History of Mahjong

Happy 4715, the Year of the Fire Rooster.


Dee Gallo's Limited Edition Money set, with tiles arranged for this year in Chinese history.
Dee Gallo's Limited Edition Money set, with tiles arranged for this year in Chinese history.


The year of the Fire Rooster in Chinese years, on a Shanghai Luck set.
The year of the Fire Rooster in Chinese years, seen on a Shanghai Luck set.


In China there are 12 signs of the zodiac, and five elements can modulate each sign. The elements are metal, water, wood, fire, and earth. This year we have the Fire Rooster. People born this year are said to be strong-willed, leaders, and organized. They get things done, but they are not always considerate of the feelings of others.


2017, the 100 year anniversary of the "discovery' of Mahjong by Joseph P Babcock, on a Shanghai Luck set. Symbols of longevity aboud: the peaches at the top and bottom os the Crak tiles represent longevity, as do the Bats on either side.
2017, the 100 year anniversary of the "discovery' of Mahjong by Joseph P Babcock, on a Shanghai Luck set. Symbols of longevity abound: the peaches at the top and bottom of the Crak tiles represent longevity, as do the Bats on either side.


In our calendar, 2017 is an important year. One hundred years ago, in 1917, according to legend,  Joseph P. Babcock saw Mahjong being played. Babcock was working for Standard Oil and living in Soochow. As the story goes, he was on a ship on the Yangze River when he heard a lot of noise and laughter. He went to investigate, and found crewmen playing a mysterious game with tiles. Babcock spoke fluent Chinese, and he quickly learned how to play the game. He is credited with being the first person to realize the game might be a hit with the foreign market. He joined with others to form the Mah-Jongg Sales Company.  Babcock added Arabic numbers and Western letters to the tile sets, so that Americans and Europeans could understand which tile was which. He also may have been the one to come up with the concept of "dumbing down" :  thinking the Chinese rules and scoring were way too complicated for the non-Chinese market, he simplified everything.  His version was printed in a little red soft-cover book which was enclosed in every set exported from China. A hard cover one was available for purchase.

The original Little Red Book, pre-dating Chairman Mao's by 20 + years. Mao outlawed mahjong during his rule.
The original Little Red Book, pre-dating Chairman Mao's by 20 + years. Mao outlawed mahjong during his rule.


Babcock was at least partly responsible for helping to save a struggling Chinese economy. China had a very difficult time in the beginning of the 1900s, which allowed for the overthrow of the last Emperor of China, and the establishment of The Republic of China in 1912. The new republic continued to have a "challenging" economy, but Mahjong helped to save the day in the 1920s.

Reader Paul J. sent me a wonderful article from a monthly newsletter published in 1924, and some of that information appears here. Mahjong is credited for helping Chinese employment numbers, and exports. In 1921, China exported 6,305 HK Dollars worth of goods. In 1922, all exports totaled 198,000 HK Dollars. By 1924 it was predicted that mahjong exports alone  from China would account for, drum roll please, 3,000,000 HK Dollars!!!

Much of the credit for this world-wide craze was the brilliant marketing of the game. China in the 1920s was exotic and mysterious, and the admen took advantage of this. People at the Mah-Jongg Sales Company created wonderful lore, and wrote it in flowery phrases, pre-dating the J. Peterman catalog by 50 or more years. The MJSC catalog read:

What is it? This is the universal question found on the lips of everyone who has not yet been initiated in this fascinating game of the hour.

Mah-Jongg is our registered Trade Marked name of a game, an ancient Chinese game, and about it clings all the lure of the Orient. A game as fascinating to the Occident as are the rich silken and embroidered garments of the ancient courts of China.

Since the days of the great teacher Confucius, this ANCIENT HONORABLE AND ROYAL GAME has been handed down from generation to generation.

At the time when Babylon the Great was mistress of the Western World, long before the days of the Roman Empire, this marvelous game fascinated the cultured Chinese with the click of its ivory tiles and its “Pung” and “Chow.”

What better way to celebrate this Chinese New Year than to ring it in with symbols of good luck?

