Má qiǎo/má què/Mahjong terms 1780 – 1920

Michael Stanwick and Hongbing Xu


This article begins with a discussion of the derivation of  J. P. Babcock’s name for his variation of the game. Documentary evidence, recently discovered, sheds valuable light on the Babcocks whereabouts during their stay in China between 1912 and 1924 and hence may have pinpointed where Joseph Babcock perhaps acquired the pronunciation of the name of his game.

The main discussion in this article however, concerns the various terms or names of the game and of the various individual tiles and groups of tiles that have been associated with the pre 1920 tile game of 麻雀, má qiǎo (sparrow, má què in modern Pinyin), versions of which became known in the West as Mah jong(g).

We also introduce and discuss certain social conditions that prevailed in regions around Shanghai and allowed the game to spread in popularity during the latter half of the 19th century.

These terms and conditions result from the latest research into key documentation such as Chinese novels, Chinese newspaper records and published accounts of Chinese playing card games from Western anthropologists from the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Finally, a discussion of Stewart Culin’s 1924 description of a tile set he collected in 1909, will reveal that as well as his tile set, he also referenced a domino tile set and indirectly referenced another game that subsequently became confused with his má qiǎo tile set.

Before reading further, it is advised that articles in the ‘Tile Set History’ section be read first, so as to provide context to the information and the references in this discussion.

The information presented below is the result of painstaking research by Hongbing Xu, Thierry Depaulis and Michael Stanwick. If it is to be used, please provide the relevant citations in full.

Chinese characters (sinograms) appear throughout the text and have been accented – except where they appear in quotations. Quotations are in green. The authors’ added comments to quotations appear in square parentheses. In this article, where the tile game is referenced as 麻雀, the pronunciation is má qiǎo (in modern Pinyin má què. See Footnote 1 below).

1.0 Introduction.

1912 – 1923. J. P. Babcock, Mah-Jongg and Ma Jiang.

Before the discussion on the earliest names of the game mahjong that have so far been documented, it would be remiss not to mention the situation at the turn of the 1920’s. One figure, J. P. Babcock, features prominently when discussing the game from a Western perspective. Babcock was one of the first to significantly popularise the game in the West. From what he had observed to be the fundamental Chinese game,  he devised a version that he subsequently patented under the designation “Mah-Jongg”. So we turn to this important figure and to the probable origin of his name for his variation of the Chinese game.

According to Norma Babcock in The Catalina Islander, April 16, 1924, her husband;

 “… when but 19 [therefore in 1912], graduated as honor man from the civil engineering class of Purdue University; then entered Standard Oil class for foreign service. Within six months after his arrival in China he was given the post as manager of the Standard Oil Company’s Peking [Beijing, North China] office.

Within the first six months in China he gained a good working knowledge of the Chinese language. In less than a year he was conducting his office without an interpreter. … .

Even in those early days he went on frequent journeys into the interior. In this way, and because of his knowledge of their language, he was soon initiated into the mysteries of the Chinese tile game. …

When you add … an insatiable curiosity, it is easy to see how he became interested in these Chinese games. In Peking [Beijing], Tientsin [Tianjin], Shanghai, and many other cities of North China and Manchuria, he saw and studied these various games.”

From Norma Babcock’s account it seems that Joseph Babcock’s first important post was in Peking [Beijing]. This was indeed the case as Joseph Babcock’s passport and consular applications and certificates  show that he arrived in Peking [Beijing] on 25th June 1914 – after spending six months in Shanghai and then in Tianjin (see the article ‘J. P. Babcock, A. R. Hager, A. N. Lethin and the Mah-Jongg Company of China et al’ in the China to the West section for a very detailed discussion of Babcock’s travels etc).

He spent approximately two years in Peking and so had ample opportunity to travel the interior of North China. But what are “these Chinese games” and “these various games”? According to Joseph Babcock, in a letter written by him in The Saturday Evening Post, December 15, 1923, during the past ten years [1913 -1923];

“I have spent a great part of my time traveling in the interior of China, where I was dependent almost entirely on the Chinese for my recreation. Speaking the Chinese language, I became interested in a game played by the Chinese, with attractive tiles of bamboo and ivory, brightly decorated in the inimitable Chinese colors and typical Chinese art….

…For a number of years, I made a special study of these Chinese tile games as played in the various provinces of China. I found that the fundamental game was known by a variety of names in the different provinces, and that it was played, in almost every case, in a different way”.

Joseph Babcock’s account clarifies that “these games” are in fact the different variants of the game as played in the various provinces in China.

He then set about embodying;

“the best and most interesting features of the various Chinese tile games, as played in the many sections of China, and have developed one game which is adapted to foreign thought and usage, with various sets of rules”.

Norma Babcock adds more information to this account;

“Six or seven years ago [1917 or 1918] we were living in the tiny foreign colony in Soochow [Suzhou]. There were only twelve people in the community where we lived, but we were only a short distance from the high wall of the Chinese city, which held a population of half a million Chinese.

Situated as we were, in close contact with interesting Chinese people, we had few amusements in our small community of Americans and Europeans. My husband became an expert player and close student of the Chinese game, as it was played in Soochow [Suzhou].

Finally he tried to get the English numerals placed at the corner of the tiles, as you see them today [1924]. While there were several small shops where sets of these tile games were made, not a single workman cared to attempt the making of strange English numbers and letters, which meant nothing at all to them.

… My husband finally persuaded one of them to try it. … After several attempts he eventually succeeded in marking the first set of tiles with the properly placed foreign letters and numerals.

This very man, Wong Liang Sung, is today the acknowledged plutocrat of the mah jongg industry among the Chinese… .”

She also adds;

“The Chinese tile game, named mah jongg by my husband for play by his friends… . It was really here at Catalina that the idea of introducing mah jongg to America originated. It was at the Island Villa , the summer of 1920, that we, … first set up a wall of Chinese bamboo tiles.  A publicity correspondent made the most of a story about the new game in a Los Angeles newspaper and the thing was done.

… Before we reached San Francisco to re-sail for the Orient it seemed as though all of California and his wife had commissioned us to bring them a mah jongg set … . Well we sent them, … seventeen ship loads of them!

The last three years [1920-1923] we have been living in the bandit-infested province of Shantung [Shendong, a province in North China] … [in] Tsinan [Jinan] our home city, … .”

The patented designation Babcock gave his version of the game was “Mah-Jongg”;

“To designate the game as I evolved it, with these English indices and with the codified and standardised Babcock rules, I applied the word “Mah-Jongg,” pronounced “Mah-ZHONG”, trade marked it in the U. S. Patent Office and applied it also to my book of rules which I had copyrighted.”

By 1917 the Babcocks had decamped from their posting in Harbin in North China to Suzhou where they stayed in the small foreign colony outside the city walls. It was there that Joseph Babcock became a student and expert player of the Suzhou variant of the game and had the first set of tiles marked with “English numbers and letters” by a Suzhou tile maker Wong liang sung. He then named the game “mah jongg” for play by his friends. When he and Norma Babcock visited the United States in 1920 they may have taken their bamboo tile game to their Catalina Island villa and, in the summer of that year, inadvertently introduced the game to the American public via a Los Angeles newspaper. By the end of that year they had returned to their home in Jinan, Shandong province.

From their writings it is clear the Babcocks regarded their Chinese acquaintances highly and with respect, and counted them amongst their close friends.

But is there an answer to where Babcock’s pronunciation is likely to have originated? Since they were living in Suzhou in 1917 or 1918 and Babcock had visited Shanghai, he may have heard a pronunciation very similar to “má jiàng‘. In 上海俗语大辞典 (Dictionary of Shanghainese Colloquialism), published in 1924, there is an item “扠麻雀” chā má qiǎo. The Dictionary reports that “雀 reads as 将”. So in Shanghainese 麻雀 reads as 麻将, pronounced as má jiàng or something very similar to that pronunciation. If this scenario was the case, and since the spoken language in Suzhou is similar to Shanghainese, it therefore follows that his “Mah-Zhong” pronunciation may have reflected the pronunciation of má jiàng in the Shanghainese dialect, or something very similar. Thus Babcock’s ‘Mah-Jongg’ would be a transliteration of the pronunciation of 麻雀 in the Shanghainese dialect or something similar1.

Even though the Dictionary is dated 1924, we can make the reasonable assumption that the pronunciation did not change within a short period of time. For example, the earliest mention of 麻将 má jiàng so far uncovered is in the Shanghai Shen Bao newspaper, January 13th, 1913, and it seems that this term’s usage increased as the game became more popular. The name 麻将 má jiàng is also mentioned in one of the earliest Chinese má qiǎo manuals, Bai zhan bai sheng ma qiao jing (Hundred Battles, Hundred Victories, Maque Bible), 1914 for the 1st edition, in which it says the game was called 叉麻将 chā má jiàng, and 打麻将 dǎ má jiàng in the North (North China, referring to Beijing, Tianjin, etc).

Though Babcock’s name for his game is most likely a derivation of the pronunciation of an earlier or contemporary Chinese term, were there any other names associated with the tile set and do they in turn shed any light on the game’s origin, its development and its use within a social context?

Examination of evidence derived from documents and novels, paints a picture of a game that had been known throughout China under various names since at least the 1870s. But we must go back even earlier, to the 1780s, to find the earliest emergence of terms linked to the tile set.

  • [1]

    The modern Standard Chinese (Guo/Putonghua) began to be standardised from 1909. (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Standard_Chinese#History.)

    In 1919 a Dictionary of National Pronunciation (国音字典) was published, with a revision in 1921. In this dictionary, “雀” was given a “cio” pronunciation. This was probably not a Beijing (North China) dialect based pronunciation, but perhaps a pronunciation of some southern dialect and was discarded later dictionaries.

    In 1932 another dictionary, Vocabulary of National Pronunciation for Everyday Use (国音常用字汇) was published in which many of the pronunciations from the 1921 dictionary were modified. Thus in this dictionary, “雀” had two pronunciations, què and qiǎo where què is marked as a literary pronunciation and qiǎo is marked as a colloquial pronunciation for 雀 in the Beijing dialect. This was the situation in the period from 1921 – 1932. (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Literary_and_colloquial_readings_of_Chinese_characters )

    However, in the Shanghainese/Ningbo dialect, the colloquial pronunciation for 麻雀 approximates to má jiàng for the tile game and since there is no difference between colloquial and literary pronunciations in Shanghainese we may take an approximate pronunciation of 麻雀 as being má jiàng.

    However, according to Thierry Depaulis (see google groups rec. games.mahjong), “As I understand it, for the double sinogram, meaning literally ‘hemp bird’, we have in Mandarin both ma ch’ueh and ma ch’iao using Wade-Giles romanisation. Converting to modern Pinyin these become ma que and ma qiao, respectively. Modern Mandarin Dictionaries indeed give ‘que4′ for the second character, but if you look at H. Gile’s Chinese Dictionary of 1912 you’ll see that he gave the character under ‘ch’iao‘. ‘Ch’ueh‘ has an entry with reference to ‘ch’iao‘ [these appear to be Northern Chinese]. It seems that the ‘qiǎo‘ (Pinyin) pronunciation was more common in the first decades of the 20th century. All European and Japanese authors of the early 1920’s [that we know of] who explain the game use a transliteration that corresponds to ‘má qiǎo‘ (e.g. “Ma Tchiao“, Ma Tchio“, etc.)”.[Italics added]

2.0 The 18th Century.

2.1 1780 – 1800.

