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Jewish Journal

the american mah jongg blog

by Elaine Sandberg

August 30, 2010 | 1:19 pm

  MAH JONGG—FACT AND FICTION


Mah Jongg or Mah Jong—any way you spell it or pronounce it, with the emphasis on the Mah or the Jongg, it’s still the same exciting, challenging and fun game. Over the years of its growth and popularity in America, some of the history of Mah Jongg has been shrouded in fiction.  So let’s get the facts straight.

Fiction: Mah Jongg is an ancient Chinese game.

Fact:  Mah Jongg is a creation of the late 19th Century.

True the game originated in China, but not in the days of Confucius (even though the Mah Jongg League claims it is) It evolved gradually from card games and tile games played over much time to about the late 1800s—between the 1850s to the 1880s or 90s.  The earliest known reference in writing to Mah Jongg was about 1880s and the earliest known mahj set was documented about the same time.

Fiction:  Mah Jongg is a woman’s game.

Fact: Mah Jongg is played by women and men.

True it is played today mostly by women, but originally Mah Jongg was a man’s game. In China it was played exclusively by men—mostly by royalty and highly placed government and palatial officials. Peasant classes were forbidden to play it, not that they had the leisure to play it anyway. It was believed to be a game that required thinking and intelligence and that if the lower classes played it, they would learn how to think—a threat to their political positions. As for women, the role of women in the Chinese culture was certainly not one that would ever allow them to play the “Game of a Thousand Intelligences”, Mah Jongg, let alone any game.

But as the government democratized in 1911 with the election of Dr. Sun Yat Sen as President, the game rapidly became the province of the “people”, and the door was opened to women. Because each game is scored, the higher the point value of the hand, the more money it’s worth, the game became one of gambling for potentially hundreds of Chinese dollars. After WWI, both men and women played Mah Jongg in China, especially in the emerging middle class, which could afford the high stakes of Mah Jongg.

When it was introduced to the US by Joseph Babcock in 1920, an American who was employed by Standard Oil in China, predominately, men played it. But soon it was embraced by women. By the 1930s, every department store worth its salt had counters filled with Mah Jongg sets in every price range and of every description.  It was the first thing you saw when you walked into the store.

By 1937, with the creation of the National Mah Jongg League, the predominance of players was women.  Men had long since abandoned it, given that the discord about how to score hands had become increasingly volatile and vicious.

Today, there is an increasingly number of men in my classes and men’s Mahj groups are springing up.

Fiction: Mah Jongg is an old lady’s game.

Fact: Mah Jongg is played by women and men of all ages.

Today, Baby Boomers are flooding my classes. Young moms are taking classes with other young moms. Working Singles and couples are creating Mahj groups with their friends and are learning and playing together. Today, there is no stigma attached to the game as an ”old lady’s game”. The renaissance in Mah Jongg is effecting every strata of society and every age from teens on up. My 12 yr. old grandson fills in if we are short a player.  And more men are discovering the game to be just as challenging and interesting as when Chinese men ruled the game.

Fiction: Mah Jongg is a “Jewish” game.

Fact:  There is no such thing as “Jewish Mah Jongg”. The game is called American Mah Jongg.

There are no “Jewish rules”. I do not know where this stereotype came from, but it is just that—a stereotype.  Yes, many Jewish women play it but so do many women (and men) from every other ethnic and religious group. 

So I hope I’ve dispelled some of the mythology surrounding Mah Jongg and have added to the pleasure and fun of the game.

Til next time…

MAY THE TILES BE WITH YOU!


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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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A kid from Brooklyn, a graduate of Syracuse University and an immigrant to California via Palo Alto, San Juan Capistrano, finally, Los Angeles, I have been here for the past 15...

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