Recently I learned to play Mah-Jong. My Mah-Jong pals are also retirees, but some of them do not speak Chinese Mandarin. Mah-Jong is one of the world’s most popular and interesting games for all ages, and I would like to share it with you. This ancient Chinese game of Mah-Jong is similar to the Rummy Tile Game in the West.
According to the records, “Mah-Jong” was originated in Chinese “Song” Dynasty (960 – 1280). It had gone through many changes in terms of name, the way of playing, and its components. The original name was “Mah-Chei” or sparrow. The popular Mah-Jong set of 144 tiles has been played in China for over one hundred years.
The 144 (or 136) small tiles (or cards) bear various designs, played by four people around a square table. The winning player is the first one who completes a particular pattern using 16 (or 13) tiles, plus the one he/she takes. There are several versions with many different kinds of winning patterns. The most popular winning pattern (using 16 tiles) is five (5) sets, plus one pair. You can take it easy or stretch your mind by playing for maximum points.
A Set: A good set may be one of the following: (1) Three consecutive tiles within the same suit. (2) Three of a kind within the same suit. (3) Four of a kind within the same suit. (It is played by advanced players. If you have a four of a kind, you need to take an additional tile from the rear pile tiles. If not, you will be short of one tile.) A Pair: Two of a kind within the same suit; two exactly the same.
Originally, Mah-Jong was a set of paper cards. Later, someone designed a set of bamboo tiles because the paper cards were too fragile. A modern Mah-Jong set has 144 tiles which are made of a variety of materials, such as wood, bamboo, or plastic.
Here, I use bamboo, instead of stick, and use circle, instead of ball. In Chinese culture, bamboo symbolizes long life, and circle symbolizes fullness. I also use Number 1, Number 2, etc. for those tiles with “One Ten-Thousand character, “Two Ten-Thousand character, etc. A complete set of Mah-Jong consists of 144 tiles as follows:
(1) Three Suits: (a) “Ten-Thousand” character, (b) Bamboo, and (c) Circle. In each suit, the tiles are numbered “1” through “9” with four tiles of each design. There are small related numbers on top left corner of each tile. Each suit has 36 tiles, and the total of 3 suits is 108 tiles.
(a) “Ten-Thousand“ Character: There are 4 tiles of each design.
(b) Bamboo: There are 4 tiles of each design.
(c) Circle: There are 4 tiles of each design.
(2) Direction Cards or Four Winds: East (E), West (W), South (S), and North (N). There are 4 tiles of each design, and there is an initial letter of each wind on top left corner. The total of Four Winds is 16 tiles.
(3) Cardinal Cards or Three Dragons: Red Dragon (C), Green Dragon (F) and White Dragon (B). There are 4 tiles of each design. The total of Three Dragons is 12 tiles.
(4) Two Sets of Flower Tiles: There is only one tile of each flower design. The total of two sets of flower tiles is 8 tiles.
(a) With a small blue number (1 through 4) on top left corner: Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter.
(b) With a small red number (1 through 4) on top right corner: Plum, Orchid, Chrysanthemum, and Bamboo.
The flower tiles are treated like dummy to make up a total of 144 tiles. Since there is only one tile of each flower design, the chances of getting a flower set (same blue or red number in sequence) are slim. Many modern players treat these flower tiles as bonus tiles, not regular tiles. In this case, during the game, when you receive a flower tile, you need to set it aside and draw a new tile from the rear pile tiles. Whoever takes a tile from the rear pile tiles needs to make sure that the heap (one tile on the top of another tile is a heap) is piled up higher than the rest, so other players know it is the rear tiles. These flower tiles are needed so there are enough tiles to form a big square, and they have special meanings to the advanced players.