Mahjong in China
Different kinds of Chinese playcards (from left to right): Bógŭ Yèzí (博古葉子), Caozhou Paí (曹州牌), Three Kingdoms Yèzí (三國葉子), Dongguan Paí (東莞牌).
One of the myths (probably originating in the West) regarding the origin of Mahjong 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 dragon (Cardinal) tiles also agree with the three Cardinal virtues bequeathed by Confucius. Zhong ( , lit. middle) the Red, Fa ( , lit. prosperity) the Green, Bai ( , lit. white) the White represent Benevolence, Sincerity, and Filial piety respectively. Confucius was said to be fond of birds, which would explain the name “Mahjong” (hemp bird).
Terms used in the play of the game Pong, Chee and Kong also give evidence to this theory. Confucius was of the Kong family, his full name being Kong-Qiu; he married a girl named Che and adopted the term Chee, meaning ‘to connect’, which Westerners corrupted into Chow.
Another possible theory implies that the game had been developed from existing Chinese card and domino games sometime around 1850. Some historians believe it was based on a Chinese card game called Mádìao (馬吊) (also known as Ma Tiae, lit. Hanging Horse; or Yèzí (葉子), lit. Leaf) in the early Ming dynasty. This game was played with 40 paper cards similar in appearance to the cards used in the game Ya Pei. These forty cards, numbered 1 to 9 in four different suits along with four extra flower cards, are quite alike to the numbering of Mahjong tiles today. There is still a healthy debate about to whom the creation of the game should be attributed. One theory is that Chinese army officers serving during the Tai Ping Rebellion created the game to pass the time. Another theory is that a noble living in the Shanghai area created the game between 1870 and 1875. It is thought that around 1850 in the city of Ningpo two brothers had created Mahjong from the earlier game of Mádìao.
Mahjong in the western world
Mahjong Taikai, a Japanese Mahjong computer game on PSP, produced by Koei in 2005.
By 1895, Stewart Culin, an American anthropologist, wrote a paper in which Mahjong was mentioned. This is the first known written account of Mahjong in any language other than Chinese. By 1910, there were written accounts in many languages including French and Japanese. An important English read was Joseph Park Babcock’s Rules of Mah-Jongg, which, simplified in 1920, was simply known as the “red book”. Although this was the earliest version of Mahjong that had been introduced to America, many of Babcock’s simplifications are abandoned nowadays. The book introduced many similar English language rulebooks, with a large number of inaccurate rumors (including those of the National Mah Jongg League, the governing body of American Mahjong). A patently false claim was made that Mahjong had originated in ancient China in order to bring an air of mystique into the game. Ironically, many of these hearsay information about Mahjong’s ancient origins are used today in much the same way for Mahjong solitaire, a much newer game.
The game was a sensation in America when it was imported from China in the 1920s, with the same Mahjong game taking on a number of trademarked names, such as Pung Chow or the Game of Thousand Intelligences. Part of Mahjong nights in America were to decorate rooms in Chinese style and dress like Chinese. Several hit songs were also recorded during the mahjong fad, most notably Since Ma is Playing Mah Jong by Eddie Cantor.
American mahjong, which was mainly played by women during the time, grew from this craze, and in the 1930s, after many revisions of the rules (including some that were considered fundamentals in other variants, such as the notion of a standard hand) led to the formation of the National Mah Jongg League in 1937, along with the first American mahjong rulebook, Maajh: The American Version of the Ancient Chinese Game. Despite it being Chinese in origin and accepted by players of all racial backgrounds when first introduced by Babcock, American Mahjong is considered a Jewish game, as many American mahjong players are of Jewish descent, and the NMJL was founded by Jewish players and considered a Jewish organization. But, at the same time, this traditional Chinese game was banned in its homeland in 1949, when the People’s Republic of China was founded. The new Communist government forbade any gambling activities, which were regarded as symbols of capitalist corruption. After the Cultural Revolution, the game was revived, and once again Mahjong has become one of the favorite pastimes of the Chinese people.
Today, the popularity and demographic of players of Mahjong differs greatly from country to country. In America, most players of American mahjong are women. In Japan, there has been a much greater emphasis on gambling before other le gender of the players is much less divided. There are also many governing bodies of Mahjong, many of them hosting exhibition games and tournaments. In Japan, video arcades have introduced Mahjong arcade machines that can be connected to others over the internet, as well as video games that allow a victorious player to view pictures of women in varying stages of undress.
Mahjong culture is still deeply ingrained in the Chinese community: Sam Hui wrote Cantopop songs, using mahjong as their themes. Chinese movies have always included scenes of mahjong games. Gambling movies have been filmed time and again in Hong Kong, and a recent sub-genre is the mahjong movie.