We begin this discussion with a description from an important book on Chinese games, Jin Xueshi’s Mu zhu xianhua (Idle Chats on the Swineherds Game), 1783. This book provides a very early account of two card games that have fundamental properties found in the game of má qiǎo. According to Jin;

[Mò hú (combine the cards in silence)]

“A game played by four [players]. First a tapestry is rolled out on a table before dealing the cards. One person is designated the leader and each player gets one card in turn, until each has ten [cards], then each sorts his cards in silence, mo hu is to “combine [the cards] in silence.

The twenty remaining cards are entrusted to a player other than the first dealer, who distributed the cards to the players …”.

[The Game of peng hu]

“It is possible to play with two sets of cards [2 x 60], bringing the number to 120 cards; so you have four cards of the same category [value] Zhong. If one adds another half deck [ie, a deck of 30 cards] one ends up with 150 cards, with five of the same value of each card. … This game is called peng hu and is a development of mo hu [mo hu was played by four players]. Drawing three of the same card [three cards of the same value] is called a kan or peng…. ; drawing four of the same card [four cards of the same value] is kaizhao…. . Drawing five of a kind [five cards of the same value], which is the rarest is called huozhao… .”

The first game in this excerpt is called 默 和 mò hú, (silent harmony or perhaps silent playing) and was played with a deck of 60 cards. The second game was called 碰和 pèng hú (encountering harmony, or playing for points, Lo, 2004)2, and was played with either two mò hú decks (2 x 60) or 2.5 mò hú decks (120 + 30), thus 120 cards and 150 cards, respectively. The result of these developments was the creation of two card decks that contained the properties of quadruplication and quintuplication. These allowed various card games to be played that involved the additional properties of draw and discard and the formation of melds of four or five cards of the same value from the same suit.

For example, another game played at that time by four players with the 150 card deck was called 十壺 shí hú, (ten pots, sometimes called ten points)(see Lo, 2004, in “Asian Games, The Art of Contest” and Stanwick and Xu, 2012, “From Cards to Tiles: The Origin of Mahjong(g)’s Earliest Suit Names” in the ‘Tile Set History’ Section). The earliest known reference to shí hú is from 1754, in Cao Xueqin’s 红楼梦 Hong lou meng (Dream of the Red Chamber). Since Mu zhu xianhua was published by Zhang Chao in 1783, we can infer that Jin Xueshi wrote it during a time preceding that date. It is possible, therefore, that Jin Xueshi knew of the game shí hú before 1783 but perhaps chose to ignore it since he considered it a variation of pèng hú.

The theme of pèng hú as a term used to refer to a variety of games with the same structure, is exemplified by other games mentioned in Mu zhu xianhua, (Idle Chats on the Swineherds’ Game) – such as a domino pèng hú game and a game called 碰花将和 pèng huā jiāng hú – perhaps pèng hú with huā jiāng, “flower generals” cards (see Lo, 2004).

This theme becomes clearer when we consider Li Dou’s 1796 novel Yangzhou huafang lu (The Painted Pleasure Boats of Yangzhou), in which we have;

“画舫多作牙牌、叶格诸戏…… 牙牌以竹代之…… 叶格以“马吊”为上……次之碰壶,以十壶为上.” “In boats ivory pai [dominoes] or leaf [card] games are often played…. Ivory pai [dominoes] are now bamboo pai instead…. In leaf games ma diao is preferred, then peng hu of which shi hu is preferred.”

The ‘painted pleasure boats’, in which these card games were being offered, referred to moored, floating boat-brothels in the city of Yangzhou in Jiangsu province.

From the excerpt above, it appears that by 1796 the trick taking game of 馬 吊 mǎ diào was not a pèng hú game, but shí hú was, and so pèng hú probably referred to a series of card games that had the core features of draw and discard, quadruplication and quintuplication. Also, in this excerpt there is the mention that dominoes were made of bamboo.

However, as we shall see, the association of mostly upmarket brothels with má qiǎo as well as pèng hú referring to a family of games, also appeared in records from the 19th century. We shall also see that, in a specific location and/or at a specific time in the 19th century, pèng hú could have had the meaning “to play” – either a particular game; a type of pèng hú game; card games in general or, it could have been used as a name for a particular game.

  • [2]

    The pronunciation of 碰和 pèng hú is often represented by 碰湖 (pèng hú) or 碰壶 (pèng hú).

3.0 The Nineteenth Century.

3.1 1800 – 1860.

The first mention of pèng hú from the 19th century is featured in the 1814 novel 补红楼梦, Bu hong lou meng, (An Addendum to Dream of the Red Chamber), by Lang huan shan qiao (a pseudonym, real name unknown). In the novel we have this excerpt;

“我是前儿在冯紫英家那里碰湖,来了一天我只成了五六牌,倒输了八个全荤飘儿.” “I played peng hu at Feng Ziying’s home the day before yesterday. I won only five or six games for the whole day, but lost eight 全荤飘.”.

The game being played is called pèng hú, but in fact the game is shí hú since 全荤飘 quán hūn piāo is a term in the game of shí hú 3. Therefore, as we saw from the 1796 novel Yangzhou hua fang lu (The Painted Pleasure Boats of Yangzhou), shí hú was a game of the pèng hú family.

Next, in the 1818 novel 画舫余谈 Hua fang yu tan (Extra Record of The Painted Pleasure Boats), by Peng hua sheng, (a pseudonym for Che chi qian, 1778~1842), we have;

“曲中习尚叶子戏,曰成坎玉,曰碰十壶.” “In the boats, people like to play leaf games, …, like peng shi hu.”

Pèng shí hú could mean “to play shí hú“. However, the term “pèng” may not indicate “to play” since this excerpt already indicated that “people like to play leaf games”. If this is so, then the pèng shí hú game may have actually been pèng hú with a winning hand of 10 points or more, as found in the game of shí hú.

Shí hú 十壶 is also mentioned in the 1848 novel 風月夢 Feng yue meng (A Dream of Wind and Moon) by 邗上蒙人 Han shang meng ren. This novel is also situated in the area of Yangzhou and it refers to the suit terms from the game of shí hú. Thus we have; 鉼 bǐng (Cash, bǐng referring to a metal cake, that is, a silver coin in the shape of a cake), tiáo (Strings (of cash)) and wàn (Myriads (of cash)). These terms illustrate that some leaf (card) games were therefore played with a money suited deck.


  • [3]

    全荤飘 quán hūn piāo is a combination of features from two types of hand, a 全荤 quán hūn and a 飘和 piāo hú.

    A 全荤 quán hūn, literally “all meat dishes”, is a winning hand with each set of melds receiving points. It is a one-double hand.

    A 飘和 piāo hú is a winning hand, made from an initial hand, without triplets or quadruplets – thus zero points or only a few points with some special sets. Since only triplets, quadruplets and some special sets of melds score points in pèng hú and shí hú, and since in shí hú scoring 10 points is a minimum to win, the piāo hú hand is therefore quite difficult to attain. It is also a one-double hand.

    A 全荤飘 quán hūn piāo is therefore a two-double hand. Each set of melds in a quán hūn piāo winning hand receives points (but sequences do not count) and the winning hand must count up to 10 points or more.

3.2 1860 – 1880.

Sometime between 1868 – 70 or 1872 – 76 the German interpreter Carl Himly collected a bamboo má qiǎo set which he recorded in his two published papers (1889, 1901) using the name 寧波竹牌 Níngbō zhú pái, (Bamboo Cards of Ningbo). It is one of three of the earliest tile sets so far discovered. Based on the sinograms on the tiles, the terms Himly gave to the tile groups are;

  • 同 tóng (shortened for 铜 ‘copper’ Cash); 索 suō (Strings of Cash ); 万 wàn (Myriads of Cash) = the three Suits.
  • 同化 tóng huà; 索化 suō huà and 万化 wàn huà = the three suit Substitution tiles.
  • 北 běi (North); 南 nán (South); 西 xī (West) and 東 dōng (East) = the four Directions or Winds.
  • 北王 běi wáng (North King), 南王 nán wáng (South King), 西王 xī wáng (West King) and 東王 dōng wáng (East King) = Kings of the Four “Heavenly Directions”.
  • 摠王 zǒng wáng (general King) = King of all.
  • 天王 tiān wáng (Heavenly King), 地王 dì wáng (Earthly King), 人王 rén wáng (Man’s King) and 和王 hé wáng (King of Harmony) = three Kings named after the 三才 sān cái or the “three powers” plus the King of Harmony to unite them.
  • 春 chūn (Spring); 夏 xià (Summer); 秋 qiū (Autumn) and 冬 dōng (Winter) = the Four Seasons.

About the same time, the use of bamboo as a material used for ‘cards’ was also mentioned in a commentary about gambling games in the 8th September 1874 issue of the newspaper Shen Bao, (Shanghai News’, 1872 – 1945);

“赌具中有叶子戏者,最为华人之所好,盖以无喧嚣之习而仍有得失之机也。若吴下所尚者,其牌则又不以纸而以竹,名曰倒铜旗,无论香闺硕彦、樵夫牧竖、羽士缁流,亦皆笃嗜之而弗少辍”. “Among the instruments used for gambling, leaf games [pasteboard card games] are most preferred by the Chinese … [Of the leaf games] the preferred one in the Wu region [a region in the Jiangnan area, south of the Yangtze River and encompassing such cities as Suzhou, Shanghai and Hangzhou], of which the pai is made of bamboo other than pasteboard, is  called dao tong qi [倒铜旗 dǎo tóng qí, sometimes written as 同棋 tóng qí] …. “.

The report states that dǎo tóng qí 4 was a leaf game – that is, it belonged to a particular class of games that, among other things, were played with thin pasteboard cards or ‘leaves’. But instead of being played with cards of thin pasteboard, it was played with cards made from bamboo. The fact that this use of bamboo was at the same time as the appearance of Himly’s set and that is was preferred in the same region (the Wu region, which encompasses Ningbo) in which Himly acquired his tile set, leads to the inference that perhaps the bamboo cards used in dǎo tóng qí were probably bamboo tiles. This inference is supported by the observation, some 78 years earlier, from Li Dou’s 1796 novel Yangzhou hua fang lu (The Painted Pleasure Boats of Yangzhou);

“Ivory pai [dominoes] are now bamboo pai instead…”.

The term qiǎo (què in modern Pinyin, meaning sparrow)) makes its first known appearance in a name that was recorded by the American George Glover, who worked for the Chinese Maritime Customs Service. According to Glover’s cover note sent with his collection to the American Museum of Natural History, New York, in 1875;

“No. 17 Set of a species of dominoes, called 拷家雀 K’ao Chia Ch’iao [in Pinyin kǎo jiā qiǎo], snatching the house sparrow …”.

