Mahjong: China

麻將 Mahjong is a game that originated in China. In Chinese, the game was originally called 麻雀 (pinyin: máquè)—meaning sparrow—which is still the name most commonly used in some southern Chinese varieties such as Cantonese and Min Nan, as well as in Japanese. However, most Mandarin-speaking Chinese now call the game májiàng 麻將.

Mahjong is a tile game that originated in China and some people think that the game is 2,500 years old. Enthusiasts link the game to Confucius and his love of birds, but the oldest historical record ever found is dated in the 1880s. Researchers say that the game originated in the late 19th century in the provinces of Kiangsu, Anhwei and Chekiang (near Shanghai) and link the traditional rules of Mahjong to the popular game Mah-tiae (“Hanging Horse”) because the game uses a similar tile set.

After 1905, the game spread throughout China overtaking chess as the most popular game among Chinese citizens. But mahjong is often played as a gambling game, so it was banned after 1949 in China. It was reintroduced after the Cultural Revolution ended in 1976.

The game is played by 4 players 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 4 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 melded, the use of simples (numbered tiles) and honors (winds and dragons), the kinds of melds, and the order of dealing and play.

Our friend Vanessa from China has taught us how to play Mahjong during Chinese New Year celebrations at the Whistler Welcome Centre. We also had this game at the Whistler Multicultural Festival in 2016 for people to learn how to play mahjong and learn more about the history and culture of China.