Má qiǎo/má què terms 1780 – 1920.

Michael Stanwick and Hongbing Xu


In this article, we discuss the various terms or names that have been associated with the pre 1920 tile game of 麻雀, má qiǎo (sparrow, má què in modern Pinyin).

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

 These 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, illustrates that as well as his tile set, he also referenced in his description a domino tile set and indirectly referenced another.

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.

Chinese characters (sinograms) appear throughout the text and have been accented where relevant – except where they appear in quotations. Various terms used in the game are in red to denote their 1st documented appearances. The dates of those appearances are featured in blue, so as to provide a chronological sequence and a key to the particular time period in question. 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.

In 1912 Joseph Park Babcock was hired by the Standard Oil Company and was sent to Suzhou where he was employed as a civil engineer (see Mahjong(g), before and after Mahjong(g): Part 2, footnote 16). According to a letter written by him in The Saturday Evening Post, December 15, 1923, during the next ten years;

I have spent a great part of my time traveling in the interior of China, where I was dependant 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 colours 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“.

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“.

The patented designation he 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.

But is there an answer to where his pronunciation is likely to have originated? Since he travelled widely it is very likely that he visited Shanghai which lies just 62 miles (100 km) to the east of Suzhou where he was based. 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. It is likely that what Babcock may have heard was a pronunciation very similar to “ma jiang‘. If this scenario was the case it therefore follows that his “Mah-Zhong” pronunciation reflects the pronunciation of má jiàng, or something very similar, in the Shanghainese and Ningbo dialect. Thus Babcock’s ‘Mah-Jongg’ would be a transliteration of the pronunciation of 麻雀 in the Shanghainese/Ningbo dialect1.

Even though the Dictionary is dated 1924 , we can make a very reasonable assumption – based on mention in early literature – that pronunciations did not change suddenly. 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 ma jiang 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), written by Pingjiang Zhu Yingyan and published by Guangnan Shuju in Shanghai in September, 1914 for the 1st edition. It says the game was also called 叉麻将 chā má jiàng, or 打麻将  má jiàng in the North (North China, referring to Beijing, Tianjin, etc). This was a Shanghainese pronunciation. Thus, using the assumption above, it is quite probable that this pronunciation was used from at least from the late 1800s.

We will return to these two latter terms later.

Even 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? From evidence derived from extant documents and novels, the answer is that the game 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 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 start this discussion with a description from an important book, Jin Xueshi’s Mu zhu xianhua (Idle Chats on the Swineherds‘ Game), 1783, (in Zhang Chao et al., Zhao dai congshu, vol. 4. P. 3267). This description is of two draw and discard card games – one, 默 和 mò hú, (silent harmony or perhaps silent playing), played with a deck of 60 cards (two decks of 30 money-suited cards), and 碰和 pèng hú (encountering harmony, or playing for points, Lo, 2004) 2that used four (4 x 30) or five (5 x 30) of these decks, thus 120 cards and 150 cards respectively. For us, the important game in relation to qiǎoas we shall see in the 19th century, is the one played with the quadruplicated 30 money-suited card deck (120 cards) or the quintupled 30 money-suited deck (150 cards) (for examples of the cards from this type of 30 card deck, go to the section on ‘Money-Suited Cards’). According to Jin;

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 mò hú 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. 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… .”

From this excerpt we have a development of pèng hú from mò hú that involved an increase in the number of cards. These were used to play various draw and discard games involving the property of quadruplication or quintuplication. This allowed for the formation of melds of four or five cards of the same value from the same suit.

Another game at that time was 十壺 shí hú, (ten pots and sometimes called ten points) in which 150 cards were used by four players –  rather than 120 cards used by four players as in pèng hú(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 1754, in Cao Xueqin’s 红楼梦 Hong lu meng, (Dream of the Red Chamber). It is possible that before 1783 Jin Xueshi knew of the game shí hú but chose to ignore it since he considered it a variation of pèng hú.

Other games mentioned in Mu zhu xianhua, (Idle Chats on the Swineherds’ Game) are 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). 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. Further, pèng hú was used to refer to a variety of games with the same structure as pèng hú and therefore we can also infer that it was a series draw and discard card games at a time preceding 1783.

This becomes clearer when we consider Li Dou’s 1796 novel Yangzhou hua fang 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.

