We are huge fans of Mahjong. Julia Roberts claims to play weekly with friends to stay relaxed. A lot of people have at least had a cultural whiff of it, whether it be from hours of late-night online Mahjong Solitaire, The Joy Luck Club, or the famous, mic-drop mahjong scene in Crazy Rich Asians.
While Mahjong has become synonymous with Chinese culture, the game is actually relatively young in comparison to the thousands of years of Chinese history, created in 1846 by imperial servant Chen Yu-Men. Despite the game's relative newness at the time, Mahjong gained huge popularity in the States in 1920s, as many Americans were mystified by the Western marketing of Mahjong as a game of “ancient China” while still harboring extreme anti-Chinese sentiment against immigrants. Mahjong remained popular in the United States, finding particular hold in the Jewish-American community, and now making an underground resurgence among younger generations of Chinese-Americans.
It’s a tile-based game, most commonly played by four players, although there are variations that can be played by three or even two players. Mahjong has many national and regional variations, including each with its own set of rules, scoring system, and terminology, each game rich with symbolism and tradition.
Mahjong sets consists of 144 tiles, which have a soothing, heavy weight with an ASMR-inducing clackety-clack sound when moved about on the players’ table. Traditional tiles are made of bone, ivory, and bamboo, but nowadays you’ll more often seen them made of heavy plastic. You can find Mahjong sets in a range of materials, artistic styles, and price points: anywhere from portable mini-sets to four-figure offerings from Louis Vuitton.
The classic game is played with a set of tiles engravedwith Chinese characters and symbols, divided into three suits: bamboo (also called sticks), characters (also known as numbers), and stones (also known as circles), each numbered from one to nine. Mahjong sets also include 36 tiles that determine play order and add more advanced elements of gameplay and scoring: 8 flower tiles, 16 wind tiles, and 12 dragon tiles.
The objective of the game is to complete various melds, or sets, of tiles through a series of discarding and picking up tiles. To win, a player must have 4 melds and one pair. Melds can consist of three identical tiles, called a pung or four identical tiles, called a kong. A meld can also consist of three tiles in the same sequence, a chow. Certain combinations of tiles or seating positions will garner a player more points. A complete game of mahjong consists of 4 rounds of 4 hands each, for a total of 16 hands.
When watching skilled Mahjong players, their movements seem effortless - a fast-paced, noisy shuffling of tiles. Yet there’s a high level of strategy: Players must not only think about their own hand but also pay close attention to the tiles that have already been played and the tiles in other players' hands. They must also be consider of which tiles are still available in the stack and adjust their strategy accordingly.
In recent years, there’s been a wide interest in Mahjong among in major cities like San Francisco and New York - mahjong has always been a game of kinship and community, and it lends itself well to bars, clubs, group tournaments, and, of course, Mamahuhu.
Mahjong has been a part of Mamahuhu since the beginning. As part of celebrating and sharing the joy of Chinese-American food and culture, we’re so pleased to offer our Mamahuhu community a place to meet on Monday evenings to enjoy what we think should become the next national phenomenon. Mamahuhu Mahjong Mondays are open to a range of skill levels, and are a wonderful place to meet new people, connect with friends, and enjoy some Sweet & Sour Chicken while you pung and chow. You can keep tabs on when we’re playing next, as well as RSVP for our special Last Mondays Mahjong (think of mahjong meets party) on our Events page.