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All origins problems are hard. It's much easier to determine what came just before something and what came just after it, by extrapolating and interpolating and the like, than to find out what was the first of its kind... that had no precedent. - Neil DeGrasse Tyson

While in considering the history of mah-jongg it is important to consider the card, dice, and tile games which led to the creation of mah-jongg, it is misleading and erroneous to call any of those previous games "mah-jongg."

There were numerous card, dice, and domino games prior to the late 1800s. Those games are described in numerous books, and various places around the internet. For the most part, these games differ greatly from mah-jongg in either the composition of the deck or in the gameplay. Thus those precursor games cannot rightly be called mah-jongg.

Widely regarded as an important progenitor of mah-jongg is Matiao, or Ma Diao (Chinese dialectual differences, and English transliteration differences, account for the variety of spellings). Matiao was a trick-taking game for four players, played with four-suited money cards. Three of the four matiao suits resemble the three suits of mah-jongg. Coins correspond to Dots; Coin Strings correspond to Bams; Coin String Myriads correspond to Craks. The composition of a matiao deck and the gameplay of matiao differ significantly from the composition of a mah-jongg set and from the gameplay of mah-jongg. Matiao, clearly, is not mah-jongg.

Many money card games evolved from matiao, and many variations of money card decks have come and gone. Three-suited money cards became favored (one of the four money suits was dropped), and in a development that surely led to mah-jongg, a game known as Peng He Pai used four sets of three-suited cards. You can learn more about the history and development of money-suited cards (some cards still being used today) at Robert Kalin has created a print-it-yourself deck of three-suited money cards, and has graciously made them available to us here at Sloperama. Click here.

Three Styles of Money Cards

A modern deck of money-suited cards. Photo courtesy Gilbert (pippin999), circa 2002.

One of several decks of money-suited cards in the collection of the Mahjong Museum in Chiba, Japan. The museum's 1999 "Big Encyclopedia" refers to these cards (perhaps erroneously) as "Matiao playing cards," and notes that this type of card is "currently used mainly in Beijing." P. 45.

A deck of money-suited cards I purchased in 2006 in Tianjin. The Mahjong Museum's Big Encyclopedia refers to this style of cards as "Classical Drama" cards.

The gameplay of Peng He Pai still differs greatly from the gameplay of mah-jongg. Mah-Jongg and its nearest relative (in terms of gameplay), Conquian (a 40-card Mexican game which evolved into the present-day Rummy family of card games) seem to have both appeared on the scene at about the same time. It is quite possible that Conquian inspired the gameplay of mah-jongg... or the other way around. Thierry Depaulis points out:

Japanese mah-jongg author/scholar Asami Ryo confirmed this cards/dominoes origin of mah-jongg:

An important booklet about the evolution of the game has unfortunately not been translated into English. The booklet is "History and Culture of Mahjong", published by the DISPLAY HALL OF THE BIRTHPLACE OF MAHJONG (hereinafter: "DH/BP/MJ"), in Ningbo, China.

Through the commendable efforts of John Low, some of the images from the booklet are herewith translated into English. There are 14 images in all, numbered as they are numbered in the booklet. Number gaps are intentional (not all images are included here, since not all images require English translation, and not all contain significant new information). Some pictures are large (for the sake of visual clarity) and may take some time to download.

Click the image to enlarge it.

Figure 1. John Low writes:

Figure 1 (first half). The single large character at the top is "Bo". "Bo" refers to the extremely ancient board game/s played by Chinese people long long long ago, even older than Go and Chinese Chess. "Bo" is split into 2 different games: "Da Bo" (BIG Bo) and "Xiao Bo" (LITTLE Bo).

Virtually nothing is known about the rules of "Big Bo" apart from the fact that it uses 12 pieces (6 per person) and "Liu Zhu" (SIX Zhu). "Zhu" is an old fashioned character for chopsticks, in Japanese pronounced "Hashi". But in this context, "Zhu" is a long thin bamboo object thrown to indicate a number (similar to a YES/NO eraser), hence there are 6 of them. I assume each of these six "Zhu" have a marking on them.

Much more is known about "Xiao Bo". Each person also starts off with 6 pieces. The board is 12 rows/columns long (I think) and instead of "Liu Zhu" thrown used for number indication, two ugly items are rolled. These two ugly wooden dice are called "Er Qiong" which means "TWO Qiong". They look like funny soccerballs or dodecahedrons. The pieces move according the rolls and they upgrade at a certain point. The upgraded pieces can either proceed to the final destination, or attack the opponent's pieces. "Little Bo" is very similar to Backgammon.

Later on, a few modifications were made to the "Two Qiong", and they were called "Qiong" (the character below the other one) again. The new "Qiong" is now made of stone or jade, and had a few less faces. Note that the Qiong in "Two Qiong" and "Qiong" are two completely different characters, but having the same sound, homophones.

