Mahjong is a four player game that originated in China during the Qing dynasty (1644-1912). Three-player variations of the game can be found in South Korea and Japan. The game and its regional variants are widely played throughout Eastern and South Eastern Asia and have a small following in Western countries.
Similar to the Western card game rummy (though played with small tiles instead of playing cards), Mahjong is a game of skill, strategy, calculation, and luck. It is not known when the conversion from cards to tiles took place precisely but it most likely occurred in the middle of the 19th century. Traditionally, Mahjong tiles were made of bone, often backed with bamboo. Bone tiles are still available but most modern sets are constructed from various plastics such as bakelite, celluloid, and more recently nylon.
The game is played with a set of 144 tiles based on Chinese characters and symbols (although some regional variations omit some and/or add others). In most variations, each player begins by receiving 13 tiles. In turn players draw and discard tiles until they complete a legal hand using the 14th drawn tile to form four groups (‘meld’) and a pair (‘eye’). There are fairly standard rules about how a piece is drawn, how a piece is robbed from another player, the use of simples (numbered tiles) and honors (‘winds’ and ‘dragons’), the kinds of melds allowed, how to deal the tiles and the order of play. Despite these similarities, there are many regional variations to the rules including rather different scoring systems and criteria for legal winning hands.
In Chinese, the game was originally called ‘máquè,’ which means ‘sparrow,’ and is still the name most commonly used in some southern Chinese varieties such as Cantonese and Min Nan, as well as in Japanese. However, most Mandarin-speaking Chinese now call the game Mahjong. In 1895, British sinologist William Henry Wilkinson wrote a paper which mentioned a set of cards known in central China by the name of ‘ma chioh,’ literally, ‘hemp sparrow,’ which he maintained was the origin of the term Mahjong. He did not explain the dialect of the originator or region specific etymology of this information.
Mahjong is based on draw-and-discard card games that were popular in 18th and 19th century China and some are still popular today. Games scholar David Parlett has written that the Western card games Conquian and Rummy share a common origin with Mahjong. All these games involve players drawing and discarding tiles or cards to make melds, sets of matching cards, typically three or more, that earn a player points and/or allow him to deplete his hand.
The ban on gambling after the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949 led to a decline in Mahjong. The game itself was banned during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Today, it is a favorite pastime in China and other Chinese-speaking communities. Mahjong culture is particularly influential in Hong Kong. For example During a Chinese wedding banquet in Hong Kong, guests often play Mahjong during the waiting time, and a count-down Mahjong before the Chinese New Year or the New Year is a typical practice for many Hong Kong families. Many restaurants in Hong Kong offer Mahjong equipment for their customers. Also, while officially, casinos are illegal in Hong Kong, there are legal Mahjong schools where gambling is permitted.
In Chinese culture inviting someone to play a game of Mahjong is a sign of friendliness, and the elderly are encouraged to play the game as brain exercise. However, Mahjong games also create problems. Addiction to Mahjong is a common type of problem gambling. Mahjong is also a favorite medium for bribery – the person giving the bribe will intentionally lose large sums of money to the person being bribed.
Additionally, according to a 2007 study, prolonged playing of Mahjong may trigger epileptic seizures. To date there are 23 reported cases of Mahjong-induced seizures in the English medical literature. Some doctors speculate that this may be due to stress and complex manual movement correlated with intense brain function similar to playing chess or card games such as poker. Studies by doctors have also shown in Hong Kong that the game is beneficial for individuals suffering from dementia or cognitive memory difficulties, leading to the development of ‘Mahjong therapy.’
The first Mahjong sets sold in the U.S. were sold by Abercrombie & Fitch starting in 1920. It became a success in Washington, D.C., and the co-owner of the company, Ezra Fitch, sent emissaries to Chinese villages to buy every Mahjong set they could find. Abercrombie & Fitch sold a total of 12,000 Mahjong sets. Also in 1920, Joseph Park Babcock, an American petroleum engineer living in China who had discovered the game, published his book ‘Rules of Mah-Jongg,’ also known as the ‘red book.’ His rules simplified the game to make it easier for Americans to take up, and his version was common through the Mahjong fad of the 1920s. When the popularity of the game died out, many of Babcock’s simplifications were abandoned.
Many variants of Mahjong developed in the 1930s. The most common form, which eventually became known as ‘American Mahjong.’ Standardization came with the formation of the National Mah Jongg League (NMJL) in 1937. Many consider the modern American version a Jewish remake, as many American Mahjong players are of Jewish descent (the game is particularly popular among Jewish women). The NMJL was founded by Jewish players and is considered a Jewish organization.