Unmasking a tiled tradition: Mahjong from its origins to today

Alexander Bushroe
Despite perhaps seeming mysterious to the uninitiated, it is actually a fairly simple game somewhat similar to the card game rummy.
Alexander Bushroe

Gaming culture has long been alive and well here in China as a pastime, from the ancient precursor to modern-day football known as cuju to Chinese chess (xiangqi), to the plethora of games played in China today using regular playing cards. But, of course, when thinking of traditional Chinese games, the first to come to mind for most is mahjong (麻将 majiang in Chinese pinyin).

Even if you're not well-versed in how the game is played, you very likely are at least vaguely familiar with how the game looks, with its various rectangular tiles embossed with Chinese characters, circles, lines, numbers and other symbols. The tiles, traditionally made of bamboo or ivory but nowadays usually of acrylic or plastic, are shuffled and stacked, lined up and rearranged, drawn and discarded until a winner emerges.

Those of us who used earlier versions of Microsoft's Windows operating system likely remember a game called Mahjong using these tiles that was installed as a default program in the "Games" folder next to Minesweeper and Solitaire. However, anyone who has seen an actual game of mahjong played knows that this Windows version, in which tiles are stacked into some sort of tower that is gradually deconstructed, does not resemble in the slightest the game of mahjong as it is played in China.

Despite carrying a cultural gravitas that would seem to imply the game originated in ancient times, the game of mahjong only dates back to the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) in the latter half of the 19th century.

Originally called "sparrow cards," the game can trace its origins back as far as to the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) to a type of game that shared some basic aesthetic similarities to its modern counterpart, although it was more of a dice-style game than like mahjong itself.

Over the subsequent centuries and through dynastic overturns, the game and its playing methods evolved into the sequentially played mahjong of the present day, the oldest historically recorded set of which dates to 1875. Its explosion in popularity thereafter allowed it to flourish in the subsequent decades, then survive a period during which it was banned after the "cultural revolution" (1966-1976), a ban which was later reversed.

Despite perhaps seeming mysterious to the uninitiated, it is actually a fairly simple game somewhat similar to the card game rummy, in which the tiles, which are separated into suits and ranks, are arranged to form combinations of two, three, and four. Filling a hand with these melded combinations allows a player to complete a hand and hupai (和牌), or win the round.

Unmasking a tiled tradition: Mahjong from its origins to today
Courtesy of Alexander Bushroe

Alexander Bushroe is a dab at playing the traditional Chinese game of mahjong.

I must add a disclaimer here and acknowledge that mahjong, among many other parlor-style games, is often used as a vehicle for gambling. Firstly, I do not endorse gambling outside of specific venues and areas legally designated for that purpose. However, it's important to note that mahjong, unlike, for example, most poker-style games, is still meaningful and fun when played for simply the pride of winning instead of for cash. This is because the gameplay itself doesn't involve in-game wagering and isn't a battle of gambling chutzpah where success depends on how much money one is willing to risk. Rounds are simply played and a winner is determined at their conclusion.

The tiles, each of which has four copies in the full mahjong set, are separated into three different suits, much like playing cards have four ― spades, hearts, clubs and diamonds. Other tiles with characters like the four cardinal directions and the four seasons, among others, are included as well. There are a staggering number of divergent ways to play that differ across locations around the country and the continent.

The variations to the basic version of the game are somewhat comparable to the different regional dialects around the country ― a standard version exists, like the Mandarin of mahjong, but different regional styles add twists and turns to spice up the experience.

Whether it's on the street, at home, or elsewhere, this internationally recognized but particularly nationally beloved pastime is a classic staple of traditional games in China. If you're interested in learning a bit more about the tiles themselves and the actual mahjong gameplay, check out the second part of this series, titled, "Mahjong basics: A brief tutorial to a classic Chinese pastime." Contrary to many misconceptions, it's actually fairly simple and accessible, and learning to play it offers an opportunity to immerse oneself in a unique and entertaining aspect of Chinese culture.

A brief tutorial on a classic Chinese pastime

Many visitors to China and folks who've taken up residence here have seen it played, but few have decided to learn the game.

Here I'll share some elementary knowledge and give a brief introductory tutorial on mahjong. Hopefully, those of you who are interested in learning some of the basics and perhaps giving it a try can get started here.

Let's look at some of the types of tiles used and basic rules to develop an understanding of how the game works.