The "Six Zhu" for the "Big Bo" game was later replaced by "Wu Mu" which means "FIVE Woods". These are now 5 flat pieces of wood, one side is painted black with a little cow carved on it, the other side is painted white with a wild chicken carved on it.

The "Five Woods" itself can be used for a new game called "CHU PU" (the one to the left of five woods in the diagram). This game involves awarding points according to the number attained by tossing the "Five Woods", and is therefore gambling orientated.

Over time, Chinese people stopped using "Five Woods" or "Qiong" and merged them together to form convenient, normal 6 sided dice. It is said that the person who initiated this change was Cao Zhi, one of Cao Cao's sons (Cao Cao was one of the main kings during the Three Kingdoms Period 200-280 AD).

Also, the popular reason as to why "4" on Chinese dice is red, is because one of the Kings during the Tang Dynasty (618-907AD) was playing a gambling dice game with someone. And the King rolled 6 dice, requiring exactly 2 of them to be "4" in order to win big money. And it did occur, and the King was very happy, so he decreed that all of the 4's be painted red representing good luck.

Ironically, this conflicts with ordinary Chinese and Japanese thinking that the number "4" is bad because it sounds like "si/shi" which can mean "Death".

Second half of FIGURE 1:

I'll start from the left branch.  The one just to the right of "Qiong" is "SHI Pai" which means "Poetry Pai". During the Tang Dynasty, Chinese poetry was very popular among everybody. Whenever people were creating a new poem or trying to copy one down for reciting, they would write it on a rectangular piece of wood. Later on, people decided to play a game with "Poetry Pai". A deck of wooden pieces had a short phrase written on them. Friends when playing this game would each draw a Poetry piece and then complete the phrase by making a short poem right on the spot for "fun". Later on again, "Poetry Pai" was used for playing a tricks game (eg Bridge) among the intelligent/literate. I have absolutely no idea how this works (no explanation anywhere).

In the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127), the poetry theme for these Pai were eliminated, however the tricks like game stayed. The new makeover was supposedly created by a government official in the 2nd year of King Hui Zong's rule. These new bone/ivory Pai were called "XUAN HE pai". They look like dominoes, with a total of 227 pips, there are 32 of these dominoes, and are meant to be lousy representations of certain star constellations.

The most popular tricks game that developed using "Xuan He Pai" was called "Dou Tian Jiu", which means "FIGHTING SKY/HEAVEN'S NINE". "Xuan He Pai" today is usually called "TIAN JIU PAI" due to the past huge popularity of "Dou Tian Jiu". This game is still played today in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan and some companies still make these dominoes, but they are definitely not as popular as real mahjong or Big Two (a modern Chinese card game) etc. Rules for "Dou Tian Jiu" can be found at

For the second branch, the one to the right of "Shi Pai" is now "YE ZI" which means "Leaves". This game was actually a gambling dice game using 6 dice and the "Leaves" were just pieces of paper in which people wrote down what the numbers were thrown, who gets what score etc. Later on when this game wasn't played,  "Ye Zi" just was an alternative word for "Playing Cards". For example, the Chinese term for Japanese Hanafuda cards would be "Ri Ben Ye Zi Pai" (Japanese Leaves Pai).

The one below "Ye Zi" is "Ye Zi JIU pai" which means "Leaves Wine/Beer Pai". This is one of those early Chinese prototype card decks containing various suits (not familiar) and is a silly adults only drinking game. "Ye Zi Jiu Pai" is part of the "Jiu Ling" strand of old Chinese games. In all "Jiu Ling" games, whoever loses has to drink a cup of wine/beer. And the person who is the least drunk at the end is the overall winner.

I think you already know a significant amount about "Ma Tiao" but I shall say some about it. It is a deck of 40 cards, primarily containing Wan (10,000's), Suo zi (money ropes), Wen Xian (a different money ropes) and some other strange cards. This is a tricks game again, and is for 4 players. Each person is dealt out 8 cards with 8 cards unused in the middle of the table. The 3 non dealers attempt to get rid of the dealer by playing more valuable cards than him (I think).

"Zhi Pai" is "PAPER pai" and is an edited version of the cards used in "Ma Tiao". This IS a rummy like game (NOT a tricks game) and was originally using 2 decks of the 30 money cards. It was a 4 player game and you need 3 Sequences + 1 pair in order to win. People thought 2 decks wasn't enough, so it was increased to 4 decks of 30 money cards = 120 cards in total. Triples and Quads were now allowed, and you still only needed 3 Groups + 1 pair in order to win. Real mahjong is different as it uses 4 groups + 1 pair.
The alternative name for "Zhi Pai" is "Peng He Pai". I'm not sure if they were allowed to meld/win off other people's discards though, or if deadwood (as in Gin Rummy) was allowed too.

