The Game of a Hundred Intelligences

Asia, August 1923

By L. L. Harr

Mahjong, or “Pung Chow”, as Mr. Harr calls it, has become so much the fashion in America that our readers may wish to have more information about its history and the rules for playing it, than is readily available. With a tradition centuries old, methods of play are almost limitless, and there is an entire lack of a standard or central authority. If our readers would like to have ASIA aid them in acquiring a correct technique or would care to have it collate the opinions of authorities, Mr. Harr and other experts will assist us in answering questions. Those who best know this once imperial pastime desire to see the classical game take root in this country as opposed to the crude form. For, as a game of the intellect, this game may not only become valuable in itself but may serve as an introduction to the whole range of Chinese life and culture. Inquiries about the game may be addressed to the Editor.

SOME years ago, homeward bound from China, I boarded a P & O liner at Bombay en route to Marseilles. I carried with me five sets of a game I had been playing with the Chinese in China. The first day out I made a wager with three English whist enthusiasts that, before we reached Marseilles, this new Chinese game would have forced all other games of every nationality from the smoking-room and the saloon. Even before we got to Aden, mine was the only game played on board. And at Marseilles I telegraphed to a friend in China an order for eighty sets to satisfy the demands of my fellow-passengers. Three of my five sets went to London with my English friends. And so the game was, I believe, first introduced to London society.

In the same way and probably not so many years later, it began to drift into America by way of the Pacific Coast. Its vogue has grown until, on the Pacific Coast, at least, the use of playing-cards has received a serious setback, and even in the East advertisements of Mah Jong and Pung Chow instructors are beginning to crowd out the time-honored names of teachers of auction bridge.

New York society’s Park Avenue street fair a few months ago advertised that, during the whole week, twelve Chinese would demonstrate the game. At the end of the first day, the courteous Chinese were empty-handed – their stock was sold out and could not be replaced. One American factory has on file unfilled orders from more that three thousand dealers in every state in the Union. Every day ten or fifteen buyers from cities as remote as Little Rock or San Antonio stroll into its salesrooms and add to the congestion. One of New York’s largest sporting-goods houses has sent a man to China – not with a letter of credit, but with a bag of gold – with instructions to buy every set of the game he can lay his hands on. More than one great department store has sent its buyer to China two or three months in advance of his regular schedule so that he can get hold of sets before the crowd gets there. In fact, a stampede is in progress, and already Chinese facilities for supplying the game are exhausted. One buyer, returning empty-handed, is on his way to England from New York, to start the manufacture of sets for sale in China itself! But most interesting of all, perhaps, is the report of the Department of Commerce that large quantities of bone are being shipped to China from Kansas City and Chicago, to be returned to America in the form of Chinese game sets.

To those of us who really love China and respect the vast potentialities of the Orient, the sudden popularity of this game is a profound satisfaction. No one can touch the fascinating tiles without a new interest in thins oriental, and the longer one plays, the greater grows one’s admiration for the quality of mind that developed this exercise of the “hundred intelligences”. For a game of this unique sort is not invented overnight. It is only evolved by a highly cultured people in the course of centuries. It is, in fact, a fine flowering of the human intellect. Recently, such notable thinkers as Professor John Dewey and Bertrand Russell have turned from western civilization, disrupted by the war, in order to seek in China an answer to the problems that occidental nations have failed to solve. We are awakening to the fact that China has grown old in wisdom which we have yet to learn, and it is a fortunate coincidence that at this juncture China’s royal game is spreading far its testimony to the depth and subtlety of the Chinese mind. From what is seemingly so frivolous a contact, serious influences – economic, political, cultural – making for a closer international understanding, will, I believe, derive strong impetus.

The natural question is, will the game last? Will it lapse into the oblivion of Ping-pong and tiddledywinks? Or will American life be permanently enriched by its adoption?

My answer, after playing for twenty years with ever-increasing enthusiasm, is that whether Americans will tire or whether they will develop a vivid new interest, depends almost entirely on the sort of game they learn to play. With the same pack of cards, one plays slapjack or one plays bridge; with the same set of Chinese tiles, one plays a classic Chinese game, more intricate than chess and more subtle than poker, or one plays a corruption of that game jazzed out by illiterate coolies.

