How Mahjong Works

History of Mahjong

Want to know the history of mahjong? It depends on who you ask. There are many theories and legends about mahjong's origins -- most of them are unsubstantiated, and several are quite fanciful. A popular yet unlikely story is that mahjong was created by Confucius, the famous Chinese philosopher. One outlandish tale sets the game's beginnings on Noah's Ark. The true history of this popular game, however, is more likely an evolution than one clear beginning.

Throughout China's history, there were several games similar to modern mahjong. Ya Pei, a game that originated in the Sung Dynasty (960-1279 AD), used wood and ivory cards similar to today's mahjong tiles. Another game, Ma Tiae, from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD), built on Ya Pei and is even closer to modern mahjong. After centuries of evolving game cards and strategies, it is believed by many that the game we now know as mahjong was ultimately created in the mid- to late 19th century -- however, there is still some debate on who's responsible for its creation [source:]. One legend suggests that it was a Chinese nobleman in Shanghai, and another implies it was Chinese army officers during the Taiping Rebellion. A very popular theory is that it was two Chinese brothers (whose identities are now unknown) in the city of Ningpo who were ultimately responsible for creating mahjong.


Once the game was created, it gained popularity quickly, spreading outside of China's borders. Mahjong was likely first introduced to Westerners around the turn of the 20th century when people began playing it in British clubs in Shanghai [source:]. Around this time, other Asian countries, such as Japan and Korea, picked up the pastime.

An American named Joseph Babcock is believed responsible for bringing the game to the United States in 1920 after picking it up in China, where he worked for an oil company. The popularity of the game in the United States grew rapidly. Babcock published a set of rules (there were no official written rules in China at the time) and several companies, such as Milton Bradley and Parker Brothers, created game sets. The craze spread around the country but was most popular in New York City where the National Mah Jongg League was eventually created (the terms "mahjong" and "mah jongg" both refer to the same game).

As mahjong became more popular in the United States and around the world, its practice was discouraged in its birthplace of China. Chinese government officials only wanted elite citizens playing the game because they feared that peasants might develop their mental capacities through playing. After the Communist Revolution of the late 1940s, Chairman Mao outlawed mahjong, claiming it was a capitalist game because players would sometimes gamble on the outcome. Prohibition of the game in China was lifted in 1985, and it has rebounded in popularity.

One of the reasons mahjong is so popular in China is because of the symbolism in different elements of the game. Keep reading to find out more about the meanings behind the mahjong tiles, suits and sets.