Mahjong: An Introduction to the Popular Game from China

MahjongMahjong is a tile-based game originating from the Qing dynasty of China that has eventually become widely popular across Asia since the early 20th century. The game has developed into a number of regional variants over time and is now commonly found in online casinos all over the world.

The most intriguing quality of Mahjong is probably the vibrant, social atmosphere it engenders among players that is rarely found in today’s digital world. Despite the digital versions available in almost every online casino, there is something unusually satisfying about holding the tiles in our hands and moving them around. The tangible attribute of Mahjong engages players physically, mentally and socially. The exciting game encourages our brains to exercise its cognitive abilities, and it is scientifically proven that by keeping this part of the brain active, we can slow down the deterioration of our brains as we grow older.

A game of skills, strategy, calculation and a degree of luck, Mahjong has stood the test of time and remained as one of the most loved games among gamblers. Continue to read to get to know more about this intoxicating game.

How Mahjong Works

The tactile game of Mahjong is played with a set of 136 tiles based on various Chinese characters and symbols. Some variations have up to 144 tiles. It is usually played by 4 players, with some variations from Japan, Korea and Southeast Asia requiring only 3 players. In most variants, the game starts with giving each player 13 tiles. Players then take turns to draw and discard tiles until they complete what is referred to as a drawn hand. The 14th drawn tile is used to form a pair (eye) and four groups called a meld.

The rules in relation to how a tile is drawn, how a piece is “stolen” from another player, how to use simples (numbered tiles) and honours (winds and dragon), the types of melds allowed and the order of play is generally standard, but the scoring system and criteria for legal winning hands may vary depending on the variations.

Check out this YouTube playlist for a detailed explanation of the rules of Hong Kong Mahjong.

Mahjong Tiles

Apparently, Mahjong cannot be played without understanding the tiles. We have put together a brief explanation of what each piece is and what it represents. Also, check out our Mahjong Game Guide for even more tips and tricks.

Mahjong tiles are divided into 3 categories: Simples Suits, Honours and Bonus.

You can find 3 different Simples suits in a set of Mahjong, namely dots, bamboos and characters. In each suit, the tiles are numbered from 1 to 9, as shown in the picture below:

Mahjong Tiles

There are 4 identical pieces of each tile seen above, totalling a number of 108 simples tiles.

The Honour Suit consists of only 2 categories, the Winds and the Dragons.

The Winds tiles consist of the four different directions of the wind: North, South, East and West. The Dragons are Red, White and Green. The Honours tiles, unlike the Simples, are not numbered.

Lastly, the Bonus tiles are split into 2 categories: Seasons and Flowers. The seasons are Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter, while the Flowers are Plum Blossom, Orchid, Chrysanthemum and Bamboo. Each of the Bonus tiles is only represented by 1 instead of 4 copies. When drawn, the Bonus tiles are set aside for scoring purposes rather than going into players’ hands. An additional tile is drawn to replace the bonus tile.

A Brief History of Mahjong

Mahjong is based on different forms of draw-and-discard card games that were widely played in 18th and 19th century in the Qing Empire. British games scholar David Parlett once suggested that Mahjong shared a common origin with Western card games Conquin and Rummy: they all require players to draw and discard cards or tiles in order to form melds.

The exact period of time when the conversion from cards to tiles occurred is unknown, but it is estimated to be in the mid-19th century. The oldest surviving Mahjong sets were discovered in Fuzhou, Shanghai and Ningbo, dating back to around 1870.

As the communists rose to power in 1949, gambling was banned, resulting in a decline in playing. Mahjong became illegal between 1966-1976 during the Cultural Revolution.

Mahjong in the West

A paper written by British sinologist William Henry Wilkinson in 1895 mentioned a set of cards known in central China called “ma chioh”. There were written accounts in various languages, including French and Japanese, by 1910.

Mahjong was first introduced in America in 1920, with Abercrombie & Fitch pioneering in selling the game in the country. It did not take long for Mahjong to gain overwhelming success in Washington, D.C. In the same year, Joseph Park Babcock published Rules of Mah-Jongg, a book explaining the rules of the game. Babcock learnt Mahjong while living in China and he simplified the rules to make it easier for Americans to understand. Babcock’s version received popularity throughout the 1920s’ Mahjong fag. However, many of Babcock’s rules were abandoned when the fag ended.

Mahjong was known as many trademark names, including “Game of a Thousand Intelligences” and “Pung Chow”. The game even found its way into the popular culture. A couple of pop songs about Mahjong were written during the Mahjong fag, with “Since Ma Is Playing Mah Jong” by Eddie Cantor being most well-known.

The establishment of the National Mahjong League in 1937 further regulated and standardised the game of Mahjong. The League created the first American rule book entitled Maajh: The American Version of the Ancient Chinese Game. Mahjong in America became a game most often played by Jewish women, including all the founders of the National Mahjong League.

In 1999, the National Mahjong League was joined by the American Mah Jong Association, which has been hosting tournaments all over North America.

Today, the popularity of Mahjong has no signs of dying. The game is still deeply ingrained in Asian cultures, and it has successfully moved into the 21st century with the development of digital versions.