Mahjong was exclusive to royalty in China for centuries, and it was against the law for commoners to play it. Read the history of Mahjong.

History of Mahjong

Mahjong is traditionally a Chinese game, with four players at a square table. The game is played with tiles, as opposed to playing cards.

The object is to be the first player to collect all the tiles to make a complete hand, which is 4 sets of 3, and a pair. What part of China Mahjong is played determines the rules for playing and scoring, because they vary largely between various parts of China.

There are several theories on the origin of Mahjong. One theory suggests that it was Confucius a famous Chinese philosopher who developed the game around 500 BC.

The introduction of the game in many provinces does, in fact, coincide with the paces visited by Confucius as he traveled teaching his doctrine. Despite the fact that this theory has never been verified, support of this theory exists in the 'dragon' tiles used in Mahjong, which symbolize the 3 cardinal rules:

  • Red Dragon: Benevolence
  • Green Dragon: Sincerity
  • White Dragon: Filial Piety

Theories on the Origin of Mahjong

Historians specializing in Mahjong argue that it started as a type of card game during the Ming Dynasty. The card game was known as Madiao, which translates into the English language as 'Hanging Horse'. Madiao was played with 40 cards made from paper, and is very similar to another game known as "Ya Pei".

Ya Pei is similar to Mahjong because it consists of cards numbered 1 to 9 using 4 suits, and also has extra flower cards. This numbering is almost identical th the numbering used in today's Mahjong, with the exception that Mahjong is played by using only 3 suits of cards.

Other theories include Mahjong being developed by a nobleman in Shanghai between 1870 and 1875, or that it was devised by two clever brothers from Ningpro. Another theory is that it originated during the Taiping Rebellion, created by Chinese officers for entertainment purposes.

Researchers in China do have some recorded evidence that Mahjong's inception took place in provinces located near Shanghai, Kiangsu, Anhwei, and Chekiang. Mahjong tiles are often used to predict the future, given the many layers of symbolism and meanings associated with the game. For example:

  • 1 Bamboo is a Peacock, which indicates a change in the direction of life.
  • 1 Ball is a Pearl, which indicates the attainment of honor.
  • 1 Wan indicates a barrier in life which will be lifted.

Aside from the mystery of how Mahjong originated, it is known that the game was played in China during the mid to late 1800s, and was brought to America in the 1920s. Outside of certain regions in China, Mahjong was not a familiar game played until after 1905 when its popularity began to grow, eventually becoming more popular than Chess in some places.

Certain aspects of the game were incorporated into game playing rituals by Chinese players, making the game more like what is known to be played today.

Some aspects of these rituals are associated with the shuffling of tiles,the construction of the 4 walls with the tiles, the dealing of the tiles, and the creation of the "Kong Box". Most of these rituals were incorporated to prevent any cheating by players, because Mahjong was a game played primarily for gambling purposes.

Mahjong Comes to America and Britain

Mahjong was revised to improve its visual appeal and overall aesthetics during the 1920s, with more expensive sets designed with special attention to the mathematical details becoming known for their remarkable beauty.

Mahjong became fully introduced to the American people when the company known as Abercrombie & Fitch started selling Mahjong game sets, and in their years of production, the company sold more than 12,000 sets of the game.

When Mahjong was introduced to Britain in 1923, it quickly became very popular, even making its way to British outposts located in India, where it was played by the British regularly.

Considered to be a representation of capitalist corruption, in 1949 Mahjong was banned in China by the regime, and along with other forms of gambling activities, it was outlawed by the People's Republic of China.

The ability to play Mahjong in China became reinstated during the Cultural Revolution, without the gambling element, and in 1985 it was legalized, and many Chinese people started playing it openly once again.

American Mahjong and the National Mahjong League

The earlier years of Mahjong's introduction to the United States saw it to be a game mostly enjoyed by Jewish women, as a fun and challenging social event, where no gambling was involved. These Jewish women were also the founders of the National Mahjong League (NMJL). They are also responsible for the most popular form of Mahjong that is still played today in the United States, known as 'American Mahjong.'

In 1937, the formation of the National Mahjong League (NMJL) regulated the game, and the NMJL also published a rule book based on American rules, which was titled 'Maajh: The American Version of the Ancient Chinese Game'.

Currently, there are 2 official Mahjong organizations in the United States, which are the National Mahjong League and the American Mahjong Association. These 2 organizations have hosted Mahjong tournaments throughout North America, and are most famous for their signature tournament, which is held annually at the Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

In 1986, the NMJL hosted their first Mahjong Cruise Tournament, and in 2010, hosted their 25th Silver Anniversary Cruise to commemorate this. Players came to celebrate and compete in the event from Canada and all over the United States.

Mahjong Today

Mahjong is played throughout the world, and there are several manufacturers making the sets, and despite its marginality compared to Backgammon and Chess, it continues to hold a secure position in the gaming industry.

Spanning the globe on an international level, today, Mahjong is more popular than ever, and has a greater level of recognition and popularity in Asia.

Year after year, it continues to grow, becoming a huge part of American gaming.

With increasing popularity and success as a computerized game online and offline with the advent of the internet and online gaming and gambling, Mahjong has successfully evolved and moved into the 21st century.

Last update: 30-09-2019
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