Historical Overview

" it is probable that more nonsense has been talked and written about the history of Mah-Jongg than about any other game." (A.D. Millington, The Complete Book of Mah-Jongg)

Early stages

Contrary to what is often believed the game of Mah Jong is neither ancient ("played by Confucius himself", as some retailers have boldly claimed), nor has it been invented by any single person or group. Though the origins of Mah Jong can be traced back to set-forming card and domino games of a quasi-philosophical nature, played for centuries in China, the history of the game as it is known today only extends to the late 19th century. 

Mah Jong seems to have originated in the territories surrounding Hangchow, Nanking, Shanghai and Ningpo. The immediate ancestor of the game was a popular card-game called Ma-Tiao ("Hanging Horse"), which was a simple set-forming card (or tile) game, which at first consisted of four suits from 1 to 9 and four bonus cards, but which later in the 19th century was played with a total of 108 cards of 3 suits, named Ping (cash -> circles), So (string -> bamboos) and Wan (myriads -> characters). This game seems to have evolved into a proto-version of Mah Jong late in the 19th century, probably in the hands of scholars, officials and aristocracy.

In 1905 the game was still regionally restricted to the basin of the Yangtze Kiang and surroundings of Pekin, but by 1920 it had spread all over China and become the Chinese national game. While the development of the game began in the Ningpo region, it reached its perfection in Southern China. The two major popular versions of Mah Jong, known as Shanghai and Cantonese forms of Mah Jong, are more simple in scoring than the classical game, and possibly surviving forms of the earlier "proto" Mah Jong (rather than simplified versions of the classical game). The Western versions of Mah Jong were mostly based on these popular forms of Mah Jong. European Classical, the default rule preset of Four Winds, is an example of these popular variants of the classical Chinese Mah Jong.

The name of the game (Mah Jong, or Mah-Jongg) is an anglicized version of a compound word, which in the dialect of Shanghai is pronounced 'ma-chong', meaning separately "hemp, confused, tangled" and "bird", and as a compound word, a "sparrow". There are a number of theories explaining why the game should have been named after this bird: some state, that the clicking of tiles resembles the twittering of a sparrow, others consider that getting the winning tile is as difficult as catching a sparrow. The sparrow is also considered in China to be the bird of cleverness. It was, for some fortune tellers, the guide, the visible agent of the invisible. On the other hand, it is possible that the name is simply a misspelled form of its ancestor, Ma-Tiao, which in some dialects is pronounced very similarly as ma-chong. (Other examples of Chinese pronunciations are e.g. 'ma-cho'iao' [Pekin], 'ma-cheuk', 'ma-diao', 'ma-tsiok' [Cantonese dialects], and 'mo-ts'iah' or 'ma-tsion' [Ningpo].)

Later developments in China

Mah Jong continued to be played in China until it was banned (along with other monetary games) by the communist regime during the Cultural revolution. Currently the game is tolerated, though playing is not encouraged. In Western introductions to the game, the later developments of Mah Jong (both in China and elsewhere) have often been considered as a degradation of the classical rules, resulting from the popularization of the game in the hands of non-educated players not aware of the underlying classical culture and philosophical and symbolical aspects of the game. But it seems that the classical Mah Jong continued to develop in a direction that is currently known as "Old-Style" (or Hong Kong Mah Jong) and "New-Style" already before the Second World War, and above all amongst the upper class of Shanghai and Peking. This development continued later in Hong Kong and Taiwan (where a special 16-tile version of the game was developed) and today the classical Mah Jong has practically no adherents in the Asian countries.

The innovations of the "Old-Style" are mainly related to the payoff scheme. First, only the winner is paid (settlement of scores between the losers has been abandoned). In addition, East does not pay and receive double as in the classical rules. Instead, a player going out self-drawn is rewarded (each loser pays double the winner's final score). Furthermore, the discarder of the winning tile pays twice as much as other losers individually. As for scoring system, point scoring for basic sets has been completely abandoned along with disposal of the point unit. Doubles, or faan, on the other hand, no longer multiply scores linearly, but in a way that is regulated by a settling table. A concept of multiple limits (laak) is also introduced. The scoring patterns, however, are pretty much the same as in the classical rules (excepting the point-scoring bonus for ways of going out, double for Three concealed triplets, and Limit hands Fully Concealed Suit Hand and Dealer's Consecutive Wins, which are normally not acknowledged).

