Entry in progress—B.P.
Mahjong, also spelled majiang, mah jongg, and numerous other variants, is a game that originated in China. It is commonly played by four players (with some three-player variations found in South Korea and Japan). The game and its regional variants are widely played throughout Eastern and South Eastern Asia and have a small following in Western countries. Similar to the Western card game rummy, mahjong is a game of skill, strategy, and calculation and involves a degree of chance.
The game is played with a set of 144 tiles based on Chinese characters and symbols, although some regional variations use a different number of tiles. In most variations, each player begins by receiving 13 tiles. In turn players draw and discard tiles until they complete a legal hand using the 14th drawn tile to form four groups (melds) and a pair (head). There are fairly standard rules about how a piece is drawn, how a piece is stolen from another player and thus melded, the use of simples (numbered tiles) and honors (winds and dragons), the kinds of melds, and the order of dealing and play. However there are many regional variations in the rules; in addition, the scoring system and the minimum hand necessary to win varies significantly based on the local rules being used.
Mahjong in the West
The game was mentioned in Portuguese Jesuit accounts from the beginning of the 17th century. In 1895, British Sinologist William Henry Wilkinson wrote a paper which mentioned a set of cards known in central China by the name of ma chioh, literally, hemp sparrow, which he maintained was the origin of the term mahjong. He did not state the specific Chinese variety of his informant. By 1910, there were written accounts in many languages, including French and Japanese.
The game was imported to the United States in the 1920s. The first mahjong sets sold in the U.S. were sold by Abercrombie & Fitch starting in 1920. It became a success in Washington, D.C., and the co-owner of the company, Ezra Fitch, sent emissaries to Chinese villages to buy every mahjong set they could find. Abercrombie & Fitch sold a total of 12,000 mahjong sets.
Also in 1920, Joseph Park Babcock published his book Rules of Mah-Jongg, also known as the “red book”. This was the earliest version of mahjong known in America. Babcock had learned mahjong while living in China. His rules simplified the game to make it easier for Americans to take up, and his version was common through the mahjong fad of the 1920s. Later, when the 1920s fad died out, many of Babcock’s simplifications were abandoned.
(Oxford English Dictionary)
Etymology: < Chinese májiàng. Compare French mah-jong(g) (c1923).
The pronunciation with /ʒ/ does not reflect Chinese pronunciation, and results from analogy with words with /ʒ/ from French.
A game for four (of modern Chinese origin, and introduced into Europe and North America in the early 1920s), normally played with 136 tiles divided into five or six suits representing various natural and mythological entities (such as winds, dragons, bamboos, etc.). Also: the achievement of a winning hand in the game.
Mah-jong is now thought to be the model for the rummy family of card games. The overall object of the game is to score most points, and in each individual game the aim is to score by building a hand consisting of four sets of three matching tiles plus one pair of other matching tiles. Many sets of the game include an additional double set of four ‘wild’ tiles or jokers, bringing the total number of tiles to 144. The detailed rules of the game are subject to regional variation.
[1912 Trade Marks Jrnl. 22 May 782 Mâ-Chiang.]
1922 R. E. Lindsell (title) Ma-Cheuk or Mah-Jongg.
1923 Chiang Lee Mah Jong 7 Mah Jong, or Mah Tsiong (Sparrows), as it is pronounced in the city of Ning Po where it received its name and modern form, has been in vogue in China as a card game for about eight centuries.
1923 Daily Mail 23 June 6 There will be..demonstrations of Mah Jongg, the wonderful Chinese game which threatens to oust Bridge.
11 July 1922, New York (NY)
Poker and bridge sets and tables--and the Chinese game, “Mah Jongg,” as played throughout the Orient and in Europe.
(Abercrombie & Fitch Co.—ed.)
3 December 1922, New York (NY) Times, pg. 58:
“Mah-Jong,” a book explaining all the fine points of the famous Chinese “Game of One Hundred Intelligences,” is to be published immediately by G. P. Putnam’s Sons. This Chinese game, recently introduced into this country, has been described as “a little like rummy, a little like poker, dominoes, and a trifle like bridge.”
11 December 1922, New York (NY) Times, pg. 12 ad:
An Authentic Exposition of
The Original Chinese Game
Of a Hundred Intelligences
Also known as Mah Diao, Mah Jong, Ma Chuck, Pe Ling, Sparrow and other translations of different Chinese dialects.
Pung-Chow Company, Inc.
30 Church St., New York City
12 December 1922, New York (NY) Times, pg. 10 ad:
Ma Jung, the ancient Chinese Game—Hand-Carved Chinese Sets.
(Abercrombie & Fitch Co.—ed.)
New York (NY) Times
Recalling the Craze for a Game of Chance
By STEVEN HELLER
Published: March 15, 2010
Also called “the game of a hundred intelligences,” “the gift of heaven,” and negatively during World War II, “the new yellow peril,” mah-jongg was introduced in the United States around 1920 by the American businessman Joseph P. Babcock, who had lived in China and was fascinated with the exotic world that mah-jongg represented.
He started importing sets en masse around 1922, at which time he simplified the game for an American audience through his book “Rules for Playing the Genuine Chinese Game Mah-Jongg.”
The first sets were sold by Abercrombie & Fitch in New York and were so popular that the owner Ezra Fitch had representatives scour China for as many sets as could be found. Milton Bradley and Parker Brothers produced their own versions, and the latter published Babcock’s book.