Mahjong is consistently ranked as one of the top games in terms of participation and popularity in China. A popular saying in China goes as follows: “Of the one billion people in China, 900 million are playing mahjong while the other 100 million are watching it.” This game is currently played in every region of the world. Many Chinese people consider it to be one of their most enjoyable pastimes. In addition, it is common for people to play mahjong during festivities or celebrations like birthday parties or wedding banquets.
What is Mahjong?
In some areas of China, the activity played using collections of tiles is referred to as the “sparrow game.” The game is played with numbered tiles, which were made of bone or bamboo in the past but are now made of plastic instead. There are four players involved in the game. There are a total of 144 tiles, including 36 tiles belonging to the bamboo suit, 36 tiles belonging to the circle suit, 36 tiles belonging to the character suit, 16 tiles representing wind, 12 tiles representing dragons, and eight bonus tiles consisting of four flowers and four different seasons. Like many other popular games, Mahjong can be played in various ways depending on where you go. The 136 standard tiles are available in the northern regions of China; the flower and season tiles are not there. Since wind and dragon tiles are not utilized in Sichuan Province, the total number of tiles in this region is 108.
The History of Mahjong
There are numerous theories and legends regarding the origins of mahjong; some claim it dates back to the time of Confucius, but there is no evidence to support this claim. Instead, ZhengHe, a Chinese explorer who commanded seven ships across Asia and Africa in the early 15th century, is said to have invented mahjong to entertain his crew members during their voyages. According to the legend, this explains why there are so many references to seafaring on the tiles.
Throughout Chinese history, numerous games resembled modern mahjong. For example, Xuan He Pai, a game originating in the Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE), was played with cards made of wood and ivory, similar to modern-day mahjong tiles. They resemble dominoes in appearance and have a total of 227 pips. These 32 dominoes are intended to depict the constellations of the night sky.
During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 CE), Ma Diao was a trick-taking card game for four participants played with four-suited money cards. Three of the four Ma Diao suits are comparable to the three mahjong suits. Coins represent circles, coin threads represent bamboos, and coin string myriads represent characters. Many money card games evolved from ma diao, and numerous variations of money card decks have occurred. Three-suited money cards were favored (one of the four money suits was eliminated), a change that undoubtedly led to the creation of Peng He Pai, a card game with four sets of three-suited money cards. Chen Yumen (courtesy name Chen Zhengyue) of Ningbo developed a Mahjong game based on Peng He Pai in 1846. He created mahjong using bamboo and bone instead of paper. As Ningbo was a commercial port, the game rapidly spread to other Chinese cities.
At the turn of the twentieth century, the game spread beyond China’s borders, resulting in modifications to the traditional Chinese rules. The Shanghai expatriate population took up the game in the cafes they frequented and introduced it to their home countries. Mahjong organizations originated in Japan at the turn of the century. In the 1920s, the British and Americans began to appreciate the game, and consequently, the rules changed.
In 1998, the State Sports Commission of China recognized mahjong as the 255th sport, and in the same year, the Official International Rules were published.
Tiles for Mahjongg
Traditionally, a standard set consists of 144 tiles, but most Chinese areas now use only 136 tiles, omitting the four blossoms and four seasons.
Circles (also referred to as Dots)
One to nine circles are engraved on each of the 36 circle tiles arranged in four sets of nine tiles. Named after circular coins with an opening once used in China, they are barrel- or tube-shaped in Chinese. The circles are also called ‘dots.’
Bamboo (also called Soks and Bams)
One to nine bamboo stems are engraved on each of the 36 bamboo tiles arranged in four sets of nine. Bamboo is weaved thread suit in Chinese. The ‘1’ depicts a bird, typically a sparrow, for which the game is named in the south. Bamboo is also known as’soks’ and ‘bams.’
Characters (also called Wans and Cracks)
36 Number tiles comprised four identical sets of nine tiles, each bearing the numerals 1 through 9. Underneath each Chinese number is the character for wàn, typically in its traditional form. They are also referred to as ‘wans’ and ‘cracks.’
For each of the four wind directions (east, south, west, and north), there are four identical sets of four Wind tiles, totaling sixteen. Always enumerated in this order: east, south, west, and north, they are collectively known as the Fngpái.
