Mahjong Has Crossed Cultural and Generational Boundaries


Playing a board game from another country or culture could start a conversation about history. While games seem frivolous, they reflect how people thought and acted at the height of their popularity. In 2013, a Stanford doctoral candidate proposed that mahjong helped form Chinese American and Jewish American communities throughout the twentieth century.

A Brief History of Mahjong

Mahjong first appeared in Shanghai, China almost two-hundred years ago. While created in the middle or late eighteen hundreds, it didn’t take hold in the United States until decades later. Both Chinese immigrants and American expats embraced this domino-like game that encouraged team work among all four players. It officially became part of the American melting pot when toy company Parker Brothers introduced it to the general public in the 1920s.

Since all players had to work together instead of against each other, the format created an ideal opportunity to socialize and make friends. Mahjong helped Chinese immigrants network in Chinatown during the 1920’s and 1930’s. It also caught on with Jewish American women moving out to the suburbs post World War II. Young mothers used the game to connect with their new neighbors. Americans of all ethnicities could bond while helping each other reach the same goal – declaring “mahjong.”

mahjong america

Transcending Time

Fast forward to early twenty-first century, Phd candidate Annelise Heinz contributed her own research to the history of mahjong. After learning the game in China, where she lived temporarily teaching English at Yunnan University, Heinz delved into archives and collected interviews from veteran mahjong players. She also sifted through an enormous amount of mahjong-related media like films, music and plays. Her findings support the conclusion that the game brought communities together.

Many groups who started playing together decades ago carry on the tradition to this day. Young people who started playing in the ‘30s, ‘40s or ‘50s stayed together through life’s ups and downs. Even though mahjong has faded into the background these days, it’s experiencing a renaissance among second or third-generation players. Children, particularly those with Chinese or Jewish ancestry, view it as a way to reconnect with their aging parents or honor parents they’ve lost. Senior citizens often pick up the game in retirement communities where they use it to socialize – much like the immigrants of the early 1900s.

Mahjong proves that even a tabletop game can change the course of history. If you’re planning to travel overseas, do some research and play their most popular game to prepare for your trip!