Mah-jong: A Beginner’s Guide to the Game

Mah-jong: A Beginner’s Guide to the Game
Feb 16, 2012 By Duncan Muir ,

Mah-jong, or majiang (麻将) as it is known in China, is a game of skill, calculation and luck. It has a lot in common with the Western card game rummy, and anyone who has played rummy before should find mah-jong fairly easy to pick up. That said, because mah-jong uses a set of bamboo, ivory or plastic tiles in place of playing cards, it can seem quite strange at first – like a cross between cards and dominoes.

Mah-jong: A Beginner’s Guide to the Game

Playing cards is a fairly quiet affair, but one of the first things you'll notice about mah-jong is that it's a noisy game, the sound of the tiles clicking against one another is unmistakable. The game has a long history in China (though doubts linger as to its true origin), and an enormous following. If you've never played before, but have been thinking about taking up the game, then this beginner's guide should introduce you to the tiles and the general Chinese rules of play.

The tiles
The amount of tiles used in a game of mah-jong varies from place to place, but regardless of the rules being followed, all games use at least the standard 136 tiles. This base set is made up of the suits, winds and dragon tiles.

Mah-jong: A Beginner’s Guide to the Game

The suits: Bing, Bamboo and Wan
It's useful to think of the three main suits just as you'd think of the four suits in a deck of cards. Like the familiar hearts, clubs, diamonds and spades, the suits in mah-jong are numbered sequentially, but only from one to nine. There are, however, four copies of each tile in the set giving each suit a total of 36 tiles.

Originally the suit which depicts coloured circles represented ancient Chinese copper coins, but over time they have become more affectionately known as bing (饼) thanks to their resemblance to the Chinese mooncakes eaten during the late summer festival.

The bamboo suit also started out representing money. Each stick of bamboo was originally intended to represent 100 copper coins tied together with a string through the square hole at the centre of each coin. The bumps initially intended to show the coins on the string have been taken to look like the structure of bamboo as it grows.

The one of bamboo isn't represented by a stick, rather in most sets the tile depicts a sparrow. Some have claimed that this is a nod to Confucius, known for his love of birds, who some credit with the invention of the game. But the more likely explanation is that an intricate number one tile makes it more difficult to paint on more bamboo sticks and in doing so turning the one into another bamboo tile.

The third suit is often referred to as the 'character' suit by Westerners, ignorant of its Chinese meaning. Wan (萬) actually means 10,000, the monetary value given to 1 wan, while 2 wan is 20,000 and so on.

Mah-jong: A Beginner’s Guide to the Game

As well as the suits, all standard mah-jong sets include the four winds: north (北, bei), south (南, nan), east (东, dong) and west (西, xi). Again there are four of each tile, 16 in total.

Mah-jong: A Beginner’s Guide to the Game

Dragon tiles
There are three dragon tiles, one red 中 (zhong), one green發 (fa), meaning 'to strike it rich', and one white tile which features a blank rectangle with a frame around it. Again, there are four of each kind of tile, so 12 dragon tiles in total.

Flowers and seasons
As well as the original 136 tiles, in some regions of China mah-jong sets are supplemented with eight extra tiles. These are made up of four flower tiles and four tiles depicting the seasons, spring, summer, autumn and winter.  Each of these tiles is unique within the set, so no duplicates.

Getting started
Mah-jong should be played at a square table each side of which is given the names of a direction on the compass. The player sitting on the east side should always start, but there are a few ways to decide which player should be declared as sitting on the east side of the table, and therefore play first. In some games a dice is thrown and the highest scoring player becomes the east, in others players draw from the four wind tiles placed face down on the table, whoever draws the东 tile begins.

Once you've decided who will start, all the tiles are placed face down on the table and shuffled around in circular motions by all players using both hands. This is without doubt the noisiest part of the game, the loud clicking sound that spills out from the doorway of any mah-jong parlour.

When the tiles are well mixed each player should build a wall across their side of the table meeting the walls of their adjacent players to form a square castle. It's important that the tiles are kept face down during this part of the game, depending on how many tiles are being played with. Each wall needs to be either 17 or 18 tiles long, and two tiles high.

Mah-jong: A Beginner’s Guide to the Game

When the walls are complete the east player will begin to draw blocks of tiles from the opposite west wall. In order to decide where he takes the first tiles from, the east player rolls the dice and counts in whatever number it shows from the left hand side of the west wall. If the dice shows 1, he takes the second and third stacks of tiles, four in total. If it shows 2, he takes the third and fourth stacks, and so on. Clockwise, each player then takes their turn drawing two stacks from the wall from left to right. Once all players have drawn three times and have 12 tiles each, the east player should take two tiles and the other players should draw one final tile. This should give all players 13 tiles, except for the east player, who should have 14.