Thanks also to Cofa Tsui for contributing to the annotated image.

Figure 2 is a repetition of a portion of Figure 1 (that portion illustrating the evolution of six-sided dice).
Figure 3. John Low: Figure 3 is just the pictures of the "Wu Mu" (Five Woods/Slats) face up and face down. One side is black with a little cow, the other side is white with a wild chicken.

Figure 7. John Low: Figure 7 is kinda complex to explain. The words at the very top is "Tou Zi", meaning "Dice". The one just below that is "Tou Zi Xuan Ge", which is the summarizing name for all (board) games that focus mainly on dice rolling to determine certain outcomes. It can also be called "Cai Xuan" which literally means "Colour (variety) selection".
This is split into 3 groups (from left to right): "Xuan Xian Tu", "Sheng Guan Tu" and "Xiao Ye Tu".

"Xuan Xian Tu" is a whole bunch of board games like "snakes and ladders", except there are NO snakes and NO ladders, thus making it very simple and lame. People roll the die/dice and move their piece forward until it reaches the endpoint. This was very popular among Chinese children in the past and they would often play this in New Year's Eve, while the adults play card games.

"Xuan Xian Tu" contains many different themes. Some board designs have pictures of animals on them, others food, plants, and jobs etc. These things would be the areas which the pieces would land on. And the entire board would usually be like a coiled snake, the pieces going around and around until you reach the middle. The game play was very simple, but it appealed to children because it was mostly rather colourful and pretty to look at, not to mention educational as they learnt more about their society and environment.
"Xuan Xian Tu" is split into "Qun Xian Qing Shou Tu" (left) and "Xuan Xian Tu" (right, repeat).
"Qun Xian Qing Shou Tu" literally means "The Group of Immortals Celebrating Longevity (picture)". This was one of the most popular designs for the "Xuan Xian Tu" game, which is why it was split from the rest. The group of immortals consists of 8 mystical people, which according to Taoism beliefs, promoted/spread goodness and morals, while punishing or criticizing bad behaviour. There's a picture of this theme here:
Note that there's pictures of a few animals and stuff, e.g. Donkey, because one of the Taoist immortals, Guo Lao, rode on a donkey all the time.

"Sheng Guan Tu" summarizes a bunch of board games that involve gradual promotion or improvements, a bit like monopoly where you increase in property etc. It's split into 4 of them (left to right): "Sheng Guan Tu" (the original game itself, repetition), "Zhong Jian Sheng Guan Tu", "Zhi Zhuang Yuan Chou" and "Shui Hu Xuan Xian Tu".

The "Sheng Guan Tu" game itself literally means "Rising Officials (picture)". It is a difficult game first played in the Song dynasty using 4 dice, in which everybody starts off as low ranking workers with counters and aim to gradually rise ranks until they become the King's top minister. There is a board which is split into different sections of the kingdom/land where one must work, eg as foreign minister, granary keeper etc. In order to gain a rank, not only must you roll a specific number on that section to "trigger" a progressive event, but you must also roll specific numbers to increase your personal qualities, thus increase your chances of getting a raise and getting paid counters by your opponents. Whoever rises to the top first might not necessarily be the overall winner (although most likely), because it is judged by who has the most counters at the end. This is quite similar to the board game "Careers" (have you heard of it?).

I'm sorry but I only find very little on "Zhong Jian Sheng Guan Tu", but "Zhong + Jian" can mean "Loyalty + Betrayal". I am guessing this game would be similar to "Sheng Guan Tu", but more on this theme and winning respect of others, not on upgrading.

"Zhi Zhuang Yuan Chou" is a game that involves 67 sticks and 6 dice, popular in the Ming and Qing dynasty. The 67 sticks are of different lengths and they represent the different intellectual scholars that have passed the exams at a specific level. The scholar who is absolutely top class (1st place) is "Zhuang Yuan", thus being in the title, there is only 1 of this stick. 2nd smartest scholar in the exam is called "Bang Yan", only 1 of this.
3rd smartest scholar is called "Tan Hua", again only 1. And the dumber the scholar, the more sticks of them there are, and thus the total is 67 sticks. Each stick is given a point value, with Zhuang Yuan being the most valuable. People take turns rolling 6 dice and the outcome determines which stick they get to keep. In order to get the "Zhuang Yuan", you have to roll at least four 4's in one go (<1% chance). When all the sticks have been taken up, the person with the biggest overall score wins.

"Shui Hu Xuan Xian Tu" is basically a "snakes and ladders" that includes the characters from a famous Chinese folk tale in the Song dynasty called "Shui Hu Zhuan", meaning "Water Margin/Outlaws of the Marsh". This story was like Robin Hood, where there were 108 peasants/elderly people who fought the rich corrupt tyrants and gave money to the poor. I don't know why this is part of the "Sheng Guan Tu" strand, maybe because the characters gradually go to the more important ones along the pathway? Check: and click on the picture.

