How to Play Mahjong – Your Questions, Answered
Mahjong is a fun way to learn more about Chinese characters and numbers, and what they signify for language, history and culture. But how to play Mahjong?
At any Chinese family gathering, social event and in streets across Asia, their air is punctuated with the sounds of clashing mahjong tiles. It signifies leisure, family time and fun.
How to play Mahjong – Key Vocab
How to play Mahjong – What is it?
How to play Mahjong – Historical Ties
How to play Mahjong – Improving Chinese
How to play Mahjong – Mentally Fit
How to play Mahjong – A Game of Strategy
How to play Mahjong – What do the characters represent?
How to play Mahjong – The Poker Face
How to play Mahjong – It’s a Game for Everyone
You’ll see it being played by people from all walks of life – from old men in night markets to ladies who lunch and gangsters in mafia movies.
This is an ancient game of dragons, hands and flowers, where fortunes can be lost on changing winds (Game of Thrones, anyone?)
麻将 (májiàng) mahjong
The Chinese character “将” has 3 different pronunciations: jiàng, qiāng, and jiāng.
When talking about the game mahjong, “将” is pronounced as “jiàng.”
The name 麻将 (májiàng) evolved from 麻雀 (máquè), meaning sparrow.
The game got this name because of the clattering sound the tiles make when they are being mixed together, or ‘washed’, which sounds like birds chirping (loudly).
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How to Play Mahjong – Key Vocab
Before getting stuck in the game of Mahjong, let’s learn some key words and phrases that you’ll be using to play Mahjong.
- 出牌 chū pái: play a card
- 摸牌 mō pái: get a card
- 洗牌 xǐ pái: shuffle the tiles
- 庄家 zhuāngjiā: the host, double win & double lose
- 上家 shàngjiā: to the left side
- 下家 xiàjiā: to the right side
- 对子 duìzi: a pair, such as AA
- 付子 fùzi: a set, such as (123, 456, 234, 789)
- 碰 pèng: Peng, three identical tiles (trips), such as AAA
- 杠 gāng: Gang, four identical tiles, (quads), such as AAAA
- 停牌 tíngpá: Ting, one more card to win, or Hu’s eve
- 和 hú: Hu-won
- 骰子 shǎizi: dice
- 坐庄 zuòzhuāng: keep host
- 条 tiáo: Tube
- 筒 tǒng: Odds
- 万 wàn: Million
- 幺 yāo: number 1 and 9, winds, and yuan cards
- 诈和 zhàhú: false win
How to Play Mahjong – What is it?
The rules of mahjong are quite complex.
What’s more, how the game is played varies from place to place – mahjong players in Hong Kong play a very different style of the game than people enjoy in Taiwan.
There are some great on-line resources if you’re interested in learning the full rules, but here’s a simple explanation:
Mahjong is a game of four players and 136 tiles, engraved with a suit and a number.
There are three main suits: characters, bamboo and circles, as well as honours suits: dragons and winds.
The aim of the game is to gather a hand that makes ‘mahjong’.
This could be a full flush – a hand of tiles all from the same suit, or a combination of tiles where numbers, colours or suits either match or are sequential.
There are many possible mahjong combinations and each winning hand is scored depending on the tiles within it.
Just to add a layer of complexity, some mahjong games are played with ‘flower’ tiles too.
However it is played, the principles of mahjong remain the same. So what can we learn from it?
How to Play Mahjong – Historical Ties
Mahjong is OLD – some people believe the Chinese have been playing it for more than 2500 years, and it likely evolved from a game similar to cards, printed on silk.
Modern records confirm it was being played in its current form in Shanghai by the early 1800s and it quickly became ingrained in Chinese culture. In the 1900s the game travelled beyond Chinese borders, carried by migrants, which explains why there are so many versions of the game today.
How to Play Mahjong – Improving Chinese
Speed – in particular quick recognition of the Chinese characters and numbers – is essential to mahjong, particularly when you’re fishing for one pesky tile to win the game.
The character suit is engraved with 萬 (wàn), for 10,000, and numbers 1 – 9, which helps you recognise the Chinese characters for numbers.
The wind tiles also feature the characters for north (北, běi), east (東, dōng), south (南, nán), and west (西, xī) – valuable Chinese characters when you’re trying to locate an address.
How to Play Mahjong – Mentally Fit
Experts agree that playing mahjong is good for the mental health. It a social activity that ensures interaction with other people, which helps to prevent depression that can results from loneliness.
Plus it’s great brain exercise: the mental agility and hand-eye coordination required to play mahjong is believed to ward off dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
The makes it a simple and effective therapy for old people to help slow down cognitive decline.