It appears that by 1796, the trick taking game of 馬 吊  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.

“The Painted Pleasure Boats” referred to brothels. Pèng hú games, that is, draw and discard card games of the pèng hú type, were offered by the brothels in Yangzhou, although it is not certain whether at this time it was a formal service provided by them.

But, as we shall soon see, the association of certain brothels – mostly the upmarket ones – 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 kind of pèng hú game, card games in general – or it could be 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 19th Century.

3.1 1800 – 1870.

The first mention of pèng hú from the 19th century is from 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 cheng kan yu, like pèng shí hú.” 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  is 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 situated in the area of Yangzhou, a city in Jiangsu province. The suit terms mentioned in the novel are from the game of shí hú; 鉼 bǐng (Cash, bǐng referring to a metal cake, that is, a silver coin), tiáo (Strings (of cash)) and wàn (Myriads (of cash)). These terms are also recorded by the German sinologist Carl Himly some 24 years later in relation to packs of playing cards in his collection.

3.2 1870 – 1880.

Sometime between 1868 – 70 or 1872 – 76 Carl Himly collected a bamboo má qiǎo set which he called 寧波竹牌 Níngbō zhú pái, (Bamboo Cards of Ningbo). It is one of three of the earliest tile sets so far discovered.

Interestingly, at 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 Shēn Bào, (‘Shanghai News’ and published between 1872 – 1945 in Shanghai); “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 stated 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 pasteboard cards it was played with cards made from bamboo. The fact that this use of bamboo was at the same time and preferred in the same region (the Wu region, which encompasses Ningbo) as Himly acquired his tile set, leads to the inference that 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…”.

As was noted in Mah Jong(g) Before Mah Jong(g) Part 1, an early term referencing má qiǎo, “sparrow”, was reported in 1875 by the American George Glover who worked for the Chinese Maritime Customs Service. He stated that the name given to his “species of dominoes” from Fuzhou, in Fujian province, was “拷家雀 kǎo jiā qiǎo” (translated by Glover to mean “snatching/hitting the house sparrow”) but what would in effect be “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 he had collected.

Next, in the 1878 novel 青樓梦 Qing lou meng (A Dream of Green Mansions) by Ya du, 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.

3.3 1880 – 1890.

After Glover’s 1875 term for “house sparrow”, 家雀 jiā qiǎo, we find, nearly ten years later, the 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 mention of the specific term 麻雀 má qiǎo in connection with the game. 

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 September 20th, 1888 and so on. So after 1884 we have this term more frequently used in the literature. 

Other names also began appearing in subsequent issues of the the newspaper. Thus in the May 28th, 1885 issue, a report recorded that 赶麻雀 gǎn má qiǎo referred to a game in 慈溪, Cixi, a county 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 where Himly collected his má qiǎo tile set some ten years earlier, we can infer that gǎn má qiǎo may have been played with a 136 tile deck rather than a 120 pasteboard card deck and this tile set was a popular fashion.

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 u 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” which used in, for example, 斗鸡 dòu jī (cock fighting), 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, and these are also called 打牌 dǎ pái (playing with cards) in some regions. It may therefore be the case that 斗麻雀 u má qiǎo could also be translated as just “playing with má qiǎo pái“.

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, namely 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 [The bi gun game was probably the same, or similar, as the leaf/pasteboard card game of suo hu, recorded by Jin Shoushen], [赶麻雀gan ma qiao, etc.” This excerpt suggests that gǎn má qiǎo belonged to the family of “leaf games”. But did gǎn má qiǎo in Jinling refer to the name of the gameplay or did it refer to a tile set, as in Cixi city?

W. H. Wilkinson had recorded a couple of years later – sometime before 1890 (because he was in China from 1880 his observations could well have started from 1880) – that a deck of  pasteboard cards was called qiǎo in Hankou (now Wuhan). Hankou 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 to Hankou from Jinling. Hence, in Jinling in 1887 the name of the playing instruments could have been qiǎo and the game called gǎn má qiǎo. They may also have been a 120 pasteboard card deck rather than a 136 tile set.