Lastly, I am not familiar with the third group "Xiao Ye Tu". "Xiao Ye" in Chinese refers to the food and drinks which you consume at night, so I assume it's one of those adult drinking games. "Xiao Ye Tu" is split into "Lan Sheng Tu" (left) and "Da Guan Yuan Zhi Dian Tu" (right). I have been Chinese Googling a heavy amount, but all I can find is that "Lan Sheng Tu" IS an adult drinking game (I don't know the rules). I am sorry, but I also can't find out the rules for "Da Guan Yuan Zhi Dian Tu" other than the fact that "Da Guan Yuan" is referring to the huge beautiful garden in the Chinese story "Hong Lou Meng" (Dream of the Red Mansion).

Figure 8. John Low: FIGURE 8 is a poem relating to the "Sheng Guan Tu" game which I already mentioned in Figure 7. The poem is literally called "Sheng Guan Tu Mouth Eight Rhyme". It is supposedly a rhyme meant for saying out loud in 8 lines. I have labelled each line with a, b, c etc for potential explanation later.
This classical poetic language is very hard to translate (heaps of obscure characters), so I give some guesses with a "???".

"Sheng Guan Tu Kou Ba Yun" Song Dynasty, by Kong Ping Zhong

a) Going around the display of Sheng Guan Tu, happily shouting at the round pieces.
b) Quickly rising upon shattering 8 reds, destruction upon 2 primaries.
c) Later you (might) become bankrupt (???), thus causing the death of an upper official (yourself) and rising to heaven.
d) In an extremely short time you switch between civil and military, very soon moving on (???).
e) Virtuous and foolish qualities are sandwiched together, unbalanced due to the rights of Mother Nature.
f) Your expectations and feelings towards her (opposite gender) are stripped away, losing your courage completely with concern.
g) Anger has been seen numerous times, a bit of the heart waits patiently for many movements.
h) Knowing that one has watched and played 2 matches, he is at a loss to whether honour or disgrace will occur.

Explanations: b) "Shattering 8 reds" means that within the 4 dice rolled, two of them showed up with a 4. 4 on a die is painted red, hence rolling two "4"s means there are 8 red dots. Each time you roll a double 4 in this game, you receive 1 point for your morals attribute. Having morals is vital for a raise. On the contrary, rolling "2 primaries" means that you had a double "1" in your four dice rolled. Each time this occurs, you gain 1 point in your corruption attribute, which is bad.

c) I'm not sure what this line actually says, but assuming I'm right in the translation, the bankruptcy would occur if you run out of counters during the game due to corruption and penalties to other players. If you run out of counters, you are supposedly considered dead or a failure.

d) The switching occurs because your "person" perform different tasks throughout the kingdom.

e) According to the roll of dice, you gain points in various qualities, e.g. corruption and morals as mentioned before. This is totally based on chance, thus the refrerence to Mother Nature.

f) Assuming you are screwing up really badly in the game or upgrading rank rather slowly, you will be very unhappy and unwilling to continue the game, feeling uncomfortable.

g) Like before, you can be quite unhappy or angry due to current circumstances, and being impatient, you are forced to roll the dice heaps and heaps of times until a satisfactory outcome is produced

h) I don't know why it's 2 matches (could be just 1), the poet might be giving a random variable. Honour and disgrace is referring to your attribute points and how you progressed in the game, whether you even reached top rank or not etc.

Figure 11.
Figure 12.
Figure 13.
Figure 14.
Figure 15.
Figure 16.
Figure 17.
Figure 24. The biography and calling card of Chen Yumen. See Part III.
Figure 31.

Images above are from the booklet "History and Culture of Mahjong", published by the DISPLAY HALL OF THE BIRTHPLACE OF MAHJONG ("DH/BP/MJ"), 74 MaYa Road, Ningbo 315010, China, (0574) 8729-3526.

These images are reproduced here solely for scholastic purposes (specifically, so that the history of mah-jongg may be understood by non-Chinese-speaking peoples). Our apologies are given to the DH/BP/MJ for showing the images here, and they will be taken down upon request of the DH/BP/MJ. No permission is granted or implied to anyone to reproduce these images; such permission can be obtained only from the DH/BP/MJ. Translations of the as-yet-untranslated captions are hereby solicited.

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© 2000, 2001, 2002, 2006, 2010, 2021 Tom Sloper. All rights reserved. May not be reprinted without express written permission of the author. Some of the ideas in this article originated with mah-jongg scholar Michael Stanwick. My thanks to Mr. Stanwick for his excellent research.