The History of Mahjong

The History of Mahjong 

 Mahjong is a captivating and complex tile-based game that originated in China in the mid 1800’s. It actually began as a money-suited card game and over time developed into the tile-based game that it is today. 

Mahjong was previously called chung fa, que ma que or ma que by Chinese players. Ma que can be translated as sparrow, flax sparrow, or hemp bird.  It was thought that mahjong tiles, when shuffled, make a sound that resembles the noise of sparrows squabbling. In the early 1900’s Joseph Park Babcock introduced the game to the United States and referred to it as ‘mahjong’. The word ‘Mahjong’ therefore translates to “sparrow”.

By the early 20th century, Mahjong spread beyond China, becoming popular in various countries, especially in the United States and Japan. Today there are many variations of mahjong being played around the world. 


American Mahjong 

While Joseph Park Babcock is credited for introducing mahjong to the United States in the 1920’s, Chinese Americans were playing the game in the U.S. as early as the 19th century. 

When Mahjong was introduced in the U.S., players were using varying and fluid rules causing confusion amongst game players. In 1937, the National Mah Jongg League was founded in New York City with the goal to standardize the rules of American Mahjong. Since its inception, American Mahjong players use a card of Standard Hands which are changed annually to add excitement and a degree of complexity.  

The tiles used in American Mahjong differ slightly from other versions of the game, most notably being the use of jokers. While Chinese Mahjong is traditionally played with 144 tiles, American Mahjong plays with 152, 8 of which are jokers. 


The Tiles

Mahjong tiles were originally made from bamboo and ivory or bone with beautifully hand painted designs on the face of each tile. The tiles are made up of the Bamboo suits (bams), Characters suits (craks) and Circles suits (dots), honor tiles ( Winds and Dragons) and bonus tiles (Flowers). The use of the Flowers varies based on the version of Mahjong. Additionally, in American Mahjong tile sets include 8 jokers. 


Chinese Mahjong Set: 144 Tiles

Suited: 36 Bamboos, 36 Characters, 36 Circles 

Honors: 16 Winds, 12 Dragons 

Bonus: 4 Flowers, 4 Seasons 


American Mahjong Set: 152 Tiles

36 Bamboos, 36 Characters, 36 Dots, 16 Winds, 12 Dragons, 8 Flowers, 8 Jokers