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 qiao, peng 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 Concessions in Shanghai (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 timeframe we find that 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 dǎo tóng qí domino game offered as a service by particular brothels. The 1935 book 上海俗语图说, Shanghai Suyu Tushuo, (Illustration for Shanghai Idioms) by Wang Zhongxian (1888 ~ 1937), may shed some light on the phenomenon of the ‘pèng hú service’ in the early 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. 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.

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’ 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) dated 10th Februaury 1934written by 漱石生 Shu Shi Sheng (the pen name of Sun Jiazhen) author of the novel Haishang fanhua meng (Dream of Splendour in Shanghai). “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 qí, wā huā and 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 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 Foxwritten 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 used for the game, played in 厦门 Xiamen in Fujian province, was recorded in the July 31st, 1888 issue of the Shen Bao newspaper; “……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)). “Snatch sparrow(s)” is similar to that reported by Glover in 1875.

Xiamen 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 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.

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 given an explanation by Wilkinson in his unpublished memorandum (1925, p.11). He  states that  “In fixing on a name for his [Babcock’s] adaptation of the gameHe 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 according to Wilkinson means “playing with machüo cards”. Thus 打麻雀, in Pinyin, is  má què (playing sparrows). Babcock was in China from 1913 and Wilkinson left China in 1918. It is therefore probable that he was suggesting dǎ má què (dǎ  qiǎo) is what Babcock heard between 1913 and 1918. Evidence from the very early 20th century supports the use of this term.

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.

He 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 páior 麻雀 ma ch’üo [má qiǎo, in modern Pinyin má què].” Further, “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 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.

Wilkinson also recorded these pasteboard cards in his 1895 paper “Chinese Origin of Playing Cards” in 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 the the use of the term má qiǎo pái (sparrow cards/tiles) was recorded in the November 27th issue of the Shen Bao newspaper. 

3.3 1890 – 1900.

Around the same time as Wilkinson had reported the use of the terms shí hú and má qiǎo in connection to quadruplicated pasteboard cards, we find the use of the term má qiǎo as the name of the tile set and the term 碰和 pèng hú (commonly found in the provinces of Jiangsu and Zhejiang), to describe the game. In this context, pèng hú had the meaning of “playing for points” 10.

For example, in relation to ma qiao the late Qing period novel by Han Bangqing, 海上花列传 Haishang hua liezhuan (A Biography of Flowers of Shanghai), 1892-1894, we find that the tile set was described as; ” 一副乌木嵌牙麻雀牌,” “bone and ebony ma qiao pai = a bone and ebony Sparrow tile (set)”. Thus the tile set was called 麻雀 牌 qiǎo pái (sparrow tiles). Also in the novel the gameplay was called 碰和 pèng hú (playing for points)11. In a scene of 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).

But things become more interesting when we find three terms had been used in a particular way to reference the tile 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 – and 碰和 pèng hú (the meaning of which 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) and 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 Haishang fanhua meng (Dream of Splendour in Shanghai). 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 qiǎo (playing little sparrow(s), see Footnote 7). The game was also played with large amounts of money as we shall soon see in Sun Jiazhen’s 1909 sequel to Haishang fanhua meng.

Further evidence from this novel 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 qiǎo, because whenever the pèng hú game was described in the novel, it was always the qiǎo game that was described.

Other terms mentioned that were used in the game were 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  (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) and 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.

Another game mentioned in the novel that was played in the brothels, was wā huā (a domino game we shall discuss shortly). Sun Jiazhen mentioned the game in a scene where the players wanted to play a 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  qiǎo (to play má qiǎo).

Slightly later in date, we also have pèng hú mentioned together with má qiǎo in an excerpt from the same newspaper, on 27th October, 1893; “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, either cha ma qiao, peng hu, or wa hua is played, none of which is not gambling.” In this excerpt, all three games were used for gambling and pèng hú was mentioned in parallel with chā má qiǎo14 and a domino game called wā huā. Since tóng qí was often called pèng hú outside the brothels in Shanghai and Suzhou at that time, we can infer that the pèng hú game was most likely the domino game of tóng qí.

This is a similar usage to what we saw 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 therefore appears that by 1891 and thereafter, what the term pèng hú had referred to was dependant on the context in which it had been used, that is, the use of the term pèng hú outside the brothels was different to the use of the term inside the brothels. Outside the brothels, pèng hú probably referred to the domino game of tóng qí whereas inside the brothels it 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, appears to have been consistent inside and outside the brothels. qiǎo pái  was used for the tile set and chā má qiǎo was used when referring to playing the game.


