A great deal of bunkum has been written about the origin of Mah Jong. Both the Chinese, and later, the rest of the world decided to embellish the truth liberally and outrageously for nefarious purposes and the result has been a number of spurious assertions for the game's history. As usual with Chinese games, one theory has it that Confucious invented it and mystical histories of hundreds and even thousands of years have been claimed often by western tradesmen keen to impress their potential customers. All this is very unlikely because the stark truth is that no evidence of the game exists before around 1880.
In fact, the history of the game is straightforward and can be viewed in two parts - "until the early 1920s" when the game was almost exclusively played by the Chinese and "after the early 1920s" when the game was discovered and immediately popularised by other nations.
A set of 144 Mah Jong tiles consists of 36 tiles in the Bamboo suit, 36 in the Circle suit, 36 in the Character suit, 16 Wind tiles, 12 Dragon tiles and 8 bonus tiles (4 Flowers and 4 Seasons). The best tiles are made from bamboo and ivory or bone and have beautiful hand-painted pictures representing the face of each tile. Traditionally, the Flowers, Seasons and the One of Bamboos come in for particular artistic creativity.
The aim is to collect sets of tiles according to the number and type shown on the face of each tile. A player takes and discards a tile each turn and the first player whose hand consists entirely of a legal set or sets goes out or goes "Mah Jong". The game is effectively the same as the card game Rummy, in fact. For what always appears initially to be a very complicated game, Mah Jong is really remarkably simple when reduced to its basics and it is only the accompanying rituals and complex scoring that change this. One of these rituals, the process of shuffling the tiles at the start of the game, is known as "The twittering of the sparrows", presumably because of the accompanying noise. Since Mah Jong means "the game of the sparrows" or "Sparrow tiles" in Chinese, it seems likely that this is the source of the game's title.