What Is Mahjong and How Is It Played?( Interesting Games)

When you think about Mahjong, you immediately imagine a group of elderly sitting at a table fully concentrating on the game. Although the Mahjong tiles resemble those used in dominos, the game itself is nothing like it. Mahjong is more like the Western card game called Rummy.

This tile-based game is very popular in China. It is one of the main forms of entertainment and pass times, especially during the Spring festival. Aside from being a form of entertainment, it is also a representation of Chinese traditional culture. People in China consider the game the fifth most essential part of their culture. Mahjong is seen as a great way of relaxing by relieving stress and elevating one’s mood.

Over the years, the game has become widespread all over the world. It’s especially popular in America, where you will mostly find Jewish women or individuals from the Asian ethnicity playing it. But how was this game invented and who is credited for doing so? To understand the meaning and importance of Mahjong, this post will discuss the history of Mahjong. We will also cover why it’s an important game. As a bonus, we will help you understand what the rules of the game are and how to play it.

Mahjong History of The Game.

Initially, the game was called Maque which translates to a sparrow. This was because while shuffling the tiles, they would make crackling sounds that resembled the chattering of a sparrow. Many Mandarin-speaking Chinese today call it majiang, although there are still some languages in South China that still refer to it as maque. In Thai, however, the name of the game is calque which means “sparrow cards”.

While it is clear that Mahjong originated from China, it is not clear exactly what date or period it was invented. It is, however, said to have been played for many years in China before it became globally popular. The earliest report of the game in China was in the 19th century, before World War I. The cards are said to have been based on draw and discard games that were popular between the 18th and 19th centuries. Penghu is considered to be the most likely ancestor of Mahjong, which was a game that was played using 120-150 cards. By the 19th century, both names, Maque and Penghu were used interchangeably when playing with either cards or tiles. It is not clear when the game fully converted to using tiles but the tiles are said to have been adopted from another game called Madiao. This game is also thought to be an earlier version from which mahjong evolved.

In 1895, many foreign scholars began writing about the game. William Henry Wilkinson, a British sinologist, wrote about a game resembling mahjong called ma chioh (hemp sparrow). Stewart Cullen also wrote a paper on the game in the same year. By 1910, different languages including Japanese and French had written accounts of the game. But it wasn’t until 1920 that the game became popular in America.

Joseph P. Babcock, an American resident in Shanghai is credited for having made the game popular in America. It is said that he was the one who coined the name Mahjong when he introduced it to America after World War I. To make the game simpler for Americans to play, he came up with a modified set of rules and renamed the tiles in English, adding numerals and letters that were more familiar to Western card players. This was all laid out in his book which is commonly called “the red book”. After some time, his rules were discarded and people went back to the original rules. By 1937, the game became more regulated in America after the National Mahjong League was formed. The NML was responsible for creating maahj, the first American rule book that stated its version of the game based on Ancient Chinese rules.

While the game gained popularity worldwide, in China fewer people were playing it. Given its initial gambling nature, the game became outlawed in China, along with other gambling games, following the establishment of the Republic of China in 1949. This was because at the time such games were seen by the government as a representation of capitalist corruption, that tainted the Chinese culture. After the Cultural Revolution, the game begun being played openly again, this time, minus the gambling aspect. In 1985, it became officially legal, which allowed the Chinese to play it earnestly. Today, people continue to enjoy the game both in China and around the world.

Who Invented Mahjong?

Just as it is not clear as to the exact time Mahjong came into existence, it is also not clear who exactly invented the game. Historians have, however, come up with multiple theories about who the person could be.

The first theory is that the game was invented by a great philosopher called Confucius, who lived during the Hundred School of Thoughts period. The basis of this theory is that there seemed to be a connection between the three dragon tiles in the game and Confucius’ three noble virtues. Other than that, there is no solid proof that he created the game.

Another theory is that Mahjong was invented during the Ming dynasty’s reign as Madiao. This game is considered similar to the card game Ya Pei, where the flowers and numbering of the Ya Pei cards greatly resembled the writings on the Mahjong tiles. Still, there is no concrete proof to establish this as true.

The final and least convincing theory is that the game came about in the 1870s. Based on the theory, it is believed that a nobleman from Shanghai, but there is no evidence to support this claim, as such, many historians dismiss this theory. Because of the lack of proof, these theories remain speculations. While it isn’t as important to know where the game originated from, having more information about its history will make those playing Mahjong appreciate it more.

Why Is Mahjong Important?

As we mentioned earlier, Mahjong isn’t simply a form of entertainment to the Chinese. They consider it an important representation of their culture and the fifth most essential form of entertainment form on China.

Like everything in China, the game also holds a lot of symbolism for the Chinese people. It is majorly seen as a representation of peace and friendship. Therefore, inviting a Chinese to play the game with you is seen by them as you extending your hand of friendship. Almost all Chinese homes have a set of Mahjong tiles, so you will always find it being played during important occasions like weddings, childbirth, or during the Chinese New Year. Aside from representing friendship, Mahjong is also considered a symbol of affluence and pride. Owning high-quality Mahjong tiles made of ivory was seen as a sign of great affluence and upper-class status.

