The Chinese Board Game That Transformed American Culture

Oxford Academic
Jun 4 · 4 min read
Ellicia via Unsplash.

Click-click-click. The sound of mahjong tiles connects American expatriates in Shanghai, Jazz Age white Americans, urban Chinese Americans in the 1930s, incarcerated Japanese Americans in wartime, Jewish American suburban mothers, and Air Force officers’ wives in the postwar era.

In this excerpt from Mahjong: A Chinese Game and the Making of Modern American Culture, Annalise Heinz narrates the history of this game to show how it has created a variety of meanings, among them American modernity, Chinese American heritage, and Jewish American women’s culture. As it traveled from China to the United States and caught on with Hollywood starlets, high society, middle-class housewives, and immigrants alike, mahjong became a quintessentially American game.

Mahjong is a game of the senses. The tiles hold beauty — earthy tones of bone and bamboo or yellowed butterscotch of aged plastic. They are heavy in the hand, with rounded edges rubbing against each other like river pebbles. Thumbs bump against grooves in the tiles from impossibly intricate carvings or brightly colored embossed images. Nothing else mimics the clatter of mahjong tiles running over each other on a hard table surface; even a felt top does not entirely soften the din. Regardless of when and where the game is played, these experiences remain. They are part of what makes mahjong unique and are no small part of its boundary-crossing appeal. Mahjong is both a cultural form and a material object that is made, bought, and bequeathed. Within the spaces between the tiles and the moments between games, distinct social cultures flourished. Despite the universal elements of how the game is played — and the common feel of it — mahjong reflected, and helped express, a range of meanings, especially: emerging American modernity, Chinese American heritage, and Jewish American women’s culture. In the holds of steamships, mahjong traveled from China to the United States and became a quintessentially American game — not in spite of but because of its diverse manifestations. Its history of adaptation, amalgamation, and self-making offers unexpected insight into race, gender, class, and leisure in modern American culture.

Mahjong is both a cultural form and a material object that is made, bought, and bequeathed.

This book follows the history of one game to think about how, in their daily lives, individuals create and experience cultural change. Playing a game from a culture across the globe helped Americans create group identities and address issues of inclusion and exclusion. Mahjong, like other forms of leisure, played a significant role in the cultural transformations of the twentieth century. There is no single answer to why the game was so resonant across different contexts, but the fact that it was, and that it inspired rich game-playing cultures, connects to some of the most important themes in modern American history. Its story is a window onto three pivotal areas of change in the twentieth-century United States: What did it mean to become “modern” in the early twentieth century? How did American ethnicities take shape in the years leading up to and after World War II? How did middleclass women experience and shape their changing roles in society, before the social revolutions of the late twentieth century? How are these things related?

Mahjong’s history also prompts closer considerations of the meaning of leisure. Although players understood mahjong first and foremost as a fun and challenging game, the specific social patterns they created on a broad scale had ramifications beyond any individual’s conscious intent. Mahjong not only reflected larger social changes but also allowed diverse groups to shape behaviors and ideas that had consequences of their own. During the 1920s mahjong fad, for example, white women in elaborate Chinese costumes experimented with exotic personae and newly accessible forms of sexuality, Chinese American mahjong instructors capitalized on the fad as an economic and cultural opportunity, and critics of the game recoiled from the social mobility of both white women and Chinese Americans. Each group’s interactions with mahjong were an important part of enacting — or coming to terms with — a modern national culture that included new gender norms and increasing racial diversity.

Playing a game from a culture across the globe helped Americans create group identities and address issues of inclusion and exclusion. Mahjong, like other forms of leisure, played a significant role in the cultural transformations of the twentieth century.

Perhaps more than other popular games, mahjong had a complex cultural journey. Its history connects American expatriates in Shanghai, Jazz Age white Americans, urban Chinese Americans in the 1930s, Japanese Americans in wartime camps, Jewish American suburban mothers, and Air Force officers’ wives in the postwar era. Over time, the material game changed — bone and bamboo mimicked ivory; later the new plastics preserved the heft and feel of the tiles without relying on natural materials. So, too, its significance shaped American understandings of Asia, the boundaries of gender and race, and ideas about leisure.

Annelise Heinz is an assistant professor of history at the University of Oregon. Her work has been featured on National Public Radio and international Chinese television. She has lived and played mahjong in the United States and Southwestern China.

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