Even if you have never played Mahjong, chances are you’ve heard the familiar shuffling of tiles at the beginning of the game coming from behind many Vancouver doors. This shuffling is referred to as the ‘twittering of the sparrows’. The name Mahjong loosely translates as “sparrow” but most Vancouverites know the game by its initials: MJ.
Mahjong is a tile game that originated in China. Rumour has it that the game is 2,500 years old. Enthusiasts link the game to Confucius and his love of birds, but the oldest historical record ever found is dated in the 1880s. Researchers say that the game originated in the late 19th century in the provinces of Kiangsu, Anhwei and Chekiang (near Shanghai) and link the traditional rules of Mahjong to the popular game Mah-tiae (“Hanging Horse”) as the game uses a similar tile set.
After 1905, the game spread throughout China overtaking chess as the most popular game among Chinese citizens.
In the traditional rules of the game, the four wind tiles are laid face down and each of the four players draws one to determine where they sit at a square table: north, west, south and east. Each player is then given 14 tiles. To get a Mahjong, a player must arrange their tiles into four sets and a pair. A set can either be a “pung,” a set of three identical tiles, or a “chow,” three tiles in sequence of the same suit. (The rules are similar to Rummy in that you can have either a run of three cards or three of a kind. The trick is to remember the characters! ) Once the tiles have been dealt, the remaining tiles are formed into a wall of 17 tiles long and 2 high in front of each player. These rituals of play are said to guard off cheaters as Mahjong is a gambling game.
At the turn of the 20th century, the game spread beyond China’s borders which led to variants on the traditional Chinese rules.
The expatriate population of Shanghai picked up the game in the cafes that they frequented and brought it back to their home countries. In Japan, Mahjong clubs formed in the early part of the century and the rules in that country remain close to the classical game.
Mahjong tiles tend to appeal to collectors because of the incredible artistry shown in their carved designs. The one of bamboo and the four flower tiles often stand out in a set. Traditionally, the tiles were made of ivory, bone and bamboo, but nowadays, the tiles are largely made of wood, plastic and ceramic due to worldwide trade embargoes. There are 136 tiles in a set which includes 36 characters, 36 circles, 36 bamboos (each of these suits are divided into numbers one to nine), 16 Wind tiles and 12 Dragon tiles. Some sets, also, include four flower tiles and four season tiles for a total of 144 tiles.
In the 1920s, the British and Americans, also, started enjoying the game and as a result the rules evolved, again. Joseph P. Babcock, an American living in Shanghai during the 1920s, began exporting Mahjong sets back to the United States. He published a document called “The Official American Rules” in 1935 that simplified traditional rules for the foreign market and set the standard for American players. Babcock eventually sold the copyright to the game to Parkers Brother and the rules changed in order to satisfy the market. In the British Empire, the rules remained close to the Chinese traditional game.
Today, many purists believe that the perfect game of Mahjong is played with the 1920s rules.
In the 1940s, Mahjong was banned in China after the Communist Revolution as it encouraged gambling and was seen as a pastime of the bourgeoisie. During these years, players were arrested if seen in a MJ match. In 1985, the ban was lifted and the game regained popularity as people no longer feared persecution. Today, Mahjong is a favourite game around the world as evidenced by the chorus of clacking tiles in our city.
Want to play? The Roundhouse hosts a free drop-in Mahjong meet-up on Monday and Tuesday mornings for ages 20 and up. Beginners and seasoned players are welcome. For more information, check out the program guide.
By Lindsay Glauser Kwan, Roundhouse Blog Team. Lindsay is a creative writer and blogger specializing in arts, culture, fashion and lifestyle. She has written for Vancouver Is Awesome, emerge, The Liar, The Blind Hem and various blogs. A graduate of The Writer’s Studio at SFU and active in Pandora’s Collective, she features regularly at local literary events.