In other parts of the world, the game held and still holds a lot of importance, especially in America. Initially when the Chinese begun migrating to America, playing the game was seen as a connection that reminded the American Chinese of their culture. It gave them an identity at a time when they were viewed as perpetual foreigners. Mahjong was also seen as an important bridge for the internal divide that was in China town, which was both gendered and generational. People of different backgrounds could sit down and share their heritage, thanks to the game.

Aside from the Chinese, Mahjong also proved to be beneficial to American Jews especially women. In the time during and after World War II when many Jewish families moved from crowded urban areas to new suburban regions, the Jewish women often felt isolated. Thanks to Mahjong, however, they found a way to form new social relations and networks.

What Are the Rules of Mahjong?

Traditional Chinese Board Games Mahjong basic Rules: Mahjong requires great skill, strategy, calculations, and sometimes a bit of luck. The game is played by four players although there are variations of three players that exist. A full set of Mahjong tiles involve 144 of them. These tiles are grouped into three suits each containing nine types of tiles. The three suits include Characters, Bamboo, and Dots and of the nine types, there are four of each. Aside from these titles, there are what are known as honor tiles. These consist of four dragons (red, green, and white) and winds (north, south, east, and west). Most sets also include four flower tiles and four seasons tiles.

The objective of the game is to form a Mahjong hand. As such, the players take turns picking and discarding tiles until one player wins. For the game to start, each player must have 13 titles, which is called a hand, the rest of the tiles are placed in what is called a wall. With each hand, each player must be assigned a wind. The one who ends up with the east wind is the one who starts the game. From there, the game goes counter-clockwise from the first player. Each of them takes turns picking and discarding tiles.

Keep in mind that at any given point, each player is required to have 13 tiles, unless they managed to form a Mahjong hand that has 14 titles. There are four types of Hands a player can declare. The fourteen tiles in Mahjong’s hand should consist of a pair and four sets of three tiles or three sets of four tiles. If you have a set containing three of the same-suit (same-suit triplet), this is called having a Pong’s hand. A Kong hand is when you have four of the same-suit (same-suit quadruplet). A Chow on the other hand is a straight same-suit.

As you pick and discard the tiles, every player has the right to pick a card that was discarded by another play. This is known as claiming and is applicable when the player claiming believes they have one of the four hands. The rules of claiming are simple. If you’re claiming a tile to declare a Chow, you can only pick the tile discarded by the player who played before you. If it is to declare a Kong, Pong, or Mahjong, then you can pick a tile discarded by any of the players. If several players want to claim the same tile, priority is given to whoever declares a Mahjong hand, followed by a Kong hand, then a Pong hand, and finally a Chow’s hand. If the players who want the same tile also have the same hand, then priority goes to whoever turn is closest.

When it comes to scoring, this is done in two steps. To begin with, the sets and pairs of a hand have mini points, including a Mahjong hand. These mini points will vary in amount based on the rules of the game. Other than that, the pattern of the hand is also analyzed for scoring. This also varies based on the game rules. A fan is a score awarded for different patterns and each fan doubles the mini points once. The final score is called the hand score, although, in some game rules, it is considered irrelevant and only the fan scores are counted.

Depending on the platform Mahjong is being played, there may be a slight variation of the rules. Sometimes some rules are omitted, at times some are added. For example, Hong Kong house rules, Riichi house rules, and tournaments have slightly varying game rules especially when it comes to scoring and winning.  

How To Play Chinese Mahjong Tutorial?

Now that you are familiar with the basic rules in Mahjong, it is easier to play the game. As stated, the game begins with each player being dealt a hand of 13 tiles each. Traditionally, the holder of the east wind tile is the one to start, however, in modern times a dice is rolled to determine this. Once the first player picks and discards a tile the next turn goes to the player on the right.

With each turn, each player must give the player before their time to claim the most recently discarded tile. As discussed above the priority is first given to the player who declares a Mahjong hand. If there is a player with the winning hand, then they may pick the tile and reveal the complete winning hand.

If there is no player with a Mahjong hand then the next priority goes to the one with a Kong hand. Such a player can pick the discarded tile and reveal the Kong set before discarding a different tile. If there is no Kong hand then the privilege extends to the one with a Pong’s hand. If no one declares the hand but the discarded tile completes your Chow’s hand, you can declare your hand at the beginning of your turn and pick the tile. But keep in mind only the most recently discarded tile can be claimed.

If the discarded tile doesn’t complete a hand for any player, then the game can proceed with the next player picking a card from the wall going left, and discarding a different tile. The game can continue up to 16 rounds, or until the players agree to stop or if one player declares the winning hand.


Even today, Mahjong continues to be a popular game all over the world, especially in Asia. Manufacturers are continually producing the Mahjong sets with the largest retailer being the Regency Chess Company in England. One of the main reasons for its continued popularity is its reference in anime and manga as well as its success as a computerized game moving into the 21st century.

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