Chinese Mahjong 麻将 má jiàng

The game of mahjong (or mah-jongg) is another famous Chinese invention and export to the rest of the world.

mahjong, game
Playing mahjong at Seattle's Chinatown-International District Night Market, Hing Hay Park, International District, Seattle, Washington. Image by Joe Mabel available under a Creative Commons License

Mahjong is a game combining skill and chance broadly similar to the card game of rummy ; the aim is to collect related groups of tiles, however the set of tiles and rules are a lot more complex than for cards. Like Chinese chess it is often played in tea-houses and the clatter of tiles on tables is a commonly heard background sound. The tiles were originally made of bone, bamboo or ivory but now are made from plastic.

Chinese Chess General piece Other games invented and played by the Chinese include 'Go' or Weiqi and 'Chinese Chess' or Xiangqi.

Origins of Mahjong

In a search for evidence of an early use of the game, no definitive evidence pushes it back before the Taiping Rebellion but pastimes are rarely mentioned in old history books particularly when played by ordinary people rather than the scholarly elite. The oldest known sets come from about 1870 in the Ningbo region of Zhejiang, perhaps by Chen Yumen Chén Yúmén (1817-1878). On the other hand the mystique of an ancient game from the mysterious and exotic East was a major selling point, so it is possible it was invented more recently. Some people has said it goes back all the way to the time of Confucius but there is no evidence for this. The Chinese pronunciation of the tiles indicates the export to America came from the Guangdong (Canton) area.

It was originally known as 麻雀 má què or ‘sparrow’ in English and is still known by that name in southern China; while in the north it is 麻将 má jiàng. Mah-Jongg, became a great craze as a parlor game in the 1920s when the U.S. Abercrombie & Fitch had great success in popularizing it. There were a number of trade marked versions of the game including ‘Pung Chow’ and ‘Game of Thousand Intelligences’.

A standard set has the following tiles:

Circles

mahjong circles

36 Circle tiles in 4 identical sets of 9 tiles with one to nine circles engraved on them. In Chinese they are tǒng zi meaning barrel or tube shaped, named after circular coins with a hole in them. The circles are often called ‘tans’ or ‘dots’.

Bamboos

mahjong bamboo

36 Bamboo tiles in 4 identical sets of 9 tiles with one to nine bamboo stems engraved on them. Bamboo in Chinese is zhú or else the suǒ zǐ suit or woven thread suit. The '1' is usually a picture of a bird; often a sparrow 麻雀 má què and the game is sometimes called the sparrow game. The bamboos are often called ‘soks’ or ‘bams’.

Characters

mahjong characters

36 Number tiles in 4 identical sets of 9 tiles with the characters for the numbers 1 to 9 engraved on them. The character for wàn 10,000 or myriad is underneath each Chinese number. They are often called ‘wans’ or ‘craks’. Old Chinese coins were often strung together in hundreds, a hundred of such strings represented a large number of coins - 10,000 and is often used to mean ‘countless’ or ‘beyond measure’.

Serials

The circles, bamboos and numbers form the 序数牌 xù shù pái the ‘Serials’ and only these tiles can form runs or ‘chows’.

The ones and nines at the ends of the sequence are called ‘terminals’ or chún yāo jiǔ. The terminals can contribute to high scoring hands.

Winds

mahjong wind

There are 16 Wind tiles in 4 identical sets of 4 tiles for each of four wind directions (east, south, west and north) Collectively known as the fēng pái they are always listed in this order: 西

Dragons

mahjong dragon

There are 12 Dragon tiles in 4 identical sets of 3 tiles: red; green and white dragons. Collectively they are also known as the sān yuán pái three scholars, the change to 'dragons' may be a result of export to America. hóng zhōng (Traditional 紅中 ) Red dragon or Red center qīng fā (Traditional 青發 ) Green dragon or Green fortune bái bǎn Blank or White dragon or White board. The white dragon is often a blank tile but may be just a blank frame.

Honor tiles

The dragons and winds together are called fān zǐ ‘the Honor’ tiles.

Flowers

mahjong flower

There are 4 Flower tiles which may have an Arabic number (1-4) on them as well as a flower: Plum blossom, Orchid, Bamboo and Chrysanthemum. These are optional tiles collectively called huā pái 'blue flowers' and do not play a full part in the game. Plum méi Orchid lán (Traditional ) Bamboo zhú Chrysanthemum

Seasons

mahjong season

The 4 Season tiles, which may have an Arabic number (1-4) are often engraved as a picture representing Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter, sometimes also with the Chinese character for the season. They are sometimes known as the 'red flowers' and do not play a full part in the game. Spring chūn Summer xià Autumn qiū Winter dōng

Full Mahjong Set

This gives a total of 36 circles+36 bamboos+36 characters+16 winds+12 dragons+4 flowers+4 seasons = a total of 144 tiles or páis. The original Chinese game did not include the flowers and seasons so the total was 136. However, some American sets also have 8 joker tiles that add a little more complication. In Singapore there are sets where there are extra pairs e.g. cat and rat.