At this stage all players should look at their tiles and begin to sort them into suits and groups. Players should have 13 tiles in their hand throughout the game, so the east player, who begins with 14, will start the game by casting one tile face up in the centre of the castle walls. From here the game continues clockwise, east, north, west, south, east, and so on. Each player draws one tile from the west wall into their hand, if they want to keep it, they must cast away another tile; if they don't then they should cast the drawn tile face up in the centre of the castle walls. 

Winning hands
The aim of the game is to form a winning hand of 14 tiles, made up of the 13 tiles already held and one drawn during the winning player's final turn. A winning hand may be made up of a set of four Chows, Pungs and Kongs, as well as one pair.

Mah-jong: A Beginner’s Guide to the Game

A chow is a sequence of three consecutive tiles from the same suit. This can be made from tiles drawn from the wall, or by 'eating' a tile discarded by the player to your left. If a chow is made by taking the previous player's discard, then these three tiles must be placed face up so they can be seen by the other players in the game. After the chow is made the player discards another tile and continues to play as normal.

Mah-jong: A Beginner’s Guide to the Game

A pung is made with three identical tiles. A pung can be declared at any point in the game, provided the player calling the pung already has two identical tiles and only needs one final tile to complete the set. Like a chow, the three pung tiles must be placed face up so the other players can see them, but unlike a chow a pung can be made by 'eating' a tile discarded by any other player in the game, because of this a pung disrupts the order of play. After the player has shown his pung and discarded another tile play resumes moving clockwise; this means that some players may miss a turn.

Mah-jong: A Beginner’s Guide to the Game

A kong is a set of four identical tiles. If all four tiles are drawn from the wall, then the player does not need to declare their kong, it can remain concealed. However, if a kong is made by eating a discarded tile (which, like a pung, can be done at any point) then the kong must be placed face up in full sight of the other players. The fourth tile of the kong acts as an additional tile, essentially the 14th in a hand. So when a player declares a kong they are able to draw another tile from the wall, but from the opposite end of the castle walls, where tiles are drawn in normal game play. To the left of where the first tile was drawn at the beginning of the game. Like a pung, after a kong has been shown and the additional tile drawn and a discard made, the play continues moving clockwise.

Mah-jong: A Beginner’s Guide to the Game

In order to complete a winning hand four sets of kongs, pungs or chows must be complimented with a matching pair. When a player reaches this hand he may declare mah-jong and show his hand to the other players, thus winning the game.

Waiting to win
When you have completed your hand with 13 tiles and only need the 14th, final tile in order to win the game, then it's possible to eat the discard of any player in order to complete your hand. This is regardless of whether you are completing a chow, pung, kong or pair. As soon as you have collected all of the necessary tiles in order to form a winning hand, you can declare this to the other players by laying all of your tiles face up on the table for everyone to see. The first person to declare a winning hand is the winner of that round.

Normally one full game of mah-jong is made up of 16 rounds, four rounds for each of the prevailing winds. There is also a points scoring system that can be used when playing a full 16 round game. Not everyone uses the points system though; it depends on the local rules where you are playing. For the beginner, it's best not to worry too much about points until you get to grips with the game itself.

Special hands
As well as the normal winning hands made up of chows, pungs, kongs and pairs, it's also possible to win the game using various special hands. But for the beginner starting out, it's best not to worry about these when still new to the game. Also, special hands are not recognised everywhere – it depends on the local rules you are playing by. For example, Fushun mah-jong doesn't even recognise pungs, though they are recognised in neighbouring Shenyang. And while in Shenyang, in order to win the game, you must hold a trio from each suit, this is not true of rules elsewhere. In some places it's possible to win the game with a flush from one suit, with a hand made entirely of winds or dragons, or even with a hand made entirely of green tiles which hold no other colour.

Where to play
It's not difficult to find a mah-jong parlour in a Chinese city, and some parlours are even open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. If you don't own your own set, then a parlour is a good place to play, but you can pick up a decent set for around 70 RMB. Then all you need is three more people and a square table. In the summer, the best place to play mah-jong is surely in your local park. Chinese parks are full of expert players with many years of experience, so if you want to become a master mah-jong player, this is where to hone your skills. 

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Keywords: Mah-jong rules majiang how to play Mah-jong common playing games in China


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Majiang isn't an old game, it was only invented about 150 years ago. There were these two brothers in Ningbo who made the game popular.

Feb 18, 2012 22:16 Report Abuse



you only translate "tiao" to bamboo but use pinyin for bing and wan. sounds quite strange

Feb 17, 2012 01:30 Report Abuse



Clockwise is East, South, West and then North, not as stated in the article, that's counter clockwise

Feb 16, 2012 20:58 Report Abuse



I love this website. Every time I want to learn something, the article pops up within a day or two. Awesome. Friends have been trying to teach me MahJong for the last two weeks, but they have very limited English. This explains it nicely...though there are some regional rules here that I'm still unsure of!

Feb 16, 2012 20:32 Report Abuse