Lucky cat, lantern, rooster charm, chocolate coins, red envelope, new year symbol, peanuts, spaghetti (long noodles) tangerine, ginger chews
Lucky cat, lantern, rooster charm, chocolate coins, red envelope, new year symbol, peanuts (nuts are good luck), spaghetti (long noodles) tangerine, ginger chews


I was lucky enough to buy an Inaugural Friendship box from Pearl River Mart (pearlriver.com). The box includes:

Rooster charms to help people tap into traits associated with the sign

Red Envelopes used to gift hard cash (or maybe chocolate coins)

Lanterns, the end of the 15 day celebration: the full moon. The moon symbolizes the return of spring and the reunion of family.

Lucky snacks:  ginger for longevity, and sweets for a sweet new year. Not included: tangerines (because the Chinese word sounds like the word for luck), peanuts and long noodles symbols of a long life.

The lucky cat with a beckoning paw is thought to bring good luck-the left paw attracts customers to a shop, and the right invites good fortune and money.


Here's hoping this will be a good year.

For some fun extra reading, you can see Time magazine online, complete with videos



And a sweet blog:

Dee Gallo's work can be seen at Redcoinmahjong.com. The One Bam Rooster on the Money set is perfect for this Chinese year.

More about Babcock can be read on Michael Stanwick's website themahjongtileset.co.uk in the China to the West section.







Those of you who read this earlier post will remember Mei Lanfang, the Chinese opera star who excelled at performing female roles. Not only did he act, sing and dance, he wrote operas too. Quite the man, he had two wives at the same time, fathering two children with one wife and nine with the other. Not to let any opportunity pass him by, he took on a mistress at the same time, and they lived together for five years!

from culturalchina.com
from culturalchina.com

Mei in his professional life is seen above

from Wikipedia
from Wikipedia

and as he really looked.


In his professional life he was quite revered, and he traveled the world showing his unique style of performing. He had great love for China, and he was a staunch National. Following the Marco Polo Bridge incident during the Sino-Japanese War, the Japanese took over Beijing. The commander of the Japanese army appointed Mei to a high position. (Mei's talent was also appreciated by the Japanese.) Mei was ordered to perform for the Japanese, but he refused to do so. FB friend Richard told me that Mei grew a mustache during the Japanese occupation so that he would not have to perform any operas, especially effective as he excelled in female roles. Mei lived in poverty until the end of the war, at which point he resumed his professional career.

While enjoying stardom he ordered a special mahjong set. I have scanned the photos from the catalog published by the (sadly) defunct Japanese Mahjong Museum. (We do not know where the collection is, but many of us certainly hope that we get to see its treasures sometime soon.)

mei lanfang 2

This is the lovely box his set came in. You can see that it is inlaid with mother-of-pearl. The front and side panels have the often seen flowers in vases, and a teapot (in b). and what looks to be a pomegranate in the bowl on side c. This is somewhat amusing because pomegranates are symbols for hopes of many children, and we know that Mei certainly accomplished this!! The top of the box is inlaid with five bats (five being the lucky number that symbolizes long life, good health, a natural death, good moral  character and prosperity.) And we also have two longevity symbols on either side of the handle hinges.

Thanks to Ray Heaton, we have translations for the beautiful tiles seen below. It is interesting how strong the strokes are in the characters in the upper left, and how delicate the carving is on the Flowers. Perhaps this alludes to Mei's manliness in real life yet his delicacy on the stage. Some of the Flower images are familiar to us, the rolled up painting, the book, the flower, and the Chinese Cauldron. Other images are more difficult to interpret-ideas anyone?

mei lanfang

Ed: I have to assume the Winds have been replaced by the characters in blue, functioning in much the same way in the Chinese form of the game as it would be with Winds, and those characters in red, and green (the plain white being the White Dragon.) are substituting for the Dragons. There are 6 of these characters, all needed for the following translation.

"Here's a link to a description of the opera described in those large characters, 遊龍戲鳳(演劇), you long xi feng yan ju, "The Wandering Dragon toys with the Phoenix".  (I've put the last two in brackets as they mean "to act in an opera" rather than relate to the title of the play, but if we assume all six are to be read together, would, I suppose, read "to perform in the opera the Wandering Dragon toys with the Phoenix".


