The early evolution of Mahjong has been lost to us during the centuries, and no reliable account of the origin of the game exists today. The only certain thing that can be said is that Mahjong developed from ancient Chinese domino-type games. In particular, the domino game kap tai shap, which is still played today, is clearly related to Mahjong. In both games, a wall is built, dice are cast, and tiles are drawn from the wall. However, despite claims to the contrary,Mahjong in its modern form(s) is, in all probability, no more than 150 years old, having its origins in the late 19th century.
Approximately 1000 years ago, 32 tiles were used to play a game called ya pei. A few centuries later, the game ma tiae, which employed cards numbered from one to nine, and four flower cards, was very popular in China. According to a theory, these cards were replaced by tiles/dominoes because the lightweight cards tended to get blown overboard when playing on windy junks. Actually, the word pai, which is the Chinese term for the gaming pieces, corresponds to both the English words ’tile’ and ‘card’. Later on, more and more different tiles were utilized, and, during the 17th century, a game was played where the 108 tiles used were decorated with the faces of 108 brigands featured in a novel popular at the time. At some later date, as many as 160 different tiles were used to play a variant of the game, but the number was subsequently reduced to make the game more playable.
An interesting theory traces the game back over 2500 years in time, to the divination methods of that period. The Chinese had various means for foretelling their futures, and one of these made use of dice and small pieces of wood inscribed with mystical symbols. From this way of communing with the gods evolved a worldly gambling game that used the dice and pieces of wood (or, alternatively, clay) as playing pieces. The rules of the game were derived from methods of the soothsayers, and astrological mysticism and symbolism. For example, an ancestor of Mahjong from some two thousand years back, the board game liu po, shared many aspects with astrologers’ means for predicting the movements of the celestial bodies by moving pieces on a board representing the heavens. Many features can be found even in the Mahjong we play today that are inherited from the magicians and astrologers of ancient China.
One story places the birth of the game in 472 BC, in the court of the king of Wu. First known as pe ling, the game was restricted to the royal family and their mandarin friends, and was quite a popular pastime among the ladies of the court, but later spread to become a favorite of the common folk. This glamour of royalty has since been used in western countries to market Mahjong as ‘the game of Chinese kings’.
The great philosopher Confucius has (of course) also been linked with Mahjong’s early history. He is said to have invented the game about 2500 years ago, and spread it along with his new doctrine. The three special tiles in Mahjong, the so-called ‘dragons’ (‘chung’, ‘fa’, and ‘po’, in Chinese) would, according to this tale, correspond to the three virtues of Confucius’ doctrine: benevolence, sincerity, and filial piety. Confucius’ personal fondness for birds would explain the name of the game (which means ‘sparrow’), the term ‘kong’ would come from Confucius’ own name (alternatively transcribed ‘Kongfutze’), and the term ‘chow’ from the name of his wife, Che.
Yet another fable puts Mahjong aboard the Ark during the 40 days and nights of the biblical Flood. The wind is said to have blown from the east, which would explain the dominant role of East Wind in the game. This is, of course, the most likely explanation.
The western world was introduced to the game mainly through Americans who, at the beginning of the 20th century, imported the game from China (and transformed it into various American versions which bear a superficial similarity to the original game). The Japanese have also embraced the game, and the revised Japanese version of Mahjong is (very) arguably the most balanced and enjoyable one.