern Division of the State Department. The Chinese Legation was also appealed to, and none other than His Excellency, Dr. Sao Ke Alfred Sze, Minister Plenipotentiary and Envoy Extraordinary from the Republic of China to the United States of America, settled the matter for all time by issuing an unofficial statement to the effect that there is only one Chinese Mah Chang game, call it what you will.

And don’t forget that Dr. Sze spells his name S-Z-E – just like the founder of the game back in the old village of Ningpo in the province of Chekiang, and the period of time corresponds to that of King Tutankhamen, who doubtless was also familiar with the game.