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By Tom Sloper
January 5, 2020

Column #732

It's the year 2020. Know what that means? No, not Chinese New Year. The Year of the Rat (hey, that's my year!) doesn't begin until 3 weeks from now. No, 2020 marks the 100th anniversary of Mah-Jongg in America and the Western world.

I wrote the story of Joseph Park Babcock in Mah Jongg: The Art of the Game (Israel & Swain, Tuttle). Skipping the details leading up to 1920: Babcock's newly-formed company exported Chinese mah-jongg sets to California, via W.A. Hammond's lumber company. Mah-Jongg soon became a craze, not only in America but also in the U.K., Europe, and beyond.

Babcock (center), flanked by editions of his seminal
"Little Red Book of Rules."

So what can we call this anniversary? It's not "the hundredth birthday of Mah Jongg," because the game itself was created by Chen Yumen in Ningbo in the 1860s). By the way, Chen didn't call his game "Mah-Jongg." No record exists saying what he called it at the time. By the time Babcock learned the game from a boat crew on the Yangtze, the game was being referred to as 麻雀 (ma que, "sparrow," from the sound of the bone-and-bamboo tiles when shuffled). Babcock apparently thought a name like "Mah-Jongg" would market better than "Ma Que" - more "ching-chongy" (to borrow a line from the TV comedy, Big Bang Theory), I suppose. Such were the times. Also, using an original name for the game allowed him to trademark the name, which he did. Parker Brothers allowed the trademark to lapse after the mah-jongg craze died in the mid-twenties... Dang, I keep digressing. Gotta stop that. Back to the subject:

2020 isn't "the 100th birthday of mah-jongg," because, you know, Chen Yumen.

We can't call it "the 100th birthday of American mah-jongg," because the National Mah Jongg League wasn't founded until 1937.

It's the 100th anniversary of Babcock's introduction of the game of 麻雀 (albeit with a new name) to the West. But that's not catchy-sounding enough. A catchy name is needed for this important anniversary. Anybody got ideas? Send them to me, let's discuss on the Mah-Jongg Q&A Bulletin Board! Hmm, how about "the centenary of Mah-Jongg in America," does that cover it? "Centenary," though...

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Photos of the 2007 WMJC in E Mei Shan, China.
Photos of the 2007 OEMC in Copenhagen.
Photos of the Fourth China Majiang Championship and Forum in Tianjin, 2006.
Photos of the Third China Majiang Championship and Forum in Beijing, 2005.
Photos of the 2005 OEMC
Photos of the 2003 CMOC.
Photos of the 2002 WCMJ.

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