A new mahjong company sparked a Twitter debate on whether or not it constitutes cultural appropriation, with users pointing to its sets' high price tags and apparent erasure of the game's Asian heritage. The Mahjong Line, launched in November 2020, was founded by three white women who, according to its website's about page, thought all mahjong sets looked the same and "decided the venerable game needed a respectful refresh."
The new company sells five mahjong sets ranging from $325 for the "Minimal Lines" to $425 for the "Botanical Line" and "Cheeky Line." To help customers pick one of the sets, The Mahjong Line has a seven-question quiz to direct them towards a set that seemingly relates to their responses.
"I don't think the issue is that they re-skinned or made a custom deck," one Twitter user commented. "I think the self important op ed that accompanied it is. Its [sic] one thing to make a custom theme, its [sic] quite another to take an aspect of culture and whitewash it and then claim it as something new and 'improved[.]'"
Twitter users who took offense to The Mahjong Line's decision that mahjong needed a "refresh" in the first place, as well as the brand's apparent neglect of the game's Asian heritage save for a throwaway line in the website's FAQ: "Well, all the madness of mahjong began in China hundreds of years ago so they own that distinction fair and square," before transitioning to the game's arrival in the United States. And with The Mahjong Line's scrubbing of the original characters and depictions on the mahjong tiles with those that fit the founders' style preferences, the game further fails to preserve the Chinese history of the game.
In an article in The Seattle Times on the game's history in the US, author David Lachance quotes Gregg Swain, co-author of "Mah Jongg: The Art of the Game," who says "Mah-jongg is the best form of art that nobody knows anything about, until now. What’s been amazing is that just by studying it, I’ve learned so much about Chinese culture and history. It’s taken me [to] some fascinating places."
While there's a long history of non-Chinese people importing and selling mahjong sets (include a $15,000 set by Tiffany & Co.), they've largely maintained the traditional Chinese characters with minute details to assist those who can't read them, such as Arabic numerals in the corner. The suits and symbols themselves refer to traditional Chinese currency, Confucian virtues, as well as other motifs from Chinese culture.
The time and place of mahjong's inception may be contested, but it is known that the game that we know as mahjong now originated in the 19th century in China. Mahjong is a four-player game in which competitors create combos with their tiles through a combination of chance and strategy.
American expatriates in China were taken by mahjong and brought the concept back to the United States. The first American retailer of mahjong was Abercrombie & Fitch, and the game was so popular that co-owner Eliza Fitch had buyers scour China for sets to bring back to sell at the store. John Babcock helped to solidify mahjong's popularity in the 1920s by publishing "Rules of Mahjong," commonly referred to as "the red book," which simplified and explained the rules of the game. In the 1930s, the game became associated with Jewish women as it helped to bridge connection between Chinese and Jewish cultures. The use of mahjong tiles has also spawned a game, mahjong solitaire that's a single-player matching game.
On Tuesday evening, The Mahjong Line posted an apology to Instagram, which you can read in full here. "We are always open to constructive criticism and are continuing to conduct conversations with those who can provide further insight to the game's traditions and roots in both Chinese and American cultures," part of the apology reads. The company has turned off comments on all of its posts, and its website has been taken down.
Update: This story has been updated to include The Mahjong Line's response to the criticism of its brand and mahjong sets and the closure of its website.