Whether its called Ma Jong, Mah Jong, Mah Jongg, Ma Diao, Ma Cheuk, Mah Cheuck, Baak Ling, or Pung Chow the history of this game is as intriguing as the game itself.
Throughout history many theories have been presented regarding the origin of the game. One suggests that it had been played on Noah’s Ark during the 40 days and nights of rain. East had been the prevailing wind during the storm thus becoming the dominant seat in playing the game. This theory would suggest that the game would date back to around 2350 BC.
Another very interesting story suggests that Confucius the great Chinese philosopher had developed the game about 500 BC. The appearance of the game in various Chinese provinces coincides with Confucius’ travels at the time he was teaching his new doctrines. The three “Cardinal” tiles also coincide with the three Cardinal virtues taught by Confucius. Chung (middle) the Red, Fa (prosperity) the Green, Po (white) the white, Benevolence, Sincerity, and Filial Piety. Confucius was said to be fond of birds, which would explain the name Mah Jong (Hemp Bird).
Terms used in the play of the game “Pung,” “Chee,” and “Kong” also add support to this theory. Confucius was of the Kong family his full name being Kong-Fu-Tze, he married a girl named Che and adopted the term “Chee” meaning ‘to connect’ which occidentals corrupted into “Chow”.
Although these as well as various other stories lend themselves to a very interesting background to the game, the most logical theory suggests that the game had been developed from various Chinese games. During the Sung Dynasty (960-1279 AD) a game called “Ya Pei” which is played with 32 cards made of either wood or ivory, and are oblong in shape similar to the present day Ma Jong tiles. During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD) a game called “Ma Tiae” (Hanging Horse) was invented. This game was played with 40 paper cards similar in appearance to the cards used in the game Ya Pei. These forty cards were numbered 1 to 9 in four different suits along with four additional flower cards are quite similar to the numbering of mah jong cards today. It is thought that roughly around 1850 AD in the city of Ningpo two brothers had created mah jong from the earlier game of ma tiae.
The introduction to the western world is thought to have begun with two brothers named White, which in the early 1900’s introduced mah jong to the English clubs of Shanghai, where it quickly gained popularity among the foreign residents. Importation of mah jong tiles began with Joseph P. Babcock, who at that time was the Soochow representative of the Standard Oil Company. He simplified the game eliminating most of the limit hand scoring, and retained only the essential basic scores. Mr. Babcock is also credited with starting the practice of putting English numerals on the tiles, and in September of 1920 he copyrighted and put his rules into print for the first time. It wasn’t however until two years later a lumber merchant from San Francisco named W. A. Hammond formed the Mah Jongg Sales Company of San Francisco and began importing large quantities of sets.
From the Mah Jong Museum