  • [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”, means a winning hand with each set of melds receiving points. It is a one-double hand.

    A 飘和 piāo hú means 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 in shí hú 10 points is a minimum to win, so piāo hú is therefore quite difficult to win. 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.

  • [4]

    In 倒铜旗 dǎo tóng qí, dǎo may mean “back and forth” and tóng qí means “copper flag”, although the exact meaning 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].”

  • [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 Changsan are mostly in the British Concession, which is instinctively attracting (the rich young people), so gamblers usually setup 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). Changsan are numbered as several hundred, Yaoer as more than a thousand, and 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 the novel is one where we have 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 gow, ma qiao, etc, were 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.

  • [8]

    Wilkinson made two collecting expeditions; “In 1889 I obtained from Peking, Tientsin, Chungking, Kiukiang, Wenchow, Canton, Swatow, and other parts of China…”. He further states that “In 1892 I made a more extensive collection from Shanghai, Ningbo and the places enumerated above, …”.  In Culin (1895) he cites Hangchow (Hangzhou) in relation to packs collected in 1892.

  • [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.

  • [10]

    In addition, Lo (2004) states that 碰和 pèng hú also meant “encountering harmony”, a name used for another draw and discard game.

  • [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) and the author of Haishang fanhua meng (“Dream of Splendour in Shanghai“), we know he met Han Bangqing, author of Haishang hua liezhuan (“A Biography of Flowers of Shanghai”in Peking [Beijing] in about September 1891 and 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 records 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 could 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 annexed from the four ‘Wind” tiles to 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

  • [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 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 – 1910.

Both 麻雀 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.).

So what do we have? Taking into account; (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 that indicate that a Shanghai tile set (or one from an area centred around Shanghai and more broadly from an area of the South Yangtze River – that is, from the provinces of Jiangsu and Zhejiang) consisted of bone and ebony tiles with a transverse dovetail joint and very likely consisted of 136 pieces as described in the 1891 Haishang fanhua meng (Dream of Splendour in Shanghai) – that is, there were no ‘Flower’ or special ‘Joker’ tiles.

The term 叉麻雀 chā má qiǎo 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 (Red 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 also used at the time, 打麻雀 dǎ  qiǎo (to play sparrows). W. H. 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 Fupu] xiantan (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 record of Flower tiles in a report 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, 1~9 条 tiao, 1~9 饼 bing, East, West, South, North, zhong, fa, bai, with addition of four Flowers.” This record is in a report from Beijing and details an event to change the use of the má qiǎo tile game from gambling to one with a civilised usage by creating a different tile setThis 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 stated that this number matched the number of tiles in the original má qiǎo set containing 136 tiles, with the addition of four flowers, 花牌 huā pái, thus totalling 140 tiles. Since the report was in the Shanghai newspaper the original set referred to may have been a tile set with a composition reflecting that found in the region of Shanghai.

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. This is part of a doggerel titled 叉麻雀 “chā má qiǎo, which says that a má qiǎo set consists of 136 tiles including 发  fā (Fortune); 白 bái (Blank); zhōng (Centre); 同 tóng (Cash); 索 suǒ (Strings (of cash)) and 万 n (Myriads (of cash)). 梅 méi (Plum); 兰 lán (Orchid); 竹 zhú (Bamboo) and 菊  (Chrysanthemum) may also be added and even 将 jiāng (General); 相 xiāng (Premier); 公 gōng (Duke) and 侯 hóu (Marquis). These are the ‘Four Gentlemen Among Plants‘ and ‘Four Official Ranks of Civil and Military Officers‘, respectively (see Figure 5 below).

In the novel 九尾龟 Jiu wei gui (The Nine-Tailed Turtle) by Zhang Chunfan, 1906 1910, we also find mention of 中风 zhōng fēng (Red Wind) and 发风 fā fēng (Fortune Wind). The three suits are called 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  (Myriads (of cash), later ‘Characters’). The name of the game is 碰和 pèng hú (playing for points), Lo, 2004.

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 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 which lies on the northern side of bank of the Yangtze River in Jiangsu province.

