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The Red Dragon & The West WindThe Winning Guide to Official Chinese & American Mah-Jongg
By Tom Sloper
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2007 Tom Sloper
All right reserved.
History of Mah-Jongg
Many other books and articles on mah-jongg, going back to the 1920s, refer to mah-jongg as an "ancient" game, supposedly thousands of years old. Some authors even said mah-jongg was enjoyed as a favorite pastime of Confucius. Truth be told, mah-jongg, contrary to popular belief, is not thousands of years old. Mah-Jongg actually originated in the mid-to late 1800s, probably in the vicinity of Ningbo, China. It is believed that Chen Yumen, an officer serving during the time of the Taiping Rebellion, invented the game we now know as mah-jongg, based on previously popular card games and domino games.
The Chinese really did have games in ancient times. Dominos (which may have originated in Egypt) existed as early as 1355 B.C. The game of Go may have existed as early as 479 B.C., when Confucius's disciples compiled the Analects of Confucius. Xiang qi ("Chinese chess") may have existed as early as 203 B.C. (or it may have originated around A.D. 100, around the same time that a precursor to Backgammon, Ludus Duodecim Scriptorum, originated in Rome). The oldest written documentation of chess indicates that chess (or a precursor game) originated around A.D. 600 in India or Afghanistan.
So it's possible that Confucius(who died in 479 B.C.) may have enjoyed some game or other. But none of the games mentioned above resemble mah-jongg in the slightest. The earliest definite reference to card games in China date back to A.D. 1294. Sometime in the twelfth century the popularity of cards supplanted the popularity of previous dice games in China. Those dice games had been referred to as yeh-tzu, and, after this time, for a while, China's card games were referred to by this name as well.
Those early Chinese cards were money-suited: the suits were Coins ("Cash"), Strings of Coins ("Strings of Cash"), and Lots of Strings of Coins ("Myriads of Cash"). Several different games evolved over the years, one of the most popular being ma tiao, a trick-taking game for four players, played with four-suited money cards. The composition of a ma tiao deck and the gameplay of ma tiao differ significantly from the composition of a mah-jongg set and from the gameplay of mah-jongg. Eventually, three-suited money cards became favored (one of the four money suits was dropped), and in a development that surely led to mah-jongg, a game known as peng he pai used quadruplicated three-suited cards (a full deck was 120 cards).
Playing games with suited cards was very popular in China. The prevailing theory is that cards traveled westward along the Silk Road, migrating to Islamic regions and thence to Spain during the Middle Ages. (An opposing theory has it that the cards originated in Persia, then migrated east to China and west to Egypt, and from Egypt north to Italy and the rest of Europe.)
The cards of the Islamic regions are now referred to as mamluk cards. The Middle Eastern Middle Ages was the era of the mamluk—slave soldiers who became a powerful military class (equivalent to the samurai of feudal Japan). In Europe, the cards became tarot, which led directly to our modern-day playing cards used for games like rummy, solitaire, canasta, bridge, and poker.
In each region, the look of the cards was altered to suit local tastes. In mamluk cards and in tarot cards, the suits were Coins or Pentacles (Coins), Polo Sticks or Wands (Strings of Coins), Cups, and Swords. Those in turn migrated through German and French suit systems and became today's Diamonds, Clubs, Hearts, and Spades, respectively.
Meanwhile, as the card suits were evolving in the West, they were also evolving in China. Coins became Dots; Strings of Coins became Bams; Myriads of Coins became Craks. So you see, playing cards and mah-jongg are cousins, descended of the same ancestor—Chinese money-suited cards such as those used to play ma tiao and peng he pai. The fact that mah-jongg descended from those ancient card games does not make it correct to say that mah-jongg itself is "an ancient game," any more than it would be correct to say that mah-jongg's cousin, gin rummy (played with cards descended from mamluk cards and tarot cards), is "an ancient game."
The Nineteenth Century
During the time of the Taiping Rebellion, it is believed that Chen Yumen took quadruplicated money-suited cards of peng he pai, added extra pieces such as the four winds and the Red Dragon (among some other tiles no longer present in mah-jongg sets today), and, rather than using paper cards, had the symbols carved onto domino-like tiles. This Chen Yumen origin theory is the one espoused by the mah-jongg museum in Ningbo today. The Display Hall of the Birthplace of Mahjong is located at 74 MaYa Road, Ningbo 315010, China (Tel. 0574-8729-3526).
J. B. Powell wrote in his article "Mah Chang: The Game and Its History" (China Weekly Review, June 30, 1923) that General Chen was not the only person whose contributions to mah-jongg could be documented; Powell credits Chang Shiu-Mo, also of Ningbo, with adding flowers and seasons to the set.
The games that until then had been played with money-suited cards, like the European game of tarot, were mostly trick-taking games. So Chen Yumen may not have created just a set of tiles. He seems to have also initiated a new way of playing with them. Or perhaps he borrowed it from card games.
The game mechanic of making a full hand of complete sets in a turn-based game that involved picking and discarding seems to have come into existence around the middle of the 1800s.
The ancestor of today's rummy games was called conquian. It's a Spanish name, and the game seems to have originated in the Philippines or Mexico. From Mexico, conquian migrated into the south-western United States, expecially Texas, where the name became Americanized into "coon-can."
Excerpted from The Red Dragon & The West Wind by Tom Sloper Copyright © 2007 by Tom Sloper. Excerpted by permission.
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