According to Stewart Culin in his ‘Dominoes from Fuhchau’ (1893, 1895), these dominoes were from Fuhchau” (Fuzhou in Fujian province). The term 拷家雀 “kǎo jiā qiǎo” would in effect mean “Snatching/hitting Sparrow(s)” – 家雀 jiā qiǎo “house sparrow” being equivalent to 麻雀 má qiǎo or qiǎo “sparrow”. This name was applied to one of two sets Glover had collected and, along with Karl Himly’s tile set, are the earliest sets so far uncovered.

Glover’s tile set also contains the tile groups featured in the Himly set (see above), but it also has four 中 zhōng (middle) tiles which, according to Glover, represent the fifth Direction.

Next, in the 1878 novel 青樓梦 Qing lou meng (A Dream of Green Mansions) by Yu Da, there is a playing scene involving the domino game of tóng qí, but the game is called 碰和 pèng hú or 和牌 hú pāi. Thus tóng qí is also classed as a pèng hú game. Another game that is also mentioned is 和紙牌 hú zhǐ pái, (to play paper cards) probably a game of money-suited cards. In these examples 和  is used as the verb “to play”. Thus where 和  is used as a verb, as in 和紙牌 hú zhǐ pái, hú zhǐ pái becomes “to play (money suited) cards” and pèng hú would become “to play [cards] with pèng” – pèng being a meld of 3 of a kind, in which only 2 cards are drawn by the player and the 3rd is claimed from another player’s discard.

  • [4]

    In 倒铜旗 dǎo tóng qí, dǎo may mean “back and forth” and tóng qí means “copper flag”, although the exact meaning in a gaming context is unknown. It is sometimes written as 同棋 tóng qí (similar to chess).

    According to Lo, 2004, in Asian Games: The Art of Contest: “Tong qi could be played with either cards or dominoes. The twenty one different pieces in a domino set were multiplied five times to form a deck of 105 cards (with extra Jokers, etc). Four players, one serving as the “house,” played the game in a manner similar to ma jiang [má qiǎo].”

3.3 1880 – 1885.

After Glover’s 1875 term for “house sparrow”, 家雀 jiā qiǎo, we find the nearly equivalent compound term for “sparrow” – 麻雀 má qiǎo – had appeared in the February 18th, 1884 issue of the Shanghai “Shen Bao” newspaper. This is the earliest record so far uncovered of the specific term 麻雀 má qiǎo in connection with the game.

But it is unclear what the composition was of this má qiǎo deck – whether it was in pasteboard or in tile form and what groups were present. For example, both Himly’s and Glover’s tile sets had the quadruplicated three suits and Directions plus extra tiles, but Himly’s had no red zhōng nor green fā tiles but Glover’s had the red zhōng and bái bǎn (white plank), but no green .

However, there is another report of a tile set that does contain a description of its composition and the circumstances surrounding its acquisition. The report is featured in the book Gu shui jiu wen (Old Hearings from the Gu River) by Dai Yu’an, prefaced 1934. The tile set belonged to the Chinese official Sheng Xuanhuai (1844 – 1916) whose interpreter was Dai Yu’an’s late, elder fourth brother.

According to the description:

“When Sheng Xuanhuai came from Baiyue to Tianjin, to take his post of customs commissioner, he brought with him a 麻雀牌副 ma que pai fu [má què tile set], so introducing it [má què pái fu] to Tianjin. The set is different from the current ones [those available in 1934].”

This excerpt claims Sheng came to Tianjin (Hebei province in North China) from Baiyue (an area near Canton, Guandong province in South China). According to Feuerwerker (1970) Sheng was in charge of both the Imperial Telegraph Administration and the construction of the Shanghai to Canton (Guangzhou in Guangdong province) coastal telegraph line which was opened in the summer of 1884. He was in Shanghai in January 1884 and sometime after April 1884 had returned to Tianjin where, in the summer of that year, he briefly held the post of Tianjin customs Commissioner, as acting incumbent. Since the telegraph line was opened in the summer of that year and Sheng was in charge of the Telegraph enterprise, it is possible he visited the completion of the line in Canton sometime after he was in Shanghai in January 1884, and then proceeded to travel to Tianjin from there. Thus part of his movements support Dai’s account and hence would place the má què pái fù (the má què tile set) in Tianjin sometime after April 1884.

However, there were two instances when he had held the post of Tientsin Customs Commissioner. The second began in June 1892, after a posting as Commisioner and Superintendant of customs at Cheefoo [now called Yantai, in Shandong province, North China]. Sheng remained at Cheefoo (Yantai) for six years before he went to Tianjin in 1892 to take up the post of Customs Commissioner in June of that year (see Feuerwerker (1970). This sequence of events is different to that in Dai’s account – that Sheng travelled from Baiyue to Tianjin to take up the post of Customs Commissioner. Thus, if Sheng had travelled to Tianjin from Baiyue, it might have happened in 1884 rather than 1892, and hence he would have acquired the set sometime before 1884 and anywhere from South to North China.

It is possible these two events may have become conflated and hence perhaps the more prudent interpretation would be that his set arrived in Tianjin sometime before 1892.

The description continues:

“Apart from the 1-9 of “Shuttles” [梭 suō] and 1-9 “Cakes” [饼 bǐng], there are no Myriads [万 wàn], but 1-9 Ranks [品 pǐn]. There are no East, South, West and North but instead the four “Winds” – benevolence [仁 rén], justice [义 ], righteousness [道 dào], and virtuousness [德 ]. There is a White ‘block’ [白版 pái bǎn]; there are neither red “Success” [红中 hóng zhōng] nor “Fortune” [發 ], but scarlet Dragon [赤龙 chì lóng] and azure Phoenix [碧凤 bì fèng]. Apart from these there is a Myriads’ King [万王 wàn wáng] belonging to the Ranks [品 pǐn] suit, a ‘Shuttles’ King [梭王 suō wáng] for the “Shuttles” and a “Cakes” King [饼王 bǐng wáng] for the “Cakes”…. there is another King [called] Supreme King [总王 zǒng wáng] which is worth more than the other three [Kings].”

Quadruplicated, these make a game set with 140 pieces. The groups in this set are therefore;

  • 饼 bǐng (“Cakes”); 梭 suō (“Shuttles”); 品 pǐn (“Ranks”) = the three Suits.
  • 仁 rén (benevolence); 义  (righteousness); 道 dào (wisdom); 德 dé (virtuousness) = the Four Confucian Cardinal Virtues of Mencius.
  • 白版 pái bǎn (White block); 赤龙 chì lóng (scarlet Dragon); 碧鳳 bì fèng (azure Phoenix) = the three Honours.
  • 饼王 bǐng wáng (“Cakes” King); 梭王 suō wáng (“shuttles” King); 万王 wàn wáng (Myriads King); 总王 zǒng wáng (Supreme King) = the four Suits’ Substitution tiles.

Taking account the probable money-suited origin of the three suits, and with reference to A Monetary History of China (1994) and the Kangxi zidian Dictionary (1716), the term 饼 bǐng “Cakes” referred to either gold or silver money that had been cast into the shape of small, slightly flat and round ‘cakes’. In this context the suit would be analogous to the “Cash” suit found in early money-suited playing cards (for a fuller discussion of this suit, see “From Cards to Tiles: The Origin of Mahjong(g)’s Earliest suit Names” in the Tile Set History section). The suit term 梭 suō, meaning “Shuttles,” is perhaps a reference to the stringed shuttles used in weaving and, if so, may also refer to their shape being very similar to those in the analogous suit in the 1889 Wilkinson tile set. But from card decks of the time it is also clear that this shape was also used for strings of cash. Lastly, the term 品 pin “Ranks” for the third suit reflected the nine ranks of Chinese officials in Imperial China.

Further, instead of the four Directions or Winds there are 仁 rén (compassion), 义  (duty), 道 dào (propriety) and 德 dé (integrity). These form an idiom containing four Confucian virtues. If taken together with two of the three Honours, 赤龙 chì lóng (scarlet Dragon) and 碧凤 bì fèng (azure Phoenix) – symbolising the Emperor and Empress, respectively, this set could have been made specifically with tile groups that reflected Sheng Xuanhuai’s status as a Confucian official (see Feuerwerker, 1970).

The four “King” tiles 饼王 bǐng wáng (“Cakes” King), 梭王 suō wáng (“shuttles” King), 万王 wàn wáng (Myriads King) and 总王 zǒng wáng (Supreme King) were most likely used as Jokers for their respective suits – or any tile as in the case of zǒng wáng – in the formation of melds that are concealed. Although the King of the 品 pǐn “Ranks” suit is called wàn wáng rather than pǐn wáng, it is probably because it was the original name of the suit (wàn, Myriads) that was carried over, rather than a reflection of the name of the character 品 that appeared on the tiles.

Dai ends this description by stating;

“My late older brother was Sheng’s English interpreter, and he learned to play “Sparrows” from him [Sheng]. One must consider him [my brother] as the first one among Tianjin amateurs [to learn to be] a player of the bamboo forest [a metaphorical name for má qiǎo]. Sheng presented him with a small tile set whose tiles, much smaller than today’s tiles, had bone fronts and bamboo backs, and were finely crafted. The myriads were replaced by ranks but four or five were missing. This set remained in my family during forty years. It is now in my hands, and I keep it as a treasure.”

Dai reports the set remained in his family for 40 years and then passed to him which would suggest his brother received it circa 1894. The fanciful name “Bamboo Forest” bears a similarity to a name reported in the 1914 má qiǎo manual Bai zhan bai sheng ma qiao jing (Hundred Battles, Hundred Victories, Sparrows Bible).

Also in the same year, appearing in the June 17th, 1884 issue, is the first mention of 叉麻雀 chā má qiǎo. In this instance it may have meant “to fork sparrow(s)” as in “to spear sparrow(s)”. Chā má qiǎo next appeared in the November 14th, 1887 issue, then the September 20th, 1888 issue and so on. So after 1884 we have this term more frequently used in the literature.

3.4 1885 – 1886.

Other names also began appearing in subsequent issues of the newspaper. Thus, in the May 28th, 1885 issue, a report recorded that 赶麻雀 gǎn má qiǎo (to drive away sparrows) referred to a game in 慈溪, Cixi, a city in Ningbo in Zhejiang province;

“慈邑赌风最甚, 而尤以赶麻雀为时尚.” “The gambling is rather popular in Cixi city, especially that the gan ma qiao game is taken as a fashion.”

Based on the fact that Cixi is a Ningbo city (Ningbo, where Himly had collected his má qiǎo tile set some ten years earlier), it is likely that gǎn má qiǎo may have been played with a tile deck rather than a pasteboard card deck and the tile set game was fashionable. But again, there is no evidence as to the composition of the various tile groups.