The flowers, 名伶表演, 古今趣史. Ming ling biao yan, gu jin qu shi. Literally, "the famous actor performs ancient and modern interesting history", I guess should translate more properly to something like "a record of famous performances in operas ancient and modern". Don't you love how the tiles refer to the famous actor performing, or a record of a famous performance?

The banner on one of the tiles says 文明自由, wen ming zi you, Civilization (and) Freedom." (right column, 2nd from the top)  

The symbols in the One Dots are the name of the company that made the tiles!

mei lanfang 1

Mei was a great national, as mentioned before. Many of you will see another indicator of his national pride: the hawk on the globe. This image symbolizes China's military strength, perhaps in this case, wishes for victory in the Sino-Japanese war. The symbol on the Craks is another way of writing the word wan. The unusual symbol on the Craks tiles is pin, the symbol for rank. *

Here follows more Mei Lanfang ephemera, truly an international star. I love the cover of this program! Remember, Mei is on the right!



Hoping you can read these absolutely rave reviews of his NY performances.


It is so interesting to see all the places mahjong can take us, isn't it?

*FB friend Richard pointed out how similar the rank symbol is to the Chinese character for the word "sing." Even if just a coincidence, I love it!


Reader Tony Watson, whose google site is listed in the Resources area, has written a wonderful piece on hand-made sets.

Thank you Tony

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Close ups of each set now follow:

First set, French, possibly made by CF





2nd set, a tiny one from Austria. with applied label




3rd set, a very unusual one




4th set, handmade in Belgium of at least three different woods




The book I wrote with Ann Israel is being published by Tuttle. To see more about it:

www.mahjonggtheartof thegame.com

To order it click here:


or here from Amazon



One of the most popular posts on this website has been the one written about the hand-carved three layer tiles we call tri-color. Many of us feel these tiles are under-appreciated  (read under-valued) at the moment, and deserve to get better recognition. These sets are particularly fun because there are so many Flower tiles, unlike most sets made in the 1920s and 1930s.

The most common back color seen on these tri-color tiles is green. Of course, the "tri-color" name itself is a misnomer, because the middle layer is clear lucite.



It can be challenging at times to really understand the images seen on the tiles.


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The top row above has the seasons. I find it easiest to recognize the one on the left, with the little teardrops at the bottom. That is the symbol for winter, and if you see that, you probably are looking at the other three tiles being the other seasons.



DSCF1071 2

The easiest tile for me is the first one on the left, bamboo. Those two characters somewhat relate to each other, and that helps. On that line, the other characters are chrysanthemum, orchid and plum blossom.



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The 3rd row shows "abbreviations" of the four arts of the scholar. We often see these on lucite tiles as other tiles, and because they are so free of details it can be hard to recognize them. But they are:

Painting: many years ago in China painting was done on long scrolls that would be rolled up, looking like tile #4. There can sometimes be two rolls, which represents a scroll half-way rolled up.

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This is the earliest scroll ever found,dating from 868 in China, and it is found in the collection of the British Library, . You can see how it is rolled up, and how the abstract symbol on the tile resembles it.


From Wikipedia:

"The handscroll is a long narrow scroll for displaying a series of scenes in Chinese, Japanese, or Korean painting and calligraphy. The handscroll presents an artwork in the horizontal form and can be exceptionally long, usually measuring up to a few meters in length and around 25–40 cm in height.[2] Handscrolls are generally viewed starting from the right end.[3][4] This kind of scroll is intended to be viewed flat on a table while admiring it section for section during the unrolling as if traveling through a landscape.[4][5] In this way, this format allows for the depiction of a continuous narrative or journey.[6]"

For more on Chinese scrolls, click here


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This next tile was a bit tricky. It had been thought this represents an ink stone, because of the round hole seen on the top that would have been used to grind the ink stick into powder which would then be mixed with water to make ink for calligraphy. Reader Ray Heaton came up with the correct interpretation which was confirmed by a Chinese art Scholar.

From Ray:

"I suggest that the tile from the Four Arts described as showing an Ink stone rather shows a set of books that are wrapped and bound by ribbon (ribbons are used to show the auspicious nature of an object)."

