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FAQ 11. "Somebody clarify for me the history of mah-jongg. One source says it goes back to Confucian times, another that it originated in the 1920s. What's the real scoop?"

A: Mah-Jongg is NOT an ancient game, as author after author insist. That origin legend is just a lot of marketing hype that started in the 1920s when mah-jongg first became popular around the world.

Development of the game was not well documented in China, and most Chinese (whether or not they really believe the hyperbole) see no good reason to debunk the romanticized myths about the game.

One person tells a falsehood and a hundred repeat it as true.
- Chinese saying

Mah-Jongg as we know it today was created in the mid-to-late 1800s, based on (inspired by, derived from) money-suited card games that do go back to ancient times. In fact, those "ancient" cards and games were also the progenitors of today's tarot cards and playing cards. The earliest written record describing the gameplay of mah-jongg is no older than the 1890s, and the earliest known mah-jongg sets go back no farther than the 1870s.

To begin this history, it's necessary to define what mah-jongg (mahjong, majiang, majan) is - and what its name means, and how its name is spelled. And to list the authoritative historical sources upon which this article is based.


For the purposes of this discussion, mahjong (mah-jongg) is:

1. A game normally played with tiles (or occasionally with cards) comprised of:

A regular 1920s mah-jongg set of 144 of the usual tiles (the basic 136, plus 8 flower/season tiles).
Note that the white dragons were usually blank in the 1920s (this IS a history FAQ, after all!),
and sets usually came with 4 extra blanks (the 4 extras are omitted here).

2. Intended primarily for four players (variants allow other numbers of players).

3. Gameplay consists of forming the tiles into a hand; first player to form a valid hand wins.

4. A complete mah-jongg hand usually follows the formula "Number of tiles = (n groups) + pair, where 'n' = (usually) either 4 or 5, 'group' = 3, and 'pair' = 2." In other words, the complete hand might be 14 tiles, or it might be 17. The use of "groups" as mentioned here is the norm, but as with all generalities about mah-jongg, there are exceptions.

If you desire a longer, more detailed definition, click here


In the very earliest known writings about the game (the 1890s), the game was referred to by various names, among them chung fa, que ma que or ma que (in Cantonese: mah cheuk ). The game was not called "mahjong" by the Chinese who played it, and that name was not used until the early 1900s.

When Joseph Park Babcock undertook to introduce the game to the USA in 1920, he decided that it would be beneficial to give the game a name that he could trademark. (He was a pretty sharp cookie.) For reasons known only to himself, he decided "mahjong" would sound better (more Chinese-sounding, I guess) than mah que, and he decided to write it as "Mah-Jongg," with the hyphen and the two G's. So that's why today the game isn't called "Mah Que" - blame it on Babcock.

"Mah que" can be translated as "sparrow," "flax sparrow," or possibly as "hemp bird." Flax or jute or hemp are variegated (comprised of numerous colors, brown, gray, black, white), and variegated-color birds, "hemp birds," are... sparrows. So now you know that "Mah Jong" = mah que = sparrows, thus "Mah Jong" means "Sparrows!"

The mah-jongg tiles, when shuffled, make a melodious noise reminiscent of the noise of numerous sparrows squabbling over scattered food crumbs. This sound effect is most apparent when shuffling bone-and-bamboo tiles, and when you're hearing the sound from a small distance. And this is why the game was called Sparrows by the Chinese before Babcock came along.

When Babcock's efforts led to mah-jongg becoming intensely popular in the early 1920s, other entrepreneurs, authors, and companies made their own sets and books. These others could not use the name "mah-jongg" since it was trademarked by Babcock. So they came up with other names, among them Ma Chong, Ma Chiang, Ma Deuck, Pung Chow, Pe-Ling, and "The Game of a Thousand Intelligences." Over the course of a couple of years, it became common to refer to the game by the generic name "mahjong" (dropping the hyphen and the double G).

Babcock and his heirs seem to have allowed the trademark to fall into the public domain over the passage of time, and many of today's printed dictionaries use Babcock's spelling - so I have tended to use Babcock's spelling... until now.

At the time of this writing (April, 2006), it's come to my attention that many who search for mah-jongg information on the Internet search for it by using the spelling "mahjong." Search results can be affected by web name headers and uses of headings within the body of the text. So while I have usually used "mah-jongg," this FAQ exemplifies my first experiments with using "mahjong" in headers and headings. Either spelling is correct; you can pick one and don't worry if others use different spellings.

Recently, the Chinese have changed the way they write the game's name. They no longer write it as or 麻雀 (mah que, meaning Sparrows). Today instead they write it as (ma jiang). Its meaning seems to be "hemp leader" or "jute general" or "flax commander." I don't know why this change has been made - hemp and military leaders aren't exactly a logical combination - but my guess is that it was an attempt to find a more impressive-sounding way to write the English word "mahjong."

There is a lot more to tell about the history of mah-jongg. You can click the chapter links below. But first I need to credit the authorities upon whose work this history is based.


This FAQ is based largely on information from the following sources:

1. THE COMPLETE BOOK OF MAH-JONGG, by A.D. Millington, Wiedenfeld & Nicolson, 1987, ISBN 0-213-16951-7 or 0-297-81340-4 or 0-460-81340-4. (See FAQ 3 for more on this book.)

2. MAJAN HAKUBUTSUKAN DAIZUROKU ("Illustrated Book of the Mah-Jongg Museum," or literally translated "Mah-Jongg Museum Big Encyclopedia"). Edited by the Mah-Jongg Museum (no author name). Publisher: Takeshobo, April 1999. ISBN 4-8124-0473-8. (See FAQ 3 for more on this book.) Abbreviation hereinafter for this source: MJM.

