The Origins of Mah Jong

confucius image
An illustration of Confucius

There is a legend that the famous philosopher Confucius invented the game, but that has not been verified. Part of the reason for this myth is that historians have noted that the three dragon tiles agree exactly with Confucius' mentioning of the three noble virtues. These virtues are sincerity, filial piety, and benevolence. In addition, Confucius liked birds and the name Mah Jong has the word "sparrow" in it. If the myth is true, then the game would have originated in China as far back as 500 B.C.

Confucius was a Chinese philosopher who lived in China about the same time the Hundred Schools of Thought period began. He is known throughout the world today, for his notoriety and wisdom has spread outside the borders of China. His philosophies are ingrained in the very fabric of Chinese culture, much like Mah Jong. He was the father of many wise sayings that are still sought out and quoted today. It is easy to see how wonderful and appropriate indeed it would be if it were indeed true that Confucius was the original inventor of the game.

Despite this perhaps apocryphal origin, there are other historians who have researched the game and believe that it started as a type of card game back in the Ming Dynasty called Madiao, Yezi, or Martin Tiae. This game play involved 40 cards made out of paper and bears a striking resemblance to the game Ya Pei.

This game is similar to Mah Jong in that each card is numbered one to nine using four suits, and there are extra flower cards. This type of numbering is remarkably akin to the type used in Mah Jong currently, even though it is played with only three total suits of cards.

There are even others who believe that the game of Mah Jong was developed by a nobleman in Shanghai at some time between the years of 1870 to 1875. There are even some who adhere to the theory that two brothers who hailed from Ningpo devised the game around the year of 1850. It was said that he was renowned for his carvings in ivory.

As far as a definitive origin, there is a bit of record from researchers in China that the inception of Mah Jong took place in the provinces of Kiangsu, Anhwei and Chekiang, which are located near Shanghai.

As early as 1905 the game of Mah Jong was not a familiar game outside of certain areas of China. But after this time, its popularity grew and it eventually came to become even more popular than the game of chess in some areas. During this time, the Chinese took out certain aspects and incorporated a number of little game playing rituals to make the game closer to what it is known as today.

Aspects of these particular rituals are associated with how the shuffling is undertaken, how the four walls are constructed out of the tiles, how the tiles are dealt, and how the "kong box" is created. Some may be perplexed as to why all these seemingly unnecessary rituals have been incorporated, but it is important to remember that Mah Jong was primarily a game used in gambling, and these seeming innocuous or superfluous rituals often were a way to prevent cheating when the game was played.

However it began, it was being played in China in the mid to late 1800s, and was brought over to the United States in the 1920s. Yet another theory places its origins during the Taiping Rebellion and its creators as Chinese officers during that time.

During the 1920s, the game was gradually improved to make it more visually appealing and bettering the overall aesthetics of the game. Some of the sets that were fabricated were known for their remarkable beauty and their attention to mathematical detail. There are certain Mah Jong aficionados who think that any changes made after this time period take away from the game, as they were so pleased with what it evolved to at that time.

Although an American anthropologist by the name of Stewart Cullen wrote a paper mentioning the game of Mah Jong in 1895, it was not fully introduced into American culture until about this same time - the 1920s. The company Abercrombie & Fitch was the first company to sell Mah Jong sets. It became such a resounding success in New York that one of the co-founders of the company, Ezra Fitch, decided it would be a good idea to dispatch a number of emissaries to cities in China to buy up all the Mah Jong sets they could find. In their years of production, Abercrombie & Fitch ended up selling around 12,000 sets of Mah Jong.

In 1923, the game was first published in Britain, and it took off in popularity there as well. The game was so popular over there that it even made its way to the British outposts in India, and Brits over there would play it quite regularly. The British, however, tended to adhere to the original Chinese rules of Mah Jong and avoided playing by the rules devised by the Americans.

Today Mah Jong is played all over the world and numerous manufacturers make the sets. While the game remains marginal compared to chess and backgammon it still retains a place in the games world. One of the foremost retailers of the sets today is The Regency Chess Company of England. They stock a wide range of sets including basic Chinese ones as well as fine luxury Italian versions. Their blog is a wealth of information about the games as well a new products and general company developments.

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