How Mahjong Works

The classic Chinese game of mahjong has evolved into many variations as it has spread across the world.
The classic Chinese game of mahjong has evolved into many variations as it has spread across the world.
Olivia Barr/Taxi/Getty Images

Mahjong is an ancient game with a very modern presence. In fact, you've probably heard of it before -- perhaps by watching George Costanza's mother, Estelle, play it in an episode of "Seinfeld" or reading about the four Chinese-American immigrant families who formed a mahjong club in Amy Tan's bestselling novel "The Joy Luck Club."

And if you're someone who's prone to computer game distractions, you've likely noticed the plethora of online mahjong games (there's even a mahjong application for iPhones).


This game of deep symbolism and dubious legend has evolved from the courtyards of imperial-era China to the social clubs of early 20th century New York to digital versions of today. But despite the pop culture references and the Internet games (which are usually just a form of solitaire), the centuries-old game can be confusing to those who aren't devotees. As you get ready to explore the game's balance of luck and strategy, imagine the click-clacking of game tiles and envision a focused quartet of players. And as you learn more about this fascinating game played by millions around the world, don't be surprised if you, too, don't soon find yourself around a mahjong table, stacking and moving tiles with three of your friends.

To better understand the allure of mahjong, we'll look at its origins. Keep reading to learn how mahjong began, as well as some of the misconceptions and myths surrounding its history. For example, why exactly was this classic Chinese game banned in its country of origin for nearly four decades?



History of Mahjong

Want to know the history of mahjong? It depends on who you ask. There are many theories and legends about mahjong's origins -- most of them are unsubstantiated, and several are quite fanciful. A popular yet unlikely story is that mahjong was created by Confucius, the famous Chinese philosopher. One outlandish tale sets the game's beginnings on Noah's Ark. The true history of this popular game, however, is more likely an evolution than one clear beginning.

Throughout China's history, there were several games similar to modern mahjong. Ya Pei, a game that originated in the Sung Dynasty (960-1279 AD), used wood and ivory cards similar to today's mahjong tiles. Another game, Ma Tiae, from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD), built on Ya Pei and is even closer to modern mahjong. After centuries of evolving game cards and strategies, it is believed by many that the game we now know as mahjong was ultimately created in the mid- to late 19th century -- however, there is still some debate on who's responsible for its creation [source:]. One legend suggests that it was a Chinese nobleman in Shanghai, and another implies it was Chinese army officers during the Taiping Rebellion. A very popular theory is that it was two Chinese brothers (whose identities are now unknown) in the city of Ningpo who were ultimately responsible for creating mahjong.


Once the game was created, it gained popularity quickly, spreading outside of China's borders. Mahjong was likely first introduced to Westerners around the turn of the 20th century when people began playing it in British clubs in Shanghai [source:]. Around this time, other Asian countries, such as Japan and Korea, picked up the pastime.

An American named Joseph Babcock is believed responsible for bringing the game to the United States in 1920 after picking it up in China, where he worked for an oil company. The popularity of the game in the United States grew rapidly. Babcock published a set of rules (there were no official written rules in China at the time) and several companies, such as Milton Bradley and Parker Brothers, created game sets. The craze spread around the country but was most popular in New York City where the National Mah Jongg League was eventually created (the terms "mahjong" and "mah jongg" both refer to the same game).

As mahjong became more popular in the United States and around the world, its practice was discouraged in its birthplace of China. Chinese government officials only wanted elite citizens playing the game because they feared that peasants might develop their mental capacities through playing. After the Communist Revolution of the late 1940s, Chairman Mao outlawed mahjong, claiming it was a capitalist game because players would sometimes gamble on the outcome. Prohibition of the game in China was lifted in 1985, and it has rebounded in popularity.

One of the reasons mahjong is so popular in China is because of the symbolism in different elements of the game. Keep reading to find out more about the meanings behind the mahjong tiles, suits and sets.

