We play the game...but what do we really know about the origin of Mah Jongg? How did Mah Jongg come to the United States? I learned much about this intriguing game as I researched to write a bit about its history to share with you fans of Mah Jongg.
Mah Jongg, often dubbed “The Game of a Thousand Intelligences,” is an ancient Chinese tile game that originated during the Qing dynasty circa 1850. Mah Jongg, a gambling game of both skill and luck, is often referred to as “China’s National Pastime”. Mah Jongg, literally defined as "clattering sparrows,” relates to the sound of the tiles as they are mixed and shuffled for each new game.
Mah Jongg in the United States
Mah Jongg players are indebted to Joseph P. Babcock, an American Standard Oil Company businessman, who lived in China and became fascinated by the game of Mah Jongg. In the 1920s, he made the first sets available for purchase in New York’s Abercrombie & Fitch stores. He imported sets and added Arabic numbers and English letters to the tiles to make the game more accessible to the western world. Babcock also created a book of rules, entitled, “The Red Book,” with Mah Jongg rules of play for English language players.
Although Babcock had the trademark for the name of the game he coined “Mah-Jongg,” spelled with two g's, competitors began selling the game under different names such as Mah Jong, Chinese Tiles, and Pung Chow. Some companies began to import Mah Jongg sets using unique names, rules of play, and scoring due to Babcock’s copyright. The trend of Mah Jongg play was made even more popular with national radio and magazine advertisement.
Annelise Heinz mentions in her fascinating book, “ MahJong: A Chinese Game and the Making of Modern American Culture,” that President and First Lady Harding as well as many Hollywood celebrities of the early 1900s relished the game of Mah Jongg!
Mah Jongg was a diversion from the atrocities of WWI and the 1918 flu pandemic. Playing Mah Jongg has always been a way to connect with others, and to temporarily find an escape from everyday challenges. The COVID-19 restrictions we faced and the precautions we chose to take promoted subscription growth of online Mah Jongg play on websites such as www.RealMahJongg.com , www.MahJongTime.com , and www.Myjongg.net. During the pandemic, my girlfriends and I would carve out a few hours each week to Facetime and meet online to play Mah Jongg together! Someday, maybe we will set up a floating table to play Maj in the pool!
1937: The National Mah Jongg League is Formed
During the game’s initial attraction and growth in the U.S., varying sets of rules were adopted for game play. You could play with one group who had one set of rules and play elsewhere only to discover another set of rules of play. Unfortunately, the disparity in these rules led to a decline in Mah Jongg’s popularity.
Among the group of female founders of the National Mah Jongg League (NMJL) were Viola Cecil and Dorothy Meyerson. These leaders decided to standardize the rules of Maj play which was essential toward revitalizing enthusiasm for the game. The founders of the NMJL unified the American style of Mah Jongg and created an annual playing card of hands which still must be purchased annually for play. By 1941, the NMJL had more than 35,000 in membership. Brothers David & Larry Unger now run the NMJL which boasts over 350,000 members to date!
Mah Jongg has evolved over time with small changes in scoring, rules, number and use of Flower and Joker tiles.
Mah Jongg continues to lure new players to the game with the advent of Mah Jongg cruises, tournaments, an annual conference (MahjCon), podcasts, and many books on all topics Mah Jongg! Go ahead and google Mah Jongg and a plethora of information, images and websites are at your fingertips. Topics such as Mah Jongg & social norms, expansion of women's boundaries vis a vis Mah Jongg play in the United States, Chinese & American cultural mores & stereotypes are out there for you to explore!