History of Mahjong

There are many theories and legends about mahjong’s origins — most of them are unsubstantiated, and several are quite fanciful. A popular yet unlikely story is that mahjong was created by Confucius, the famous Chinese philosopher. The true history of this popular game, however, is more likely an evolution than one clear beginning.

Throughout China’s history, there were several games similar to modern mahjong. Ya Pei, a game that originated in the Sung Dynasty (960-1279 AD), used wood and ivory cards similar to today’s mahjong tiles. Another game, Ma Tiae, from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD), built on Ya Pei and is even closer to modern mahjong. After centuries of evolving game cards and strategies, it is believed by many that the game we now know as mahjong was ultimately created in the mid- to late 19th century — however, there is still some debate on who’s responsible for its creation. One legend suggests that it was a Chinese nobleman in Shanghai, and another implies it was Chinese army officers during the Taiping Rebellion. A very popular theory is that it was two Chinese brothers (whose identities are now unknown) in the city of Ningpo who were ultimately responsible for creating mahjong.

Once the game was created, it gained popularity quickly, spreading outside of China’s borders. Mahjong was likely first introduced to Westerners around the turn of the 20th century when people began playing it in British clubs in Shanghai. Around this time, other Asian countries, such as Japan and Korea, picked up the pastime.