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Mahjong: The Cultural Significance and the Appropriation

Updated: Jan 28, 2021

By Lauren Wang

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On January 5th, news broke out that a Mahjong Company called “The Mahjong Line'' was accused of cultural appropriation. The company was started by three white women in America wanting to bring this game to American audiences. Many people in the Asian American community online called out the company’s actions and demanded an apology. Later that day, the company released an apology on their Instagram for their wrongdoings. In their apology, the company stated, “While our intent is to inspire and engage with a new generation of American mahjong players, we recognize our failure to pay proper homage to the game’s Chinese heritage.”

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While it is important to call out cultural appropriation in companies, it’s equally important to educate others on people’s cultures and understand why appropriation is not appropriate, especially in a business setting.

The Origins

Mahjong, 麻將, is a Chinese tile-based game. The game started in China during the Qing dynasty in the mid to late 1800s. The game finally made its way to American soil in the 1920s when American tourists brought the game back to the U.S. The game sparked popularity with the American public. The game was also played by many Chinese immigrants and passed down through the generations.

Many people, including my parents, compare the game to poker, and in a sense, it’s like poker. Growing up, my parents would always bring me to China Town to get hong baos (red envelopes), a new Qi Pao (traditional Chinese silk dress), and dan tats ( A custard dessert) to prepare for our annual Chinese new year celebration. In the park, there were and still are groups of older people playing Mahjong and gambling. When I was young, I remember asking my mom what Mahjong was, and she responded with, “Mei Mei, it’s like Chinese Poker.”

Mahjong also, in a sense, represents family. Every Chinese New Year, Harvest festival, Chinese banquets, and weddings, there's always a game or two of Mahjong going on. Playing Mahjong brings back good memories of family and friends, and many Chinese Americans will tell you the same thing.

The Tiles

There have been many different Mahjong tile sets with different designs, creating more variety, but they all contain consistency and the general idea of the tiles. The main suites of tiles in a mahjong set are sticks, winds, dragons, flowers, seasons, dots, and numbers.

Image via Google

The Mahjong Line tiles change the design and switch up the suites in their sets. Although they intended to modernize the game and make it chic and exciting, it takes the cultural significance out of the game. The Chinese characters in a traditional set represent different things. For example, the suite 一,二,三,四,五,六,七,八,九 are numbers one through nine in Chinese. The tile 中 (zhong) represents red in the game. In Chinese, the character means “middle,” and when it’s paired with the characters 國 (guó) or 文 (wén), it means China/ Chinese. Red is a significant part of Chinese culture because it represents luck, joy, and happiness. It’s the reason why formal garments are often red and why we hand out red envelopes. The color red is also believed to ward off evil spirits, and it's why we set off red firecrackers during the new year celebration.

The tiles play another significant part. Every Mahjong tile is designed roughly the same and has been created that way for many generations. Blind people have studied the design, and the specific groves of the design help them determine which tile is what. The particular design of the tiles makes it accessible for the blind community to play. When a company changes the design, it deprives the blind community of playing, causing the company to be ableist.

Can Everyone Play Mahjong?

Mahjong isn’t exclusive to just Chinese or Asians, it’s a game for everyone, and anyone can play if they want to. But it is important to acknowledge the cultural roots of this game and treat the culture with respect. Cultural appreciation is one thing, but appropriation is where many draw the line.

Written by writer Lauren Wang

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