Mahjong Sets

There are three main types of tiles: suits, honor and flowers.
There are three main types of tiles: suits, honor and flowers.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Mahjong sets are made up of tiles or, sometimes, cards. Traditionally, the tiles were made of bone. In fact, it is said that in the early 20th century the demand for game tiles in Asia was so high that cow bone was frequently shipped there from companies in Kansas City and Chicago to keep up with the mahjong craze [source: Mahjong Info]. Today, the tiles are made with more modern materials such as plastic and nylon, but one thing that hasn't changed about the tiles are the symbols they bear.

The symbols aren't entirely universal from version to version -- some tile sets may contain different colors or designs --- but they do follow a fairly specific formula of sets and suits. The sheer number of tiles in a mahjong game may seem overwhelming at first, and they vary per version, so we'll break it down for you. The tiles come in three categories: suits, honor and flowers.


There are three suits: bamboos (called "bam" in the American version), stones (called "dot" in the American version) and characters (called "crak" in the American version) [source: Sandberg]. Each suit contains four sets of nine tiles, with each tile representing a number one through nine. So the 36 tiles in the bamboo suit use bamboo images to count to nine -- the four No. 1 tiles each have one bamboo stick image, the four No. 2 tiles each contain the image of two bamboo sticks, and so on. The stone, or dot, suit follows the same format but uses circles to represent the numbers. Each of the numbered tiles in the characters, or crak, suit contains the Chinese character for each number. The western number can usually be found in the left-hand corner of the character tiles.

The honor category contains wind and dragon tiles. There are four sets of four wind tiles, representing the east, south, west and north winds, and four sets of three dragon tiles, representing red, green and white dragons. The flowers contain a set of four flowers, which each represent one of the winds -- plum (east wind), orchid (south wind), chrysanthemum (west wind) and bamboo (north wind) -- and a set of the four seasons (spring, summer, fall and winter) in which of the four flowers bloom. The eight total tiles in the flowers set are usually considered bonus tiles. This equals 144 tiles in all. The American version of mahjong also contains eight joker tiles, which can be used to replace any other tiles during the game, giving it a total of 152 tiles.

In addition to the game tiles, most mahjong sets include tiles or chips for scoring, and indicators for each of the four players' prevailing wind (as each player represents the east, south, west or north wind). There is also a pair of (or set of three) dice, which determine the order of play. Additional equipment is minimal and, at most, you'll need tools such as racks for holding tiles and chips. Mahjong is typically played at a table so that the tiles can stack easily and securely, and so that each player has his or her own side from which to play.

To find out how to use these tiles in a game of mahjong, read the next section on mahjong rules.

Mahjong Rules

At the start of the game, each player will draw tiles and stack them in a square on the table, resembling city walls.
At the start of the game, each player will draw tiles and stack them in a square on the table, resembling city walls.
ULTRA.F/The Image Bank/Getty Images

There are quite a few different Asian and Western styles of mahjong. There are many similarities between the versions, but there are also many differences. Think of mahjong as one language, and each version -- Chinese, Japanese, British or American -- is a unique dialect of that language. Many aspects can be understood by anyone who speaks "mahjong," but to intelligently play a specific version you have to understand the rules and peculiarities of that version, or "dialect." Here, we'll deal mainly with the rules of the American version.

Every game of mahjong begins with each of the four players (there must be no more or no less than this) rolling dice. The player who rolls the highest number will represent the East wind and will be the dealer. The player with the next higher number will represent the South wind, while the next takes the West wind, and the lowest number takes the North wind. Each player (wind) falls in order counter-clockwise from the East player.


The tiles are placed facedown on the table and mixed to ensure they are randomly shuffled. Each player will select 38 tiles and create a row that is 19 tiles long and two tiles high. The four rows are then pushed to the center of the table to create an empty square, resembling walls surrounding an open field. The dealer will throw a pair of dice into the empty space. The number the dice turns up determines the breaking point of the wall. The dealer will count that number from the right end of the 19 stacks comprising the East wall and push the remaining left-hand tiles in the wall forward to create a break. The dealer then takes two stacks (four tiles) from the left-hand side after the break and sets them facedown, usually behind his or her wall. The other players follow suit. The process is repeated two more times the same way, then once more with the dealer taking two more tiles, and each of the other players taking just one each. This should give the dealer 14 tiles and the other players 13 each in front of them.

