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FAQ 11. HISTORY OF MAHJONG

Part VI (FAQ 11f). ORIGINS; "PROTO-MAH-JONGG" and "CHINESE CLASSICAL"

Although the earliest documented rules are those that we now call "Chinese Classical," it seems likely that the original rules were at least a little different. Millington calls these unknown original rules "proto-mah-jongg."

The earliest documented sets (as illustrated in Part V) were comprised of different tiles than those used in mah-jongg sets since 1920.


The "proto-mah-jongg" set of the early 1870s contained tiles that do not exist in any variants documented after the end of the Qing Dynasty.

Flower tiles were absent, some early sets did not have the fa tile (what we in the West call the Green Dragon tile), and the proto-mah-jongg sets also contained extra tiles. How these extra tiles were used in the original game is not known. No written rules have ever been discovered that describe how the game was played with this different set of tiles.

As the rules became perfected and as the pieces evolved into the set we know today, the end result was the Chinese Classical game, which became very popular throughout China around the time of the end of the Qing Dynasty in 1911. By 1920 when the game was introduced to the West through the foreign community in the city of Shanghai, only minor rule differences existed throughout China. With different table rules at every table, no doubt! (^_^)

I have collected many mah-jongg books (in English) from the 1920s. In these books, it is acknowledged that there were regional variants in China (especially Northern vs. Southern, primarily Shanghai vs. Canton). But the difference in those areas seems mainly to be in fine points of the scoring, which special hands are recognized, and other various ways of handling specific situations.

R. F. Foster, in his research for his magazine articles, mentions that he used 27 translations from Chinese manuscripts, and that "all 27 agree upon what might be called the cardinal points of the scoring. They differ only in the limitation of certain scores to certain hands, and in the bonuses or doubles." Olga Racster, in her 1924 book (printed in Great Britain so it's not "polluted" by the mah-jongg wars going on at that time in the U.S.), states that the main difference between the Shanghai style and the Hong Kong style at the time was that the "base score" in Shanghai was 20 points; in Hong Kong it was 10.

Thus the game known today as "Chinese Classical" was played pretty much the same (with minor differences) all across China. It was during the tumultuous period of the 1930s and 1940s (marked especially by The Great Depression and World War II) that regional variants developed and the mah-jongg family tree began branching in different directions.

Click the tree to see a larger picture.

Note: since the time the Family Tree illustration was created, some new variants have been discovered. Those are not yet included in the illustration.

And importantly, some newly discovered documents (December, 2006) reveal that there was a pre-1920s game, with some differences from the variant we have been calling Chinese Classical. The diagram above doesn't reflect either "proto-mahjong" (the unknown earliest form of the game) or this newly discovered "pre-1920s" game (the diagram does need to be redrawn). But you can see a comparison of some of those early twentieth century forms at www.sloperama.com/mahjongg/analysis.html. Hong Kong Old Style mahjong is also listed in that comparison, mainly to mollify one vocal member of the mahjong newsgroup who long held that HKOS was a significant early ancestor of today's variants. The next chapter examines the debate on this topic, for those who care to delve that deeply.


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 Tom Sloper. All rights reserved. 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.