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 (The Sequel to Dream of Splendour in Shanghai) and was published in book form in 1915 – 1916. 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 and that if a tile set was acquired, Flower tiles would then have been added.

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 (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).

So by 1909 we have mention of 16 Flower tiles in a novel by Sun Jiazhen. Also, by 1909, we have 8 Flower tiles as part of a má qiǎo tile set mentioned by Stewart Culin (1924), and acquired by him in Shanghai in 1909 for the Brooklyn Museum (now the Brooklyn Museum of Art in New York) (Stanwick, 2004). This set contains two sets of four Flower tiles. They are; 梅 méi (Plum); 兰 lán (Orchid); 竹 zhú (Bamboo) and 菊  (Chrysanthemum) / 琴 qín (Lute (playing)), 棋  (Chess), 書 shū (Calligraphy) and 畫 huà (Painting).

In the paper ‘The Game of Ma-jong’ in The Brooklyn Museum Quarterly, October, 1924, P165 16, Culin states that these ‘dominoes’ were being used for a game called, in Cantonese, wak fa, in Pinyin 畫 花 huà huā, ‘to draw flowers,’. Thus;

It was evident from what the weldors 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]

This excerpt suggests that tile sets were made to order with or without different iconography and with either no Flowers or with various numbers of Flowers.

Further, reading this excerpt carefully we find that Culin uses two phrases – “game pieces” and “these dominoes’”- to describe playing instruments. But are these two terms synonymous for one game?

It is clear that Culin applied the term “game pieces” to the instruments of the game of cho ma cho, which he identified as má tséuk, ‘sparrow’ since the tile set was the last one described. It is most probable this name was synonymous with chā má qiǎo, (to play sparrow(s) or to fork sparrow(s)).

The term “these dominoes” on the other hand, he applied to two sets of game pieces, both illustrated in his paper in Plate 5 and Plate 6.

Plate 5 shows a representative sample of one of “these dominoes” – the game of “wák fa“, in Pinyin 畫花 huà huā (to draw flowers) (see Figure 1).


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

But Culin’s “wák fa“, in Pinyin 畫花 huà huā (to draw flowers), is the same game as 穵花, wā huā 17 (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 near identical sample.

The term “these dominoes” also applied to Culin’s complete má tséuk/má qiǎo tile set shown in Figure 3 below.


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

Plate 6 (Figure 4 below) is a sample of tiles from Culin’s 1909 má tséuk/ma qiao (Mahjong) tile set (for the complete set see Figure 3 above). However, three additional tiles 文 wén (Civil); 武  (Military) and 搃 zǒng (Controller) are also included in Plate 6, but they do not feature in Culin’s má tséuk/má qiǎo tile set 18. Each of the three tiles has a frame around the central, large sinogram. These are shown on the right in Figure 4 below.


Figure 4. Plate 6.

The addition of these three tiles to this sample of má-tséuk/má qiǎo tiles is incorrect. They should belong to the domino tiles sample in Plate 5. 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 complete set to be used for two games, 穵花 wā huā (to dig flowers) and another game, 花湖 huā hú (flower harmony).

Huā hú is found in the 1819 novel 红楼梦补 Hong lu 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 lu 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 19. 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).

Thus 穵花 wā huā and 花湖 huā hú were two games using the same card/tile set, but one without the three tiles – wā huā, and one with the three tiles – huā hú.

4.2 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 , 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.

Two years later the Shen Bao Newspaper also reported the term 麻将 má jiāng (sparrow) in the January 13th, 1913.

From the following year we have two Chinese manuals that mention Flower tiles. 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 / 風 Fēng (Wind); 花 Huā (Flower); X (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. In this manual there are five sets of four Flower tiles, 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);   (nationality); gòng (union) and   (peaceful) = “A Peaceful Union of Five Nationalities / gōng (republic); 和  (peaceful); 政 zhèng (government) and 體  (style) = “Peaceful Republican Style of Government“.  

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 being used as the name of the game when used outside of brothels.

Finally, we come back to Babcock again and his period in China from 1913 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.

  • [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

  • [16]

    see the same paper at;


  • [17]

    Wā huā was played in both tile form and card form, both of which are still being used to this day. Wā huā in tile form is sometimes called wā huā má jiāng today. 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.

  • [18]

    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.


  • [19]

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

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