Some eight months later, in the January 10th, 1886 issue of the Shen Bao newspaper we find the name for the game is recorded as 斗麻雀 dòu má qiǎo, (fight or compete with Sparrow(s)) or (play with Sparrows). 斗 dòu (斗 (simplified), 鬥 (traditional)), is an old term for “to fight”. For example, it is used in 斗鸡 dòu jī (cock fighting) and 斗虎 dòu  (fight or compete with the tiger) – another name for the late Ming card game 看虎 kān hǔ (watching the tiger). “To watch” and “to fight” are also found in 看牌 kān pái (watching the cards) and the Ming dynasty term 斗牌 dòu pái (fighting with cards), respectively. These are also called 打牌 dǎ pái (playing with cards) in some regions. It may therefore be the case that 斗麻雀 dòu má qiǎo also meant “playing with má qiǎo (cards)”.

3.5 1886 – 1888.

赶麻雀 Gǎn má qiǎo (to drive away sparrow(s)), made its next appearance in the newspaper on June 22nd, 1887. The report stated that gǎn má qiǎo referred to a game in Jinling (now Nanjing), inland on the Yangtze river in Jiangsu province;

“……斗叶子戏,有过河、愎棍、赶麻雀等名目.” “People play leaf [card] games, including [过河] guo he, [愎棍] bi gun , [赶麻雀] gan ma qiao, etc.”

The bi gun game was probably the same, or similar, as the leaf/pasteboard card game of suo hu, recorded by Jin Shoushen. This excerpt places má qiǎo in July 1887 and puts gǎn má qiǎo in the category of “leaf games”.

W. H. Wilkinson had recorded a few years later (probably 1892), that a deck of pasteboard cards was called má qiǎo pái in Hankou (now Wuhan). 1892 is inferred from the fact that Hankou is only mentioned in his description of his collection for the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, and subsequently published in Stewart Culin’s Korean Games, 1895. Hankou (Wuhan) is on the Yangtze, upriver from Jinling (now Nanjing). So if the spread inland was by river, then the name of the playing instruments may have travelled upriver to Hankou from Jinling. Hence, in Jinling in 1887 the name of the playing instruments could have been má qiǎo as well, whereas the game was called gǎn má qiǎo. But was gǎn má qiǎo in Jinling in 1887, played with a tile set as it may have been in Cixi city in 1885?

Slightly later in the same year – 14th November 1887 – the Shen Bao newspaper reported that in Shanghai;

“租界严禁赌博以来,若辈花样翻新,巧立叉麻雀、碰和等名目,竟有租赁房屋门前高贴某字号连宵达旦喝雉呼卢者,更或妓院中以此引诱良家子弟,罄其腰缠,为害地方实非浅鲜.” “Since gambling was strictly prohibited in the Concession, the gamblers “put the old wine in a new bottle”, and invented the new ways of gambling of cha ma qiaopeng hu, etc. They rented houses [so they could] play these games day and night, or even tempt decent youths to play them in the brothels…” 5 (Gambling was prohibited in the British Concession in 1865 according to 上海租界志 Shanghai zujie zhi, (Chronicles of  the Shanghai Concessions(Shanghai, 2001)).

The report then says;

“麦捕头访明以上情形,于前日下午饬包探顾阿六传集界内各妓院主,谕令嗣后不许有叉麻雀、碰和情事”, “the Police heard, investigated and confirmed the above and mandated the day before yesterday [12th November, 1887] that cha ma que and peng hu would not be allowed in the brothels from then on.” 6

This report covered the period from 1865 – 1887. Within this time frame gambling was prohibited in the British Concession and sometime after, gamblers had found new games with which to use for gambling. A reason for gamblers choosing these particular games may lie in the fact that gambling games that provided a quick result – such as dice games – were strictly prohibited in the British Concession, so the gamblers turned to card/tile games instead, since they were seen as a more civilised pastime and hence more acceptable.

The first part of the Shen Bao report indicated that má qiǎo and pèng hú were different games – since they were named separately, and also they were new games for gambling in the Concession. It is likely that pèng hú was the domino game of dǎo tóng qí that was played in particular brothels. The 1935 book 上海俗语图说, Shanghai Suyu Tushuo, (Illustration for Shanghai Idioms) by Wang Zhongxian (1888 ~ 1937), illustrates the phenomenon of the pèng hú game played in the brothels in the mid to late 19th century. According to this ‘Dictionary’ of idioms, initially there was no pèng hú ‘service’ offered in Shanghai brothels. The dictionary then describes an incident in which some guests that had arrived early for a dinner decided they would like to play pèng hú (probably the domino game of dǎo tóng qí) while they had to wait for more friends to arrive. Since this would have consumed resources the brothel created a ‘pèng hú service’ to be paid for. This suggests that the ‘pèng hú service’ was formed from a game of pèng hú (probably dǎo tóng qí). By the early Guangxu era (1875~1885), the price was lifted to the same price as a dinner 7.

We can infer from this information that the ‘pèng hú service’ (playing the game of dǎo tóng qí for example) should have appeared before 1875 (since the pèng hú service price was increased it must have already been in existence before the beginning of the Guangxu era). From the Shen Bao report we know that pèng hú was introduced as a new game used for gambling sometime after 1865 and so the ‘pèng hú service’ might have been created after that date as well. Another possibility is that the ‘pèng hú service’ existed before 1865 but was only used for gambling after that date.

However as the game of má qiǎo became more popular, by 1891 it had eventually replaced and then eliminated the tóng qí game as a ‘pèng hú service’ that was offered by certain brothels in Shanghai, as we shall soon see from the novel Haishang fanhua meng (Dream of Splendour in Shanghai).

Further evidence of the situation regarding the games used for gambling may be found in an article in the 金刚钻月刊 Jingangzuan Yuekan (Diamond Monthly), 10th Februaury 1934, written by 漱石生 Shu Shi Sheng (the pen name of Sun Jiazhen) and author of the novel Haishang fanhua meng (Dream of Splendour in Shanghai). Thus;

“新年中亦每喜以赌博消遣 .…… 骨牌则除牌九外,若在四五十年以前,每为碰同棋与六十四,继而风行挖花,后始盛行麻雀.” ” In the days of the New Year people often while away the time with gambling. … For tile games [骨牌, gu pai, bone pai], besides pai gow, when it was about forty or fifty years ago, people usually peng tong qi or sixty-four [perhaps a game with two sets of Chinese dominoes], then wa hua became fashionable, and finally ma qiao.”

This article deals with the New Year customs in Shanghai forty or fifty years before 1935 (at the latest), and therefore mentions the gambling games from the period 1884 – 1894. The excerpt describes the gambling games played in brothels on the days during the New Year customs. Such games were firstly the domino games of tóng qíwā huā (and probably another domino game called huā hū) and finally má qiǎo (both wā huā and huā hū feature in the early 20th century, as we shall see later). Thus, before má qiǎo appeared in Shanghai, people “peng tong qi”, that is, they “played tóng qí “. Thus pèng in this context had the meaning “to play”.

This is supported by a playing scene from the 1908 novel Jiu Wei Hu, (The Nine-tailed Fox) written by Jiang Yinxiang (Menghua Guanzhu) in 1908~1910;

“搬定坐位,碰的是一百零五张老和,不比目下都是麻雀,连黄河阵也不懂,不要说八经三梦的老和. “What they “peng” [played] is the 105-tile old “hu”, not the “ma qiao” which is fashionable now…”.

The 105-tile “old hu” was the 105-tile game of tóng qí that was superceded by the fashionable má qiǎo tile game.

Another name that was recorded in the July 31st, 1888 issue of the Shen Bao newspaper, was used for the game played in 厦门 Xiamen in Fujian province;

“……作叶子戏,捉麻雀、四色牌”. “People play leaf games, including 捉麻雀, zhuo ma qiao, 四色牌, si se pai.”

捉麻雀 zhuō má qiǎo, (capture sparrow(s)) or (snatch sparrow(s)) is similar to the reported by Glover in 1875.

Xiamen (historically known as Amoy) was a Treaty Port from 1842 – 1912 and is located South of Fuzhou – which was another Treaty Port from 1842 – 1945. Both are in Fujian Province. Glover collected two má qiǎo tile sets in Fuzhou in or before 1875.  Coupled with this fact the subsequent date of 1888 above together with regular travel between these two relatively close ports and the similarity in the name of the games’ two names, we can infer that zhuō má qiǎo was probably a tile set or a game played with a tile set.

  • [5]

    Gamblers were attracted to the Concession. From the 8th September 1876 issue of the Shen Bao newspaper; “盖书寓长三等馆多在英界之地,本能引人入胜,故赌博之徒均设局于其中.” “The Shuyu (the topmost brothel which is nominally a place for listening to dramas) and [the] Changsan are mostly in the British Concession, which is instinctively attracting (the rich young people), so gamblers usually set up fraud [activities] in these places (to cheat the rich young people).”

  • [6]

    Brothels are recorded in both of these reports. According to the Shen Bao issue of 10th June 1872;

    “所谓上海妓有三等者,上曰长三,中曰么二,下曰花烟。盖长三以数百计,么二以千计,花烟以数千计,加以女弹词、髦儿戏、花鼓戏、女堂倌、咸水美,名非妓而实即妓者,则都计当万有奇焉.” “There are three levels of prostitutes in Shanghai, the top Changsan (double three in a domino set), the middle Yaoer (one-two in a domino set), the lower Huayan (flower opium). [The] Changsan are numbered as several hundred, [the] Yaoer as more than a thousand, and [the] Huayan as several thousand. Together with some others that [are considered] nominally not prostitutes but in fact are prostitutes …, in total there would be more than ten thousand [prostitutes].”

  • [7]

    This observation is supported by scenes in the novel 海上繁华梦Haishang fanhua meng (Dream of Splendour in Shanghai) by Sun Jiazhen, written before 1891. The picture painted by descriptions from the novel is one of Shanghai brothels in which 碰和 pèng hú was one of the two usual services – the other being 吃酒, a drink or a dinner. Thus a pèng hú service ‘consumed’ once was called 一场和, a game of . A dinner service consumed once was called 一台酒, a dinner. Any gambling games including pai gowma qiao, etc, were therefore counted as 一场和 “a game of hu” (‘a game consumed’ once”), and were billed. 叉小麻雀 chā xiǎo má qiǎo, (playing little sparrows, that is, má qiǎo used for gambling with small amounts of money) was played only between the brothel staff or between the brothel staff and a guest and would not be billed.

3.6 1888 – 1890.

Another more prominent though unusual term, 中 發 zhōng fā, is found on a box of precursor má qiǎo tiles collected by Sir Henry Wilkinson in 1889 (see Mah Jong(g) Before Mah Jong(g) Part 2). This box and its contents were finally donated to the British Museum as part of the Schreiber Collection8. It seems that in the context of the other characters on the box which describe the physical characteristics of the tiles (materials, construction, thickness and quality of engraving), the zhōng and  characters are different in that they are selectively mentioned as features of the composition of the tile designs or patterns.

