- Performing Mahjong in the 1920sWhite Women, Chinese Americans, and the Fear of Cultural Seduction
On the cover of Auction Bridge and Mah-Jongg Magazine’s 1924 September issue, a woman in gauzy faux-Chinese dress paints designs on a larger-than-life mahjong set.
Behind the delicate craftswoman and her embroidered slippers glows a golden Chinese dragon screen, at once alluring and ominous. The woman, however, is not portrayed as racially Chinese, for the elegant tile-painter is clearly white. Exemplifying the massive American cultural output inspired by mahjong, the illustration highlights the performative possibilities the game opened in America, the fad’s ambiguous representations of China, and how the Chinese game and its accoutrements helped form a 1920s “Oriental” aesthetic. In this image as in the culture at large, mahjong represented far more than a commodity sold for mass consumption.
Mahjong, the Chinese game of skill played by four people with dominolike engraved “tiles,” swept the United States in the 1920s.1 It resonated with a specific historical moment in American life and generated an outpouring of commentary and representations. Hundreds of thousands of Americans purchased game sets, and middle- and leisure-class women enacted representations of Chinese civilization through dress and entertainment. Mahjong was quite obviously—even desirably—Chinese, in an era when Chinese bodies were alien, exotic, and sexualized. While white women used mahjong as a tool to experiment with new boundaries of respectable femininity, Chinese Americans leveraged mahjong’s popularity for economic opportunities and cultural authority. Negative racial stereotypes used by critics of the wildly popular foreign game not only targeted Chinese American mobility but also responded to changing gender norms for white Americans. Mahjong matrons symbolized social changes, including female independence and leisure, that destabilized traditional notions of white domesticity.
The mahjong craze that erupted in the early 1920s further symbolized key [End Page 32]
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elements of Americans’ heightened sense of the “modern”: America’s global strength abroad and its commercialized, cosmopolitan urban life at home.2 Americans discussed mahjong as a connection to the luxurious and powerful ancient Chinese court, brought into the light of modernity through American entrepreneurial intervention.3 Manufacturers and importers of the game capitalized on hand-carved Chinese images on natural materials to generate an impression of premodern cultural authenticity. Mahjong in fact was a modern game: it evolved in the mid- and late 1800s in and around Shanghai, spreading by World War I to other major urban centers in China.4 A number of individuals, most famously a Standard Oil representative named Joseph Park Babcock, successfully brought mahjong to the United States via California in 1922.5 By 1924 mahjong sets were the sixth largest export to the United States from Shanghai, China’s largest port.6 Americans had long followed Europe’s lead in importing specific Chinese goods as markers of refinement. In this instance, however, American consumers led the way for a smaller-scale European mahjong craze as the United States became more directly engaged with East Asia after World War I.7
The game’s wild popularity coincided with challenges to traditional white domesticity as more women gained economic opportunities and participated in urban forms of leisure such as boundary-crossing jazz dances and voyeuristic tourism to Chinatowns.8 Popular culture was overtly sexual in new ways: films celebrated “sex appeal,” as did the booming cosmetics and fashion industries, while popularized Freudian psychology valorized heterosexual sex.9 Dressing up in exotic Chinese costumes to play mahjong provided white women—matrons as well as “modern girls”—a racial mask to help make new forms of public sexuality respectable.10
Orientalist consumerism was not unidirectional, however. By looking only at how the West viewed the East, examinations of white...