The stack of books represents the learning required if one wanted to become a scholar and have a chance to get a position in government.

And certainly all of these tile images have the ribbons with them, indicating their auspicious nature.


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Go: A Chinese game played with round pieces. This symbol is sometimes also considered to be the game of chess. Both boards have small squares on them. Given we see two round pieces to the side and below the board, this may well be "go." or "weiqi."

From Wikipedia:

"Go (simplified Chinese: 围棋; traditional Chinese: 圍棋; pinyin: wéiqí, Japanese: 囲碁 igo,[nb 2] common meaning: "encircling game", Korean: 바둑 baduk[nb 3]) is a board game for two players that originated in China more than 2,500 years ago. Strategy is significant to the game despite its relatively simple rules.

The two players alternately place black and white playing pieces, called "stones", on the vacant intersections (called "points") of a grid of 19×19 lines (beginners often play on smaller 9×9 and 13×13 boards).[2] The objective of the game is to use one's stones to surround a larger total area of the board than the opponent.[3] Once placed on the board, stones may not be moved, but stones can be removed from the board if captured; this is done by surrounding an opposing stone or group of stones by occupying all orthogonally-adjacent points.[4] Players continue in this fashion until neither player wishes to make another move; the game has no set ending conditions. When a game concludes, the territory is counted along with captured stones and komi to determine the winner.[5] Games may also be won by resignation.

Go originated in ancient China. Archaeological evidence shows that the early game was played on a board with a 17×17 grid, but by the time the game had spread to Korea and Japan, in about the 5th and 7th centuries AD respectively, boards with a 19×19 grid had become standard.[6]"


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The above work is from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum, and the scroll shows scholars playing the game.

For more on "weiqi" click here



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Qin or lute: music. Every scholar knew how to play this instrument. The lute was often carried in a soft silk pouch.

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The remaining two rows will be discussed in the next post.

Our thanks to Tony for providing the Mahjong photographs.

***Reader Ray has suggested this might be a stack of books, tied with a ribbon. If anyone knows, please send me a comment. I will continue to try to find the answer.

1 Comment

This post was written for us by Tony Watson. He has tackled one of the big questions in Mahjong: How did the One Bam develop? How did it change over the years from its earliest shape to the ones we are familiar with today? Most of you readers are aware that we probably will never really know what happened because records just don't exist, but this certainly gives us all a general guide as to what well may been the case.


#1 Bamboo Evolution

The other day we had the good fortune to study photographs of a set sent to us by Bill Price. You will remember the tiles in that set are quite special: the One Bam is a phoenix and the One Dot a dragon.  If any of you missed it, click here for a real treat.

The dragon and phoenix are a lucky pairing in Chinese art. When seen together, the dragon becomes male, and the phoenix female, and thus they represent good wishes for a happy marriage.



The above platter from the Lucas Collection in Australia shows the two of them, interestingly surrounding a flaming "pearl." The dragon has five toes, putting him in the category of an object that could be owned or worn by a member of the royal family; his whiskers, horns and chops are easily seen; his scales and serpentine body complete the look. The phoenix has a colorful tail and body, and the colors used make her most feminine indeed. They both have flames around them, those orange spiky squiggles. The platter is surrounded by meanders.



You will remember one of the first mahjong sets that was mass produced was made by the Mah-Jongg Sales Company of America. The Green (Dragon) actually is the symbol for phoenix but

DSC_0770 med

the Red (Dragon) is the Chinese word for dragon. So even at the dawn of the game its designers felt it was beneficial to have the good omens of this pairing.


baldwin's Hong Kong 1923

The above coin (from Baldwin's Auction House in Hong Kong) was issued in 1923, the very same year that the Mah-Jongg Sales Company really took the world by storm when it started exporting sets in big numbers to the States and elsewhere. Notice that  pairing of the dragon and phoenix. The MJSA, when it used that pairing on its "Dragons"  was probably hoping to create a happy marriage between the Mah-Jongg Sales Company and the players using its sets, rules and scoring system.


