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The games that can be considered as precursors of Mah Jong (sometimes spelled Mah-Jongg or majong or mahjonng) may date back to the time of Confucius around 500 B.C.
As a tile game, Mahjong may only be about 150 years old: in 1846 China, the rules of popular mahjong-like card games were standardized and cards were replaced with tiles.

The shuffling of mahjong tiles before the game used to be referred to as "the twittering of the sparrows", which could be an allusion to the similarity of the sounds. Mah Jong in Chinese means "the game of the sparrows" or "Sparrow tiles", which is probably why the pictures of birds are often engraved on mahjong tiles.

After the First Opium War (1837-1842), China has opened to foreign traders just when mahjong was growing in popularity as a tile game.
One of such foreign traders was an American businessman, Joseph Babcock, who visited China in 1912 on behalf of Standard Oil company.

Joseph Babcock spoke fluent Chinese, and he quickly learned how to play mahjong and was enchanted by it. Babcock was the first to bring mahjong back to America. He also modified the numbers on the mahjong tiles to include Arabic numerals (1, 2, 3, etc.) and in 1920, Abercrombie and Fitch, then a sporting and excursion goods store, was the first place to sell mahjong sets in America.