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Cultural Appropriation Through Blanding: Where The Mahjong Line Went Wrong

by Theresa Christine Johnson on 01/13/2021 | 5 Minute Read

The Mahjong Line is a Dallas, Texas-based company that started near the end of 2020 with the goal of sharing their love of American mahjong. Sounds harmless enough, right? Their website features a few different sets of tiles with vibrant colors and cutesy illustrations—and sure, they’re around $400, but they’ll look pretty adorable on your Urban Outfitters coffee table.

Oh, and did we mention the company was founded by three white women? And that they intended to “refresh” the game by stripping the tiles of the Chinese characters which you would traditionally find on them?

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It’s one thing to refresh a brand; it’s another thing entirely to refresh an aspect of a culture. Trying to do so implies that making something more contemporary, perhaps even more Instagrammable, and more refined to a particular set of eyes will make it more palatable to a Gen Z or millennial audience. But what makes a culture better, and who gets to decide how traditions evolve?

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THE HISTORY OF MAHJONG

Mahjong is a tile-based game that dates back to the early- to mid-1800s in China (during the Qing Dynasty). Tiles get categorized as Simples, Honors, and Bonus tiles and feature images of things like bamboo or Chinese characters, and they all play roles in the mechanics of the game. A group of (usually) four people will gather and play at a table, and mahjong is still played and loved today by people of all ages.

“I’ve been playing Mahjong since I was fourteen or fifteen,” said Zipeng Zhu, founder and creative director of Dazzle Studio. “It’s a very popular activity for people to do. Back home, we have these Mahjong rooms, and you go there and just sit there for at least half of the day playing Mahjong. You eat and chat and catch up over the Mahjong table.”

Mahjong has regional variations within China, and it has also spread to other parts of Asia (riichi mahjong is a Japanese version of the game). And, yes, it’s shown up in Western countries like the United States. Mahjong arrived around the 1920s and was especially popular among Jewish Americans. Traditional mahjong sets have 144 tiles; American mahjong sets look the same but have eight additional Joker tiles and scorecards.

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DESIGNING FROM THE OUTSIDE IN

The Mahjong Line looked to update—or in their words, “refresh”—tile sets for American Mahjong (which, regardless of its name, still has deep roots in traditional Mahjong). They used playful colors and created adorable tile designs for their line of custom luxury Mahjong tiles and accessories. Their sets are for the minimal design-loving gal who “loves a good Eames chair, the smell of coffee shops, abnormally long walks on crisp days and the pulse of NYC,” or the cheeky gal who is often found “cruising on her bike with a flea-find stuffed in the basket, earbuds playing Blondie.”

Rather than start with the tradition of Mahjong and use this information to design something new, The Mahjong Line took an ideal customer avatar and created a set that would be palatable for this person. The “gal” who purchases this pricey set wants pretty little lightning bolts and swaying palm trees on her Mahjong tiles—most likely because she hasn’t taken the time to learn the importance of the original illustrations that usually appear on Mahjong tiles. 

“What they lacked is an actual understanding of the essence of these cards,” Zipeng explained. “These cards looked like this for a very specific reason. What was really upsetting were the ones where some of our iconic letters were swapped with some random objects. This just missed the point. They don’t understand anything about this, but they somehow decided to remake it.”

The design for The Mahjong Line could have been used just as easily for a plain old deck of cards or even put on a board for The Minimalist Gal’s Monopoly. It’s blanding, plain and simple—something that’s strangely characterless yet also oh-so visually appealing in our Instagram feeds—but presented with a cultural appropriation twist. It’s a prime example of parts of another culture becoming cool only once white people have deemed it so and of the ease with which white folks can partake in aspects of other cultures without facing a racist backlash.

A regular Mahjong tile set? Boring, lame! But once it gets designed to look like something straight out of Free People, then sure, your “gal” will play it.

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CULTURAL APPRECIATION VS. APPROPRIATION

The Mahjong Line caused harm whether they meant to or not. Zipeng added that it’s an extra painful blow to people, considering Chinese New Year is only a month away. But how could the founders of The Mahjong Line have approached their work in a way that respected the culture and the roots of Mahjong?

The answer isn’t that crazy—Zipeng says they could have consulted some Chinese people who had a good understanding of the culture. “Just do the work,” he added. “Put in your research and study this thing you want to create.”

Had The Mahjong Line founders done this, they would have undoubtedly figured out that putting a drawing of a whoopie cushion on a Mahjong tile could be seen as offensive. The founders have since apologized since they were called out on social media for their failure to recognize the game's heritage, but their "take" on American mahjong has certainly spoiled any plans they might have had for being the Coachella tile game of choice.

“I think cultural appropriation is very often appreciation without respect and understanding,” Zipeng added. 

“I’m not the type of person saying, ‘Nobody should cook Chinese food, and nobody can do anything Chinese unless you're Chinese.’ That’s not true—culture is meant to be shared. But culture is meant to be shared under the principles of respect. If you are not willing and open to understanding a culture, then you don’t get to reinvent a thing that you don’t even understand.”

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