If that seems drastic, let us go back twenty-five centuries or so into history. Some authorities state that the game originated in the court of the King of Wu, about the time of Confucius, some five hundred years before the Christian era. At any rate, it is known that for more than two thousand years the royal game was restricted to the use of emperors and their friends of the mandarin class. To them it was Pe-ling, taking its name from the sacred bird of “a hundred intelligences”.

Other games – polo, chess and tennis – now universally popular also began royally with the leisure and comparative refinement which in older days distinguished the nobility from the illiterate, hard-working subject classes. For any one outside the privileged classes, the penalty for playing Pe-ling was decapitation.

That this Volstead-like edict incited a good deal of sampans moored in mid stream, is more than probable. But the penalty was more or less frequently enforced until some two hundred years ago, when an astute Emperor softened an extra tax by permitting the rich and powerful merchant class to play openly. So, about seventy years ago, when the Taiping rebellion of 1850 threatened, it was a simple step to grant, as a concession to calm the populace, the universal privilege of playing the game. In this way came about that confusion of names for the game which exists today even in China. For, when Pe-ling ceased to be an imperial pastime, each province gradually applied its own pronunciation and pet slang to the game, with the result that it is known by a dozen titles.

My own acquaintance with it was made in 1899, in Shensi Province. Since then I have had the good fortune to be able to play in the homes of many cultured Chinese, among them that distinguished statesman, Li Hung-chang. The first Occidentals I remember to have seen playing the game were the Belgians building the Peking-Hankow Railway. That was as early as 1910. For over twenty-five years, however, there have been Germans in the interior of China, and no doubt they played among themselves. But after the Belgians left, the game seemed to disappear for a while so far as Westerners were concerned.

Its next notable appearance was among the Germans interned during the war. For two solid years in Peking this was the one game that several thousand of them played. Within the dreary barbed-wire enclosure there was not a hut that did not have its set in operation. The Germans were eventually shipped out of the country and once more the game dropped out of sight.

In April, 1918, I cam to Shanghai with a few sets for some of my friends. In the fall of 1920 I brought from the interior fifty more sets and the game got fairly started at the Shanghai Club. Hong Kong, so far as I could learn, had not been playing it. I took a few pioneer sets to that city. I also gave to some trans-Pacific skippers a few sets, which they probably left in San Francisco in the late summer of 1920. Presumably other Americans were doing the same thing; but I would wager that up to Christmas, 1920, there were not fifty sets of Mah Jong in all America.

Today there are probably hundreds of thousands of sets and seemingly a hundred thousand authorities. When anybody tells you that “this is the right way” to play, or that “this is the way the Chinese do it”, it is well to remember: that China contains 4,800,000 square miles of territory covering seven great river districts; that China has 400,000,000 inhabitants divided not only geographically but along well-defined class-lines; that the regular method of travel in native China is by wheelbarrow, cart or sampan; that there have been until recently almost no magazines or newspapers and that 80 per cent of the people cannot read anyway; that into this ignorant mass was tossed seventy years ago a game which in intellectual refinement excels our American auction bridge, or even chess.

Then let your amateur authority picture for himself a China made up of thousands of isolated communities and social groups, busy as so many scattered ant-hills, experimenting with their own rules and degrading the classic methods of play to the mental level of the coolie, whose whole life is only to work, eat, sleep and gamble. And now ask him to estimate the number of “right ways” that China might evolve in a half-century of incessant playing of the game.

So it is easy to see why there are two Chinese games – entirely different – played with practically the same pieces. The average Chinese coolie has never even heard of the classic Pe-ling that some of us are attempting to revive in America. He could no more comprehend the game that the cultured Chinese play than an American plantation-negro could finesse at bridge. On the other hand, the high-class Chinese frown upon Mah Jong, the coolie gambling-game. To them it is as dangerous as opium for their ignorant citizens and, like opium, blemishes the fame of a great nation. A cultured Chinese feels about Mah Jong in America somewhat as the President of Harvard might feel if he were invited to be enthusiastic about craps as America’s great national game.

The bearing of all this on Mah Jong in America may not be evident at first sight. It is very important, nevertheless. One must not forget that, in the exotic atmosphere of the port cities of China, the visitor from the Occident soon demands of his diversions the maximum excitement with the least possible mental effort. But in general the Westerner is responsive to the element of intellectual fascination in games. And, properly played, this most beautiful of them all should appeal particularly to Americans; for it is an engrossing battle between mathematical possibilities, each absolute and calculable at any given moment, but all shifting like a kaleidoscope with every play.