By Philippe & Julie from ilovemahj.com
You’ve most likely heard of Mahjong, but may be wondering exactly what it is. There’s actually way more to Mahjong than most people realize. It’s an exciting game of strategy and luck that’s loved by players the world over!
In this article, we’ll describe what Mahjong is, give a brief history of the game, an overview of how to play Mahjong and also touch on its cultural and artistic significance.
Mahjong (which is also referred to as Mah Jongg, Mah-Jongg, Maahj or Mahj) is a popular tiles-based game, which originated in China in the 19th century. Over the years, many variations and styles of Mahjong have emerged, as the game’s popularity spread across the globe. In China alone, there are somewhere in the region of 30 versions of the game.
It’s typically played by 4 players, who receive, discard and exchange tiles, with the aim of being the first to collect 14 tiles of a certain combination (a “Mahjong hand”). Mahjong is fast-paced, exciting, requiring skill and a pinch of luck! It has many similarities to the card game Rummy.
By the way, you may come across online tile-matching solitaire-like games that call themselves "Mahjong" and, though they do use the Mahjong tiles, they aren’t really Mahjong at all. In this article, we’ll focus on the traditional game and its variants.
Contrary to what you may have heard, Mahjong is not an ancient game invented by Confucius. It was created in China in the mid- to late 19th century, and the ancient Chinese references have more to do with clever, albeit dubious, marketing tactics than reality.
The game evolved from older "draw-and-discard" card games, and was initially popular in the Yangtze River Delta area, before spreading to Beijing, mostly in upper class society. In the earlier part of the 20th century, Mahjong began to spread internationally, which interestingly helped expand its popularity within China itself.
In the 1920s, it was brought to the US by a few businessmen, the most well-known being Joseph P Backcock. The marketing of the game was wrapped in ancient Chinese mystique to increase its exoticness and it became extremely popular. From the President to the average American, almost everybody was playing the game, it seemed. Mahjong mania had begun! Mahjong parties were common, and players often paid homage to the game's Chinese origins by dressing and decorating their rooms in Chinese style. In the 20s and 30s, the game also helped solidify the cultural bonds of the Chinese American community.
There was a problem though, and this related to the plethora of competing and inconsistent rules introduced by various Mahjong companies and their promoters. All these variations were causing confusion, and in the 30s, the Mahjong fad had passed and the game started to fall out of favor. It was at this time that a group of wealthy, Jewish, New York women decided to standardize the rules, and in 1937 they created the National Mah Jongg League.
The game’s popularity continued among three communities in the US:
- Chinese Americans played the traditional Chinese version
- The Wright-Patterson variant became popular among military families
- The National Mah Jongg League’s version spread among Jewish women and was known as American Mah Jongg
In China, during the cultural revolution (the original "Cancel Culture"), Mahjong was frowned upon due to its traditional aspects and its ties to gambling. But the game has since made a comeback and is now played throughout China by people of all ages and walks of life.
Today, Mahjong has spread to countless countries around the world, each with its own variation and idiosyncrasies, and the game is as popular as ever! Typically it’s been a game associated with the older generation but, in more recent years, the game has seen a resurgence and attracted the attention of a younger crowd and Mahj mania has begun once again.
A typical Mah-Jongg set consists of 144 or 152 tiles (depending on the variant it was designed for), divided as follows:
- Numbers 1-9, each in 3 suits: characters (cracks), bamboos (bams) and circles (dots)
- Four dragons, each in 3 colors (green, red and white)
- Four flowers and four seasons (though in some styles, such as American Mah Jongg, seasons and flowers are interchangeable and all are called flowers)
- Four wind tiles for each of the cardinal directions (north, south, east and west)
- Some variations include additional tiles (eg: American Mah Jongg uses 8 jokers, taking the number of tiles in an American Mah Jongg set to 152), while others variations omit tiles.
