Mah-Jong revealed

The ancestry of mah-jong still remains a mystery and its origins is difficult to trace, although it borrows its main characteristics from many games played in China during the last thousand years (domino-shaped pieces, dice, rules). However, we believe that it is a direct descendent of the game of sapèques (monetary cards), whose symbols were imitated on Chinese bank notes of the XVII century, and that it only appeared in its present form halfway through the XIX century.

Although it is a recent invention, mah-jong is however based on much older symbolism and is inspired by ancient Chinese texts. The carefully formed square wall of 144 tiles (a type of domino in bamboo or ivory) at the start of a game could be a representation of the world as described in The Book of Changes (or I-Ching)(1)See the book by P. Berger and J.M. Etienne "Mah-Jong" published by Chiron (Algo) which states that the world is an enclosed space divided into four sections. The designs that are delicately on the tiles illustrate these references to the Chinese imagination: the 4 seasons symbolise time, the 4 flowers the passing of life, the 4 winds (or corners) the regions of the hearth and the 3 categories (the wheels, the paths and the numbers) being the respective movements of the 3 fundamentals, the sky, the Earth, and Man.

Contrary to Weiqi (or game of Go), which is considered a difficult art requiring long apprenticeship, mah-jong is a sociable game where the noise of the tiles bashing against each other and the conversations of the players are just as important as the outcome of the game.

There are no official meetings or competitions, but series of games in the family or among friends where the stakes can sometimes be high. It was originally reserved for the privileges classes of Peking and Shanghai, but spread all over China by 1910, then Europe and the United States (where the National Mah Jong League tried in vain to impose uniform rules), and became a craze during the cultural revolution in China and even now is only tolerated. However, according to Elisabeth Papineau(2)Elisabeth Papineau, Head of Courses at the University of Montreal, based her thesis on Chinese Games. Her findings can be found in her book: "Games in contemporary China: Mah-Jong, Go and other games" it is currently the most popular game in rural and urban China among all classes, ages and both sexes, and every other household in Shanghai owns a set of the game. The Japanese for their part, have highly refined the rules, and are so crazy about mah-jong that they have invented electric boards that automatically sort the tiles. It is the same success story in the rest of the world. The game is taking advantage of the Internet and new media, and continues to attract admirers in many countries.

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Notes   [ + ]

1. See the book by P. Berger and J.M. Etienne "Mah-Jong" published by Chiron (Algo)
2. Elisabeth Papineau, Head of Courses at the University of Montreal, based her thesis on Chinese Games. Her findings can be found in her book: "Games in contemporary China: Mah-Jong, Go and other games"