Did you know that Mahjong has a back story?  

While many historians and experts disagree about the exact date for the creation of Mahjong, research in both English history and Chinese history points to somewhere between a thousand years to nearly 300 years ago (a wide range indeed!). This disagreement is mainly based on the format of the game. 

Based on research in Chinese language, the tile game of mahjong had a precursor in the form of a card game.  This card game, not named Mahjong, possibly originated from a granary setting in the 13th or 14thcentury. There is ample evidence that during that time woodblock printing was an available technology for producing sets of cards. The original card game is said to have 108 cards representing the 108 heroes ofThe Water Margin, whose popularity in oral tradition preceded the publishing of the novel in the late 14thcentury. 

Water Margin card game

Around the mid-1900’s, the card game changed to its current tile format. The motifs or suits of the tile game; Bamboos (familiarly known as Bams), characters (familiarly known as Kraks or Cracks), and Dots, were based on items used to keeping sparrows and other pests away. 


The original name of the game Mahjong comes from “Maqué” (pronounced ma-chu-é, rhyming with “crochet”), meaning “sparrow” in Chinese. In the days before the industrialization of grain production when swarms of sparrows attacked fields like locusts, people were at nature’s mercy and struggled to survive starvation. One probable reason for this namesake, Maqué, was to make a game out of a pest so the people working at the grain storage could counter the pests’ negative energy with a positive spin. 

Ancient Chinese Granary

The use of fireworks was a common weapon in the battle against sparrows. In fact, the Red and Green dragons are modified from tiles that mean Fire! and Hit! in the Chinese version. Targets are needed to aim the firework rockets. The “Soap” tile was originally designed to look like this rectangular target. 

Chinese cartoon depicting sparrow extermination

Coincidentally, “bamboo” in Mahjong has been shortened into “Bam” in English, an explosive onomatopoeia word that sounds like its meaning, as from fireworks. This cleverly translates and connects an idea of the game between two very unrelated languages. I find that this creative interpretation in the Bam suit in The Cheeky Line as well as the lightning bolts for the Crack suit works well to connect Mahjong’s long cultural history with our current time. The lightning bolts echo the original stormy, detonative message that is often lost in our common knowledge of mahjong. 

-Yvonne Liu Wolf, Intercultural Consultant


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About Yvonne:

Ms. Wolf is an intercultural consultant and founder of Chinese Intercultural, LLC, which offers business communication strategies, consultation and training services to business executives working with Chinese and East Asian partners. Further, cross cultural awareness and business etiquette training allow companies to operate more successfully with their businesses overseas. 

In addition to business consulting, Yvonne speaks on a variety of topics that help to clarify elements of Chinese culture in an accessible and relatable context.  Yvonne shares the knowledge and skills she has gained from her experiences living in four different countries where she became fluent in three languages (Chinese (Mandarin), English, and Danish). She worked as a bilingual analyst in a Japanese global corporation in Denmark and served as a global language trainer in Japan. She has also visited half the states in the USA. She has ten years' experience working as an organizational consultant in Los Angeles mediating cross cultural misunderstandings. She continues her work in the Greater Chicago area. 


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