Mahjong tile sets have evolved over time as the game spread internationally. Even within China, the tiles have changed considerably. For instance, early sets had no "flower" or "green dragon" tiles. Instead, there were "king" tiles for heaven, earth, man, and harmony.
Specific symbols depicted on tiles have been modified over time (see "art" section below), and small alterations have also been made for non-Chinese readers, such as adding Arabic numbers to numeric tiles and letters for the winds.
Entire books could be (and indeed have been) written about the rules of Mahjong. With so many variations, each with their own rules, discussing the idiosyncrasies of each style is definitely beyond the scope of this introductory article. However, we’ll give a general overview of how the game is played, which is common to most variants.
Four players typically receive either 13 or 14 tiles at the beginning of the game, then draw, discard and exchange tiles, until one of them achieves a winning 14-tile pattern (a Mahjong hand). In its most basic form, winning patterns are a pair and four "melds" (i.e. sets), but in some variations, the winning combinations are more complex, and in the case of American Mah Jongg, a playing card (which changes each year) describes the winning hands. This adds to the difficulty factor, since players will need to commit this list of valid hands to memory if they wish to be at the top of their game (the card can certainly be referred to during play, but relying on it will significantly slow down the game). In some styles, scoring is affected by how players draw tiles to form combinations, and not just the resulting winning hand.
Learning the basic rules of Mahjong isn’t difficult, but mastering game strategy can take a lifetime! This is one of the reasons Mahjong can be so addictive and why it often becomes a lifestyle game. Some play for money (often small amounts, but enough to add to the excitement of the game) and others play purely for fun.
The excitement is in the race to make a winning hand before your opponents. Plus, as each hand has a corresponding number of points, a player has to make choices between completing an easier, lower-value hand or challenging themselves and aiming for a more complex, higher-value one. Although winning more points (and money, if playing for cash) is optimal, the stakes are higher as the risk of losing the game increases!
Many versions of Mahjong are played in the US, though American Mah Jongg appears to be the most popular.
To help you easily get to grips with the fundamentals and learn to play American Mah Jongg, please check out the following links:
How to Play American Mahjong Guide, by The Mahjong Line.
- I Love Mahj's Beginner's Guide to Mah Jongg and Complete Guide to Mah Jongg Strategy.
- The National Mah Jongg League who creates the annual playing card.
For those who would rather learn by doing rather than reading, an online Mah Jongg platform is one of the best ways to get started. Most online Mahjong games will give you the ability to play against computer bots. This is a great way to practice and learn, since you can take your time figuring out what to do, without holding up your tablemates. This also means you don’t need to worry about them becoming impatient or irritated with you for taking too long to decide on a move!
To start playing American Mah Jongg online, we recommend heading over to I Love Mahj. This is, in our opinion, the best online Mahjong game platform. It has plenty of tools to help newcomers, such as playing against computer bots that are perfect for your skill level (from beginner to advanced) and a practice mode offering suggestions on which Mahjong hand to play, plus hints about hands competitors are playing and much, much more!.
When answering the question "What is Mahjong?", we also need to consider the cultural aspects of the game. In particular, Mahjong is an important part of Chinese culture, cherished by all generations. And, in the US, it's a quintessential part of American Jewish culture.
In all cultures, Mahjong seems to provide a link between generations. People often recount how they were fascinated watching their mother and her friends play Mah Jongg late in the evening, and how their love of Mahjong developed from these early encounters with the game. Others play Mah Jongg as a way to bond with grandparents or elderly relatives. In both Chinese and Jewish culture, family and the respect for elders play an important role, and regular family gatherings with all generations playing Mahjong together help reinforce those family bonds.
Regardless of which style is played, Mah-jongg has also been a way for people to find community. It brings together people who may not have otherwise known each other, and helps forge friendships (often lifelong), through regular games. Though game time tends to be focused and fast-paced, there's just the right amount of time during the shuffling of the tiles and during breaks (along with the ubiquitous tasty snacks and maybe even a glass of wine) to get to know one another and build strong relationships.