This selectivity is explained by Wilkinson in his unpublished memorandum (1925, p.11), when discussing why Babcock chose a particular name for his version of the game. He states that;

“In fixing on a name for his [Babcock’s] adaptation of the game … He might … [option] (2) have taken his name from some feature of the original [game] which feature did not at all resemble that [name] which he imagined to be the Chinese term [for the game] … In the second [option (2)] he could have used the two honours tiles, say the Dragon and the Phoenix, calling his game “Loong-foong” [lóng-fèng] – precisely as my Chinese friends in 1889 styled it Chungfa [zhōng fā]”.

Wilkinson attested that the Chinese styled the name zhōng fā after some feature of the playing instruments – in this case two of the ‘Honours’ or so-called red and green ‘Dragon’ tiles. This feature would separate the name of his game from the original Chinese name of the game. That name he identified in his third option thus;

“[He might] (3) have attempted to reproduce in English spelling what he did believe to be that Chinese term [for the name of the game]. … In the last case [option (3)] he would have named it “Martseear”.”.

When attempting to reproduce the Chinese name of the game in English spelling as “Martseear’, Wilkinson was suggesting that Babcock would have asked the Chinese what they were playing when he saw the game. According to Wilkinson, they would have replied;

“打麻雀 ta ma ch’iah, by which they would mean “playing with ma-chüo cards”, but which he [Babcock] would naturally understand as “playing at Ma-ts’iah.”.

“Martseear” would have had an approximate sound of 麻雀 má què (sparrows) (打麻雀 ta ma ch’iah is in modern Pinyin,  má què (playing sparrows)). But Wilkinson was using the example of “Martseear” to illustrate the process by which Babcock arrived at his name for his version of the game. We have argued that in Babcock’s case it is probable he heard the Shanghainese pronunciation of 麻雀 which reads as 麻将, pronounced as má jiàng or something very similar to that pronunciation.

Further, in talking about “ma-chüo cards” in connection with Babcock’s tile set, Wilkinson was explicitly connecting the two as being one and the same playing instruments – they were both pái (card) decks, one consisting of thick bone and bamboo cards (ie. tiles) and one of thin pasteboard cards.

Wilkinson also documented the spread of this game deck. From his unpublished manuscript notes written in 1890, he observed that a class of quadruplicated, money-suited pasteboard cards called;

“Khanhoo cards are known in Hankow [Hankou, now called Wuhan on the Yangtze river in Hubei province, Central China] as 棍 牌 (kunp’ai) [gùn pái] or 麻雀 ma ch’üo [má qiǎo, in modern Pinyin má què].”


“什胡 [shí hú] explained (in Wenchow) [now Wenzhou, a Treaty port in Zhejiang province.], as a generic term for (what I call) “Khanhoo” cards, where there are four specimens of each card. Practically = 麻雀”[má qiǎo].

Thus this class of cards was called 什胡 shí hú 9 in Wenzhou and 麻雀 má qiǎo in Hankou.

So it seems this class of cards called 麻雀 (sparrows), at least had made its way to Hankou (Wuhan) sometime before 1890. But as we have seen, gǎn má qiǎo (to drive away sparrow(s)) could have referred to the game in Jinling (Nanjing), downriver from Hankou (Wuhan) in Jiangsu province where it was reported some three years earlier in 1887. So at least the má qiǎo playing instruments (quadruplicated, money-suited pasteboard cards) had eventually found their way upriver from Jinling to Hankou by 1890. If this is the case then perhaps the game, called gǎn má qiǎo in Jinling in 1887, had also found its way upriver to Hankou at that time. But Wilkinson appears not to have recorded this name of the game.

However, he did record these pasteboard cards in his 1895 paper “Chinese Origin of Playing Cards” in the journal The American Anthropologist. He noted that in Central China there was a pack of money-suited cards of three suits called “cakes”, “strings” and “myriads” – 餅 ping [bǐng], 條 (条) tiáo and 萬 (万) wàn, plus three extra cards (see ‘From Cards to Tiles’). This class of cards was called;

[棍 牌] “kun p’ai [gùn pái], staff or baton cards, or ma chioh [má qiǎo], “hempen birds” [sparrows], of thirty pieces, and the game as sold contained, as a rule, four of these sets or packets.”

Hence, the deck consisted of three suits that were quadruplicated, in total 120 cards.

Near the end of the year 1889 má qiǎo was also recorded in the term má qiǎo pái (sparrow cards/tiles) in the November 27th issue of the Shen Bao newspaper.

  • [8]

    Wilkinson made two collecting expeditions; “In 1889 I obtained from Peking[Beijing], Tientsin[Tianjin], Chungking[Chongqing], Kiukiang[Jiujiang], Wenchow[Wenzhou], Canton, Swatow[Shantou], and other parts of China…”. Further, “In 1892 I made a more extensive collection from Shanghai, Ningbo and the places enumerated above, …”.

    In Culin (1895) he cites more locations in his description in relation to packs collected in 1892 for the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893; Nanking(Nanjing), Peking(Beijing), Hangchow(Hangzhou), Hong Kong, Chungking(Chongqing), Kiukiang(Jiujiang), Fuchou(Fuzhou), Taiyuan, Wenchow(Wenzhou), Hunan province, Canton(Guangdong), Anhui province, Swatow(Shantou), Ningbo, Shanghai and Macao.

  • [9]

    In his 1925 memorandum, Wilkinson does note that the term 什胡 shí hú “is found on many native boxes of what Mr. Babcock would call Mah-Jongg tiles”. This note is not a quote from his manuscript and therefore it cannot be known to what period in time Wilkinson was referring.

3.7 1890 – 1893.

Around the same time as Wilkinson had reported má qiǎo in connection to quadruplicated pasteboard cards, we find má qiǎo was also used as the name of the tile set and, additionally, we find the use of the term 碰和 pèng hú was used to describe the game. In this context, pèng hú had the meaning of “playing for points” 10.

For example, the use of both terms is found in the late Qing period novel by Han Bangqing, 海上花列传 Haishang hua liezhuan (A Biography of Flowers of Shanghai), 1892-1894. In the novel we find that the tile set was described as …

” 一副乌木嵌牙麻雀牌,” “ one inlaid bone and ebony ma qiao pai (an engraved bone and ebony sparrow tile (set)).

…and the game or gameplay was called 碰和 pèng hú (playing for points)11. Thus the tile set was called 麻雀 牌 má qiǎo pái (sparrow tiles) and the gameplay was called pèng hú. In a scene from this game there is also the mention of the suit 筒子, tǒng zǐ (Bamboo tubes) (what was the Cash suit but is now called the ‘Circle’ suit in the West).

But, depending on context, we also have three terms that were used in a particular way to reference various facets of the game. Thus, in the first 21 chapters of the novel 海上繁华梦, Haishang fanhua meng (Dream of Splendour in Shanghai) by Sun Jiazhen, written before 189112, we have scenes of gaming activities in brothels in which there are the terms 麻雀 牌 má qiǎo pái (sparrow tiles) – as the name for the set containing 136 tiles, 碰和 pèng hú (its meaning in this context we shall see below) as well as 叉麻雀 chā má qiǎo. A direct translation of 叉麻雀 chā má qiǎo would yield “to fork sparrows” as in, for example, 叉鱼 “to fork fish” (to spear fish). This would reflect its common usage. But chā also had the rare usage “to play”, thus chā má qiǎo may also have meant “to play sparrow(s)”, or “playing sparrow(s)” in this context.

Brothel scenes in which people play for money also feature in the novel. Thus, when chā má qiǎo (to play or to fork sparrow(s)) was played with small amounts of money, it was called 叉小麻雀 chā xiǎo má qiǎo (playing little sparrow(s), see Footnote 7). When the game was also played with large amounts of money a different term was used, as we shall soon see in Sun Jiazhen’s 1909 sequel to Haishang fanhua meng.

Further evidence from this novel also reveals a picture of Shanghai brothels that offered a ‘pèng hú service’. Since all gambling activities in the brothels would be billed as ‘pèng hú‘, then ‘pèng hú‘ was a euphemism to disguise a gambling activity. As we have seen, this service was probably named after the pèng hú domino game of tóng qí that had previously prevailed in the brothels. By 1891 however, the ‘pèng hú service’ that was offered involved the game of má qiǎo, because whenever the pèng hú game was mentioned in the novel, it was always the má qiǎo game that was described, perhaps reflecting its gain in popularity.

Also mentioned are other terms that were used in the game such as;

  • 筒子 tǒng zǐ, for the ‘Cash’ suit (even though the sinogram is for ‘bamboo tube’, the players may still have understood that it referred to the Cash suit);
  • 索子 suǒ zǐ (Strings (of cash), later known as the suit ‘Bamboos’);
  • 万子, wàn zǐ (Myriads of cash);
  • 东风 dōng fēng (East Wind);
  •  南风 nán fēng (South Wind);
  • 西风 xī fēng (West Wind);
  • 北风 běi fēng (North Wind);
  • 白板 bái bǎn (White Plank, later the White ‘Dragon’);
  • 发风 fā fēng (Fortune Wind);
  • 中风, zhōng fēng (Centre Wind, later the Red ‘Dragon’)13.

These terms, together with the name of the tile set, are found mainly in chapter 12.

Also featured in the novel is another game called wā huā (a domino game we shall discuss shortly) that was also played in the brothels. Sun Jiazhen mentioned the game in a scene where the players wanted to play the domino game of 牌九 pai gow (Pinyin pái jiǔ) but no set was available, so they formed a pai gow set from a wā huā tile set.

In the same year another term that was recorded in the April 16th, 1891 issue of the Shen Bao newspaper was 打麻雀 dǎ má qiǎo (to play má qiǎo).

  • [10]

    In addition, Lo (2004) states that 碰和 pèng hú also meant “encountering harmony”, a name used for another draw and discard game played with pasteboard money-suited playing cards. The deck consisted of either 120 or 150 cards. According to Lo, “if 150 cards were used 5 or 6 players could play, each with 20 cards in his hand:”

    For the 150 card deck, see also section 2.1 and the term shí hú in the text.

  • [11]

    According to Lo (2004) this is supported by the fact that pèng is also used as a verb in the dialect of the Shanghai region, as in the novel 海上繁华梦 Haishang fanhua meng (“Dream of Splendour in Shanghai” by Sun Jiazheng).

  • [12]

    From Tuixinglu biji (Notes in Tuixinglu, published in 1925) by Sun Jiazhen (also known as Sun Yusheng, 1863-1939) – the author of Haishang fanhua meng (“Dream of Splendour in Shanghai“), we know Sun met Han Bangqing, author of Haishang hua liezhuan (“A Biography of Flowers of Shanghai”) in Peking [Beijing] in about September 1891 where they exchanged manuscripts. At that point the first 21 chapters of Haishang fanhua meng and the first 12 chapters of Haishang hua liezhuan had already been written and this would therefore date these chapters to before 1891.

    Sun Jiazhen’s Haishang Fanhua Meng began to be serialized in the newspaper Xiaoxian Bao from 1898 and later in the Xiaolin Bao newspaper from 1901. It was published in book form in 1903 by Xiaoxian Baoguan, 60 chapters in two volumes. From 1905 Sun Jiazhen began to write the last 40 chapters and published them in 1906. They were in fact a sequel to the first 60 chapters.

