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An On-line history
of Mah Jong

There have been many speculations about the origin of Mah Jong, not least during the early 1920s when the game was introduced to the West.

Romanticised stories of a game played for centuries by Chinese noblemen and Emperors obviously helped to sell the game.

The truth, however, is that Mah Jong emerged sometime during the late-nineteenth century, sometime between 1850 and 1880.

Card Games

Mah Jong probably has its origins in the playing card games of China, which were certainly being played as far back as the 12th Century or before. But the modern game is certainly a fairly recent modification of these early games, a merging of both card and tile/domino games.

Origin and Significance

The Ethnologist Stewart Culin (1858-1929) wrote an article, entitled "The Game of Ma Jong, it's origin and significance", which was published in the Brooklyn Museum Quarterly, (11, October, pp. 153-168), and is mentioned in A.D. Millington's bibliography, offering a "detailed discussion of the origin and significance of the game and its relationships to other games."

You can read this article here

ma_diao_card1.jpg - 5kbMa Diao

Regarded by many to be the immediate precursor of Mah Jong is the Chinese card game Ma Diao or Ma Tiao was a trick-taking game for four players.

The rules for Ma Diao were recently published in The Playing-Card (Volume XXIX, Number 3) entitled "The Late Ming Game of Ma Diao" by Andrew Lo.

You can read this article here


FAQ #11

Of course, Tom Sloper, has also collected information on the history of Mah Jong in his excellent Frequently Asked Questions files. FAQ #11 looks at the History of Mah Jong.

Read FAQ #11 here

A published history
of Mah Jong

These are the books I have which comment on the history of the game. You can find out more about the books on my Mah Jong books page.

For more information also see Tom Sloper's FAQs #3 Books on Mah-Jongg and #11 MJ History.

    Illustrated Book of the Mahjong Museum

    Anybody interested in the history of Mah Jong should try to get their hands on this book.

    The book (which at times looks more like an auction catalogue than a book) explores not only the pre-history of Mah Jong from Chinese card games, it provides a beautifully illustrated examination of the development and variety of Mah Jong sets, accessories and tables.

    Written in both Japanese and English.

    A. D. Millington

    BUY THIS BOOK on Amazon.co.ukThe Complete Book of Mah-Jongg
    Chapter 6, pp.100-116

    Millington offers a fairly comprehensive and, by all accounts, accurate record of the origins of Mah Jong, from its origins in the cards games of China, such as Ma-Tiao to its introduction to the West in the 1920s.

    Know The Game : Mah-Jong

    BUY THIS BOOK on Amazon.co.ukKnow The Game: Mah-Jong, by Gwyn Headley & Yvonne Seeley

    This book, written in consultation with the British Mah Jong Association (BMJA), contributes a very brief four columns to the documentation of Mah Jong's history.

    The authors maintain that the game was developed in the Ningpo area of China in the 1870s and was brought to the West in the 1920s by Joseph Babcock, where it has now adopted regional variations.

    Dieter Kohnen

    BUT THIS BOOK on Amazon.co.ukMah-Jongg: Basic Rules & Strategies
    History of Mah-Jongg, p.6

    Kohnen incorrectly reports that the game originated about 4000 years ago during the Tang Dynasty (which was 618-907), and that the rules were a closely guarded secret of the Mandarins at the Court of the Emperor until China became a Republic in 1911 when the masses learned of the game.
    The Illustrated Book of the Mahjong Museum examines these claims and dismisses them, conceding that perhaps the name of this Tang Dynasty game 'Yeh-tzu' in later times became a word to indicate cards.

    Kohnen's brief account of Mah Jong post-1920 is a little more accurate, though sparce.


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