Mah-Jongg: The Tiles of History

Bari Zibrak looks at Mah-Jongg: from being a backdrop in Lust, Caution to community center in LA.

In Encino, California, a group of middle-aged women gather, as they have for the last 17 years, to play Mah-Jongg and catch up. Save for the suburban Southern California setting and the language of English, the scene is not that much different from the beginning of Ang Lee's new feature Lust, Caution. In both, a gaggle of women gather to gossip, giggle, sip tea, and play the enduring game of Mah-Jongg. Although here, rather than names like Wang Jiazhi and Mrs. Yee, the players call themselves Nancy, Jackie, and Carol. And instead of taking place in a guarded house in Japanese-occupied Shanghai, these women have whiled away the hours of motherhood, middle age and various careers playing Mah-Jongg in their air-conditioned suburban homes.   

Like many games, Mah-Jongg is the intersection of the two histories: the intricate tradition and rules of the game itself, and the chatty oral history that is transmitted during the playing. "I like to talk, but I also like to play. It's a very social game," exclaims Nancy, a travel agent whose mother had taught her to play when she was just a girl. (She still has her original Mah-Jongg set, made from real ivory). This evening's chatter ranged from gift-wrapping to upcoming vacations to talk of their new grandchildren's first words.

For Jackie, Mah-Jongg "is like going to therapy." Carol laughs and adds "Or it could drive you to therapy!" For them, Mah-Jongg is much more than a game; it's a social matrix through which friendships, community, and histories are created and evolved.

It is also, generally speaking, a women's game. In the Encino group, three out of the four women had to teach their husbands how to play. In Phyllis Heller and Bari Pearlman's documentary Mah-Jongg: The Tiles That Bind, it is the passionate pastime of Jewish-American women. (See video clip). And in Lust, Caution, it's the leisurely retreat for the women of Shanghai's ruling elite, a game through which an attractive stranger (or a clever spy) with the right contacts can gain entry into the household of a guarded political leader.

The complicated rules that govern the game reflect an equally complex history. There are many theories about the origins of this ancient game. Some suggest that Mah-Jongg was conceived by Confucius around 500 BC, pointing out that Mah-jongg not only existed throughout the Chinese provinces where Confucius traveled and taught, but the name "Mah-Jongg" also means "sparrow," a nod to Confucius' love of birds. An even more far-flung theory posits that the first game was played on Noah's Ark (roughly around 2350 BC). The wind was blowing East during the storm, and similarly in Mah-Jongg, East is the most dominant seat in the game. However, the more credible histories suggest the game evolved from an existing Chinese card game, known as Madiao, around 1850.

From 1905 to 1920, Mah-Jongg spread rapidly throughout China, where it was primarily a gambling game, often played for very high stakes. As such, when the People's Republic rose to power in 1949, Mao Zedong outlawed the game and all gambling in the country, claiming, "A workingman ought to spend his money on his family not on gambling."  His ban on Mah-Jongg–and by extension gambling–became known as the Great Abstinence. Over time, however, the game found its way back into the hearts and parlors of the Chinese people, and is now a crucial element of everyday life there.

When Mah-Jongg was introduced to the United States in the 1920, its popularity spread like wild fire. By 1923, Mah-Jongg set sales exceeded $1.5 million, and were among the top ten imports to the US from Shanghai. In response to the craze, and in an effort to standardize the rules of the game, the National Mah-Jongg League was formed in New York City in 1937. Their initial membership of 32 has grown to over 275,000 in the United States today.

For people unfamiliar with the intricate rules of the game, Mah-Jongg closely resembles the card game Gin Rummy, in that the objective is to lay down the tiles in your "hand" into a set of accepted suits, and make as many points as you can in the process. Most gambling on the game revolves around the points that the winner of each round accumulates.

The basic rules dictate that the game is played with four players, each of whom are initially given a wall of 36 tiles (making up the 144 tiles of the game). With the four tile walls forming a square on the table, the dealer (or East) begins a complex counting process to deal out 13 tiles to each of the players–14 to the dealer since s/he is the first to discard–and leave the rest in a pile to be drawn from. Once the tiles are dealt, the game begins as the players attempt to arrange their tiles into patterns (for example, a "Chow" which is three consecutive tiles of the same suit, or a "Kong" which is four of kind of the exact same tile), picking up or discarding other tiles in the process. The round is over when a player gets three combinations of any pattern (Chow, Kong, etc) and a pair. At the end of the round, only the winner scores points. The other players stand to lose points based on the tiles they still hold.

Beyond the mechanics of game play, Mah-Jongg suggests a rather poetic interplay of natural elements, with the players taking the directional names of wind (North, South, etc.) and the tiles bearing the names of flowers, seasons, bamboo and dragons. And like nature, Mah-Jongg can be a tranquil space to connect with friends or a vicious, complicated game of power. It's all how you play the game.