    From 1909, Sun began to serialize another sequel, Xu haishang fanhua meng, in Tuhua Ribao. This book (100 chapters) was finally published in book form in 1915~1916, also 100 chapters. At the beginning of the 1st chapter of Xu haishang fanhua meng he recorded that his first book Haishang fanhua meng was completed in about 1898~1899. Here Sun must have been referring to the first 60 chapters of Haishang fanhua meng. So Sun’s book can be divided into three parts:

    1891: Chapter 1~21

    1891~1899: Chapter 22~60

    1905~1906: Chapter 61~100

  • [13]

    A possible explanation for why the 風 fēng (wind) term was also used for the zhōng,  and bái tiles (the now so-called ‘Dragons’) may be that ” … it was a continuing from the four real wind tiles. The “Wind” was probably the collective name for the seven Honours [the four Directions and three ‘Dragons’], for in Shanghai and Nanjing style mahjong there are score elements involving  風 feng“(winds) in which ‘wind’ refers to all the Honours.” For a fuller discussion see; https://groups.google.com/forum/#!searchin/rec.games.mahjong/Xu$20Ke/rec.games.mahjong/nlIb9daP2yQ/-FaD1jVGOfsJ

3.8 1893 – 1900.

From the same newspaper, on 27th October, 1893, we also have pèng hú mentioned together with má qiǎo;

“虹口李阿春等家或叉麻雀,或碰和,或挖花,要皆不离乎赌者.” “At the homes of Li Achun and some others in Hongkou [a northern district of Shanghai], either cha ma qiao, peng hu, or wa hua is played, none of which is not gambling.”

In this report, all three games were used for gambling – but in the context of private residences, and pèng hú was mentioned in parallel with chā má qiǎo14 and the domino game of wā huā. Since tóng qí was often called pèng hú outside the brothels in Shanghai and Suzhou at that time, we can infer that in this context the pèng hú game was most likely the domino game of tóng qí.

This is a similar usage to that described in the 1878 novel 青樓梦 Qing lou meng (A Dream of Green Mansions) by Ya du, in which tóng qí was mentioned, but the game was actually 碰和 pèng hú or 和牌 hú pái.

It seems that by 1891 and thereafter, what the term pèng hú had referred to was dependant on the context and location in which it had been used, that is, the use of the term pèng hú outside certain brothels was different to the use of the term inside those brothels. Outside, pèng hú sometimes referred to the domino game of tóng qí whereas inside the brothels it sometimes acted as a euphemism for a gambling activity that used the gameplay and tile set of má qiǎo.

On the other hand, the use of the term má qiǎo appeared to have been consistent inside and outside the brothels. Má qiǎo pái was used for the tile set and chā má qiǎo was used when referring to playing the game.

But this situation may not have been as straightforward as the aforementioned evidence would suggest. By 1925 at least, we know that 碰和 pèng hú was used as the name for either the game-play or tile set of má qiǎo/Mahjong, as shown by this má qiǎo/Mahjong box front (Figure 1.).


Figure 1. Mahjong box front circa 1923.

  • [14]

    See Footnote [6] in ‘Mahjong(g) before Mahjong(g): Part 2’ for further discussion of this term.

    Since  qiǎo took hold and became popular “in the region of the South Yangtse River (thus Jiangsu, Zhejiang and Shanghai, thus the region of “Wu yu”), “chā má què [qiǎo]” is [therefore] really a word in “Wu yu” and its pronunciation is very similar to “Cuo ma jiang“(搓麻将) in mandarin. “Cha ma que“(叉麻雀) is still used in some regions of “Wuyu” today.” Source;

    https://groups.google.com/forum/#!searchin/rec.games.mahjong/li$20boyuan/rec.games.mahjong/0ZgniXjQdKo/ sy23WVP9ROgJ

4.0 The Early 20th Century.

4.1 1900 – 1908.

Both 麻雀 má qiǎo and 中 發 zhōng fā make their next appearance on a box attributed to a set of má qiǎo tiles collected by Berthold Laufer in Shanghai in 1901, now located in the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), New York (see Stanwick, 2004 for how this box is associated with the Laufer tile set). The Laufer tiles are also of bone and ebony and considering the term ‘má qiǎo‘ on the box, it is very probable this name refers to the tile set (See Mahjong(g) before Mahjong(g): Part 2.).

Considering (1) the close geographical locations of Ningbo (Wilkinson) and Shanghai (Laufer); (2) a time difference between the two sets of at least twelve years (1889 – 1901), and (3) considering the description of a tile set in Haishang hua liezhuan (A Biography of Flowers of Shanghai), 1892-1894, we appear to have three points of evidence from an area centred around Shanghai – and more broadly from an area of the South Yangtze River – that indicate one form of tile set consisted of bone and ebony tiles with a transverse dovetail joint and very likely consisted of 136 pieces (with no ‘Flower’ or special ‘Joker’ tiles) as described in the 1891 Haishang fanhua meng (Dream of Splendour in Shanghai).

The term 叉麻雀 chā má qiǎo also appears to have continued into the early 20th century. For example, it is found in the 1903 novel 官场现形记 Guanchang xianxing ji (Officialdom Unmasked) by Li Boyuan (also known as Li Baoji, 1867-1906)15. 中风 zhōng fēng (Centre Wind, now the Red ‘Dragon’) and 白板 bái bǎn (White Plank, now the White ‘Dragon’) are also mentioned in the novel together with another term for the game that was used at the time, 打麻雀 dǎ má qiǎo (to play sparrows). Wilkinson commented in his memorandum that this was a term Babcock may have heard when he was in China between 1913 and 1923.

Another novel serialised in Li Boyuan’s 1903 ‘Illustrated Stories’ (see footnote 6) is 负曝闲谈 Fubao [or Fupuxiantan (Idle Talk in Languid Moments) by Ouyang Juyuan. In this novel we find 麻雀牌 má qiǎo pái (sparrow tiles) as the name of the tile set. Other terms found in the novel are 中风 zhōng fēng (Red Wind, now the Red ‘Dragon’) and the earliest mention so far of 发风 fā fēng (Fortune Wind – fa is actually fá cái, to ‘get rich’, so ~ ‘fortune’ and is now known as the ‘Green Dragon’ in the West).

Next is a report of Flower tiles recorded in the May 11th, 1905 issue of the Shen Bao newspaper;

“赌具中有所谓麻雀牌者,不知创自何人,颇盛行于近世。某志士悯此风之难挽也,乃思以改良之法输入文明之途,独出心裁创製新牌。以英文二十六字母镌刻牌面, 每牌一字,每字四张,计百四张。再益以英文一至九数目字各四张,计三十六张。两共百四十张,与原有之一万至九万、一条至九条、一饼至九饼、东西南北中发白加花四张之数适合.” “To lead the mahjong game off gambling to a civilized usage, someone created a new set. It consists of 26 English letters, four for each, thus 104 tiles, and 9 English numbers, four for each, thus 36 tiles. In total it is 140 tiles, which matches the number of the original 1~9 万 wan [Myriads], 1~9 条 tiao [Strings], 1~9 饼 bing [Cakes], East, West, South, North, zhong [Center], fa [Fortune], bai [White], with addition of four Flowers.”

This description is in a report from Beijing and tells of an event to change the use of the má qiǎo tile game from gambling to one with a ‘civilized usage’ by creating a different tile set. This new set contained 26 quadruplicated tiles, each with a letter of the English alphabet = 104 tiles (the purpose of the English letters was to form melds of English words), and nine English numbers 1-9, quadruplicated, = 36, thus 140 tiles in total.

The report states that this number matched the number of tiles in the original má qiǎo set containing 136 tiles, but with the addition of four flowers, 花牌 huā pái, thus totalling 140 tiles. Since the report was in a Shanghai newspaper, the ‘original set’ referred to may have been a tile set with a composition reflecting that found in the region of Shanghai.

  • [15]

    “In 1903 Li Boyuan founded the magazine “Xiuxiang Xiaoshuo” (“Illustrated Stories”) in Shanghai, and started publishing his serialised novel “Guanchang xianxing ji” (“Officialdom Unmasked”) which draws a ferocious satire of Chinese bureaucracy. In 1904 the series was published in book form (abridged English translation: “Officialdom Unmasked“, transl. by T.L. Yang, Hong Kong, 2001)…. In her study “Das Kuan-ch’ang hsien-hsing chi : ein Beispiel für den politischen Roman der ausgehenden Ch’ing-Zeit” (The Guanchang Xianxing ji: an example of a political novel of late Qing times), Bern – Frankfurt/M., 1974, p.97, Christel Ruh points out many examples of Shanghai speech in Li Boyuan’s prose. One of these is the expression “cha ma que” (‘Gambling at Mahjong’) of which she remarks it is typical of the Shanghai dialect (Wuyu) and would not have been used in the North.” Source; Thierry Depaulis: https://groups.google.com/forum/#!searchin/rec.games.mahjong/li$20boyuan/rec.games.mahjong/0ZgniXjQdKo/ sy23WVP9ROgJ

4.2.1 1908 – 1909.

The next mention of Flower tiles is from the April 30th, 1908 issue of the Shen Bao newspaper. Thus we have;

“一百卅六子相济,发白中风鼎峙形,同索万兮为奴隶。更加梅兰竹菊花,或以将相公侯继.”; “One hundred and thirty six help each other, the fa, bai and zhong winds form a trio, the tong, suo and wan serve as slaves. Then add the flowers plum, orchid, bamboo and chrysanthemum, and maybe generals, ministers dukes and marquises too.”

As part of a doggerel titled 叉麻雀 “chā má qiǎo”, this excerpt says that a má qiǎo set consisted of 136 tiles that were composed into these groups;

  • 发 (Trad. 發)  fā (Fortune); 白 bái (Blank); 中 zhōng (Centre) = the three Honours or Winds.
  • 同 tóng (Cash); 索 suǒ (Strings (of cash)); 万 wàn (Myriads (of cash)) = the three Suits.
  • 梅 méi (Plum); 兰 lán (Orchid); 竹 zhú (Bamboo) and 菊  (Chrysanthemum) were added = the ‘Four Gentlemen Among Plants’.
  •  将 jiāng (General); 相 xiāng (Premier); 公 gōng (Duke) and 侯 hóu (Marquis) may also have been added = the ‘Four Official Ranks of Civil and Military Officers’. (see Figure 5 below).

Flowers are also mentioned in the novel 九尾龟 Jiu wei gui (The Nine-Tailed Turtle) by Zhang Chunfan, 1906 – 1910, in which we also find mention of the tiles;

  • 中风 zhōng fēng (Centre Wind);
  • 发风 fā fēng (Fortune Wind);
  • 筒子 tǒng zǐ (Bamboo (tubes)) for the Cash suit (later called ‘Circles’ in the West);
  • 索子 suǒ zǐ (Strings (of Cash), later ‘bamboos’);
  • 万子 wàn zǐ (Myriads (of cash), later ‘Characters’).

