And Finally

Nights on the tiles

Mahjong starts to gain popularity outside China

Nights on the tiles

Character-building game

Her estate claims that her works are the most widely published in the world, behind only the Bible and the plays of William Shakespeare. At four billion books sold, Agatha Christie is humankind’s best-selling novelist, claims no less an authority than the Guinness Book of World Records.

Given her popularity, it’s a sound premise that Christie likely introduced the game of mahjong to millions of her Western readers. It got its first mention in her 1926 mystery The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. In a key moment in the book (critics regard it as one of the toughest of her detective stories to solve) the key protagonists play the Chinese tile game, while discussing the list of potential suspects.

The chapter begins: “That night we had a little mahjong party… We used to play bridge. We find mahjong much more peaceful.” Readers are introduced to concepts like East Wind passing, Pung-ing a Green Dragon and laying a Chow. When slow play becomes an irritant, Miss Sheppard chides: “The Chinese put down the tiles so quickly it sounds like little birds pattering.”

Mahjong was first brought to America in the 1920s by Abercrombie & Fitch – then known more for its shotguns than its young and trendy casualwear. It sold 12,000 sets in that decade before the game’s appeal faded, as enthusiasm for all things Chinese waned after Mao Zedong’s revolution in 1949.

According to the Beijing News, the game is starting to regain popularity in the US. In late November the first North American Mahjong Tournament was staged. More than 200 contestants participated, albeit for a prize of just $2,500. The event was considered enough of a success that the American Mahjong Association says it will now be held annually.

Commonly played by four people, the game involves a set of 136 tiles featuring Chinese characters and symbols. In most variations, players start out with 13 tiles, drawing and discarding them (like rummy). A winning hand requires four melds (these constitute three tiles, either identical or of the same suit but in a run of consecutive numbers) plus a pair.

Oakland-based real estate agent Charles Goldstein told the Chinese media he fell in love with mahjong when he was invited to play it at a dinner hosted by an immigrant from Hong Kong. He was soon describing himself as “hooked”, though he concedes he plays slowly due to the game’s complexity. His Chinese friends also chide him that he often throws away key tiles and destroys their chances of major wins (at which point they shout ‘bao tian tian wu’, complaining of ‘a reckless waste of grain’).

Goldstein has since started playing mahjong online too. There is a ‘Super Mahjong’ group on Facebook with 10,000 fans, where players can exchange tips and make web appointments to play.

But while interest in the game is growing and the World Mahjong Association now numbers 22 countries as members, there is a long way to go before it reaches the popularity that it enjoys in China itself.

As one Chinese idiom puts it: “Nine of ten people play mahjong, and the tenth is watching.”

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