A Brief Introduction to Mahjong

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I recently had the pleasure of attending an introductory class in mahjong, the popular Chinese tile game. One lesson definitely doesn’t make me an expert – I still have a lot more to learn about the complex game some liken to rummy – but it was a fun experience I’d like to share.

Although the game’s origins remain shrouded in mystery, some believe Confucius created mahjong sometime around 500 BC. Another legend, according to our instructor, suggests that the game was developed centuries ago by a ship’s captain looking for a way to keep his sailors occupied during long days at sea.


Mahjong is played with a collection of 144 tiles which can be divided into four identical sets. Each set can be broken down into two categories: suits and honor.

The suit tiles are numbered one through nine. As our instructor described, one suit, often mistaken as sticks of bamboo, is actually depicting the number using lengths of rope, which the sailors were used to counting. A second suit uses gold coins because the fabled captain didn’t want his men gambling real money. The Chinese character for each number decorates a third suit. I was the only person at my table who knew these characters, giving me a considerable advantage once playing commenced.

Tiles featuring the Chinese characters of the directional winds (North), 南 (South), (East) and 西 (West) are part of the honor category, along with three additional tiles called dragons which our instructor didn’t talk much about. Mahjong is a four-player game, with each person representing one of the directional winds.


The three “dragon” tiles can be seen to the right, above the four characters for the wind directions.


The four winds, from clockwise: North, East, South and West.


A third tile category is flowers. These are bonus tiles and weren’t incorporated into our lesson.

Playing the game

To set up the board, all the tiles are turned face down, then stacked two together to form a double-layer square. A roll of the dice decides who goes first and then each player takes 13 tiles to build their hand according to some complicated rules that I won’t bore you with. On each turn, a new tile is taken from the board and one tile from the hand must be discarded.


The 13 tiles in my opening hand.

To simplify our lesson, we were taught that the first person who could successfully use the tile picked up during their turn was the winner. A winning hand, consisting of 14 tiles, is made up of groupings called melds. One of these melds must be an identical pair, such as two Wests. The others can be three of a kind, or a sequence in the same suit, such as rope tiles numbered five, six and seven. In a real game, the various melds would be worth different points.

If you are able to make a meld with the tile discarded by the previous player, you are free to pick it up in lieu of a new tile from the square. If you do this, however, you must show your meld to the rest of the group. If the discarded tile will build a meld that gives you a winning hand, you can pick up the tile even if it’s not your turn.

We played five games and I won three! Two of those wins occurred because I was quicker on the draw for the discarded tile – since I could read the number characters I more quickly figured out where the tile fit into my sequence. My language teacher would be so proud!


My working hand with sequences, pairs and one meld completed with a discarded tile, shown face up at right.


My winning hand!

 Have you ever played mahjong? Does your country have any interesting games?

Let me know in the comments!

19 thoughts on “A Brief Introduction to Mahjong

  1. I like to play games but this seems way too complicated for me. Don’t they play this here in the states?

  2. Oh god. I had to read through your description twice because the first time my eyes crossed and I felt like I was reading the complicated back history to a fantasy novel… I don’t think Mahjong is going to be my thing! 😉 I have a friend who moved to Singapore and he was talking about how he always gets roped into play Mahjong by his wife’s family and it is so frustrating because he can’t read the tiles fast enough to ever win, so he often just sits there and loses every single time. I guess this is good incentive for people to go out there and learn their Chinese numbers!
    Steph (@ 20 Years Hence) recently posted…Discovering the Quirky Side of TaipeiMy Profile

    • Haha, I worried this post was a little dry! One of the other ladies at my table was getting very frustrated because I kept taking the tiles so quickly. She didn’t win a single game! It is definitely a great incentive to learn Chinese, especially when you are living in China! I’m not brave enough to join one of the games in the park. Those ladies would kick my butt LOL!
      Heather Hall recently posted…A Brief Introduction to MahjongMy Profile

  3. I love MJ! I have a group of friends (in Phnom Penh) who I used to play with. We’d go away on vacation together and play for days straight. (Just FYI, though, your winning hand allowed you to finish, but with no points! The joy is in making big hands where your heart beats so hard it’s about to pound right out of your chest as you wait for the winning tile!) Just the best!
    James recently posted…Dim Sum and Then SomeMy Profile

    • No points, huh? Well I still have the satisfaction of going out first and vexing all the other housewives LOL!

  4. I’ve ALWAYS wanted to learn Mahjong! Shoot, I even have a pair of earrings I bought in Singapore that are tiny mahjong tiles. And from your (most helpful) pics – gosh, I can now tell that one of the earring is “East” and the other is… I think it’s one of the flower tiles – kewl!

    Now I’m even more determined to learn to play. It does seem a bit complicated, but can’t be any tougher than bridge, yes? And I like that it’s so visual. Only downside (as a solo travelnlass) is that it requires four to play. ;( Leastwise with cribbage and backgammon it’s only two so they’re great traveling games. I wonder if it’s possible to play it as a twosome…
    Dyanne@TravelnLass recently posted…Re-learning Photography in Hoi AnMy Profile

    • Dyanne, I bought a necklace made of mahjong tiles in Luang Prabang. We have good taste!!

      I don’t know the rules for scoring the hands, but I imagine mahjong is an easier game to master than bridge. And I don’t see why it couldn’t be played with just two players, as long as you ignore the bits about the four winds which go into the scoring. Are you familiar with the game Rummykub? It’s a fun American-style tile game that two people can play.

  5. I’m with your mom… this seems way to complicated with me. Also, I associate it with old ladies, and therefore feel that I must wait at least 40 years before I take up the game.
    Emily McGee recently posted…Happy Fourth of July!My Profile

  6. I love learning new games. This reminds me a little bit of a game called Rummikub (hope I spelled that right), which John and I found to be very similar to an Eastern European game called Joker
    Andrea recently posted…Miami Is For Lovers: Part TwoMy Profile

    • You’re right, it is a bit like Rubbikub! I love learning new games, too, so I’ll be on the lookout for Joker when we’re in that part of the world.

  7. Aaah, I learned to play this game in Brazil of all places! My cousin travels to Asia for business quite often so he ended up getting a set and his family got hooked on it. When I visited them in Brazil for the summer, they taught my sisters and me how to play. It’s quite addicting once you get the hang of it. 😉
    Audrey – That Backpacker recently posted…A Brief Holiday in PhuketMy Profile

    • I need to buy a set and start teaching people so we can get a game going. Right now everyone is addicted to Settlers of Catan so it would be good to mix things up. Was it hard to learn all the rules for scoring hands?

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