Mahjong, Old World game from China draws New World interest

China 24

Mahjong, Old World game from China draws New World interestMahjong tiles being “washed” or shuffled during a friendly afternoon game in Beidian, a small but densely populated village on the outskirts of Beijing. (AP Photo/Audra Ang)

A game of strategy, skill, and a little bit of chance.  Mahjong is a traditional Chinese game that dates back centuries.

Through the years — it’s gained fans around the world.   

In New York City, it’s seeing a revival among Jewish-American women, while drawing competitive players to national tournaments. 

CGTN’s Liling Tan reports on what’s behind the new-world interest in this old-world game.

It’s a pivotal scene in the box-office smash hit “Crazy Rich Asians,” when protagonist Rachel Chu turns the tables on her boyfriend’s mother Eleanor Young, conceding a Mahjong game by concealing her winning hand.

Mahjong is a game of strategy steeped in Chinese tradition, but while it has its roots in the Far East, it has taken on new life in the far West.

Brought from China to the U.S. by an American expatriate in the 1920s, Mahjong has since become especially popular among the Jewish American community including the Manhattan Mah Jongg Club.

“Really (I’ve been playing) since I was in my 20s, and then I stopped when I had children,” said Stephanie Fleckner, a player with the Manhattan Mah Jongg Club.  “And then when they got older, I started playing Mahjong again.”

“I love playing and I play once a week because I get to play!” said another player, Peggy Taylor.  “I get to have fun, I get to be with other people, and I enjoy it.”

Linda Feinstein, who runs the club and organizes weekly games, says there has been a recent revival of interest. 

“Oh my gosh, it really wanted in the ’60s, ’70s,” explained Feinstein.  “Women’s lives changed. They went to work. They didn’t stay home and play Mahjong. But all of a sudden everybody was interested in learning how to play their mother’s game.”

But upon closer inspection, their mother’s mahjong is not exactly the same as Chinese mahjong. For starters, the ladies from the club are using a card with multiple combinations of the play set by the National Mah Jongg League.

“You play with only 144 tiles,” said Feinstein.  “They’re much thicker so they stand up by themselves. We have a rack that we put them on, like if you play Scrabble with racks. You don’t play with Jokers, I’m not even sure how many flowers you have everything else is very much the same. The same characters, bands, cracks, dots.”

Linda’s Mahjong club is a social event, but in the U.S., Mahjong is also played in tournaments like the North American Open, hosted by the U.S. Professional Mahjong League which plays by Japanese Riichi rules evolved from the traditional Chinese game.

“American Mahjong is very much about diversity,” said David Bresnick, President of the U.S. Professional Mahjong League. 

“You have this card of hands and the card changes every six months and you get a new one and you’re trying to collect the tiles you need. Chinese Mahjong I’d say is very fast-paced, very aggressive. You’re grabbing tiles and trying to sneak in your victory before anyone else can get there, and you’re really always pushing to get to the win.  Japanese Mahjong focused a lot more on the idea of defensive play, the idea that you want to defend yourself, you want to not give others what they need and see if you can work your way towards victory while also staying out of danger.”

And the game has also evolved technologically, underscoring Mahjong’s journey not just from the Far East to West, but also from Old World to New.