Mahjong plays an important cultural role for Chinese and Chinese-American people. Despite the partial suppression of the game during the cultural revolution, even Mao Zedong is quoted as saying “If you know how to play it, you’ll have a better understanding of the relationship between chance and necessity. There’s philosophy in Mahjong.”
As you travel through China, you'll notice that Mahjong is ubiquitous and played by people of all ages and walks of life. It's part of the cultural fabric of the country. It's also played widely by the Chinese diaspora, tying people to their ancestral land and its culture, and providing a traditional reference point at family gatherings, helping to connect generations. In a way, Mah-Jongg has helped Chinese around the world build a transnational identity.
American Jewish Culture
Though American Mah Jongg was not created specifically as a game associated with Jewish women, the game has spread in these networks, especially through the 1950s. During those years of urbanization and upward mobility of the Jewish community, weekly Mah Jongg games helped young mothers escape their daily domestic responsibilities and enjoy an afternoon of fun together.
The game became a lifeline for these women and a way to connect with the community. Summer vacations in bungalow colonies in the Catskills allowed them to claim time for themselves and form even stronger bonds with fellow members of the community. Over time, Mahjong became a symbol of cultural identity for Jewish women.
Mahjong sets come in a variety of styles, and the symbols used to represent each tile go from plain to very intricate, from traditional to avant-garde and everything in between. The design of the tiles has evolved throughout the years as the game spread around the world.
Traditional Mahjong tiles are high in symbology. In particular, winds, flowers and dragon tiles have been subject to interpretations based on the era, the location and the culture of the designers. They are a celebration of Chinese culture and represent aspects of China. For example, tiles can represent monuments of China, professions, landscapes, historical scenes, chinese epics, gods and goddesses, animals (real and mythical), etc. In some more sophisticated sets, Mahjong tiles can be lined up to represent full landscapes or scenes from Chinese opera.
Recent interpretations use more modern and/or geometric shapes, and the creativity of contemporary artists is amazing!
So, in many ways, Mahjong tiles can be seen as a form of art, with the various designs reflecting the style of each artist. As with any art form, there is a wide variety of opinions as to what is attractive and, of course, there's no right or wrong answer. We should be thankful to all the tile designers who, over the years, have provided us with such beautiful and varied creations to be enjoyed by everyone, regardless of their personal taste.
For some, Mahjong sets have even become collectors items. Beautifully carved and hand-painted vintage sets are highly prized in the Mahjong community, and bequeathed from one generation to the next.
And it's not only about the visual depictions, the tactile aspects are also important. Mahjong tiles can be intricately carved and, for some, the feel of a tile contributes to its enjoyment as much as its visual rendering. Many players also enjoy the sound made by the "clacking of the tiles" as they are mixed. And finally, the delicious snacks typically served at games contribute to making Mahjong a feast for all the senses!
Besides being a ton of fun, Mah Jongg is also a great way to keep our gray matter exercised. Studies have shown that playing Mah Jongg significantly helps reduce cognitive decline and neuro-degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
Pattern-matching tiles to winning hands is a fantastic exercise to keep neuro pathways engaged. And for versions of Mah Jongg that rely on a card of winning combinations (such as American Mah Jongg), a player’s memory cells are stretched to their limits!
Finally, Mahjong teaches us important life skills. When playing with our group, we’ll find ourselves engaging in such skills as negotiation, strategy, cooperation, social etiquette, tolerance, flexibility, conflict resolution, forgiveness, patience and so much more! Basically, all the skills of good gamesmanship, which spill over into our normal, everyday life and enrich our interactions with others.
As you can see, Mahjong is a lot of things: it's a game, a way for communities to connect, an important part of some cultures, a source of beautiful art, a good intellectual challenge and a teacher of important life skills. For all these reasons, we invite you to start your Mahjong journey today. We're sure you'll enjoy it as much as we do!