The "New-Style" differs from the "Old Style" Mah Jong mainly by introducing several new scoring patterns; in addition, jokers were introduced (though used only occasionally). It should be emphasized that the new patterns do not consist of "limit hands" (even less of irregular hands that are so typical of American Mah Jong): rather, the player is awarded with extra faan for collecting patterns like Two identical Chows, Terminal Chows of the same suit, etc., all of which can be achieved with a regular hand consisting of four sets and a pair. Dozens of new patterns are acknowledged but normally only a sub set is used in any one session. Due to the addition of new patterns, the payments tend to be rather high in the New Style.

Recently there have been signs of a revitalization of Mah Jong in the Chinese mainland. The China State Sports Commission published in 1998 a compilation that lays out rules for Official Chinese Mah Jong (the rules were slightly revised for the Ningbo tournament in 2002, but unfortunately the changes were not completely documented in the English rule book). These rules are extremely pattern-centered and have a minimum point requirement of 8 points. The payoff scheme seems to be adopted from the Taiwanese system, according to which the winner receives from each loser the amount of his final score, if he goes out self-drawn, while if he goes out on a discard, only the loser pays (but just for himself). The scoring is so complex that it is not likely that these rules achieve wide acceptance amongst ordinary players, but on the other hand, they seem to reflect the way the game has been played in different regions of China during the time it was officially suppressed. It is interesting to see the future of Mah Jong in China: will the rules continue to develop in a highly pattern-centered direction, or will they somehow be balanced with the classical rules.

Japanese Mah Jong

Mah Jong was introduced to Japan in 1907 and became extremely popular in the 1920's. During the Sino-Japanese War in 193745 the game was suppressed in Japan, but after the end of the war it soon regained its popularity, and continues to be popular in Japan of today. 

The Japanese Mah Jong has retained much of the classical game: e.g., point-scoring for basic sets and a payment plan where East pays and receives double. On the other hand, as in all modern Asian versions, only the winner is paid. The Japanese rules also omitted Flowers and Seasons, and most of the classical Limit hands.

The most distinctive feature of Japanese Mah Jong is the payoff scheme, according to which a discarder of the winning tile pays for all losers. Thus the meaning of defensive strategies is greatly increased. Another typically Japanese feature partly explained by the risk of high losses is rewarding patterns in a concealed hand (or concealed patterns). In addition to paying an extra double for a Fully concealed hand  and Three concealed triplets (as the Chinese Classical rules), the Japanese rules pay 2 doubles for a Pung hand with three concealed triplets. In the modern Japanese Mah Jong this tendency is further accentuated. The Japanese rules also introduced a number of new patterns, e.g., All simples, Terminal in each set  and Sequential Chows from one suit. Other typically Japanese inventions include the rule of Sacred Discard, Missed Discard and Riichi.

In the 1950's a group of players formed an organization called the Japanese Mah Jong Association the purpose of which was to establish official Japanese rules and attempt to set a limit to the invention of new patterns and rules. The association is still active and has about 20,000 members, and the official rules laid out by the association are widely acknowledged not only in Japan, but also in Europe (the Japanese Classical rules of Four Winds are based on these rules).

However, the great majority of Japanese players use modern rules where the number of patterns is further increased and where the rule of Riichi is used; in addition, the modern rules almost invariably use bonus tiles called Dora. In Four Winds the Japanese Modern rule preset represents the modern Japanese Ari-Ari version of Mah Jong (which is the most common of different versions of Mah Jong played in Japan of today), while the Japanese Transitional presents a sort of mid-point between the classical and modern.

Other Asian versions

In Taiwan a special 16-Tile Mah Jong was evolved, and this version is enormously popular today, not only in Taiwan but also e.g. in Philippines. Here the regular hand must contain five (instead of four) sets of Chows/Pungs/Kongs and a pair. The game is more difficult than a traditional 13-tile game, but has also lost some of the flexibility and balance of the classical game.

