Friday, October 5, 2018

The Ancient Game of the Mandarins

QUESTION: My grandmother looked forward to getting together with her lady friends at the Jewish Community Center on Wednesday afternoons to play Mahjong. When I was little, she took me with her several times, but I couldn’t figure out what they were doing.  But I was fascinated by the colorful tiles they used to play the game.  Ever since then, I’ve always wanted to own a set, not of the inexpensive new ones, but a beautiful older set. I’d also like to learn to play the game. Can you help me?

ANSWER: Mahjong has been played in China for over 3,000 years, originating in Canton  during the Qing Dynasty before the days of Confucius. Only Mandarins played it, and the early tiles were handmade from ivory.

In 1911, when China became a republic, the game became popular with all classes of people. Mahjong maers produced tiles of bone and bamboo, or just bamboo, which was cheaper and easier to obtain than ivory. The British brought the game from China to England, and eventually to the United States in the early 1920s.

As a game of skill, strategy, and calculation, Mahjong became the rage. Soon there were as many variations to the rules of the game as groups of people playing it. During the Roaring `20s its popularity soared, but that didn't last long because no one could agree on which rules to follow. The National Mahjong League standardized the rules in 1937, but by this time most players had gone back to playing bridge.

At first glance, the game of Mahjong may seem confusing, even chaotic, especially if the players are experts. They use strange terms, and the rapidity of calling and discarding tiles appears maddening. The goal of Mahjong is to complete as many levels as possible until at least one player has no more moves left. At that point the game ends.

Players use a set of 144 tiles based on Chinese characters and symbols. Some variations may omit some tiles and/or add unique ones. In most variations, each player starts out with 13 tiles. In turn, player each draw and discard tiles until they complete a hand using the 14th drawn tile to form four melds, or sets, and a pair, or eye. Players follow standard rules when drawing tiles and robbing pieces from other players. Standard rules also apply to the use of “simples,” or numbered tiles, and honors, winds and dragons, the kinds of melds allowed, how to deal the tiles, and the order of play.

Mahjong tiles are divided into five groups—suits, dragons, winds, flowers and jokers. There are four winds—north, east, west, and south, and four pieces of each. Three dragons are green, white and red, and there are four of each color. There are three suits—dots, craks and bams, and each suit is numbered from one to nine, with four tiles of each number. Each set also includes eight flower tiles and, depending on the manufacturer of the set, these may depict flowers, mandarins, or seasons of the year. Eight jokers complete the pieces.

Players follow procedures. Each builds a wall 19 tiles face down, two tiers high, in front of each other seated around a table in positions set as points of a compass—North, East, West, and South. The player designated as East starts the game by dealing out the tiles to the others. Players pass the tiles between them In a specified sequence before the game begins, as each player gets rid of unwanted tiles, and hopes to receive pieces which fit a combination in his hand. The game proceeds with drawing and discarding tiles until one player completes a hand which contains 14 tiles in a specific combination, then that player calls "mahjong." Combinations include hands similar to a game of rummy—three of a kind, four of a kind, consecutive runs, etc. Each combination has a listed value for scoring. Sometimes, players draw all the tiles before anyone gets mahjong. It ‘s important for participants to play defensively so that other players don’t complete a hand. Only one player can mahjong.

Finding a complete antique set of tiles requires some perseverance. The completeness of a set depends on the variation of the game being played. As with a deck of cards, it’s essential that all tiles match. Early sets contained 144 tiles, a pair of dice, betting sticks which were used much like poker chips to represent money for wagers, markers portraying the seated players, a counter reflecting the four winds which the “bettor,” a fifth player, used to indicate his or her choice of the winner, and some kind of suitable box in which to store all the pieces. Craftsmen made these boxes of fine, carved woods, inlaid with mother of pearl or fitted with silver or brass handles. Sets made after 1923 often came with a small instruction book.

"Old Hong Kong Mahjong" uses the same basic features and rules as the majority of the different variations of the game. This form of Mahjong uses all of the tiles of the commonly available sets, includes no exotic complex rules, and has a relatively small set of scoring sets/hands with a simple scoring system.

By the early 1900s, Mahjong had become a craze in the United States. The first Mahjong sets came to America from China. Some came in handsome rosewood boxes with separate drawers for the stones, wind, flowers, and other Mahjong tiles. The best of these had fine joinery and ornate brass hardware and dice, but many sets came packed in handpainted cardboard boxes. While tiles in less expensive sets were wooden, those in deluxe sets could be ivory or jade.

Mahjong’s popularity continued into the 1950s, then waned in the second half of the 20th century, but surged again in the 1990s after the publication and film version of Amy Tan’s "The Joy Luck Club."

NOTE: There won’t be an antiques blog next week. Please look for the next one the week of Oct. 15.

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