The Magic of Mahjong

This parlor game with Chinese origins combines luck and strategy — but it’s the connection between players that’s the real draw 
by Heather Scott | photography by Jessie Greenberg

Ladies in puffed-sleeve floral dresses and sneakers fill a sunny room at Surcie in The Village District. It’s late morning on a Tuesday, and these done-up women — mostly in their 30s and 40s — are ready to sprint to carpool pick-up or back to work when the time comes. 

They’re gathered at tables in groups of four, each group surrounding a pile of rectangular mahjong tiles poured out in the center. Each tile is a tiny work of art, its details etched in bold, complimentary colors. They have the texture of polished ivory and are just heavy enough to feel substantial. Each tile represents both potential and risk. Discard the wrong tile or pick the wrong line and you could end up with a dead hand.

These are the trappings of American Mahjong, a parlor game that’s recently become an activity of choice among young-ish women of means, particularly in the South. Shops like Charlotte’s in The Village District and La Maison in North Hills not only stock beautiful, modern mahjong sets, racks and mats, but also carry bags, miniature travel sets and cups and napkins decorated in mahjong motifs. (Last Christmas, the mahjong-themed ornaments at Charlotte’s sold out as quickly as they were put on display.)

Invite-only classes at the Carolina Country Club are booked full and lunchtime at North Hills Club on Tuesdays has mahjong players at almost every table. “Interest in mahjong ebbs and flows, but right now, it’s a tidal wave,” says Dana Lange, a Durham-based mahjong instructor who’s been traveling the world for more than 25 years teaching people how to play. 

American interest in the game dates to the 1920s, when Joseph Park Babcock, a civil engineer for the Standard Oil Company, was sent to work in Suzhou, China. There, he and his wife developed a love for mahjong, and Joseph began importing mahjong sets from Shanghai. In 1935, Babcock rewrote and simplified the Chinese rules in order to make the game more attractive to Americans. 

To oversimplify, the goal of mahjong is to collect 14 tiles in a specific pattern by drawing and discarding tiles. In the United States, a new set of winning tile combinations, or “lines,” is released each year by the National Mah Jongg League card. The card is much anticipated every spring — fans order it online, then it arrives in the mail.

Each line consists of 14 tile patterns; matching any one line from the card will win the game. There are three suits, Cracks, Bams and Dots, and each has numbered tiles, from one to nine, plus a matching dragon. There are four of each tile per suit.

Then there are unsuited tiles, including Flowers, Winds, Jokers and Blanks (Blanks are optional and somewhat controversial — some think using them makes for a less serious game). The tiles are discarded and picked up in a flurry of activity: pick a tile and you could match a winning line, but pause and someone else might get it first. It’s addictive. 

“You can never touch another woman’s rack,” Lange quips. “Well, at least not without her permission.” Lange remembers learning to play with her grandmother in her Hope Valley neighborhood in Durham. Years ago, she was asked to teach as part of a fundraiser for Durham Academy and now she teaches roughly nine classes per week, and her weekly Beginner and Beyond Beginner classes fill up weeks in advance.

Each April, after the National Mah Jongg League releases its Official Hands and Rules Card, more than 300 players attend Lange’s classes to review the new lines, where she’ll walk them through the best hands and backup plans. “There truly are rules for every situation, so if there’s a disagreement you can just refer back to them — it makes for a friendlier game,” she says. (Not everyone agrees: Lange has seen party cups printed with “Don’t Tell Dana” circulating among the rule-breaking younger set.)

After discovering mahjong for myself a few years ago, I’m now in a group that plays weekly. When we travel together, one of us will bring our set. I recently hosted two lessons at my home to introduce a new set of friends to the game.

Our instructor was Ashley Sigmon, co-owner of Charlotte-based Mahj in the City, who travels far and wide teaching groups to play. Along with 15 friends, I listened as Ashley gave overviews of each tile and suit, the stages of play and rules.   

In between playing and learning, we were catching up with one another, laughing, connecting — which is maybe the real point. “The pauses between the rounds of play, when you shuffle the tiles, are just long enough to have a quick conversation, but not too long to be taxing,” says Anneliese Heinz, the author of Mahjong: A Chinese Game and the Making of Modern American Culture. “It allows you to get to know someone over the course of the game, which makes it particularly powerful for building community.” 

Whether you’re a young mother trying to squeeze in connection between responsibilities, or you’re just using the gentle click of tiles as a backdrop to catch up with old friends, the true magic of mahjong is its gravitational pull, drawing us in to play together once again. 

This article originally appeared in the July 2024 issue of WALTER magazine.