The Mahjong Line Got Called Out For Cultural Appropriation
Recently, The Mahjong Line got called out on social media for cultural appropriation. One of the brand’s founders Kate expressed that she could not find a set of mahjong tiles “mirroring her style and personality”, leading her to reinvent the game.
The venture blew up on social media, with the 3 ladies behind The Mahjong Line called “Karens” and “colonisers” by internet users.
Subsequently, The Mahjong Line uploaded an Instagram post apologising for its hurtful words and disabled comments to stall the fury. The US$425 nail polish-hued sets were cancelled before you could yell, “Get your mahj on!”
How I felt as a mahjong enthusiast from Asia
As an avid mahjong player, I was amused that these “jaunty gals playing a civilized game with a wink” were getting cancelled for their extreme makeover that no one asked for. I was less offended by their reinvention than by their pretentious copywriting.
For me, mahjong is a great way to connect with friends and prevent dementia. The analogue game helps me to fight my smartphone addiction, as my hands are kept busy brushing tiles across the table, while trying to strike it big.
The gambling tool isn’t some sacred entity and I’ve definitely seen some creative takes on it over the years. So here I am, trying to understand why the “respectful refresh” caused so much chatter.
Let’s begin by having a look at mahjong’s origins.
A not very well-documented history of mahjong
The history of Mahjong is not well-documented. Some attribute the game to Confucius and others think it goes as far back as Noah’s Ark.
Mother-of-pearl tiles from 1920s Germany
The game became widespread in Shanghai during the 1840s and 1850s when it was documented by Western observers. During the early 1900s, the game was popularised across the globe, and made its way to Japan, Korea, Europe and America.
Mahjong is believed to have evolved from card games that were all the rage in the 12th century known as 葉子, translated as “leaves”, for how the cards sounded like when shuffled. These card games came in suits of coins, strings of coins and tens of thousands of coins.
You can infer that the 3 suits in the modern version of mahjong are derived from the above suits. Coins remain as coins, strings of coins resemble bamboos and tens of thousands of coins correspond to the Chinese character for ten thousand, 萬.
The games transformed into a 4-suited card game called 馬吊 during the Ming Dynasty, literally translated as “hanging horse”, which included a suit of bamboos. The hanging horse game further evolved and became what we know of as mahjong today.
Mahjong is prone to adaptation and reinvention
Mona Lisa wasn’t painted in a day, and neither was mahjong formalised at any point in time. The game takes new roots wherever it goes and gets reinvented for different cultures.
Take, for example, the Japanese version of mahjong, riichi. It has markedly different rules from its Chinese counterpart although the tiles seem identical, sans the flora and fauna.
The American version, which you might have heard about from The Mahjong Line’s fiasco, includes Joker tiles. This is completely alien to players in Asia, where Jokers only exist in Batman movies.
Hong Kong, Taiwan and Malaysia boast their own mahjong-playing styles.
Even within the tiny country of Singapore, we’re unable to agree on a fixed set of rules. “Shooter”, “bite flower”, “seven twins” and how certain combinations are to be scored need to be agreed upon, before engaging in serious play from Pasir Ris to Pioneer.
The lack of standardisation and complexity make the game prone to transformation and adaptation. If you’re a fan of the game, you’ll never get bored learning about where it came from and how it’s evolving.
Established brands have adapted mahjong successfully
Mahjong can be adapted and even transformed, without triggering the Chinese diaspora. Plenty of established brands have produced their own sets of mahjong without similar furore.
These brands kept to the traditional artwork and made small tweaks to the design elements of their sets. For example, Tiffany & Co.’s mahjong set comes in its signature Tiffany-blue box, a gorgeous set for the bourgeoisie.
Hermès has an Helios Mahjong set made of wood, with the artwork engraved on calfskin leather. A little extravagant if you ask me, reflected in its US$40,400 price tag.
Closer to home, Singapore Airlines’ mahjong set redraws the White Dragon tile as an aircraft window, so there’s definitely room to reinterpret the game without completely defacing it.
If The Mahjong Line had wanted to make the character suit easier to read for non-Chinese folks, adding Arabic numbers to the tile corners would not have gotten them cancelled.
However, their reinvention butchered the game by removing its cultural aspects and standardised format.
Why The Mahjong Line’s adaptation failed
Asians all over the world have pointed out that The Mahjong Line did not innovate on the game, it made it worse. The reason why mahjong uses standardised artwork is so anyone can hop onto a table and play, without going through an orientation.
Having the tiles look completely unrecognisable throws off seasoned players, despite how cute your illustrations may look. Don’t fix what’s not broken; the designs stood the test of time because they made sense.
People were also upset that the Caucasian ladies insinuated that the game did not reflect their personality, hence needing a makeover. Cultures that are not your own should be treated with respect.
Despite mahjong being a Chinese game, The Mahjong Line’s website included random French terms like “joie de vivre” and allowed you to take a quiz as somebody who grabs croissants in Paris.
There were scarce mentions of China and the rich history of the game except for how Joseph Babcock brought mahjong to the USA in the 1920s, allowing them to reinvent it as they pleased.
People were upset that French was taken to be fashionable and universally understood, whereas Chinese was depicted as difficult to learn and required a makeover.
The Mahjong Line’s recently resurrected website encourages customers to submit haikus for publishing. I don’t remember the last time mahjong inspired me to write a haiku, but here’s a shot:
Japan and China
Both are countries in Asia
But they ain’t the same
Cultural exchanges are common in Asia, but not complete erasure
Asia’s many cultures are built on a history of exchanges. Buddhism went from India to China and then to Japan, Korea and Southeast Asia, taking on different nuances as it travelled.
The Japanese language uses kanji, derived from Chinese characters. And today, we’re all mad about Korean culture, using it to sell products and food.
Mahjong is a fine example of how the quintessentially Chinese game spread its wings to find communities all over the world.
We love that you’re playing it, just don’t erase everything Chinese about it and call it an improvement.
How The Mahjong Line Could Have Done Better
To summarise, the ladies behind The Mahjong Line needed to read the room better.
Racial tensions are high in the USA right now. There’s been plenty of anger expressed at cultural appropriation in recent years.
There’s nothing wrong in adapting mahjong or packaging it in a way that is novel or refreshing.
It’s their asinine concept of reinventing mahjong with bags of flour, making it harder to play, and using random French sensibilities to sell the Chinese game, that triggered the online community.
As I like to say whenever I learn tough life lessons from mahjong by paying through my nose, “C’est la vie!”
Cover: Source, courtesy of Bryan Christopher Yeong