How Military Families Helped Keep Mah-Jongg Alive in the USA

Exchange Mah Jongg
In this April 15, 2018 photo, mah jongg tiles that incorporate baseballs and a dove in its imagery, are displayed in Bennington, Vt.. Author Gregg Swain speculates that it was perhaps carved by a Japanse prisoner-of-war during World War II. (David LaChance/The Banner via AP) -- The Associated Press

BENNINGTON, Vt. (AP) — A dozen people have gathered together on a cold and gray Sunday morning, each with an interest in the game of mah-jongg. About half could be described as the curious; one man is there to learn about the pastime that meant so much to his grandmother, while three, it turns out, are true devotees of the game.

Specifically, they've come to Southern Vermont College's Laumeister Art Center to hear Gregg Swain speak. Swain is co-author of "Mah Jongg: The Art of the Game," a definitive, 192-page hardcover work published in 2014 that's been acclaimed by no one less than the president of the National Mah Jongg League. Her talk on this day is on "Mah Jongg: The Lure and Lore of the Game," with a little something for everyone, regardless of their degree of knowledge or experience.

Twelve people might sound like a small crowd, but to understand mah-jongg's place in the world, you need to zoom the lens outward. There were roughly twice as many people at Swain's presentation the previous day, which made it about a tenth the size of the crowds she sometimes addresses on her nationwide engagements. That's the tip of the iceberg for the National Mah Jongg League, which counts a membership of roughly 350,000. And even that's a fraction of the game's worldwide followers, estimated at 300 million. Which means, Swain said, "it's the most popular game in the world."

Today, there are two main ways of playing practiced in America: National Mah Jongg League rules, and Wright-Patterson rules, set down by military families at the Air Force base in Ohio.

"It was so that people in the military all over the world could come together around the mah-jongg table," Swain said. "It was a way for the whole family could play together, so that was what was really nice."

Perhaps an introduction is in order. Some form of mah-jongg has been played in China since the 1300s. It had its American introduction in the mid-1920s through one Joseph P. Babcock, a Standard Oil employee who, according to legend, first encountered the game on a ship on the Yangtze River. He added Arabic numerals and Western letters, and began exporting his sets to the United States. He marketed the game under the name "mah-jongg," borrowed from a native word for "house sparrow."

"It was very mysterious," Swain said. "Babcock realized that there was this fascination with the 'unknown China.' And so he really changed the game so that it could be a way for people to feel that they were escaping — I call them 'armchair game-playing travelers.'"

Americans were hungry for anything from the exotic East, and Babcock's mah-jongg sets became all the rage. Promoting the game as a cerebral pursuit, he made up a posthumous endorsement from none other than Confucius, who had died nearly 2,000 years before the game was first played.

Sales to the U.S. made mah-jongg sets the sixth-biggest export from China in the 1920s, providing a boost to a Chinese economy that was on the ropes. That economic reality is reflected in the high quality of many of the sets that exist today, Swain said. "My theory is that there were a lot of people who were really very fine craftsmen, and they went into the mah-jongg business because then at least they had a job. That to me explains some of the really wonderful, delicate carving that you see."

A set of 144 mah-jongg tiles, Swain explained, is similar to a deck of cards; there are many ways to play. Babcock provided a set of rules in a pamphlet with a red cover; "Mao was not the first to have a Little Red Book," she quipped. When competitors jumped into the market, each provided its own set of rules. "That was a problem," Swain said. "Nobody could agree on how to play anymore." The result was confusion, and a decline in the game's U.S. popularity.

Two groups, however, kept the faith. "It didn't fall out of favor in the Jewish community, and in the Chinese community in the United States," Swain said. "And I think it's because there are some very simple ways that you can play the game. And in Chinese and in Jewish culture, people would be getting together as a family on a regular basis, all the generations, and so there were ways that all the generations could play the game together."

"The National Mah Jongg League was founded by five Jewish women in 1937, and it was really an attempt to help Jewish people come together and form friendships," she continued. The league each year would issue a card to its members, identifying the combinations of tiles that players were to try to accomplish, and used its collected dues to support charities.

Mah-jongg might once have provided a punchline for Borscht Belt comedians, but no longer. "Everybody's playing it now," Swain said. "The National Mah Jongg League used to be associated with little old Jewish ladies. And now it's not at all. There are young people playing, there are men playing. So, everybody's playing it, which is really wonderful. People are teaching young people to play, too."

The game has made the leap to cyberspace, too. "I was just thinking today about preparing to do this talk, that there are now opportunities to play online, and you can play against real people, and you can chat," Swain said. "And believe it or not, you start to make friends with people that you're playing with online, as well as the people you're playing with around the table. It's really fascinating that it carries over."

The social aspect of mah-jongg is what first drew Swain to the game. On the sidewalks of her native New York City, she would see people congregated around mah-jongg games, engaged in animated conversation. In 2010, she learned how to play, and was hooked.

"We love it because it's an escape. We're escaping and forming friendships at the same time, and we're not thinking about all of our worries," she said. "When you have the opportunity to chat, that's when you really do form the friendships. In China, they say that you should never marry anybody you haven't played mah-jongg with, because so much of the personality comes out at the mah-jongg table."

With a background in art history, she's also drawn to the beauty of the sets, which she and co-author Ann Israel have helped to document. Much of the history, and the sets themselves, fell victim to Mao's Cultural Revolution, when the game was outlawed. "Mah-jongg is the best form of art that nobody knows anything about, until now," she maintains. "What's been amazing is that just by studying it, I've learned so much about Chinese culture and history. It's taken me some fascinating places."

The game of mah-jongg has brought Swain more than 100 new friends, and taken her all over the country to give presentations. This is her second visit to Southern Vermont College, where she serves as a trustee. "I've been in Florida twice this year already, I'm going to Irvine, California next week," she said. "I speak at least 20 or 30 times a year. It's crazy! Lots of talks. But my talks are not just for game players. I mean, I am going to help people with the new card today, but it's going to be after I talk about the art, and after I talk about how we're kind of crazy maniacs about the game, and why we are.

"Because it really is an addictive game, I have to say. But it's a good addiction. It's a good addiction."

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Information from: Bennington Banner, http://www.benningtonbanner.com

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