Dealing

The game usually has four players who take it in turns to pick up tiles to try to form sets. The first task is to shuffle the tiles, all players take part in this by moving them around with both hands, with the faces of the tiles downward. Then they build the 牌墙 pái qiáng wall of 18 tiles wide and 2 tiles high in a square, face down. The dealer then throws three dice to determine where to start dealing out the tiles. The score (1-18) determines whose wall and which quarter of the wall is chosen. The dealer then takes four tiles from the left of this position and the other players take a set of four until they have 12 tiles (3 sets of 4) moving clockwise around the wall. Each player then finally takes a single extra tile in turn to make a total of 13 tiles. A quicker version just takes the tiles from a corner of the dealer's portion of wall.

At this stage if any player has a 'flower' or 'season' tile these are set aside (used for scoring bonuses) and an extra tile is picked up to replace them.

All players are associated with a compass direction. East- South - West - North. After each round the designation of 'dealer' or East wind moves around one place. The game is complete when all four players have been dealer. Whenever the dealer wins a hand or if there is no winner (a draw) an extra hand is played.

Playing Mahjong

East starts the game by discarding a tile. Who starts is often decided by throwing a die (highest number wins) or else by drawing the 'East wind' from the set of four wind tiles. The dealer who casts the dice and first picks up tiles is called 'jonga' ( zhuāng jiā). If the dealer has a complete 'winning' hand this can be announced and put down, otherwise he chooses a tile and discards it into the central area 牌池 pái chí 'floor' between the walls. Play now moves to South on the dealer's right. Each player can then take from the wall or the pool of discarded tiles in the middle. A player can steal or 'meld' by picking up a discarded tile rather than one from the wall. This can interrupt the order of play, as any player can do this, the player who picks up the discarded tile must put down the 'meld' (which can not be an ‘eye’ unless it completes a mahjong). The player resumes to this player's right. Each player's go follows the same pattern : take a tile, optionally puts down completed groups and then discard a tile. The order is counter-clockwise. A player should always have 13 tiles in total. Just as in the setup, if a 'flower' or 'season' tile is picked up this is immediately put aside and another tile taken from the wall.

The aim is to collect groups and runs. A winning hand is made of four groups of related tiles. The complexity comes from the large range of possible sets and the need to work out what other players may be collecting - on the basis of what they pick-up or discard.

For a more detailed account and diagrams explaining the playing of Mahjong please see Sloperama page .

Special terms are used for the name of sets of related tiles or pai:

Pair duì. Two identical tiles of any kind. e.g. 4 circles and 4 circles.
Chow shùn zǐ or chī is a run of three serials in order.e.g. 4; 5 and 6 of circles.
Pung or Pong kè zǐ or pèng is a set of three identical tiles of any kind. e.g. 7; 7 and 7 of bamboo.
Kong gān is a set of four identical tiles of any kind. e.g. 4 east wind tiles.
Eye yǎn is a pair of tiles in a winning hand that is independent of the other sets so a pair of 4 circles would be an eye only if 4's and circles do not feature in the other sets.

The rules associated with forming a complete group called a ‘Kong’ are different to the other groups. A player can choose to declare a Kong and lay it down but with only two tiles exposed. If a player makes a Kong using a discarded tile the discarded tile is placed on top of the other three. A player can also add to their existing Pung with a picked up (but not discarded) tile. The fourth tile forming the Kong is not counted, the player picks up an extra tile from the wall and discards one.

When a player reckons they have a winning hand he/she calls ‘Mahjong’ and the scores for all the hands are counted up, the person calling Mahjong might not have the most points and so did not really win the hand. If there are no more tiles left in the wall then it is a draw and a new game is started.

Scoring

Scoring is complicated due to specific combinations of sets being given bonuses. For example Seven Pairs; Thirteen Orphans; Heavenly Gates; The Coward; All pungs; All chows. There are different scoring conventions in China (Chinese Classical or CC), Shanghai (New style), Singapore, Hong Kong (HKOS), UK, America so this must be announced ahead of the game. A winning hand must score at least a minimum number of points. When a flower or season tile is picked up it is immediately put down and does not take part in the building of sets, it is used to give a bonus once a winning hand has been declared and the scores are totted up.

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Citation information: Chinasage, 'Mahjong', last updated 1 May 2015, Web, http://www.chinasage.info/mahjong.htm.

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