Editor's Note: This story was originally published on January 6, 2021, and it has been updated to reflect recent developments in the story.
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.
Following the social media blowback and news coverage, 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.
The Mahjong Line brought back its website and returned to Instagram early February to post a statement defending its existence, insisting it was not culturally appropriating Chinese culture. Unlike its other Instagram posts, The Mahjong Line kept its comments on, and reception has been overwhelmingly negative.
"Please STOP," commented @diet_prada, a watchdog group that routinely calls out cultural appropriation in the fashion industry. Asian-American comedian and actor Jenny Yang commented, "if you learned your lesson you'd STOP." As of publishing, the post has over 1,800 comments.
In its statement, the brand notes that after the online firestorm, it "did seek out and find people that could share their honest opinions with us [...] Over the last several weeks we have connected with dozens of individuals over the phone, via Zoom and in-person." However, there is no mention of who these individuals were, or what was discussed.
The Mahjong Line seems to be infatuated with the term "America mahjong," which is referred to extensively throughout its brand language as justification for its trio of white founders having entered the mahjong business. On February 9, The Mahjong Line shared a blog post, in which it tries to offer up a history of the game and where the brand believes "American mahjong" stems from.
"People from China were playing mahjong in the U.S. as early as the 19th century, often making subtle changes to the game that appealed to their family or group, and many of these versions continue to thrive today," its history page writes. "The versions most closely associated with American Mahjong proliferated in the 1920s."
The Mahjong Line fails to mention that during the game's heyday in the US during the 1920s, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was in full effect. During this time, American's fascination with mahjong grew, so much so that America's largest mahjong retailer at the time, Abercrombie & Fitch, sent buyers to China to gather as many mahjong sets that it could find. So while people from China were banned, Chinese culture that Americans deemed enjoyable was not.
The brand continues to treat mahjong's Chinese history as a footnote to its "American mahjong." Besides briefly touching on the game's origins in China, The Mahjong Line uses the Agatha Christie book, "Murder on the Orient Express," as a prop for one of its stylized product shots. While the novel has nothing to do with China, its use of "Orient" in the title does relate to those of Asian descent, and the term itself is deemed as politically incorrect when describing people.
The Mahjong Line has not responded to a request for comment.