5 surprising things you didn’t know about mahjong

Jan 31, 2020

The game only dates back about 150 years and has a huge following in the Jewish-American community.

In one of the most riveting scenes from Crazy Rich Asians, Constance Wu’s character, Rachel Chu, squares off against her stern mother-in-law-to-be, Eleanor Young (played by Michelle Yeoh), in a game of mahjong.

“My mom taught me how to play,” Chu tells Young. “She told me mahjong would teach me important life skills—negotiation, strategy, cooperation.”

Michelle Yeoh as Eleanor Young in “Crazy Rich Asians.”
Michelle Yeoh as Eleanor Young in “Crazy Rich Asians.” / Photo: Warner Bros

Dating back more than 100 years, the tile game is played in Chinese communities around the world.

It’s a raucous affair that demands quick thinking, shrewd strategy, and impeccable foresight. Games are punctuated by the click-clack sound of shuffling tiles and endless shouting.

(Read more: A Chinese city tried to ban mahjong. People freaked out.)

To an outsider, mahjong might look daunting and intimidating. Plays move quickly, with people constantly throwing out and picking up tiles. Imagine a game of poker but twice as fast and three times as loud.

Here are five things you might not have known about China’s “national pastime.”

Its actual origins are unclear

Despite a popular legend that Confucius invented the game, historical records only date back about 150 years, to the 1870s, according to Jelte Rep, a Dutch journalist and noted mahjong enthusiast.

A mahjong competition in Hong Kong in 1976.
A mahjong competition in Hong Kong in 1976. / Photo: SCMP

The game was popular on the east coast of China, around the port cities of Shanghai and Ningbo.

It likely came from a card game

One of the earliest predecessors of mahjong is a game called yezipai 叶子牌, which was played as far back as the Tang Dynasty (618-907) and involved 32 cards made of ivory or wood.

A drawing from 1843 shows Chinese women playing cards.
A drawing from 1843 shows Chinese women playing cards.

As time passed, more cards were added, and the rules became more complicated, leading to the creation of other card games, such as madiao 马吊.

The suits of early Chinese playing cards became the basis for modern-day mahjong tiles.

Tiles emerged because cards were too flimsy

One prevailing theory for why tiles replaced cards attributes the reason to a sailor who had his cards blown away while playing the game on a ship.

An enterprising government official in Ningbo took it upon himself to turn the cards into tiles, giving birth to the game we know and love today.

The name comes from the Chinese word for ‘sparrow’

Mahjong was originally called maque 麻雀, or sparrow, because the click-clack sound of shuffling tiles resembled the chatter of birds.

In Cantonese and other southern dialects of Chinese, this name for the game is still used, while Mandarin Chinese speakers call it majiang 麻将, believed to be a derivative of maque.

In the United States, it’s heavily associated with the Jewish community

Mahjong found an unexpected fanbase among the Jewish-American community, where for decades, the stereotypical mahjong player was a Jewish-American stay-at-home mom.

An American mahjong set with Arabic numerals and English letters.
An American mahjong set with Arabic numerals and English letters. / Photo: Shutterstock

American businessmen who saw the game played in Beijing and Shanghai brought it back to the United States in the 1920s.

Parker Brothers (which later fell under Hasbro) sold sets with Arabic numerals and English letters on the tiles. It was marketed as “Mah Jongg.”

The game instantly became a hit, especially in the Jewish community, where it was a popular social activity for stay-at-home moms.

By the 1930s, a National Mah Jongg League had been established to standardize rules. To this day, it continues to publish annual rule cards with new winning combinations that deviate from traditional Chinese mahjong rules.

MahjongChinese traditions


Producer: Jessica Novia

Videographer and Editor: Nicholas Ko

Animation: Ray Ngan

Mastering: Joel Roche