Ma Jiang, Mahjong, Mah-jongg or Ma Qiao – what’s in a game?

Whether you call it Ma Jiang, Mahjong, Ma-Jongg or Ma Qiao doesn’t really matter, (but if you think that the game of Mahjong on your computer is the real thing, think again,  that is a form of solitaire and apart from the tile designs has no resemblance to the proper game what-so-ever.)

Mahjong, is a quintessentially Chinese game. Most people think that it is an ancient game going back to the time of Confucius, however that is far from the case.

There are ancient games which originated in China, but Mahjong (as I prefer to call it) is of much more recent origin.  Diligent research has shown that the game, more-or-less in its present form, was probably created in the city of Ningbo by a bored Chinese officer called Chen Yumen during the Taiping Rebellion in the 1860s. He seems to have amalgamated

elements of earlier Chinese card games and then taken the idea of tiles from the game of Dominoes and thus Mahjong was born, the earliest documented Mahjong set dates to 1873. From the outset Mahjong was a gambling game, and therein lies much of it’s popularity.  The game spread quickly and by the early part of the

20th Century had become particularly popular in the USA . An agent of the company Abercrombie & Fitch had seen the game in China and had bought several hundred Mah-jongg sets and sent them to New York where the game became the latest craze, particularly within the Jewish community in New York.

There are countless stories about the derivation of the name of the game, but it seems to derive from the word ma que which means ‘sparrows’ as the clicking of the tiles when they are shuffled sounds like the noise of those little birds.

Of course, many game manufacturers/retailers continue to peddle the line that this is the oldest game in the world, they think it sounds more interesting and more romantic – or maybe they really believe it.

Today there are two basic variants of the game, Chinese Official Mahjong and American Mah-jongg, and though they are very different, they do share certain features.

Mahjong as played in China is a game for four players who sit round a square table to play, each person plays individually, there is no pairing as in Bridge, and no collusion. The aim of the game is to go ‘Mahjong’ by forming a complete hand of 14 tiles before any of the otherplayers, and you do this  by accumulating four sets of tiles plus a matching pair.  These sets of suits can be pungs, chows, or kongs. Players take and discard tiles from the wall in sequential order; as they discard they have to call out the value of the tile they are discarding.  In some ways Mahjong is similar to the western card game gin rummy.

A  Mahjong set comprises 144 tiles, this includes 3 ‘suits’ – Bamboo, Circles and Characters, or as they should be properly called ‘Tiao’, ‘Bing’ and ‘Wan’. Each of these suits runs from one to nine and there are four sets of each suit. Then there are the honour tiles representing the Four Winds, East, West, North and South (4 of each), Three Dragon tiles: Red, White and Green  (4 of each).  In addition there are the bonus tiles which are Flowers/ Seasons (8 in total). The set also has two dice and chips for scoring.

The game begins with the players ‘washing the tiles’ ie shuffling them by stirring them all around on the table with their hands prior to building the four walls which provide the structure of the game.                                                                                                                       A complete game consists of 16 hands, ie: four rounds of four hands each.

Different places in China play to different rules and use differing combinations of the available tiles for the game. Here in Beijing it seems that the Seasons/Flowers are seldom if ever used.  One of the first things a player must do when sitting down to a game is to be sure which rules are being applied. I have seen someone from Sichuan and a Beijinger nearly come to blows during a game because they had not done this!

There is no way that I could explain how to play the game in a single blog post, and anyway I am no expert, but if you are interested in learning more I do recommend the book:

‘The Red Dragon & The West Wind’ by Tom Sloper.

There are also various on-line websites giving the rules, scoring etc etc.

There are many stories about the symbolism behind the game, but I suspect that most of these have been dreamed up after Mahjong was first developed, and have helped to promulgate the belief that it has an ancient history. For example I have been told by one or two people that the three main suits (which comprise 108 tiles) represent the 108 outlaws who feature in the Chinese literary classic ‘The Outlaws of the Marsh’ written by Shi Nai’An in the 13th Century.  Another time I was told that the Three Dragon tiles symbolise the Chinese people;  the Red Dragon ‘Hong Zhong’ represents  the common people, the Green Dragon ‘Fa cai’ represents the rich people, and the White Dragon ‘Bai bei’ is the poor.  They are also said to represent the three cardinal virtues of Confucianism namely: benevolence, sincerity and filial piety. Who knows.  What is true though, is that Chairman Mao had the game banned in 1949 (the Communist Party thought the gambling which goes with the game was ‘capitalistic’) and it remained banned until after the Cultural Revolution in 1985.

Whatever its true history and provenance, Mahjong is a fantastic game and I have become quite addicted to it.

About herschelian

Started my 60s by moving to China with my DH. Surprised to find I am still here in Beijing eight years later - still finding it an adventure!
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9 Responses to Ma Jiang, Mahjong, Mah-jongg or Ma Qiao – what’s in a game?

  1. na says:

    As a chinese, I am ashamed that u know much more about Mahjong than me~From ur eyes, I see a different explanation on chinese culture~Expecting more ….BRAVO~

  2. John Rollason says:

    A bit behind on my e-mails due to horrendous flu over Easter, but this blog reminds me we used to have a Mahjong set in Aberdeen which my parents brought back from China many years ago. Will have to check with my mother if she still has it, so I can practice before taking you on in BJ when I finally make it to the Great Wall Marathon!

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  4. sofagirl says:

    I would love to learn to play. Was always fascinated by the groups of mah-jongers I would see when I was travelling in Asia. Looked like a secret society.

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  6. Suzanne says:

    at the top of this page, 3rd row of 9 red tiles, the 1st tile, far left, please , someone tell me what this symbol means, it is very important I know, Thank You , Suzanne

  7. Mahjong says:

    May I simply just say what a comfort to find an individual who genuinely knows what they’re
    talking about over the internet. You actually understand how to bring a problem to light and make it important.

    A lot more people need to look at this and
    understand this side of the story. It’s surprising you are not more popular given that you definitely have the gift.

  8. Jack says:

    This is certainly interesting, but I prefer Mahjong Solitaire How do you perceive this as a game? 🙂

    • herschelian says:

      Mahjong Solitaire is great fun for passing time on your phone or tablet. However, apart from the tiles looking similar to those in ‘real’ mahjong, they are completely different games. ‘Real’ Mahjong is a terrific game but you need 4 people to play it. Give it a go, it is not difficult to find others to play with you.

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