There are a few different ideas about where Mah Jong came from, but some believe that it was developed by Chinese philosopher Confucius around 500 BC. This belief comes from the fact that the game began making an appearance in Chinese provinces when the philosopher was traveling to teach his doctrines to the people around the country. There's an additional association to the philosopher, since he taught about the three cardinal virtues and there are three Cardinal tiles in Mah Jong. The terms used in the game also directly come from things associated with Confucius; there's "Kong" which was part of the philosopher's full name, "Chee" which was the name of his wife and the term "pung which seems to have no known association at all!
Although there is a lot of evidence to support this theory, there are others that believe that Mah Jong might b based on other ancient Chinese games like "Ya Pei" a game that existed during the Sung Dynasty; or "Ma Tiae" from the Ming Dynasty.
While the exact history of Mah Jong itself might not be known, there is information on when it came from China to the Western world available. In the early 1900's, it's thought to have been brought by two brothers named White who brought it to the English clubs in Shanghai which gave it great appeal with foreign residents visiting these spots. Tiles started to be imported into the West by a representative of Standard Oil Company, Joseph P. Babcock who was also believed to be the one who started using English numbers on the tiles, which made it more popular. In September on 1920, Babcock put a copyright on the rules, and following this, a merchant from San Francisco began importing the game into the United States in massive quantities.
Many Mah Jong sets available in the United States still come from China, exported from Shanghai; however, they are also manufactured throughout the United States in a variety of styles made from all sorts of different materials. The game has been manufactured and distributed by popular US game companies like Milton Bradley, Parker Brothers and other big names.
Mah Jong played a big role during the great depression in the United States. It was being demonstrated in stores, on street corners and in clubs, and many households had the game. Following the great depression specialized Mah Jong Clubs even began appearing. Although during its early history in the US, Mah Jong rules were varied, by 1924 a standard set of rules was put in place and a book was published. Some clubs still put their own changes on the Mah Jong strategy and rules, and then later, the game stopped being considered a mainstream game.
Mah Jong now is still a game that's played in many American homes, but with new technologies available, it's actually becoming increasingly more popular again. Software versions are available to download, or people can play the game at online casinos and on other websites which can also help introduce them to the rules and help them improve their strategy. Since antiques are also more popular than ever, people are searching far and wide to try and get their hands on old Mah Jong tiles creating a whole new market for the popular Chinese game right here and right now.