Research explores mahjong’s significance in American culture

Aug. 5, 2013, 9:54 a.m.

While contemplating the traditional Chinese game of mahjong may initially conjure up scenes of elderly Chinese women shuffling colorful tiles around a square table, the pastime may have played a key role in fostering the development of Jewish-American and Chinese-American culture during the 20th century, according to research by doctoral candidate Annelise Heinz.

Heinz, who first learned how to play mahjong while staying in China, focused her research on mahjong’s historical impact on gender and race in the United States and on trans-Pacific exchanges between the United States and China.

“Looking at the history of mahjong was a compelling way to ask key historical questions about how Americans have interacted with objects, ideas and one another in a globalizing world,” Heinz said.

Mahjong first emerged in the 1800s around Shanghai before spreading to other Chinese cities, primarily functioning as a gambling game, and ultimately to America. Marketers introduced the game to the American public as a new exotic good and a symbol of cosmopolitan wealth, while the game’s popularity among the American elite simultaneously raised its profile in China and set it further apart from other gambling games.

“It became an enormous fad,” Heinz explained. “Many even dressed up in what they imagined to be traditional Chinese clothing to play the game.”

The game subsequently “took on a life of its own in the United States,” according to Heinz, and even became an important aspect of Jewish-American communities. While mahjong has since faded in prominence, Heinz — who interviewed more than 40 people across the country, all of whom recall mahjong before 1965, in the course of her research — argued that it is still used to forge connections between different generations or cultures.

“It burst into extreme popularity and flooded popular media and then was forgotten but remained vitally important in specific communities,” she said, describing the game as a cultural phenomenon. “When something flares into popularity at a specific point in time, I think it serves a cultural purpose that tells us crucial historical information. Mahjong illustrates how global economics, social history and ideas of race, sexuality and gender are all interrelated.”

Heinz singled out a group of Modern Orthodox Jewish women from New York, who “were experts at American mahjong and were as devoted to each other as they were to the game” and who pooled their winnings for donations in keeping with a perceived emphasis on philanthropy within mahjong, as representative of mahjong’s cultural influence.

“Watching and speaking with these players, both as a group and individually, it was especially evident how mahjong brings people together,” Heinz said. “For these women, their religious lives, their identities as women, and their mahjong communities were inextricably bound together.”

Framing mahjong’s history as reflective of broader trends, Heinz warned against overlooking key lessons.

“We miss how people actually lived, and we’re missing key pieces of history that help us understand where we are today,” she said.

After completing her dissertation, Heinz plans to return to China for further research that might ultimately produce a book.

“It’s delightful to connect with people about their memories and their families’ stories,” Heinz said. “It’s been one of the most rewarding aspects of this project.”

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