Then, the Charleston is performed when each player passes three tiles to the player on his or her right, then to the player opposite him or her, and finally to the player on the left. The Charleston occurs only in the American version of mahjong, and is one of the two main differences from the official Chinese version (along with the inclusion of joker tiles).

Once these preliminaries have been performed, new tiles can be drawn from the wall while previously received tiles can be discarded. The winner is the player who can first put together a complete hand that contains combinations of two (an eye), three (pung), four (kong) or five (quint) of a kind totaling 14 tiles.

To find out how to increase your odds of winning a game of mahjong, read the next page on strategies and gameplay.

Mahjong Tips

The common phrase "playing the hand you've been dealt" can apply to mahjong as much as it does to card games. Chance is a large element of mahjong. However, you can make the most of the tiles you've been dealt. As you become more skilled at the game, you'll learn not only how to increase your odds of winning but also how to possibly deter the other players from winning. Following these tips can help enhance your chances of success:

  • Don't separate your tiles. You may be tempted to group your tiles in a way that allows you to see if you're getting closer to a complete hand. If you do this, it may reveal to the other players how close you are to winning.
  • Keep count of your tiles. Make sure you maintain the correct number of tiles, because another player can challenge you on having too many or too few.
  • Hang on to flower tiles. Try not to pass flowers during the Charleston. Many hands will require flower tiles.

The best way to increase your skill at mahjong is to play it. The more you get used to the game -- the rules, the tiles, the rhythm - the better you'll get at making the right selections and anticipating the moves of other players. You can also brush up on the official hands and rules that are published each year by the National Mah Jongg League.


While this mostly covers the American version of mahjong, there are many more variations to explore on the next page.

Mahjong Variations

There are about as many variations of mahjong as there are suits and sets of tiles. When playing a game of mahjong, it's important that all four players are playing by the rules of the same version.

The six primary versions of mahjong are: American, Chinese, Hong Kong, European Classical, Taiwanese and Riichi Competition:


  • American: The version discussed most in this article, the American version is considered to be very similar to the card game gin rummy.
  • Chinese: There are several Chinese variations, but Chinese Mahjong refers to the official version. China's State Sports Commission designated this version of mahjong as its official 255th sport. It was created as a way to merge the rules of the so many disparate Chinese versions into a single official game.
  • Hong Kong: This is also known as the Cantonese version, and it is believed to be the most popular version of mahjong. This popular version, like many others, is very similar to the American version. However, it does not include the joker tiles or the Charleston, which are the prime features that differentiate the American version.
  • European Classical: The European Classical version is actually based on the classical Chinese version, which is rarely played in China anymore. The classical Chinese version is also the one that was imported to America and from which the current American game evolved. In determining seating, this version involves blind selection of the "wind" tiles rather than rolling dice.
  • Taiwanese: This version has several unique rules, including 16-tile rather than 13-tile hands.
  • Riichi Competition: Also known as the Japanese Modern version, this is the variation of mahjong used in tournament play. It includes the presence of a "riichi," also known as a ready hand.

The other acknowledged versions of mahjong include: Australian, British Official, Canada Mahjong, Chinese Classical, Chinese Transitional, Dutch League, French, German, Italian Official, Japanese Classical, Japanese Transitional, Korean, Mahjong Masters, Novice, Wilmington Advanced, WMPA Rules and Zung Jung. There are also many other versions of mahjong that aren't considered official versions.

Want to keep learning about mahjong? Keep reading for lots more information.

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • National Mah Jongg
  • "Mahjong Tiles." (March 27, 2010)
  • "The History of Mahjong." (March 27, 2010)
  • Mahjong Info. "Mahjong History." (March 27, 2010)
  • Mahjong Info. "Mahjong Tiles." (March 27, 2010)
  • Mahjong Museum. "A Brief History." (March 27, 2010)
  • Mahjong Time. "American Style Mahjong Rules." (March 27, 2010)
  • Mahjong Time. "Mahjong Game Info." (March 27, 2010)
  • Sandberg, Elaine. "A Beginner's Guide to American Mah Jongg: How to Play the Game & Win." Tuttle Publishing. 2007.