How to Play Mahjong – It’s a game of strategy…
Mahjong definitely requires a degree of luck.
But it also requires some strategic thinking: players must quickly analyse the situation – their hand, and the reactions of fellow players – and remain observant as the game unfolds.
The winner has to pay attention which tiles players are throwing away, and find some order in the chaos.
It’s essential to remain calm, and be able to adapt your approach and strategy. This type of thinking appeals to Chinese philosophy and the Confucian tradition.
…that gets philosophical
There are nods to Confucius throughout mahjong. Let’s start with the dragons, which some people believe represent three of the five core Confucian virtues.
The red dragon tile is engraved with the Chinese character 中 (zhōng), meaning center, and relates to the Confucian virtue of loyalty.
The green dragon is represented by the character 發 (fā), for wealth. This also represents the virtue of sincerity.
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Mahjong’s white dragon features a blue Chinese character 白 (bái), meaning white. This symbolizes freedom from corruption, and the Confucian virtue of filial piety.
Some see the dragons in a completely different way: they call them ‘arrows’, and believe the Chinese characters hint to aspects of archery. 中 (zhōng) means hitting the centre of the target, while 白 (bái) can be interpreted as a blank score sheet.
The green 發 (fā) also symbolizes the act of firing an arrow.
How to Play Mahjong – What do the rest of the characters represent?
Circles, also known as stones, wheels and coins are engraved with the character 筒 (tóng), to symbolize the ancient Chinese coin with a square hole in the middle.
These coins were typically threaded onto a string or stick for convenience – that’s what the hole was for.
While the bamboo suit might look like bamboo at first glance, this suit 索, (sǔo) actually symbolizes these coins strung up by the 100 (弔, diào) or 1,000 (貫, guàn).
The 萬 (wàn) suit, as we know, represents 10,000. This means that the three main suits represent a single coin, a set of 100 or 1000 coins, and a chest of 10,000 – which tells us the hierarchy of these tile sets.
The eight flower tiles bear the Chinese characters of the four seasons: winter (冬天, dōngtiān), spring (春天, chūntiān), summer (夏天, xiàtiān), and fall (秋天, qiūtiān).
The other flower tiles represent the four Confucian plants: bamboo (竹, zhú), chrysanthemum (菊花, júhuā), orchid (蘭花, lánhuā), and plum (梅, méi).
How to Play Mahjong – The Poker Face
Like many parlour games, mahjong is often played for money – even among families.
This means that the best players have to give a great poker face. As your game can depend on your opponents discarding the tiles you need, it’s essential that they don’t know which tiles you have or what you need.
The concept of walls – the stacks of tiles in the center of the table – was probably an innovation aimed at reducing opportunities to cheat.
We can’t talk about mahjong without mentioning THAT scene in Crazy Rich Asians (spoiler alert).
It’s the main showdown between two of the lead characters and it takes place over a game of mahjong.
Leading the action is the fearsome mother Eleanor, played by Michelle Yeoh, who confronts her son’s girlfriend Rachel, played by Constance Wu – both serving spine-tingling poker face.
The game becomes a metaphor for the scenario being played out between the two women; Rachel and Eleanor need the same tile to win and Rachel draws it.
However, instead of using it in her hand to win she walks away from the game, just as she reveals to Eleanor that she has won their struggle for Nick’s commitment but is walking away to protect his family.
In mahjong and in love, she holds the winning tile but is prepared to give it up. You don’t have to understand the game to appreciate the parallel to the story line.
There are added layers of nuance: Rachel is an American-born Chinese woman, and Eleanor has judged her harshly for this.
The fact that she knows how to play mahjong surprises Eleanor, and it shows that Chinese in the diaspora share the same culture and values as families ‘back home’.
She is the daughter of a single mother, and Eleanor looks down at her social status. Her actions on and off the table show that she behaves with integrity, compassion and dignity.
Eleanor believes she is better than Rachel but around the mahjong table, everyone is equal.
Having explained all of that, we have to show you the scene if you’ve not yet seen it…!
How to play Mahjong – It’s a Game for Everyone
Are most mahjong players thinking about Confucian virtues, symbolism and movie metaphors while throwing their tiles around?
We doubt it.
Mahjong is a window to Chinese language and history, a great way to learn more about Chinese characters, culture and tradition, keep your brain sharp and most importantly, have fun.
Give it a try!
It’s not quite the same, but very similar to how you’d say it in English. 麻将 (májiàng).
In total there are four players.
In total 136 tiles are used per game.
In Mahjong there are three main suits: characters, bamboo and circles.
Dice in Chinese is 骰子 shǎizi.
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