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FAQ 11. HISTORY OF MAHJONG

Part III (FAQ 11c). ORIGINS; WHO CREATED MAH-JONGG

Mah-Jongg unquestionably began in China, and there is strong evidence that it began sometime during the latter half of the nineteenth century (more specifically during the time of the Tai Ping Rebellion, 1851-1864), around the area of Ningbo.

According to an informational booklet, entitled THE HISTORY AND CULTURE OF MAHJONG, from the DISPLAY HALL OF THE BIRTHPLACE OF MAHJONG (DH/BP/MJ), 74 MaYa Road, Ningbo 315010, China, (0574) 8729-3526), the creator of mah-jongg was Chen Yumen of Ningbo.


L: The "biography" of Chen Yumen. R: The calling card of Chen Yumen.

Hope you can read Chinese! I sure can't.

According to MAJAN HAKUBUTSUKAN DAIZUROKU ("Illustrated Book of the Mah-Jongg Museum," aka MJM), "The inventor [of mah-jongg] is said to be Chin Zheng Yue" around or about the time of the Tai Ping Rebellion (1851-1864). "Chin Zheng Yue" is apparently an alternative spelling (perhaps due to the process of translation from Chinese to Japanese and then to English) of "Chen Zhengyao" (given by the DH/BP/MJ, above, as an alternative name for Chen Yumen or Yu-mun). According to Cofa Tsui, Chen Yumen's calling card (image above) reveals that Zhengyue is his proper legal name, while Yumen is his nickname or familiar name.

With thanks to Thierry Depaulis, here are two links where can be found mentions of Chen Yumen (Chen Yu-mun):

This origin attribution (that Chen Yumen was solely responsible for modifying existing games and thereby creating the first true mah-jongg set and game) still needs more research before it can be fully accepted universally by mah-jongg scholars and historians.

Most existing books and authorities on the game describe and discuss other origin theories, as follows. I include them here so that this discussion can be reasonably complete.

According to Millington and the Mah-Jongg Museum ("MJM"), there are three or four possible creators of the game of mah-jongg.

In J.B. Powell's article "Mah Chang: The Game and Its History" from the China Weekly Review, June 30, 1923, posted on Jim May's excellent Mah Jongg Cyber Museum site (no longer available online), is given another origin legend, about a fisherman named Sze who lived near Ningpo (now Ningbo) approximately three thousand years ago. This legend has it that Sze invented mah-jongg to keep his workers from getting seasick. "Interestingly," Cofa Tsui points out, "the name Yumen means Fish Gate/Door in English," which raises speculation as to whether there is any connection between this Sze legend and Chen Yumen.

1850-1880: Another origin legend has it that mah-jongg was invented by the eunuchs and/or concubines in the Emperor's palace around the time of the Tai Ping Rebellion or a little later (Ching Dynasty). The story has it that the concubines were bored because there were so many of them and their meetings with the emperor were so infrequent; they needed something to while away the time! (You don't suppose Chen Yumen was a...?  Naahh!!)


I myself tend to think that the creator of mah-jongg (inspired by and based on concepts of previous existing card, dice, and domino games) was indeed Chen Yumen (Chin Zheng Yue, Chen Zhengyao, Chen Yu-mun). But I would very much like to see an English translation of the man's biography (and more of a biography than that given in the DH/BP/MJ booklet), and I would very much like to know exactly what changes he wrought upon the game.

I find the other origin theories too vague or too colorful to be relied upon.


Click on desired chapter...

INTRO: DEFINITIONS, SOURCES

ORIGINS: PRECURSOR GAMES

ORIGINS: WHO CREATED MAHJONG

ORIGINS: EARLIEST WRITINGS ON MAHJONG

ORIGINS: EARLIEST MAHJONG SETS

ORIGINS: PROTO-MAHJONG AND CHINESE CLASSICAL

A MINOR (and somewhat silly) CONTROVERSY: THE CC THEORY

MAHJONG TIMELINE


© 2000-2010 Tom Sloper. All rights reserved. May not be reprinted without express written permission of the author.

Disclaimer: Some of the ideas in this article are based on research by mah-jongg scholar Michael Stanwick, with thanks for his excellent ongoing work.