What is mahjong?

The Chinese people are masters of mahjong and this is probably why they are very strategic thinkers. It is a traditional Chinese game played by four people around a square table. Instead of playing with cards, this games uses tiles.

What makes it more complicated is that the rules of mahjong will vary from one town to the next in China. But your general objective in mahjong is to get a complete hand: four sets of three and a pair.

This article explains the history of the game, what you need, playing instructions, mahjong for beginners, as well as some simple mahjong rules and tips.


Where did mahjong come from?

As legend goes, the famous philosopher Confucius invented the game. However, this has never been proved. But historians have noted that the three dragon tiles in the game relate to Confucius’s three noble virtues – benevolence, sincerity and filial piety. Confucius also loved birds and the name ‘mahjong’ contains the word ‘sparrow’. If this myth is true, then the game would have originated in 500BCE.

How to play mahjong

To be honest, not many people around the world know how to play mahjong. The symbols, the rules, the objectives…they’re all too much. However, if you take your time and learn the basic rules of  mahjong, you could get hooked.

Mahjong is an old game, but it is also a cultural tradition so you can expect to come across wide variations. This makes it difficult for people to find the definitive set of rules. The USA version of the game is very different from the Chinese and British versions, for example, as it contains a complicated set of ‘special hands’.


A complete set of mahjong tiles contains 144 tiles which are about 30mm by 20mm by 15 mm. Traditional tiles were made from ivory or bones but modern sets are generally plastic. The tiles comprise of:

· 36 circle tiles in 4 sets of 9, numbered 1-9. The picture on each tile shows the appropriate number of circles.

· 16 wind tiles – four tiles for each of the 4 winds.

· 36 character tiles in 4 sets of 9, numbered 1-9. The picture on the tile shows the Chinese symbol for the number represented.

· 12 dragon tiles – 4 red dragons, 4 green dragons and 4 white dragons. They are represented by a bright red character, a bright green character and a blank tile respectively. In some cases, the white dragon is denoted by a capital ‘P’ which stands for ‘pai’ ,meaning white or pure.

· 36 bamboo tiles in 4 sets of 9, numbered 1-9. The picture on each tile shows the appropriate number of bamboos. However, one tile has a rice-bird or sparrow and doesn’t feature bamboo at all.

· 4 season tiles numbered 1-4. They are optional, but when they are used bonus points are drawn.

· 4 flower tiles numbered 1-4. They are optional, but when they are used bonus points are drawn.

Depiction of flowers and seasons vary between sets so they aren’t recognized by people who can’t read Chinese.

You need two dice to play. On a traditional Chinese dice, 1 and 4 are red while the other numbers are black.



First, the starting dealer is determined. In the Chinese traditional version, the four wind tiles are shuffled face down and dealt to players. Players position themselves around the table according to their tiles: clockwise in the order of north, west, south and east. East starts off as the dealer. In modern versions, players just roll the dice to determine the dealer.

All the tiles are shuffled together. Then each player builds a wall of face-down tiles in front of himself/herself that is 17  tiles long and 2 tiles high. The final result will be a large square wall of tiles at the center of the table.

The dealer rolls the dice and counts that many tiles from the right edge of his/her wall and separates the wall at that point to deal the tiles from the left of that spot in a clockwise direction. Each player should receive 13 tiles while the dealer gets an extra tile.

Players then arrange their own tiles in such a way that only they can see them. Racks come in handy here. The dealer discards one tile and the game starts from the left of the dealer.

Playing the game

According to the simple mahjong rules, you should give other players a few seconds to claim the most recently discarded tile before your turn. The first priority goes to the player who can claim the discarded tile to complete a mahjong. If you can do this, then you reveal your winning hand of 14 tiles.

If that’s not the case, any other player can claim the discarded tile to complete a ‘pung’. You must say ‘pung’ before revealing the two matching tiles that match the discard. If nobody claims the tile but completed a ‘chow’ for you, you may claim it at the beginning of your turn by saying ‘chow’.

If the discard doesn’t complete a set for you, draw the next tile from the wall going left. Unless you get a mahjong, you discard tiles face-up.

Tips for playing mahjong

Concentrate on the free tiles!

Almost all tiles in a mahjong game are blocked so you don’t need to worry about them. Concentrate on the free tiles that are available to match and remove. A tile can only be matched when there’s a space on one side of the tile.

Don’t rush to separate your tiles!

Rearrange and group your tiles into chows, kongs and pungs when you are close to getting a complete hand. This is a good strategy for sending trick signals to other players.

Plan ahead!

You need to consider the consequence of your actions, because removing certain tiles will affect the rest of the game.

Keep your hand as secret as possible!

Discarded tiles can only be picked up when a player wants to complete a chow, kong or pung. When you do this, you are giving information about your hand.


Now that you know how to play the basics of mahjong, you can practice and polish your skills. Make sure you master the instructions and some of the tips so you can keep the game flowing smoothly.

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