The name of the game is 碰和 pèng hú (playing for points Lo, 2004) but clearly the game corresponds to what was also called má qiǎo.

Next, in the 1909 – 1919 novel 廣陵潮 Guangling chao (The Waves of Guangling) by 李涵秋 Li Hanqiu (1874-1923), both money suited pasteboard cards and a má qiǎo tile set are mentioned. The suit names for both types of deck are 鉼 bǐng (Cash, from a metal cake, that is, a silver coin), tiáo (Strings (of cash)) and wàn (Myriads (of cash)). Guangling is the historical name of the city of Yangzhou in Jiangsu province, which lies on the northern side bank of the Yangtze River.

By 1909 Sun Jiazhen began to serialise a sequel to his 1891 novel Haishang fanhua meng (Dream of Splendour in Shanghai). The 1909 sequel was called 续海上繁华梦 Xu Haishang fanhua meng (Sequel to Dream of Splendour in Shanghai) and was published in book form in 1915 – 1916 (see footnote 12). In this novel we have the phrase “大麻雀向没台花,” “Flower tiles are never used in big ma qiao”. The term 大麻雀 dà má qiǎo (big má qiǎo), was the other form of gambling má qiǎo in which large sums of money were used. The phrase “flower tiles are never used in big ma qiao” was part of a discussion between two players in which one wanted to play má qiǎo with four sets of Flower tiles and the other player did not agree. The outcome of the argument was that they agreed to play má qiǎo with only two sets of Flower tiles. From the discussion it appears the game could be played with or without Flower tiles.

The Flowers described in this 1909 novel consisted of four sets of four tiles. Thus, 16 Flowers. These are;

  • 春 chūn (Spring); 夏 xià (Summer); 秋 qiū (Autumn) and 冬 dōng (Winter) = the ‘Four Seasons’;
  • 梅 méi (Plum); 兰 lán (Orchid); 竹 zhú (Bamboo) and 菊 jú (Chrysanthemum) = the ‘Four Gentlemen Among Plants’;
  • 公 gōng (Duke); 侯 hóu (Marquis); 将 jiāng (General) and 相 xiāng (Prime Minister or Premier) = ‘Four Official Ranks of Civil and Military Officers’ (see Figure 5);
  • 渔  (Fisherman); 樵 qiáo (Woodcutter); 耕 gēng (Farmer) and 读  (Scholar) = the ‘Four Noble Occupations’.

(For a similar example see Tile Set Galleries, Gallery 1.1, Bone and Bamboo, Court Officials set).

4.2.2 1909 – 1910.

Also from 1909, we have 8 Flower tiles as part of a má qiǎo tile set acquired by Stewart Culin in Shanghai on December 13, 190916 for the Brooklyn Museum (now the Brooklyn Museum of Art in New York) (Stanwick, 2004). This set was described by Culin in his 1924 paper in the Brooklyn Museum Quarterly. It contains two sets of four Flower tiles. They are;

  • 梅 méi (Plum); 兰 lán (Orchid); 竹 zhú (Bamboo) and 菊  (Chrysanthemum) = the ‘Four Gentlemen Among Plants’.
  • qín (Lute (playing)); 棋  (Chess); 書 shū (Calligraphy) and 畫 huà (Painting) = the four Arts of the Scholar.

Culin listed these tiles in his paper ‘The Game of Ma-jong’ in The Brooklyn Museum Quarterly, October, 1924, P165 17. Thus;

“chuk, bamboo

múi, plum

kuk, chrysanthemum

lán, a flower

k’am, lute

k’i, chess (board)

shü, books

wá, picture

One each with the characters man, “civil,” mò, “military,” and tsung, “controller.”…

… It was evident from what the vendors told me that there was no fixed or standard form of the game pieces last described. They were prepared to make whatever their customers demanded. My Chinese informant, Dzau Sing Chung of Shanghai, explained to me that these dominoes had become a favourite game, and that while they used to be played only by rich people they were now extending to all classes. He told me that there were two games, one called wak fa, “to draw flowers,” and the other cho macho (ma-tseuk = sparrow).” [italics added]

“Cho macho” is synonymous with chā má qiǎo, (to play sparrow(s) or to fork sparrow(s)).

But what were the game pieces last described? They could have been all of the domino tile sets or they could have been the “cho macho” (chā má qiǎo) tile set or the two sets of four Flower tiles. From the preceding discussions illustrating what was happening to the composition of tile sets around Shanghai at the time, it is evident that the Flower tiles appear to be those that had “no fixed or standard form, and that the vendors were prepared to make whatever their customers demanded”.

Culin confirmed this analysis when he mentioned the Flowers as “Flowers” and “Seasons” in correspondence to the U.S. Patent Office, and stated that he was informed that these pieces were used in two games ma-cho (má qiǎo) and, in Cantonese, “wak fa”, in Pinyin 畫 花 huà huā (to draw flowers).

Figure 1 below shows Plate 5 from Culin’s 1924 paper. Plate 5 is a representative sample of tiles from the domino game of “wák fa“, in Pinyin 畫花 huà huā (to draw flowers).


Figure 1. Plate 5. Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum Quarterly, 1924.

Wák fa“, in Pinyin 畫花 huà huā (to draw flowers), is the same game as 穵花, wā huā  (to dig flowers or digging up flowers), a domino game played with 21 x 6 cards/tiles (see Figure 2.).


Figure 2. A complete tile set for the game of wā huā. Circa 1915.

The 穵花 wā huā game therefore used the tile set in Figure 2, of which the Plate 5 tiles in Culin’s article are a very similar example. But it seems that the “Flowers” and “Seasons” tiles were also used with this type of tile set for the game of 穵花 wā huā. This game is also played with tiles and cards to this day18.

The term “cha-macho” he applied to his 1909 má tséuk/má qiǎo tile set shown in Figure 3 below.

Image 7

Figure 3. Stewart Culin’s complete, 1909, má tséuk/má qiǎo tile set.

Plate 6 (Figure 4 below) is a sample of tiles from this tile set showing Culin’s “Flowers” and “Seasons” and the addition of the three additional tiles 文 wén (Civil); 武  (Military) and 搃 zǒng (Controller).  Each of the three additional tiles has a frame around the central, large sinogram. These are shown on the right in Figure 4 below.


Figure 4. Plate 6.

Culin stated in his 1924 paper that the “Flowers” and “Seasons” tiles and the three additional framed tiles were used in the games of má-tséuk/má qiǎo and wā huā. However, we argue that this is incorrect, that is, the addition of the three framed tiles to this sample of má-tséuk/má qiǎo tiles is incorrect. The three tiles should belong to the domino tiles sample in Plate 519. When these three tiles are correctly added to the plate 5 sample tiles (and therefore to the complete domino tile set example in Figure 2), they would allow the now entire domino set to be used for another game, 花湖 huā hú (flower harmony).

Huā hú is found in the 1819 novel 红楼梦补 Hong lou meng bu, (An Addendum to Dream of the Red Chamber) by Guichuzi. It is one of the many sequels to the famous mid eighteenth century novel 红楼梦 Hong lou Meng (Dream of the Red Chamber). The three equivalent cards in this 1819 sequel are 文總, wén zǒng, 武總, wǔ zǒng and 文武總, wén wǔ zǒng. They serve as jokers for the Civil, Military and All cards respectively. Thus their function is most probably the same as the four substitution tiles tóng huà 同化, suǒ huà 索化, wàn huà 万化 and zǒng huà 搃王 in Karl Himly’s 1868 – 1876 “Níngbō zhú pái” má qiǎo set 20. It is also probable that 花湖 huā hú may be the same as the game of péng huājiāng hú in Jin Xueshi’s 1783 Mu zhu xianhua, (Idle Chats on the SwineherdsGame) (see Lo, 2004).

In summary; 穵花 wā huā and 花湖 huā hú were two games using the same domino card/tile set. But wā huā added the Flowers and Seasons tiles only, and huā hú added the three framed tiles only.

Also, it would not be imprudent to speculate that the addition of the Flowers and Seasons tiles in the má qiǎo/mahjong/sparrows tile set and in the wā huā domino tile set was a mutual occurrence. From the available evidence so far known, both the má qiǎo and wā huā games in tile format were a simultaneous occurrence. They appear in the Glover circa 1875, Wilkinson 1889 and Laufer 1901 collections but without the presence of the Flowers and Seasons tiles. Then we have Culin’s 1909 observation that both Flowers and Seasons tiles are used in both games. Perhaps the Flowers and Seasons were created for one game and migrated to the other or were created for both games. This question awaits further research.

  • [16]

    Brooklyn Museum Archives. Culin Archival Collection, General correspondence [1.4.068], 5/1925.

  • [17]

    see the same paper at;


  • [18]

    Wā huā was played in both card form and tile form and both are still being used to this day with the tile form sometimes called wā huā má jiāng. The modern wā huā tile set also contains the 4 seasons and 4 flowers and together with the 21 x 6 proper tiles and an additional 2 blank tiles, the set therefore contains a total of 136 tiles. The two blanks are usually used as flowers too, thus a total 10 flower tiles.

    But in the card form there are no Flower cards. However, there are the 2 blank cards which are occasionally used as jokers.

  • [19]

    The divisions of ‘Civil’ and ‘Military’ act as two suits of the domino tile set that was inherited from the earlier game of tiān jiǔ. The functions of these divisions are similar to the functions in the games of tóng qí and wā huā, and therefore they do not matter in the gameplay, although they are somewhat related with the scoring. Usually ‘Civil’ tiles will score more than ‘Military’ tiles, but this scoring is not a strictly consistent feature.

  • [20]

    See ‘Mahjong(g) Before Mahjong(g) Part 1.

4.3 1910 – 1920.

Chā má qiǎo, “to play Sparrow(s)” was still being used as the name of the game by 1911, as we find it in Lu Shi’e’s novel 十尾龟 Shiwei guy (“The Ten-tailed Turtle“), apparently a spoof of the more famous Jiuwei guy (“The Nine-tailed Turtle“) by Zhang Chunfan. The game’s terms mentioned in the novel are 万子 wàn zǐ, for the Myriads (‘Character’) suit, 发财  cái (get rich, now green ‘Dragon’) and importantly we have the Daoist concept 三元 sān yuán (The Three Elements’) the collective name for Heaven, Earth and Man. We can find reference to these in the three very early tile sets of Himly and Glover, where we have the Kings of Heaven, Earth and Man.

A year later, May 22, 1912, the term mâ-chiang appeared in No. 1782 of The Trade Marks Journal.


The word is Chinese and means “A Sparrow.”

341,127. A Game. ROBERT DILLON MANSFIELD, c/o Chinese Maritime Customs, Canton, China; Customs officer. — 14th March 1912…

Next, the Shen Bao Newspaper reported the term 麻将 má jiāng (sparrow) in the January 13th, 1913 issue. This is the earliest record of this term so far uncovered.

