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There are few games whose history is shrouded in quite as much myth as Mahjong.

Among the dozens of theories is that Confucious invented it.

Mahjong roughly translates as "chattering sparrow." One of the many myths claim it was so named because Confucius liked birds and used the game as a teaching tool that he then took across China in his travels.

Mahjong.China and Mahjong.

While some contend the game is over 2,500 years old, records can only verify it dating back to the mid nineteenth century, likely in the provinces around Shanghai. In less than 40 years, the game went from being a local craze to creating a worldwide shortage of ivory and bone for tiles during the 1920s.

Ya-Pei, a card game invented in China, is one of the oldest card games that resembles Mahjong and is known to have been played as early as the 10th century. Purportedly, the game was invented for the exclusive use of the royal court; commoners were forbidden to play, upon pain of death.

Other tile games, such as dominos, have been popular in China since the 12th century. The Taiping Rebellion of the 1850s and 60s is notable for the appearance of many card and domino games (very similar in play to Mahjong) among imperial troops stationed there. Most researchers agree that the game probably sprung up in several places and is derived from the older card game, Mah-tiae (aka Hanging Horse), that was played extensively with a very similar set of tiles since the 15th century.

An American living in Taiwan was the first Westerner to mention the game at the turn of the 20th century, in his history of the area. The game began to spread among Westerners in Asia shortly after a few British nationals introduced it to the cosmopolitan expatriate cafes of Shanghai. Within a few short years, Mahjong was exported to Japan, with clubs forming as early as 1907.

However, the rules were never made "official" in China, so it continued to evolve and change as it spread like wildfire throughout East Asia. After a great deal of refinement, it was exported again to the United States and the British Empire during the 1920s. The Japanese rules, differ by being derivative of the earlier game.

When each culture picked up Mahjong, the rules were adjusted to suit local tastes. Joseph P. Babcock, a representative of the Standard Oil Company in Shanghai, was importing sets to the United States in great numbers by 1923. To increase interest in the game, sometimes inscrutable to Westerners, he rewrote and published new and far more simplistic rules that became the American standard. When the National Mahjong League, Inc. published a volume of "Official American Rules" in 1935, the American style was further morphed into the very distinct form seen today.

The British rules that were adopted in the United Kingdom as well as India and Africa, are the closest to the original Chinese "Traditional" version, varying only in having a few additional hands or "melds". It remains popular in the states of the former Empire today, though widespread interest in the Americas has only recently rekindled after falling off in the 1930s.

Mahjong.Chinese Ladies Playing Mahong.
Chinese Ladies Playing Mahjong.
Chinese School. Mid-19th Century.

The most famous gambling game for the Chinese is Mahjong, which keeps many people busy even at home. To the Chinese, social gambling is a very common activity. Mahjong is played among Chinese worldwide. It is said to help the elder Chinese people to think better and is a joyful thing to do during Chinese wedding dinners and even funeral wakes.

In China itself, Mahjong was actually banned, as a capitalist pastime that encouraged gambling, after the Communist Revolution of the late 1940s. It was not allowed again until the Cultural Revolution was well underway nearly 20 years later.

Tiles have been made out of just about anything and often feature intricate designs, especially on the flower and season tiles. Once very popular, ivory tiles haven been banned by a worldwide trade embargo since 1970s. Most sets today are made from wood, ceramic or plastic.

A set of 144 Mah Jong tiles consists of 36 tiles in the Bamboo suit, 36 in the Circle suit, 36 in the Character suit, 16 Wind tiles, 12 Dragon tiles and 8 bonus tiles (4 Flowers and 4 Seasons). The best tiles are made from bamboo and ivory or bone and have beautiful hand-painted pictures representing the face of each tile. Traditionally, the Flowers, Seasons and the One of Bamboos come in for particular artistic creativity.


Mahjong.China and Mahjong.
Japanese Riichi Mahjong Set
with Black Tiles
China and Mahjong.
Yellow Mountain Imports

The Red Dragon & The West Wind: The Winning Guide to Official Chinese & American Mah-JonggChina and Mahjong. 
Tom Sloper

Teach Yourself Mah Jongg: Challenge Your BrainChina and Mahjong. 
Pat Farber Zito

The Great Mahjong Book: History, Lore, and PlayChina and Mahjong. Mahjong.China and Mahjong.
Jelte Rep
The Great Mahjong Book is an excellent resource for the beginning or experienced mahjong player. This comprehensive book covers the entire history of mahjong as it spread around the globe, on the equipment and accessories used in the game, the basic rules, how and where the game first developed and all the international variants of mahjong--including China, the U.S., Holland, the U.K., France, Germany, Italy, Japan and Hong Kong. Filled with hints, facts and illustrations of memorabilia and artifacts.

The Project

Maritime Nations, Ships, Sea Captains, Merchants, Merchandise, Ship Passengers and VIPs sailing into San Francisco during the 1800s.



Merchant Shipping

Merchant Shipping and Ancient Commerce.  
History of Merchant Shipping and Ancient CommerceMerchant Shipping and Ancient Commerce.
W. S. Lindsay

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Sources: As noted on entries and through research centers including National Archives, San Bruno, California; CDNC: California Digital Newspaper Collection; San Francisco Main Library History Collection; and Maritime Museums and Collections in Australia, China, Denmark, England, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Wales, Norway, Scotland, Spain, Sweden, etc.

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