Mah Jong: A People to People Exchange Game

This April, we welcomed three panelist, Gregg Swain, Patrick Hamilton, and Annelize Heinz, to share their experience and understanding of Mah Jong in the United States as a form of cultural exchangeDuring the event They explored how the game can provide an opportunity to engage Chinese culture and build community and identity  

To begin the discussion, each panelist described how they were introduced to Mah JongAnnelise learned Mah Jong from her time in southwest China, and then discovered when she moved back to the United States that a lot of Jewish American women in the United States played Mah Jong, which got her curious of the history of the gameThis curiosity brought her to her research and the creation of her bookMahjong: A Chinese Game and the Making of Modern American Culture.  

Gregg Swain was introduced to Mah Jong in New York when she saw women playing Mah Jong outside together, and then found an interest in learning about the art on the game tiles, which led to her bookThe Art of the Game 

Patrick Hamilton, on the other hand, learned Mah Jong from family connections, but then traveling in Asia played the game with different communities to build trust and connection regardless of differences of language or culture. In more recent years, he brought older communities in Washington, D.C. together to learn how to play the game.  

The history of Mah Jong challenges us to reflect on how to build people-to-people exchanges in a way that does not “other” or exclude. Annelise explained when businesspeople brought the game to the United States in the 1920s from Chinathey embraced the game, but did so in a hollow way that did not always embrace the people and culture behind it 

Now, the United States has distinct Mah Jong communities with different rules and playing styles. Annelise explained how this came to be, and how the variations of the games have roots in Asian American and Jewish American communities.  

When asked how to understand Mah Jong as distinctly Chinese, and also American game, Annelise explained how it matters that Mah Jong is a Chinese game. The tiles represent Chinese culture and history, and that is particularly important for people of Chinese heritage to connect to their roots and elders. The history of Mahjong also represents a history of inclusion and exclusion for different communities in the social fabric of American life.  

At the same time, the game has the power to bring people together, such as Patrick’s stories of playing the games with people he met traveling or teaching Mah Jong in Washington, D.C. He explained: “The consequence of a two-hour Mah Jong game with people you don’t know, you have four to eight new friends.”.  

Panelist also reflected on how Mah Jong players who are not of Chinese heritage can work to respect the Chinese cultural heritage of Mah Jong. Panelist answered how it is important to take the time to learn from the inheritors of the game and respect the cultural roots of the Mah Jong tiles. Gregg explained how Mah Jong was a steppingstone into learning more about Chinese art, when researching her book, Mah Jongg: The Art of the Game 

In addition, Annelise Heinz challenged listeners to connect the history of the game with contemporary Asian American experience of identity and oftentimes exclusion in America.  

Mah Jong can be an entry point into learning about Chinese culture and engaging with the Asian American community. It can bring people together with a shared love of the game, and a reminder of Chinese cultural roots. However, people-to-people exchanges take effort, intention and humility. Mah Jong has a rich and complex history, all which cannot be encompassed in a single discussion, and we hope this was steppingstone to further learning and exploration.  

Annelise Heinz is an American History professor at the University of Oregon. Her research focuses on the intersections of gender, race/ethnicity, and sexuality. She is the author of Mahjong: A Chinese Game and the Making of Modern American Culture, which explores the American history of the Chinese parlor game mahjong in the first half of the twentieth century. This book follows the history of one game to think about how, in their daily lives, individuals create and experience cultural change. 

Patrick Hamilton has taught Mah Jong in the local Washington, D.C. area. Growing up, his house had Mah-Jong sets and an extended family of uncles and cousins played because of a Great-Aunt who was an importer. Since the late 1970’s his academic and career interests made him a regular traveler to Asia. Knowing Mah Jong has been his introduction to communities from far Western Tibet to Hong Kong, southern Yunnan Province to the Mongolian border. He has coached Mah Jong for senior citizen living on Capitol Hill and has seen the positive effects it has on maintaining community and social contact and in reducing memory deterioration. 

Gregg Swain is the co-author of American Mah Jong for Everyone: A Beginners Guide, which introduces beginners to the game, and Mahjongg: The Art of the Game, which focuses on exploring the art and meaning behind the tiles. In addition to her interest in Mahjong, she has studied Art history and earned her Doctorate in Clinical psychology, both relevant to understanding the game of Mah Jong. 

Moderated by Abbigail Hull, Program Associate, CIUS Center