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Mahjong: A Game Steeped In History

Mahjong is a Chinese game of skill and luck. The objective of the game is to be the first to build complete suits.

Legend has it that mahjong was invented by Confucius around 500 BC and popularized the game all over China during his travels. One reason cited for this is that the dragon tiles represent the three cardinal virtues of benevolence, sincerity and filial piety preached by Confucius.

Another reason is that mahjong means sparrow and Confucius loved birds. However these legends are considered apocryphal because the earliest reference to mahjong in recorded history is from the 19th century.

The consensus is that mahjong evolved from Chinese card and domino games around 1850. A game called madiao seems to be one of the precursors. One theory is that army officers created the game during the Taiping Rebellion.

Another theory attributes the creation to a nobleman from Shanghai and a third to two brothers from Ningpo. In 1949 the Communist regime banned the game as a part of its crackdown on capitalist corruption. After the Cultural Revolution the game has been revived and has regained its original popularity.

The first reference to mahjong in a language other than Chinese came in 1895 in a paper written by American anthropologist Culin. By 1910 the knowledge of the existence of the game was widespread. In 1920 Abercombie & Fitch was the first to introduce the game in New York. So resounding was its demand that the company sent people to China to buy every game they could.

Ultimately 12,000 sets were sold. The craze can be gauged by the fact that mahjong nights were organized with rooms decorated in Chinese style and players dressed in Chinese clothes. 1n 1937 the National Mah Jongg League (NMJL) was formed. At that time many variants of the game existed. The NMJL standardized the rules in its book Maajh: The American Version of the Ancient Chinese Game.

Today though the game has spread throughout the world it remains more popular in China and Japan. Mahjong remains entrenched in the Chinese psyche with popular songs and movies being regularly based on the game.

In Japan mahjong is being revived by playing it in arcades and over the Internet. Part of the pleasure of playing the game is to identify with the rich history and heritage it carries.