In Korea the game is often played by omitting the Bamboo suit. Complex Riichi rules are also common.

American Mah Jong

The game was introduced in the USA in the 1920's and gained at first much popularity.

The first rules were produced by Joseph P. Babcock, who started marketing Mah Jong sets in America and who also took out a copyright on the name "Mah-Jongg", thus claiming to be the sole authority on Mah Jong in America. These rules were based on a simplified Shanghai form of Mah Jong, which omitted most of the Limit hands and some of the double patterns (e.g., Three concealed triplets), and introduced loser scoring for uncompleted One Suit with Honors and One suit only hands, later expanding this concept to some other hands as well. This scoring practice can still be seen in many Western versions, not only in American and Australian rules, but also e.g. in the Dutch rules.

Soon after several competitive rules appeared, as each manufacturer or importer of Mah Jong sets usually published rules of his own (because of copyright reasons, the game was introduced under several different names, e.g., Pe-ling, Pung-Chow, etc.). This resulted in a confusion, especially as many of the rule variations introduced had nothing to do with the original game, but were actually fabrications made to evade copyright laws.

However, the direction in which the game eventually evolved in the United States, was not determined so much by these rule books, but by the predilection of American players to go for "big hands". To guarantee that attempts for well-scoring hands were not spoiled by "unsporting" players satisfied with small hands, several new limit hands and restrictive rules for the winning hand were introduced. The "Cleared-Hand" game prohibited mixed suits from the winning hand, and "One-Double" game required the winning hand to be worth at least 1 double (however, as the number of double patterns was limited, the effect was pretty much the same as that of the "Cleared-Hand" rule). The first of the new Limit hands included the seven pairs versions of the classical Limit hands, soon to be followed by irregular sequence hands (hands consisting of tiles from 1 to 9 from 1 suit and a more or less arbitrary collection of Honors, e.g., one of each Wind, paired with any fifth Wind), etc.

None of these rules and additions are actually American inventions: the "minimum double rule" is a common house rule in both Chinese and Japanese modern gambling oriented versions while the "Cleared-Hand" game is likely to have arisen by taking an advice for a rule (e.g., if the minimum is set at 1 double/faan,  "One Suit and Honors" is a likely example of a legal winning hand given as an advice to a novice player). As for irregular Limit hands (other than ones based on seven pairs), these are rarely acknowledged in the Asian versions (not even in modern ones), but might well appear as house rules. However, the meaning of Limit and irregular hands in Asian versions of Mah Jong has always been marginal, whereas in the American version these aspects, along with the rules restricting the composition of the winning hand, gained the central role.

At first these rules existed simply as "options": e.g. American Code of Laws for Mah Jong (1924), a book published by a standardization committee, actually presents and recommends a game that is very close to the classical Chinese Mah Jong (much like the European Classical rule preset of Four Winds), but due to the popularity of One-Double and Cleared-Hand rules, these restrictive games were mentioned as alternatives. As the American Code was acknowledged by Parker Bros (who held the sole right to the name of Mah-Jongg by assignment from Babcock), this rule book gained a sort of an official status in the United States. The American Classical rule preset of Four Winds 2 represents these rules.

However, the excitement for the game of Mah Jong lasted only for few years. After the boom was over the American public soon lost its interest in the game. Some writers have conjectured that this can be explained by the abundance of rival rules, but a more likely reason is that the players found the game mechanical and unchallenging in an intellectual respect this being a natural result of accentuating the gambling elements of the game, especially as the American selection of double patterns was not adjusted to meet the requirements of the changed rules. Anyway, in 1935 Mah Jong was revived in the United States as a new association, "The National Mah Jongg League, Inc.", was established (the association still claims to govern the "official" game in the United States). However, instead of reverting to Chinese rules, the association continued to develop the game on the basis of a "Cleared-Hand" game, introducing additions like Charleston and jokers. The most distinctive feature of these rules is a yearly changing list of special hands, all of which are irregular. Other non-classical features include keeping the Flowers and Seasons in hand, keeping Kongs in hand, acknowledgement of "Quints" (five identical tiles), etc.

