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The history of Mah-Jong is long and complicated. The first mentions of games that might have been the prototype of the game are to be found about 2500 years ago at the times of Confucius (about 500 BC).
The legend is held telling that the game was invented at the court of the ruler of the Wu Kingdom, where a lonely beauty lived. To avoid boredom, she started to sculpt ivory or bamboo bones for a totally new game. When she completed her work, she invited three ladies to play a just-invented game. Each of them obtained 34 bones, which were meant to be set as a wall in front of them. The exact rules of the game are not known, but the records hold that the result ranged from 22 to 389.928 points.
For hundreds of years the game was meant for rulers. It was legally banned for ordinary people to play it; under the threat of capital punishment. Only about 500 AD the law was abolished and everybody was allowed to play the game unlimitedly.
As the time was passing by, the game was spreading. In 1920 it reached the USA, where it soon became extremely popular. The person who was responsible for that expansion was Joseph P. Babcock, an American who lived in Shanghai. He reserved the rights to the "Mah-Jong" name as well as to the simplified game rules. He also issued a set of bones with English inscriptions and figures. It helped the game gain much popularity in no time at all. Thousands of sets were imported and the game was the 6th of the top ten of the goods Shanghai exported. Only silk, laces, leather, eggs and tea earned more profit on their export. Just in 1923 the overall revenue on exporting Mah-Jong sets was 1,505,000 $.
In the late 1920s the game popularity started to decrease as rapidly as it was increasing before. The salesmen were left with the Mah-Jong sets worth 2,000,000$, which were impossible to sell. For many people the game was just a fashion that had faded away, like many other pastimes. Luckily, there is still an impressive group of its enthusiasts who hope that the game will regain its popularity.
The crisis of 1930s brought many board games back to fame. Mah-Jong stood out of them. Historians claim that people got bored with movies, concerts and radios, so they started to seek intellectual entertainment, which influenced the development of that kind of games. If one is looking for the challenge for one's intelligence, Mah-Jong is the game! It is sometimes called "a game of a hundred minds", as it requires unusual concentration.
Although it has not regained its previous popularity yet, since 1935 it has been becoming more and more famous.
For a few dozen of years the game popularity has been increasing all over the world, more and more tournaments are played, more and more clubs and societies are created, as well as professional leagues organizing tournaments and popularizing Mah-Jong all over the world.