Mahjong means ‘Game of Sparrows’ or, more accurately, ‘Game of the Hemp (or Rice) Bird’- a small bird as common in China as the sparrow used to be here. When the playing tiles are shuffled at the start of a game the sound is said to resemble the noise made by a flock of these sociable little creatures.
That Mahjong originated in China is an undisputed fact but the history of the game is not so clear. Some claim that Confucius invented it and find links between the great philosopher and some of the terms, signs and protocols incorporated into the game. However most historians of this intriguing, but essentially simple game, agree that it was probably conceived in the Ningpo region of China around the year 1850 and was certainly based on much earlier card games, similar to Rummy. Between 1905 and 1920 the popularity of the game swept across China, replacing chess as the most played game. During this time a host of rituals to do with building the tiles into walls (the Great Wall of China), breaking the wall and dealing for the start of play, were introduced. These protocols may have been used to help prevent cheating when Mahjong was, first and foremost, a gambling game with high stakes being the norm. Whatever their origins, they have become a firm tradition in the modern game.
The introduction to the western world seems to have begun in the English speaking clubs of Shanghai around 1910 when the game rapidly gained popularity with foreign residents and through them spread to America and to parts of the British Empire, especially India. Within a few years sets were being exported to America and Europe and a new craze had begun. Initially the rules were similar to the Chinese gambling game but during the 20's and 30's many refined versions developed in different parts of the world, introducing a wide range of acceptable combinations of tiles to make a Mahjong hand.
A Mahjong set consists of 144 tiles made up of 36 tiles in each of the three suits - Bamboos, Circles and Characters - four of each number one to nine, four each of the four Winds (North, East, South and West), four each of Green, Red and White Dragons and four each of Flower and Season tiles. The object of the game is to complete an acceptable collection of 14 tiles that make up a Mahjong hand. Many hands have charming names such as ‘Unique Wonder’, ‘Moon at the Bottom of the Well’, ‘Imperial Jade’.
The best sets are made from bamboo and ivory, hand painted with delicate designs and may be contained in exquisitely carved or silk covered boxes. Much cheaper plastic alternatives are widely available.
All of the U3A in Bath Mahjong groups play to the rules of Patricia Thompson and Betty Maloney. These two Australian ladies have collected hands played around the world and presented them pictorially in a Players' Companion which is very easy to follow.
Due to space constraints, groups 1 and 2 are currently full. However, Mahjong 3 has vacancies and would welcome both players and beginners. Teaching sessions can be given to those wanting to learn this fascinating and addictive game! Please refer to the contact details in the Newsletter.