While playing cards are divided into four suits ― spades, hearts, clubs and diamonds ― mahjong tiles have three basic suits plus a few other tiles that fall outside of the suited categories.

The three suits include dots (tong筒 or bing饼 in Chinese), bamboo (tiao条 or suo索) and numbers (wan万). These are not direct translations, but rather what the tiles are commonly called in Chinese. Each of the suits is numbered from 1 to 9, and there are four identical tiles of each value in a complete mahjong set.

Unmasking a tiled tradition: Mahjong from its origins to today
Courtesy of Alexander Bushroe

Tiles of the dot, number, and bamboo suits

These tiles, through drawing, discarding and snatching up other players' unwanted tiles, are arranged into sets of three or four identical tiles or runs of three consecutive tiles of the same suit (for example, 3 dots, 4 dots and 5 dots) with the goal of filling out a complete hand with these complementary tile groups.

Outside of the suited tiles, each of the four cardinal directions is represented ― north, south, east and west ― with four copies of each of these directional "wind" tiles. In addition, four each of a red zhong中, or middle; a green fa发, for wealth; and a plain white tile round out the basic tiles in a mahjong set.

These tiles, unlike their suited counterparts, can only be arranged in sets of three or four identical tiles and cannot be combined with any other tile than their identical copies.

Unmasking a tiled tradition: Mahjong from its origins to today
Courtesy of Alexander Bushroe

The additional directional tiles plus zhong, fa and white

Mahjong sets also include eight "flower" tiles, four of which represent the four seasons and four of which depict four different types of flower or plant, but these are simply bonus tiles for additional points and do not directly affect gameplay. Upon entering a player's hand, these tiles are placed aside and bonus points are awarded to be counted after the hand.

Altogether, with four copies of each main tile plus the eight flower tiles, a standard mahjong set consists of 144 pieces.

Each player begins each round with 13 tiles and starts their turn by drawing one additional tile to reach 14, incorporating it into the tiles in their hand, then choosing one to discard in the middle of the table, ending the turn. After each turn, a player must have exactly 13 tiles in their possession.

Aside from simply drawing one tile and discarding another to complete a turn, there are four basic moves a player can complete: peng (碰 set of 3), gang (杠 set of 4), chi (吃 sequence of 3), and hu (和 completed hand and victory).

In lieu of drawing from the stack, a player, if possessing a pair of identical tiles ― let's say, two 6-bamboo tiles ― can, upon an opponent discarding an additional 6-bamboo, jump in and shout, "Peng!" and snap it up, making a set of three. When doing so, the player reveals that set of three identical tiles face-up on the table. It still is counted as part of the 13 tiles in the player's hand. They then discard a tile, and the next player in rotation begins.

Unmasking a tiled tradition: Mahjong from its origins to today
Courtesy of Alexander Bushroe

Picking up a just-discarded tile to make a peng, or a set of three

If a player has three identical tiles in their hand, but all three have been drawn from the stack without using the peng method, that player can perform a gang, or securing a set of four, once the fourth tile is discarded or drawn. That player then draws an additional tile and discards one. This leaves that player with 14 tiles remaining, making the gang move the only time a player can exceed 13 tiles after a hand.

If a player wins a hand with a set of 4, they are awarded an additional point.

The next move, chi, creates a run of 3 consecutive tiles of the same suit (for example, 6, 7 and 8 dots or 2, 3 and 4 bamboo). If a tile is discarded by the player directly to one's left (and only the left-side player for this particular move) that would allow the next player to make three consecutive tiles, they can then take it instead of drawing from the stack, completing that set and getting closer to a fully formed, winning hand.

To win, turn your hand (upon acquiring your 14th tile to begin a turn) into four groups of three tiles ― identical or consecutive melds are both acceptable ― plus an additional pair, known as the "eyes," and you've completed the hu and secured victory.

Unmasking a tiled tradition: Mahjong from its origins to today
Courtesy of Alexander Bushroe

A complete, winning hand with sets of three, runs of three, and an extra pair ― the "eyes"

Though it may seem complex and mysterious to those who've not tried it, the game is quite fun and its principles are not too hard to grasp.

Hopefully, this basic tutorial has provided some insight as to how mahjong is played. For further reference, search for mahjong rules and strategies online or ask a friend familiar with the game.

Good luck on your journey into learning this entertaining and beautiful pastime!

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