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Articles Blog

Mahjong

Karyn Planett

The “Chattering Sparrows” 

The long, bone-shattering chill of winter has been swept aside by gentler days warmed by a faithful spring sun. Farmers take to the fields to till the soil, plant their seeds, and prepare for a bountiful summer harvest. At day’s end, they relax outside their modest houses perching on miniature stools seemingly more suitable for a small child than for a grown man. Before them, a worn-with-time table strewn with bone tiles no longer white from years of handling and play. In one rough and gnarled hand a smoky cigarette burns undisturbed while the farmer’s other hand is busy shuffling (called the “twittering of the sparrows”) and slamming down tiles, a warning to his undaunted opponents of a fresh attack. 

At the same time, in a soaring high-rise building far from that farmer’s village, a clutch of privileged women with slender hips, designer fashions, porcelain-white hands, and perfectly-manicured nails repeat the same ritual though their tiles are carved of ivory* and their decorated lounge room is large enough to accommodate several gaming tables simultaneously.

The common thread, the age-old link between these two disparate communities, is the game of mahjong that remains even in today’s world of video games one of Asia’s most popular pastimes. 

What’s In A Name? 

The word “mahjong” means “chattering sparrows.” 

Why, you ask? Well, it’s claimed by some that the rattle and rhythm of a fast-paced game of mahjong resembles, as you might surmise, chattering sparrows. To test that theory, should you happen upon a game being played in the shade of some leafy tree, close your eyes and decide for yourself if this is an apt translation. 

But, don’t be afraid to engage some of the seasoned players who, though probably not interested in spending the entire afternoon with a rookie, a novice such as yourself, will be only to happy to tell you a bit about the basics of this game they find so entertaining. 

Games Are A Way Of Life

People across the length and breadth of Asia enjoy playing games, all sorts of games like Chinese Chess, Chinese dominoes, and a game called go. They’re a hardworking people who enjoy their leisure time with an equal level of passion for their work. And, they love to gamble. 

Be cautioned that before you do sit in on a game of mahjong, you should definitely learn a bit about it though that’s going to be hard to do. First off, absolutely no one agrees about its origin. Some say the game was possibly created by Confucius, others trace it back to Noah’s Ark, while still others believe the game dates back to the self-proclaimed Emperor of Nanking Hung Hsiu-Ch’uan. It’s also claimed that the current version of the game began in China in about 1850, but games that are very similar to today’s mahjong go way back to the Sung Dynasty (960-1279 AD). Some historians even pinpoint its origins to Ningbo, China. That all leads us to the mid- to late-19th century with the appearance of the mahjong we know now. As one expert states, the game came into existence around 1880 and all the other stories are mere rubbish. He goes on to say, there are really two distinctive periods ... pre-1920 when the game was played almost exclusively by Chinese and everything after that when mahjong was introduced to the rest of the world.

Amazingly, mahjong even caught on in North America and in Europe where Westerners would don Chinese costumes and give it a go. It was all the rage and a man named Joseph Babcock is credited for some of its popularity. It was he who imported mahjong sets into America in 1922 as well as streamlined the rules to simplify the game so it would appeal to a wider audience. 

In Japan and Korea you’ll find three players in a mahjong game, while in China it’s usually four. The sets contain 144 tiles that are similar to dominoes. Some tiles are decorated with a variety of designs and are divided into suits. In fact, there are 36 tiles in each of the following suits – Bamboo, Circuit, and Character. In addition there are 16 Wind tiles, 12 Dragon tiles, and 8 “bonus” tiles comprised of 4 Seasons and an equal number of Flowers. As the game progresses, the tiles are selected and discarded again and again until the winning player presents a hand with four combinations of three tiles each and a pair of matching lines. For Rummy players, there isn’t much of a learning curve because the two games are basically the same, or at least quite similar 

Mahjong Today

Though no longer the worldwide craze or the fashionable fad it once was, mahjong is still played by people across Asia. For a contemporary twist you can even play mahjong online with such games like “Great Wall”, “Bullseye”, “Pyramid”, “Fish”, “Snake”, even “Teeth” and “UFO”.

For the true purists who want a little more of a mahjong fix, pick up a copy of Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Flip to the chapter titled “An Evening At Mahjong”, order a single malt, and get in the mood for an evening of intrigue.