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.
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.
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
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
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
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
Illustrated Book of the Mahjong Museum
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
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
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.
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,