What is the story behind the word Mahjong?

Google says "sparrows", but is that accurate and why sparrows?

Other results seem to be vague or non-descriptive at best. It boggles my mind that the word "Chess" has a vast amount of information regarding the origin, history and etymology available, while "Mahjong" leaves us grasping at straws.

Perhaps I'm not looking in the right places?

2 Answers 2


According to this source (Mahjong) Confucius and his love for birds seems to be at the origin of the name:

also spelled majiang, mah jongg, and numerous other variants, is a game that originated in China. It is commonly played by four players (with some three-player variations found in Korea and Japan). The game and its regional variants are widely played throughout Eastern and South Eastern Asia and have a small following in Western countries. Similar to the Western card game rummy, mahjong is a game of skill, strategy, and calculation and involves a degree of chance. >

In Chinese, the game was originally called 麻雀 (pinyin: máquè)—meaning sparrow—which is still the name most commonly used in some southern Chinese languages such as Cantonese and Min Nan, as well as in Japanese. However, most Mandarin-speaking Chinese now call the game májiàng (麻將). In Northern Wu Chinese (Shanghainese and its relatives), it is pronounced as 麻將 [mu tsiaŋ], but in actuality, 麻將 is the diminutive form of 麻雀, written as 麻雀兒 [mu tsiaʔ ŋ], due to an erhua event. It is through the Wu Chinese pronunciation of 麻雀兒 that the diminutive form of 麻雀 in Northern Wu became known as 麻將 in both Mandarin and Wu.[citation needed]

One of the myths of the origin of mahjong suggests that Confucius, the Chinese philosopher, developed the game in about 500 BC. The three dragon (cardinal) tiles also agree with the three cardinal virtues bequeathed by Confucius. Hóng Zhōng (紅中 , red middle), Fā Cái (發財 , prosperity), and Bái Bǎn" (白板 , white board) represent benevolence, sincerity, and filial piety, respectively.

The myth also claims that Confucius was fond of birds, which would explain the name "mahjong" (maque 麻雀 = sparrow).

  • According to what you have quoted, we don't have much reason to believe it; it's described as a myth, and the same source goes on to give some more credible claims that the game is more recent, and not invented by a philosopher who said that gambling is wrong (albeit preferable to idleness).
    – Jon Hanna
    Commented Jun 9, 2014 at 12:55
  • Hi Jon, the question is: what is the story behind the word Mahjong? My answer is about the story behind it based on a myth on one of the most prominent figures in Chinese culture, Confucius. In think it is very interesting and I didn't say it is the only or most credible story. As far as I know myths and legends are still highly regarded in current Chinese culture. Thanks for your comment.
    – user66974
    Commented Jun 9, 2014 at 14:06
  • The expression "what is the story" can mean "what are the facts about". I'm sure I could make up a much more fun story than the one with Confucius, or at least expand on it (maybe Confucius can fight zombies), but that wouldn't really answer the question. It's interesting that there is such a myth (folk etymology is an interesting thing in itself), but it's a sub-plot, not the story.
    – Jon Hanna
    Commented Jun 9, 2014 at 14:09

It's supposedly related to the shuffling of tiles sounding like the twittering of sparrows.

It boggles my mind that the word "Chess" has a vast amount of information regarding the origin, history and etymology available, while "Mahjong" leaves us grasping at straws.

Actually, Mah jongg has a much clearer etymology than chess. Joseph Park Babcock coined the name so he could trademark it, which he wouldn't have been able to do with a name already being used for the game.

  • Do you have a reference for that claim about Babcock? I would dispute the idea that the name of the game only goes back to America in the 1920s.
    – Rupe
    Commented Jun 9, 2014 at 10:13
  • 7
    He coined the spelling Mah-Jongg, but not the name itself. The earliest form of the name recorded is 麻雀 máquè, which means ‘sparrow(s)’, but that's as late as 1894, and the game is obviously older than that. 麻将 májiàng, meaning literally something like ‘numb general(s)’, is first recorded in 1909, and 马将 mâjiàng (‘horses and generals’) in 1924, by Lu Xun. There is much contention over which form is actually the original, or whether the original was 麻吊 mádiào (‘hanging numbly’?). Commented Jun 9, 2014 at 10:16
  • 2
    @JanusBahsJacquet if you made that comment an answer, I for one would +1 it.
    – Jon Hanna
    Commented Jun 9, 2014 at 10:47

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