There are few games whose history is shrouded in quite as much myth as Mahjong. While some contend the game is over 2,500 years old, records can only verify it dating back to the mid nineteenth century, at the very earliest, likely in the provinces around Shanghai. In less than 40 years, the game went from being a local craze to creating a worldwide shortage of ivory and bone for tiles during the 1920s.
Mahjong roughly translates as “chattering sparrow”. One of the many myths claim it was so named because Confucius liked birds and used the game as a teaching tool that he then took across China in his travels. However, a great many games in China claim to have been invented by Confucius, so coupled with the lack of even a single ancient tile, this theory seems unlikely. In fact, the oldest artifact identifiable as a Mahjong tile dates to the 1880s.
It is possible that similar games have been played with paper cards, also invented in China. Ya-Pei is one of the oldest card games that resembles Mahjong and is known to have been played as early as the 10th century. Yet another myth has the game being invented for the exclusive use of the royal court. This particular story also has it that commoners were forbidden to play, upon pain of death. While this might be true of other court amusements, it is unlikely the game, as it is known today, was played in any court until at least the 1890s.
Other tile games, such as dominoes, have been popular in China since the 12th century. The Taiping Rebellion of the 1850s and 60s is notable for the appearance of many card and domino games (very similar in play to Mahjong) among imperial troops stationed there. The game that most closely resembles the “Traditional Chinese Rules”, is first mentioned by name in late 19th century Chinese literature. Most researchers agree that the game probably sprung up in several places and is derived from the older card game, Mah-tiae (aka Hanging Horse), that was played extensively with a very similar set of tiles since the 15th century.
An American living in Taiwan was the first Westerner to mention the game at the turn of the 20th century, in his history of the area. The game began to spread among Westerners in Asia shortly after a few British nationals introduced it to the cosmopolitan expatriate cafes of Shanghai. Within a few short years, Mahjong was exported to Japan, with clubs forming as early as 1907.
However, the rules were never made “official” in China, so it continued to evolve and change as it spread like wildfire throughout East Asia. After a great deal of refinement, it was exported again to the United States and the British Empire during the 1920s. The Japanese rules, differ by being derivative of the earlier game.
When each culture picked up Mahjong, the rules were adjusted to suit local tastes. Joseph P. Babcock, a representative of the Standard Oil Company in Shanghai, was importing sets to the United States in great numbers by 1923. To increase interest in the game, sometimes inscrutable to Westerners, he rewrote and published new and far more simplistic rules that became the American standard. When the National Mahjong League, Inc. published a volume of “Official American Rules” in 1935, the American style was further morphed into the very distinct form seen today.
The British rules that were adopted in the United Kingdom as well as India and Africa, are the closest to the original Chinese “Traditional” version, varying only in having a few additional hands or “melds”. It remains popular in the states of the former Empire today, though widespread interest in the Americas has only recently rekindled after falling off in the 1930s.
In China itself, Mahjong was actually banned, as a capitalist pastime that encouraged gambling, after the Communist Revolution of the late 1940s. It was not allowed again until the Cultural Revolution was well underway nearly 20 years later.
Today, the game is quite popular worldwide, and played in clubs and online forums. Though the craze that saw Mahjong become the country’s most popular game in 1923, dropped off in the Americas, it never lost its following in other countries. During the 20th century, the game spread worldwide, with widely variant rules popping up everywhere.
Tiles have been made out of just about anything (ironically, even paper) over the last century. They often feature intricate designs, especially on the flower and season tiles. Once very popular, ivory tiles haven been banned by a worldwide trade embargo since 1970s. Most sets today are made from wood, ceramic or plastic.