The next mention of Flower tiles are from two Chinese manuals from the following year. The first is Hui tu maqiao pai pu (Illustrated Manual of  Sparrow Tiles) by Shen Yifan, 1914. In this manual the Flowers consist of four sets of four, thus 16 Flower tiles. They are;

  • 梅 méi (Plum); 兰 lán (Orchid); 竹 zhú (Bamboo) and 菊  (Chrysanthemum) = ‘Four Gentlemen Among Plants’;
  • 琴 qín (Lute (playing)); 棋  (Chess); 書 shū (Calligraphy) and 畫 huà (Painting) = ‘Four Arts of the Scholar’;
  • 渔  (Fisherman); 樵 qiáo (Woodcutter); 耕 gēng (Farmer) and 读  (Scholar) = ‘Four Noble Occupations’;
  • fēng (Wind); 花 huā (Flower); 雪 xuě (Snow) and 月 yuè (Moon) = An idiom for sentimental writing and poetry. (see Figure 5.)


Figure 5. The Flowers on the left are an idiom for sentimental writing and poetry and on the right are Four Ranks of Civil and Military Officers.

The second manual is Bai zhan bai sheng ma qiao jing (Hundred Battles, Hundred Victories, Sparrows Bible) by Pingjiang Zhu Yingyan, 1914. The name 麻将 má jiàng is mentioned in a discussion in which various anecdotal legends are cited that describe how the origin of the name of the game was born out of the behaviours of sparrows;

“… 所以俗名又呌做叉麻將,北邊人又呌做打麻將。麻雀又最歡喜聚在竹林裡頭,所以叉麻將又有種雅名呌做竹林遊.” “… so colloquially it is called cha majiang [叉麻將], the northerners calling it da majiang [打麻將]. Sparrows also like to gather in the bamboo forest, so cha majiang has a fanciful name, zhu lin you, playing in bamboo forest.”

In this 1914 manual the game is reported as having the colloquial names 叉麻将 chā má jiàng (in the South) and 打麻将 dǎ má jiàng in the North (North China, referring to Beijing, Tianjin, etc) as well as a more ‘fanciful’ name, “zhú lín yóu” (Playing in the Bamboo Forest). This name is remarkably similar to the one reported in the 1934 book Gu shui jiu wen (Old Hearings from the Gu River) by Dai Yu’an. But the comment in the book says;

“… he learned to play sparrows from him [Sheng Xuanhuai]. One must consider him [his brother] as the first one among the Tianjin amateurs [to learn to be] a player of the Bamboo Forest”.

It appears Dai is using his own circa 1934 colloquial term for the game rather than reporting the name of the game circa 1890.

There are also five sets of four Flower tiles mentioned, thus 20 Flower tiles. They are;

  • 梅 méi (Plum); 兰 lán (Orchid); 竹 zhú (Bamboo) and 菊  (Chrysanthemum) = ‘Four Gentlemen Among Plants’;
  •  渔  (Fisherman); 樵 qiáo (Woodcutter); 耕 gēng (Farmer) and 读  (Scholar) = ‘Four Noble Occupations’;
  • 書 shū (Calligraphy);  畫 huà (Painting); 琴 qín (Lute (playing)); 棋  (Chess) = ‘Four Arts of the Scholar’;
  • 五  (five); 族  (nationality); 共 gòng (union) and 和  (peaceful) = “A Peaceful Union of Five Nationalities”;
  • 共 gōng (republic); 和  (peaceful); 政 zhèng (government) and 體  (style) = “Peaceful Republican Style of Government”.

This number of Flower tiles plus the varied content depicted on them appears to support Culin’s informant’s information that manufacturers were making additional tiles according to whatever their customers wanted.

In the following year, on the 18th November 1915, Captain George E. Mauger gave a talk on Chinese games to the Paris Anthropological Society, and this talk subsequently appeared as an article in the Society’s Bulletin in 1917 (see Mauger, 1915)21. Toward the end of the article Mauger introduced a Chinese game called “Ma-Tchio-Pai”, 麻雀 牌;

“As for the domino cards we also have for the latter [that is, money-suited cards] a form with bamboo backs with the Chung fa p’ai [zhōng fā pái, 中发 (Trad. 發) 牌]; of which there are specimens in the British Museum and in Pennsylvania [University Museum] and from where derives the great Chinese current game of chance which is played everywhere in Peking [Beijing], Shanghai, Suchong [Suzhou], Hankow [now Wuhan], in America and in Europe by all the educated Chinese classes who want entertainment of the great games of chance. I had great fortunes to be able to obtain explanations on this game which is called Ma-Tchio-Pai [má qiǎo pái].”

This excerpt introduces some important observations. Firstly, he gives the name of the game as má qiǎo pái and, secondly, he provides a list of geographical locations where the game was played and also who was playing the game in 1915. This is interesting as it shows that the game was played by the ‘educated Chinese classes’ in areas of North and Central China (no mention of South China) – and also in the USA, five or six years before Babcock introduced it in 1920. These observations are in accord with the reports in the preceding discussion which place the game’s prevalence around Shanghai, the lower and upper Yangtze River and North China (Tianjin and Beijing).

The emphasis on the ‘educated Chinese classes’ in this 1915 observation would suggest the game’s confinement to a privileged wealthy group. However as we have seen, Culin’s Chinese informant suggested that by 1909 the game had begun to extend beyond “rich people’ (probably synonymous with the ‘well educated classes’) to all classes”. Culin’s informant was from Shanghai and hence may have only been reporting his observations of the situation in the Shanghai area.

Mauger then states:

“I will use the terminology which is used in the native province of the friend who explained it to me.”

From the spelling of the Chinese words that he uses in the complete description, it can be inferred that his ‘Chinese friend’ is using Mandarin Chinese. However, some details in the spelling (and therefore in the actual pronunciation) would lead to the Hankow (Hankou, now called Wuhan, in central China) style of Mandarin. Mauger’s Chinese friend(s) may therefore have come from Hankow [Wuhan] in Central China22. But the sets described may not necessarily have been from there. Mauger continues (with some grammatical alteration):

“The game consists of one hundred and thirty six pieces with the different symbols painted in different colours for each series on the bone face which has a bone dovetail crimped into the bamboo back. There are three series of nine repeated four times: Thus: <<Tungtze>> [銅字 tóng zì, ‘copper’ = ‘Cash’ ~ ‘Circles’ or perhaps tǒng zì 筒字 as in bamboo tube, frequently used after 1890] or <<Pingtze>> [餅字 bǐng zì] or cakes <<Tchantze>> [簽字 qiān zì, slip of bamboo] or Saultze [索字 suǒ zì] <<or cords>> [‘Strings of Cash’ or ‘Bamboos’] <<Wanza>> (za should be ) [万字 wàn zì] myriads [‘Myriads of Cash’ or ‘Characters’] represented by numbers.

The aces are represented by special drawings. A very decorative circle for the pingtze [bǐng zì] [‘cakes’ ~ ‘Cash’], a bird for the Tchantze [qiān zì ~ suǒ zì] [‘slip of bamboo?’ ~ ‘Strings of Cash’] and the quantifier for the myriads.” [this is explained below].

Mauger provides diagrams for the 5 of ‘Cash’ or ‘Circles’, the 3 of ‘Strings of Cash’ or ‘Bamboos’ and a bird (a darting sparrow) for the 1 of ‘Strings of Cash’ or ‘Bamboos’. A diagram is also provided of the 6 of ‘Myriads of Cash’ or ‘Characters’. However, the character 万 wàn (found in wàn zì) meaning ‘Myriads’, has been replaced by the character 品 pǐn meaning ‘rank’ or ‘grade’. There is no mention of ‘Flowers’ or ‘Seasons’ tiles or spare blanks so a tile set has 136 pieces. This may also resonate with the earlier point, that customers who bought the sets would then decide to have flowers made or not. Further, the darting ‘Sparrow’ on the # 1 ‘String of Cash’ and the # 1 ‘Cash’ is a “very decorative circle” which is consistent with those found in the circa 1909 Culin tile set. Mauger continues:

“Moreover there are a series of special premiums and several general premiums.

There are four special premiums.

Sometimes they are represented by symbols representing the four directions east [東], south [南], north [北], west [西]; other times by the titles: duke [公], marquis [侯], general or intendant [將], [and] a minister [相]23. There are four specimens of each one…” [The general premiums are]: <<Tsung>> [zhōng 中] or center; <<Long>> [lóng 龍] or Dragon; <<Fa>> [fā 發] [or] prosperity; Fong [fèng 鳳] [or] Phoenix. White pae [bái pái 白].”

This describes the appearance of alternative characters, the ‘Four Ranks of Nobility’, for the four ‘Directions’ or ‘Winds’, and the characters 龍 lóng (Dragon) and 鳳 fèng (Phoenix) for two of the ‘Honours’ or ‘Winds’ characters zhōng and  (a similar usage as in the Sheng Xuanhuai set)(see Stanwick Part 1, 2004 in the Tile Set History section). Diagrams are also provided to illustrate the Chinese characters lóng (Dragon), jiāng (General) and fèng (Phoenix).

Some three years later, in Xu Ke’s 1917 Qing bai leichao (Classified Anecdotes of the Qing Dynasty), there is a paragraph on 叉麻雀 chā má qiǎo (to play Sparrows). Thus, he says;

 “雀亦葉子之一,以之為,曰叉麻雀”. This phrase could read “ma qiao is also one (game) of leaves (cards). Playing ma qiao is called cha ma qiao“.

This is because instead of literally meaning ‘gambling’, 博, , can also mean ‘to play’ or ‘playing’. Thus, this usage is in accord with earlier reports of chā má qiǎo sometimes being used as the name of the game when used outside of brothels.

Xu Ke also lists the three ‘Honours’ as lóng (‘Dragon’), fèng (‘Phoenix’) and bái (‘White’) (no mention of the character 品 pǐn however), but also the alternative characters zhōng (‘Centre’ or ‘Middle’),  (‘Prosperity’) and bái (‘White’). Also, Xu specifically mentions that a tile set was composed of 136 tablets or 牌 pái. This description, as far as it goes, is consistent with Mauger’s. Again, this partial description may not necessarily reflect a set from Central China (Shanghai).

We may draw a tentative conclusion from these post 1900 reports that the sets of Flower’s began to take on a more varied composition in number of tiles and the subjects represented on the tiles. Even the Directions began to be replaced by a group of tiles that were also used on Flower tiles in other sets.

Finally, we come back to Babcock and his period in China from 1912 to 1923. In his letter that appeared in an advertisement in The Saturday Evening Post, December 15th 1923, page 127, he had stated;

” I found that the fundamental game was known by a variety of names in the different provinces, …”

As we have seen, Babcock’s observation could have been applied to the preceding 53 years as well.

  • [21]

    What follows is partly derived from “Mahjong(g), Before and After Mahjong(g): Part 2” which may be found in the ‘Tile Set History’ section.

  • [22]

    Special thanks to Thierry Depaulis for this observation. From private correspondence.


Special thanks to Thierry Depaulis, Ray Heaton and Gregg Swain. Thanks also to the Brooklyn Museum of Art (New York), the Field Museum Main Library (Chicago) and the School of Oriental and African Studies Library (London).


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