The rules presented by NMJL are by no means the only version of Mah Jong that is currently played in the United States. Other common versions include Wright-Patterson rules (a group formed by wives of U.S. Navy officers) and Jewish-American rules, the latter being based on the collection of mere irregular patterns. Versions that are more close to the original game are played, as well. However, most of the modern American versions are based on a Cleared-Hand game, usually allow a maximum of 1 Chow in the winning hand, and focus on collecting Limit hands (about half of which are irregular). With Charleston and jokers, it is guaranteed that this goal is often achieved, as well. The American Modern rule preset of Four Winds represents a sort of middle way between the extremes: while supporting fully the most typical American features (Cleared-Hand game, maximum of 1 Chow, jokers and Charleston), the scoring, payments and other rules are still based on the Chinese classical game.

Other Western countries

Mah Jong was introduced to other Western countries soon after it had landed in the United States, and as the game was usually mediated by the Americans, the same rules gained acceptance also in these countries. E.g., the Australian version of Mah Jong is a Cleared-hand game allowing a maximum of one Chow in the winning hand, with the exception that a fully concealed hand (a concealed hand that goes out on a self-drawn tile) is allowed to have more than one Chow. The Australian rules have also adopted the American innovation of paying losers for uncompleted hands, but extended it to cover practically all hands, including uncompleted limit hands.

American influence can also clearly be seen in the British, Dutch and French rules. In the British rules the winning hand is allowed to contain no more than one Chow, but there is no restriction on mixed suits. The Dutch rules often apply a minimum of 2 doubles (sometimes combined with an exception which accepts a One suit and Honor hand as a legal winning hand, even if it scores less than 2 doubles). On the other hand, the Dutch rules pay 1 double for patterns like Chow hand (without any restrictions) and All Simples, which makes it fairly easy to score the required minimum, and a fully concealed hand pays 2 doubles. The French rules do not restrict the winning hand in any way, but on the other hand, acknowledge several non-classical limit hands, many of which are irregular, and allow these hands to be partially melded. The French rules also require that discards are placed face down on board a feature that was earlier used in some versions of American Mah Jong, but very seldom today. The German rules introduce the typical American (classical) irregular hands and have abandoned the use of Dead Wall (as the modern American and Australian rules). The German rules also pay to losers in American way (not only for completed sets but for some uncompleted hands, as well).

On the other hand, all European rules include features that seldom appear in the American versions of Mah Jong. E.g., the British rules use obligatory ready declaration, the French and Italian rules have adapted the rule of Riichi, which deviates remarkably from the one used in the Japanese Mah Jong; none of the European rules (except the German) has abandoned the Dead Wall (as American and Australian rules have), Italian rules acknowledge patterns that are normally used only in the modern Chinese and Japanese versions, French rules apply normal payments after a draw, Dutch rules allow pairing a Dot 1 with Bamboo 1 (Bird eats the cake), German rules apply exceptionally high scoring for wind triplets and concealed hands and give an extra double for each Kong, etc. All these variations suggest that there might have been other, more direct channels for the distribution of the game, and it is possible, that many of the peculiarities of the European versions are actually based on the direct influence of some local Asian (not necessarily Chinese) rule. Other likely explanations are that the Europeans have misunderstood a local rule, mixed in features from other popular games (like Gin-Rummy, Canasta, Bridge and poker), or that these national variations are remnants of the wild era when the game was introduced to the United States and new rules (some of which were original, Chinese or Japanese house rules, some invented by American writers) were published on a daily basis, without a proper understanding of the tradition of the game.

However, it should be noted that many of the national European versions presented in Four Winds are rules of Mah Jong associations and do not necessarily reflect the way Mah Jong is generally played in these countries. Most of the Mah Jong sets sold in Europe still come with rules that introduce the simplified classical rules (ones represented by European Classical rule preset of Four Winds). In the Nordic countries the Japanese Classical version is also quite popular.

Related topics:
Symbolism of Mah Jong
Luck and Skill in Mah Jong