3. Various newsgroup posts (notably those of Alan Kwan), internet websites, history timelines, game books, and encyclopedias. (As this FAQ is refined, a bibliography will be developed. Some sources are quoted within the timeline.)

4. Another important source of information about mah-jongg is the work of anthropologist Stewart Culin, whose research into games provides the earliest known mention of mah-jongg (see timeline, below). (some of the earliest-known writings about mah-jongg came from Stewart Culin; this 1924 article is much later but is extremely informative). See also (bio & more articles by Stewart Culin)

5. And let's not overlook the work of Sir William Henry Wilkinson, a British Sinologist who served as British consul in China and Korea and who wrote articles and books on Chinese games in the mid 1890s. A mah-jongg set brought back from China by Wilkinson is one of the two earliest-documented mah-jongg sets in the world. (More on this, including an illustration, below.)

6. THE HISTORY AND CULTURE OF MAHJONG, by the Display Hall of the Birthplace of Mahjong (74 MaYa Road, Ningbo 315010, China, Tel. (0574) 8729-3526). (No ISBN #; Date of publication uncertain but perhaps 2002. Abbreviation hereinafter for this source: DH/BP/MJ.

7. MAHJONG(G) BEFORE MAHJONG(G), a four-part article from The Playing-Card, the journal of the International Playing Card Society, by mah-jongg historian Michael Stanwick. Part One of the article appeared in Vol. 32, No. 4, Jan.-Feb. 2004 and Part Two appeared in Vol. 32, No. 5, Mar.-Apr. 2004. Part Three appeared in Vol. 34, No. 4, April-June 2006. Part Four appeared in Vol. 35, No. 1, September 2006. These back numbers may still be available from the IPCS.

8. More (variously-titled) newsgroup posts of January, 2007, notably those of "ithinc," a Chinese mahjong scholar who prefers that his real name not be used on the Internet, and French game scholar Thierry Depaulis.

9. See also the well-informed GiocAreA articles by Sergio Mastromarino at

10. Mah-jongg and modern playing cards have a shared history. Dr. Ken Lodge writes about the history of playing cards, at

Click on desired chapter...


For opposing views on the history of mah-jongg, see Cofa Tsui's website and the newsgroup posts of Allan Lee.

© 2000-2021 Tom Sloper. All rights reserved. May not be reprinted without express written permission of the author.

Disclaimer: Some of the ideas in this article originated with mah-jongg scholar Michael Stanwick and may not be specifically attributed or footnoted. My thanks to Mr. Stanwick for his excellent research. His website is at

Archive-name: mjfaq11.htm
Posting-frequency: n/a (it's on the web)
Last-modified: April 23, 2002
Version: 1.19

Update log:
July 16, 2000 -- Construction of timeline portion.
December 30, 2000 -- Starting to flesh it out, inspired by recent newsgroup discussion.
December 31, 2000 -- Cleanup in detail; converted file to HTML format and went online with it for the first time.
January 3, 2001 -- Added earliest references to playing cards (thanks to John McLeod of
January 3, 2001 -- Added earliest references to game of Go (thanks to Jesper Harder and to John Fairbairn's website at
January 5, 2001 -- Scattered minor fixes
January 10, 2001 -- Made refinements to history of playing-cards and Tarot cards in Europe, 1300-1430.
May 4, 2001 -- Added a note from Karl Hung in regards to the attribution of mah-jongg creatorship to Hung Hsiu-Chuan.
May 23, 2001 -- Added links to Stewart Culin site (University of Waterloo).
June 4, 2001 -- Added more stuff about W. H. Wilkinson (thanks to David Hearder).
June 6, 2001 -- Added logo graphic (part of the FAQs - Maj Exchange integration process); corrected a typo in the 2000 entry for the NMJL (oops, I had written "AMJA") and did a slight reorganization/rewording of 1999 events in the timeline
June 25, 2001 -- Corrected a factual error in the Wilkinson discussion (about whether Tarot or playing cards came first); added further details to the origins of Tarot. Source:, a wonderful resource on Tarot graciously pointed out to me by Sarah Ovenall.
June 26, 2001 -- Added another origin story (concubines & eunuchs in the Emperor's court).
June 30, 2001 -- Fixed Shanghai URL; added a note about Shanghai (the computer game) to the timeline.
July 2, 2001 -- Fixed first publication dates of the Robertson and Millington books, thanks to D. B. Pritchard. Corrected dates in the history of the table game Monopoly.
July 18, 2001 -- Added a note to the Wright-Patterson entry in the timeline, and fixed a typo there.
July 18, 2001 -- Added detailed info to the Wright-Patterson entry (1963 in the timeline), thanks to Susan Hanley, Chairperson of the Wright-Patterson Mah Jongg Group.
July 23, 2001 -- Added Asami Ryo's thoughts on the origin of mah-jongg.
August 31, 2001 -- Added mah-jongg parlor explosion to timeline.
September 4, 2001 -- Added the latest rumor from Tokyo on the parlor explosion.
October 24, 2001 -- Cleaned up the section on the game's name. Added a 5th checklist item for how I define the game of mah-jongg.
October 31, 2001 -- A little more about the meaning of the game's name.
January 26, 2002 -- Added pictures of tile sets.
January 29, 2002 -- had to fix links to the Culin bio at the University of Waterloo site (the URL had changed). Clarified some wording on the topic of early mah-jongg sets.
April 8, 2002 -- added link to site holding an opposing view to this history.
April 17, 2002 -- added links to this site's page propounding "The CC Theory"
April 23, 2002 -- added the mah-jongg family tree.
June 23, 2002 -- hereafter, updates now to be logged at log.html.

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