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FAQ 11. HISTORY OF MAHJONG

Part V (FAQ 11e). ORIGINS; EARLIEST DOCUMENTED MAH-JONGG SETS

The earliest known mah-jongg sets, sets that considerably predate the mah-jongg "craze" that began around 1920, tell a lot about the origins of the game.

Much to-do has been made regarding what exactly were the "original rules" of mah-jongg. The composition of these early ("proto-mah-jongg") sets surely sheds some light as to the possible rule differences. Stewart Culin briefly mentioned some tile sets collected by George B. Glover. And Millington (see FAQ 3) also mentioned a set collected by Wilkinson, which was exhibited at the Columbian Exhibition in Chicago in 1893. Mah-Jongg historian Michael Stanwick, in a 2004 article in The Playing-card (the Journal of the International Playing-Card Society), managed to obtain photos of the Glover sets and these appear in his two-part article, Mahjong(g) before Mahjong(g) in The Playing-Card. Each of these sets is missing some tiles. Culin had mentioned a tile which is not present, so the following is a composite description (and includes the alleged Center Ruler tile - mentioned by Culin but not supported by the photographs).

THE GLOVER SETS (early 1870s)


- The "One Bam" tile is more simplistic, stylized - not the ornate birds we saw in later sets.
- The set includes what we now call "the four Winds," and the Center tile (what we now refer to as "Red Dragons"), but no Fa (Green Dragon) tiles. Collectively, these (the four winds and the center) seem to have been regarded as "the five Directions."
- There are eight blank tiles (four of which we now refer to as "White Dragons").
- There are four Seasons (the Chinese characters ensconced in a green octagonal frame), but no Flowers.
- The set includes four special "ruler" tiles: Heaven, Earth, Man, and Peace.
- The set also includes directional ruler tiles: East, South, West, North. And Culin reported seeing a fifth: Center. If Culin was not mistaken, this would have created an odd number of tiles in the set: 149 in all. More on the Center Ruler, below. It is not yet known how the "ruler" tiles were to be used in play.

The two surviving Glover sets (which today reside in different museums in America) differ from each other in that different tiles are missing from each set. The following illustration shows what I imagine the complete 1870s "proto-mah-jongg" set looked like (based on the photos and on Culin's descriptions).


This is my "artist's conception" of what a "proto-mah-jongg" set of the early 1870s may have looked like.
Note that the sets also came with 4 extra blank tiles (omitted here and in the other images on this page).

Note that Culin made mention of another tile, the "Center Ruler" tile. Stanwick and I both doubt that this tile truly existed. Including that tile would make the set have an odd number of tiles (145 - or 149 if you count the 4 extra blanks), and that would go against the usual divisible-by-four tile counts seen in existing and documented sets.

THE TILE SET OF SHENG XUANHUAI

The tile set of Sheng Xuanhuai 1884 or 1892) may have been the earliest documented set in which the suit of wan (10,000 - "characters" or "craks") was replaced instead by a suit of pin (rank or grade). It may also be the earliest documented set in which, rather than chung and fa (center and fortune) dragon tiles, the alternative lóng and fèng (dragon and phoenix) dragon tiles are used. This set also did not include the usual four winds/direction tiles (E-S-W-N) but instead four "Confucian cardinal virtues of integrity, propriety, righteousness and modesty." And it also included four "king" tiles (one for each suit, and a "Supreme King")[, perhaps presaging the special joker tiles later adopted in Vietnamese mahjong]. The king tiles in this set are in keeping with the tiles in the Himly set. The description of this set first appeared in 1934 in Gu shui jiu wen (Old hearings from the Gu River) by Dai Yu'an. (Source: Michael Stanwick, The Playing Card, September 2006. Section in italics and square brackets added by me.)

ANOTHER SORT OF EARLY SET

Sometime between the 1870s and 1900 or so, the "ruler" tiles were dropped, and the set came to include what we in the West now refer to as the "dragons" (the chung, fa, and bai - the Red, Green, and White). It is not known if Chen Yumen created the set with the Rulers, or the set with the Dragons. We may never know!

Below is an illustration of another sort of set that was sometimes seen in mah-jongg's early days, both before and after the 1911 revolution which ended the Qing Dynasty. In some sets, the four "Winds" were replaced by special tiles representing high ranks - Kung (Duke), Hou (Marquis), Chiang (Marshal), and Hsiung (Premier). And in some sets, the more usual Chung (red) and Fa (green) characters were replaced by "Feng" (Phoenix, representing Prosperity) and "Lung" (Dragon, representing the emblem sometimes used for China).


This image, and all other images on this page, (c) 2009 Tom Sloper. May not be used without written authorization.

It's interesting to note another feature of the illustration above. The Feng (Fung) and Lung (Loong) tiles also represent "Empress" and "Emperor" respectively. Taken in context with the Duke, Marquis, Marshal, and Premier tiles, they all represent a hierarchical ranking. And notice the three-square character used at the bottom of the Craks suit. That's the Chinese character "pin" (or "ping") meaning "rank." During the Qing Dynasty the Chinese had quite a lot of fun playing numerological games with courtly ranks, and this seems to have been evidenced in some early mah-jongg sets that were made.

Clearly, the set depicted above could be used to play the classical variant of mah-jongg. In effect, then, although this set has visual differences from what we usually think of as a mah-jongg set, this could qualify as a mah-jongg set (and needn't be thought of as strictly a "proto-mah-jongg" set).

EARLY MAH-JONGG SETS

For comparison purposes, it's useful to see two types of 1920s mah-jongg sets.


The typical 1920s set had 8 flowers/seasons, the "chung" and "fa" dragons we're familiar with today, and the Eight Dot was in blue.


It wasn't unusual for some 1920s sets to have "feng" and "loong" dragons, with a red Eight Dot tile. The flower tiles may have occasionally gotten fancier than shown.


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, 2001, 2002, 2006, 2014 Tom Sloper. All rights reserved. Images and text may not be reprinted without express written permission of the author.

Disclaimer: Some of the ideas in this article may have been originated by mah-jongg scholar Michael Stanwick. My thanks to Mr. Stanwick for his excellent research.