Mahjong – More than just a game: it’s a Chinese cultural icon

An introduction to Mahjong as a Chinese cultural icon, game, and a way to connect with the Chinese culture and community.

If you grew up in a Chinese household in Canada, chances are you’ve heard of Mahjong. 

Even if you didn’t grow up playing Mahjong, you may know it as the noisy game your grandparents used to play with their friends for hours, that confusing matching program that came installed on your computer, or the symbolic strategy exercise you didn’t quite understand at the end of Crazy Rich Asians

As a Chinese Canadian, you can feel Mahjong is intrinsically tied to your heritage through Western depictions such as the aforementioned Kevin Kwan hit, the TV show Fresh Off the Boat and even The Joy Luck Club. It’s regarded as strategic as poker, as analytical as Risk, and as intellectual as chess. 

It’s a quick and noisy game that involves guarding your own tiles as you carefully watch the actions of others. If you’re not familiar with the rules, it can seem incredibly intimidating. 

Photo Credit: Colossus from Crazy Rich Asians

However, aside from dealing and counting points – Mahjong is a very simple game. Like many strategy games, it can be easy to learn but trickier to master.

What might surprise you about Mahjong is how it can connect you with your heritage. The game originated during the Qing Dynasty and today remains one of the most popular games in China – especially among older people. It is a game so steeped in Chinese history that the art of tile caring has been named as an  “intangible cultural heritage” by the Government of Hong Kong.

Learning to play Mahjong helps you feel closer to your roots. For many, Mahjong is associated with family, interconnection and Chinese culture. 

Once you decide to learn, you’re likely to turn towards your Chinese community for lessons and instruction. During non-COVID days, Vancouver’s Hot+Noisy is a great place to learn and share with Chinatown seniors!

Photo Credit: Ellicia from Unsplash

Mahjong is a wonderful way to connect with others, both young and old —  even if language is a barrier —  as it is all about negotiation, communication and cooperation. Even if you don’t know any Chinese, you’re guaranteed to have learned how to count after playing Mahjong! 

You also may be surprised by how many people within your social circle already play Mahjong — not just your popo! More and more millennials are playing Mahjong virtually (especially in the age of COVID-19), and it’s even gaining traction beyond the Chinese community. 

Once you’ve mastered the art of Mahjong, you can teach it to friends, host social nights or show off your skills to your parents or grandparents. In the beginning, you may not be good enough to win any money, but you’ll be able to proudly explain that pivotal Mahjong scene.

Featured image by The Spruce Crafts

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