There are twelve red, green, and white dragon tiles arranged in four identical sets of three. Collectively, they are also referred to as the Sn yuán pái three scholars; the transition to ‘dragons’ may have resulted from the export to the United States and referred to as “zhongfabai” in China. Hóngzhng (traditional) red dragon or red center, fcái (traditional) green dragon or green fortune, and Bái bn (blank) white dragon or whiteboard. Often, the white dragon is a frameless image.
Chinese Mahjong etiquette
There are numerous variations of mahjong regulations, but the four most common are as follows:
- Hong Kong
- United States
Here, we examine the laws of Chinese mahjong, which are quite straightforward:
- Four participants are required for a game.
- All 136 tiles are shifted face down, and four 34-tile square walls are constructed.
- The dealer’s dice roll determines the turn order and rotates counterclockwise.
- The dealer directs the other participants to draw thirteen tiles clockwise around the wall.
- At the beginning of each turn, a player draws a tile or claims the one the prior player discarded.
- After a player’s turn, they dump a tile from their inventory.
- Other players may claim the discard to complete chows, pungs, or kungs.
- If no claims are made, the turn is passed clockwise to the next participant.
- Players triumph when they assemble a winning hand of four sets and a pair.
- The round is a tie if no participant has won when all walls have been depleted.
How do you play Chinese Mahjong?
To begin, a game requires four participants. Then you must master pung, chow, and kong, the three basic sets of tiles known as “mahjong.”
A pung, or pong, is a group of three similar tiles. When any player discards a tile, you can call pungs if you have two of the same tile.
A chow is a suitable combination of three tiles in a row. Unlike other combos, an exposed chow can only be declared off the discard of the player to your left.
However, the chow is prohibited in several places of China.
Some players also use a “kong,” four identical tiles (like an extended pung). The same rules apply for claiming a discarded tile, except any player who completes a kong instantly draws an extra tile before discarding it.
The game’s goal is to get mahjong, which consists of arranging all 14 of your tiles into four sets and one pair. A pair is two identical tiles. A set can be a pung, chow, or kong. A single tile cannot be used in both sets at the same time.
Throwing the dice is the traditional method of dealing the four wind tiles to the players after they have been shuffled and turned over. After that, players should seat in the sequence “north, west, south, and east” according to the direction printed on their tile, moving clockwise. The role of the dealer will rotate among the players in turn. Players can roll the dice while determining who will act as the dealer.
After mixing all the tiles, the players arrange them so that they are face down in front of them to form a wall that is 34 tiles long, two tiles high, and 17 tiles wide. The result should be a giant square wall of tiles in the middle of the table. You won’t need to construct the wall tiles because most mahjong parlors offer automatic mahjong tables for their customers to use.
The dealer throws the dice, counts how many tiles are along the right edge of their wall, and then separates the wall at that point to begin dealing tiles starting from the left of that position and moving clockwise. Every player receives a hand of 13 tiles, and the dealer starts with an additional tile in their hand. After that, each player positions their tiles so that the front faces face them, but the back faces face away from them. This prevents other players from seeing what they are doing. After that, the dealer will throw away one tile, and the game will start with the player on their right.
Following the completion of each discard, the following turn may be taken by any player who possesses two or three tiles identical to one another and who has called mahjong, pung, or kong. A player must reclaim the discarded tile to win the game of mahjong by that player. The successful person claims the tile, and the remaining players then show their best hand of 14 tiles.
If this does not happen, any player is free to reclaim the tile that was thrown away to finish a pung. First, the player announces “pung” and then exposes the two matching tiles that match the discarded tile. For instance, if the tile thrown away was the number seven of bamboo and the player still had two other bamboo sevens in their hand, the player would call it “pung.” When a player reaches “pung,” that person discards a tile that isn’t needed, turns the finished “pung” face-up on the table, and then passes the turn to the player to the right. In this example, the “completed” “pung” includes all three bamboo 7s.
If nobody claims the discarded tile, but it completes a chow for you, you can claim it at the beginning of your turn by shouting “chow.” On the other hand, suppose nobody claims the discarded tile, and the game ends. After then, you have to turn your chow over so that the completed run can be seen (for example, 5, 6, 7 of bamboo), similar to how it was done in the pung example. After that, you will throw away one of your tiles, and the game will proceed as usual.
If the tile you discarded did not complete a set for you, then when it is your turn, you will draw the next tile from the end of the wall that is open. It would be best to discard a tile with its face up unless this gives you mahjong. Please be aware that the only tile that can be claimed is the one that was tossed most recently.
Players continue to compete until they reach a certain number of points, rounds, or hours, or until they reach an agreement that they are finished.