The tile game of Mahjong has a fascinating and colorful history dating back to China to around the mid 1800’s. Before that time there was a card version with an even longer tradition.  Understanding the game’s origins enriches the playing experience and we are glad to be a part of this long tradition. 

The Chinese game is one of skill, strategy, calculation, and a little bit of chance.  It is a popular game, often played within families, with multi-generational players at the table.

Starting over a hundred years ago, the Chinese game made its way to other countries and today there are at least 40 known variants of Mahjong around the world. The U.S., Singapore, and Japan, among others, have adopted their own versions of the game, reinterpreting and evolving it along the way.

Angelo Bautista: Picking up the Pieces of Mahjong (Listen to the full audio below)

Sloperama: History of Mahjong

Chinese Mahjong Game Play in 2.5 minutes



The tiles used for play is what makes the game unique and there are a variety of designs.

Jeff Yang: Symbolism of Crazy Rich Asians Pivotal Mahjong Scene

Sloperama: Types of Mahjong Sets

Gregg Swain: Traditional Tiles from an Art History Perspective

Hong Kong’s Dying Art of Hand-Carved Mahjong Tiles



American Mahjong, a distinct version of the game with its own set of rules, also has a diverse history of experimentation and change led by groups including Chinese Americans, Air Force Officers' wives, and Jewish American suburban mothers.  

People from China were playing mahjong in the U.S. as early as the 19th century, often making subtle changes to the game that appealed to their family or group, and many of these versions continue to thrive today.  The versions most closely associated with American Mahjong proliferated in the 1920s, but still included many approaches to the game, depending on the booklet that came with the mahjong set or whatever rule book was purchased at a bookstore. Most of these versions vanished from the scene, but two variations endured. The first was started by spouses of Air Force officers stationed at Wright Field in Ohio.  It became known as the Wright-Patterson approach, played by American military families throughout the world. The other, started by the National Mah Jongg League (“NMJL”) in 1937, was primarily adopted by Jewish women. In the decades during and after WWII, this version played an increasingly important role in the lives of Jewish Americans who have continued to pass it down from generation to generation over the last 80+ years. The Jewish community, in particular, played a large role in standardizing and popularizing the NMJL version.  Today it is played in a wide range of communities in the United States and abroad and is generally referred to as the “American Version” or “American Mahjong”. The Mahjong Line’s tiles are designed for the NMJL version. 

Annelise Heinz: American Mahjong History

Brief History of Jewish Americans and Mahjong

The game’s ability to spread to and thrive in so many diverse regions and cultures throughout the world is one of its most endearing qualities. There are countless variations across the globe, each with its own unique nuances.



American Mahjong differs from the Chinese game in a number of meaningful ways, including:

  1. The use of 8 jokers (total of 152 tiles for play) (see here)
  2. A playing card that standardizes the NMJL hands, the tile patterns players must get in order to win, changed annually by the National Mah Jongg League 
  3. Use of racks to display and reveal tiles, and a pusher to “curtsy” the tiles outwards to the center of the table (watch video)
  4. The introduction of the Charleston, a tile swap “dance” that occurs before actual game play starts (watch video)
  5. American Mahjong does not distinguish between flower and season tiles, and groups them together for a total of 8 “flower” tiles


Want to learn how to play? Check out our Learn to play mahjong page for videos and other resources. 

To learn more about The Mahjong Line read Our Story