1990 monetarian auctions

The good fortune of the pairing continues today. Here are two sides of the same coin, of recent minting. You see the pairing of the dragon and phoenix on the left and that other, all important symbol of China, the Great Wall. Given that the dragon is associated with power and the ruler of China, and the Great Wall certainly represents strength, it is not surprising to find these two symbols on the same coin.  Don't forget the phoenix only appears in times of a just ruler, so we have a lot of important symbolism on one coin.



Our reader Katherine Hartman has found the ornate boxes seen above that she uses to house Mahjong sets. You will note the phoenix on the top of the box, and dragons surrounding the sides. As many of you already know, very few boxes were made expressly for Mahjong tiles in the early days of the game; rather other boxes had to be adapted. Some of you probably have to do that these days yourselves, when faced with the sad deterioration of some vintage and antique boxes, so the tradition of adapting boxes for new uses exists today. And should you find boxes that have the wonderful dragon and phoenix pairing, the tiles will have a happy home indeed.

In Chinese art there is no requirement that an object be seen in its entirety, and this idea has existed for hundreds of  years. In landscapes, water scenes with boats, mountains and rock outcroppings with trees often appear, sometimes in simplified form.

DSC_0696 boat

These two tiles are from a Chinese Bakelite set. You can see the boat continues from one tile to the next, but still not seen in its entirety. Notice how a tree trunk is captured on the right tile.

photo-18 boat 2

This special ink and color scroll was painted by Zhang Daqian (Chang Dai-chien) who lived from 1899 until 1963. It is entitled The Bridge to Eternity. You can see a lone fisherman in his boat at the water's edge, with the boat somewhat hidden behind a small projection of the landscape. But objects don't have to be hidden to be simplified:


DSC_0645 ms boat

(This tile is not half of a two tile set)

There is no need to show the whole object if people can figure out what it is.

jan 1, 2014 002 (800x565)

Looking at these tiles again you can note how here too boats are somewhat hidden by land outcropping, with trees along the rocky shoreline and mountains. You will see a partial bridge on the lower left tile,  a structure also seen on the Zhang Daqian scroll above.





Carol Ann Harper "CHarli" has a writeup about Pung Chow


The swooping crane One Bam and the flat ended Bams, the simple wans with Arabic numbers, and the Dots going from a stylized flower center to circles within circles appear in these mahjong sets.

The Winds are standard, but the Dragons are highly unusual, and probably were one of the selling points for the game. Who can resist those beautiful creatures?

The Flowers deserve some study, however. They all have the Western letters for the seasons, but the top row has the Chinese words for seasons, whereas the bottom one has the words for the four flowers.


The interest in showing different forms of architecture appears on these tiles as it does in other sets such as those by the Mah-Jongg Sales Company of America, one of Pung Chow's biggest competitors in those early days.

DSC_0679 MJ

It is clear the images are quite similar, but the Pung Chow designers have a more streamlined approach. The mountains and hills in the background have turned into triangular pyramidal shapes. And don't you love the birds? Look carefully at the South and you will see a bird flying up to the sky, as opposed to all the others flying downward.

And now for the forms of transportation:

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You can see how Pung Chow's images are simpler here too, but birds still are included on three of the tiles. (The only bird in the Mah-Jongg version is the duck seen on tile 4 under the tree.) The hills are  triangular here too.

To see another write-up about forms of transportation on this site, click here


april 30, 2012 my collection 004 (1)

This is a lovely example of hand-carved black bamboo tiles. Bamboo was one of the most used materials in the early days of Mahjong, because it was available and very inexpensive. Some think it was the first material ever used for the game of Mahjong in the late 1800s, in the first days when money-based suits were carved onto tiles. The real challenge of bamboo lies with its hard nature; it is very difficult to carve. The bamboo seen here was dyed black and then carved by skilled craftsmen. The black background added real "pop" to the designs. The soaring bird One Bam is charming, and the other Bams are based on the "string of cash" and have pointed tips. The Dots go from the flower One Dot to rings of circles on the other tiles, and the Craks are the simple wan.

The order and appearance of the Flowers is interesting if I am interpreting it correctly. The flowers are plum blossom, orchid, bamboo, and chrysanthemum, the Four Gentlemen, but the plum blossom seems to be missing an outside petal. Also, Chinese seasons tend to begin in spring, which here is tile #2 (orchid).