How did mahjong make its way to the West? There are many theories, but Joseph Babock is widely recognised as popularising the Chinese tile game in America. Having worked for Rockefellers’ Standard Oil in China, Babock started importing mahjong sets in 1920. He simplified the game too through his book Rules for Playing the Genuine Chinese Game Mah-Jong.
The game spread unexpectedly quickly during America’s roaring twenties. Eddie Cantor sang the song Since Ma is Playing Mahjong and from there the craze spread to Europe. It made an appearance in a scene in Noel Coward’s show The Vortex. Agatha Christie was a fan too.
No one knows who invented mahjong. Myths track the game’s origin to Confucius some 2,500 years ago, but historians have been unable to unearth much convincing evidence. The early forms of mahjong – in its primitive forms a paper-based game – are mentioned in ninth-century literature but the majority of experts agree that the most common form of mahjong played today – a set of 144 tiles with different Chinese characters and symbols – is the result of a game that has mutated over the centuries.
Different regions of the country play different versions too. The game Babock took back to the United States was the one played in Shanghai during the early twentieth century. Other variants continue to exist. Most notably, Taiwanese mahjong involves hands of 16 tiles, rather than the more common 13-tile hands usually played on the mainland. That requires different skills and strategies. Thus the best players from the mahjong-mad province of Sichuan (where the rules encourage more wins but lower scoring) don’t fare too well with the Taiwanese style (which requires more thoughtful strategies and complicated scoring details).
But even with all its variations, it still came as a major surprise when Chinese players were crushed at the fifth Open European Mahjong Championship in France this month. The tournament chose to play what it deemed as “international rules”, which amounted to a hybrid between the Taiwan and Hong Kong variations. Winners were presented trophies but no money was involved. The result? The Chinese national team placed an embarrassing 37th (out of 51 teams) while its best individual performance was just 30th.
To make matters worse – or at least as far as the Chinese were concerned – the individual title was claimed by a Japanese contestant. A joint team with three Japanese and a French player also won the team title.
WiC has reported before on the Chinese mahjong team being beaten at an international championship (see WiC196). But the stellar performance of the Japanese – playing a Chinese-originated game – has clearly irked national sensibilities and caused an outcry of sorts online.
“Shame of the nation” was one of the most recurring remarks made on Sina Weibo, the country’s Twitter-like equivalent. “More shameful than the Chinese football team,” another netizen said. “Now I understand how the Brazilians feel when they got thrashed by Germany at their own game,” another wrote.
As WiC has reported at some length in previous editions, the sense of animosity between China and Japan has reached disturbing levels, made worse by disputes over a chain of contested islands. Thus even losing to Japan at mahjong touches a raw nationalist nerve.
Many netizens wondered who’d picked the underperforming team. “If the Chinese team had picked my grandma she would have finished at least in the top three,” one weibo user scolded.
Yao Xiaolei, assistant secretary-general of the Beijing-based World Mahjong Organisation, admitted that the Chinese team in France wasn’t selected by a competitive process and that China probably hadn’t sent its greatest mahjong exponents. Trying to sound more upbeat, she also told reporters that the results of the tournament at least demonstrated that the game was developing a global following.
The Legal Daily also tried to put a brave face on the disaster.
“Will foreign players still be interested in playing competitive mahjong if Chinese winners were sweeping every tournament like we do in table tennis?” it asked.
Elsewhere in the local media were suggestions about how China can make sure that it doesn’t lose out at the mahjong tables in the years ahead. For instance, Sina Sports explained that the Japanese victory could be credited to the fact that Tokyo standardised its mahjong rules as far back as the 1970s and kept them close to the new international norms. As a result they have an advantage over the Chinese teams, it hypothesised. Ergo, unless Beijing orders its elite mahjongers to play by the international rules, the nation that invented the game may yet suffer more tournament humiliations in the years ahead.
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