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  Beijing Scene


Beijing Scene, Volume 6, Issue 1, October 15 - 21

Washing the Tiles

Hey Ayi,

The old lady in the apartment next door thinks I'm crazy if I come home after midnight, but she thinks nothing of staying up all night kvetching at the top of her lungs and playing mah-jongg (majiang). What is with this game? Why are Chinese people so passionate about it? And where did old Jewish ladies in the United States learn to play it?


A. Tyler


Dear Atilla'r,

Hu Shi, a prominent May Fourth Movement (1919) intellectual, once calculated that four million man hours are spent playing mah-jongg in China every day. "No people in the world spend more time playing games than us Chinese," Hu observed.

Legend has it that mah-jongg was first played in China during the lifetime

of Confucius, in the Spring and Autumn period (770-476 BC) . Like all good

urban legends, this one begins with a beautiful maiden who lived in seclusion in her family's palace. She was bored spending every day alone,

so she invented a game using domino-shaped pieces of ivory and bamboo and invited three of her maids to play her new game. Each person received 34 tiles which they would use to create a wall. The exact rules the foursome

used are unknown, but since that time "building the Great Wall," as

mah-jongg is sometimes called, has been one of China's favorite ways to

idle away leisure hours.

Mah-jongg was banned frequently by emperors in the intervening years, but

the last attempt to suppress the game ended in the year 500, during the

reign of Emperor He Di.

The game became popular all over China in the ensuing years. The rules were often different from the way it is played today, and until the late Qing

Dynasty (1644-1911) the game was called maque (lit. 'sparrow') and madiao.

The name majiang came into common use during the Qing Dynasty, and the rules developed into what they are today, although even now majiang is

played slightly differently from family to family and city to city.

The next great propagation of the game occurred in 1920 when an American

businessman named Joseph P. Babcock realized that many expatriate residents of Shanghai were playing as much mah-jongg as the Chinese. He began exporting Chinese mah-jongg sets to the United States. He copyrighted the name 'mah-jongg,' and issued a simplified set of rules with each mah-jongg set sold. Babcock also gave English translations to the tiles to ensure ease of use by Americans.

By 1923, registered sales of mah-jongg sets to the United States stood at

more than US$1.5 million. Mah-jongg sets were the sixth biggest export item from Shanghai, after silk, lace, leather, eggs and tea. In one of the

strangest twists to the U.S. mah-jongg craze, the Department of Commerce

reported that large quantities of bone were being exported from Kansas City

and Chicago to China in order to turn out more mah-jongg sets.

Though by the end of the 1920s the mah-jongg craze in the U.S. had faded,

the Great Depression and the unemployment it generated again stimulated an appetite for games. At some point in the next few decades, Jewish women discovered their innate Chinese essence, and started to play the game with as much as enthusiasm as a bunch of Hong Kong tai-tais.

Though a detailed description of the complex rules of mah-jongg would require more space than this column affords, a brief description of suits may help you to understand how the game works.

A mah-jongg set consists 144 tiles. Like poker cards, the tiles are divided

into different suits, namely:

* Ten Thousand (wan) suit, which has the Chinese character for 10,000

and the characters for one through nine.

* Circle (bing or tong) suit, which also consists of numbers one though nine.

* Bamboo or Stick (tiao) suit, which also consists of stylized sticks of values one to nine. The tile for one stick, however, has a picture of a bird (yaoji), said to be the mythical "bird of 100 intelligences."

* Wind (feng) suit, consists of four different tiles with the Chinese characters for north, south, east and west.

* Prime suit consists of tiles with a red character meaning middle or China (zhong), a green character for getting rich (fa), and a tile with a blank rectangle, called a white board (bai ban).

* Flower (hui'r) suit consists of two series, each numbered one to four.

The aim of the game, like rummy, is to be the first to complete a hand. A

completed hand consists of four sets of three (or four) tiles in a suit plus an identical pair of any suit. The individual sets can be triplets or quadruplets (identical) or sequenced.

At the beginning of play, each of the four players sits at each side of a

square table, which should be aligned with the cardinal compass points. All

the tiles are placed face down on the table and are shuffled around. This is called "washing the tiles" (xi pai). Each player chooses 36 tiles, and arranges them in 2 rows of 18, one row stacked on top of the other. The stacks are then pushed to the middle of the table to form a square. Dice are rolled to determine who starts taking tiles from the wall, and then the game proceeds in a manner resembling rummy. One of the biggest obstacles for beginners is that mah-jongg is often played very rapidly, giving the novice very little time to think about what tiles to take or discard.

Scoring is complicated and rules vary widely from place to place, so even

once you have learned the basics, you should not rush into an all-night

gambling session with Hong Kong gangsters because you might find that they play by different rules.



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