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The Shocking History of Mahjong

Updated: Mar 6, 2023

Mahjong humble beginnings...

For many years, decades and centuries, Mahjong has been a popular game amongst friends, families and strangers. Considering how the game dates back to antiquity times, it is remarkable how Mahjong is still ubiquitously played today. As a Mahjong enthusiast myself, I have always wondered about the origins of Mahjong and how it has developed over the years. Through months of digging, I believe I have finally consolidated my findings well enough to share with you guys. After cross referencing with many different articles, I will like to present you the HISTORY BEHIND MAHJONG.

Photo by Lust, Caution (2007)

Based on a legend, Mahjong was known to be invented in China from as early as 500 BC. There was a hearsay that Mahjong was discovered by a famous Confucius who liked birds. And according to the rumor, Mahjong was initially called " Sparrow " , 麻雀 in Chinese. Since Mahjong is called 麻将 , we can say that both games are the same via derivation from etymology. The three dragon tiles are said to also represent the three noble values which are filial piety, humaneness and ritual. Since the creator was a philosopher as well, it is of no surprise that he uses Mahjong to teach important values to his disciples. However, since this story is simply a myth with no proper evidence, we can only take this legend with a pinch of salt.

If there is a more credible source regarding Mahjong's origins, we can date back to the Yuan dynasty to confirm its existence. Based on certain records, they said that Mahjong started off as a card game called "Madiao". It consists of 40 cards made by either paper or wood and is played by four players. What really intrigues me is the fact that the 40 cards are numbered one to nine with four different suits. By comparison, Mahjong is very similar to "Madiao". Additionally, there were accounts of the deck being used by Lu Rong in the 15th century & the rules later set by Pan ZhiSheng and Feng MengLong during the early 17th century. Since "Madiao" was also a gambling game where three players bet against one banker, we can implythat Mahjong is an adoption of "Madiao".

Fast forward in time, there were also beliefs that the game was invented by two brothers from Ningpo, China, who were great at carving. By inference, these two brothers then carved the tiles and turn them into Mahjong during 1850. Others, on the other hand, thought that Mahjong was created by some businessman from Shanghai. Due to the lack of records to back these beliefs, we can only view these statements as groundless rumors.

If we really want a more definitive answer in relation to Mahjong's origins, we can trace back to some legitimate records in the 1900s. Written by an American anthropologist, Stewart Cullen, a paper about Mahjong was first released in the 1920s. It was that time when Mahjong was first introduced to the America Culture. Thanks to the popularity of the game , Mahjong sets were then first sold by an American company called Abercrombie & Fitch. Additionally. in 1923, the game was also published to the British people. Mahjong then proceed to became a popular game that it was even regularly played by the British soldiers in their overseas posting. If you still don't believe, check out this picture in the 1920s illustrating Americans playing Mahjong:

Photo by Getty Images

Furthermore, there was even a Mahjong rule book released in 1920 by an employee for Standard Oil named Joseph P. Babcock. After learning the game while working in China, he named his Mahjong book " Babcock's Rules of Mah-Jongg ".

To sum it up, this all you need to know about the History behind Mahjong and its creation. After detailed research, we can only conclude that its origins are still pretty ambiguous per say. Taking a look back down memory lane, we will like to thank whoever that created this beautiful game. With all gratification, we will like to promote the game and reach out to more people so that they can also learn about Mahjong.


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