Mahjong 101

Recently, we threw a fantastic Mahjong tournament at our campus. Competition was brisk but what surprised us were how many newcomers were interested in this popular and traditional game. We’d be more than happy to teach anyone the ins and out of Mahjong personally, but these are the basics of the game for those who can’t make the trip to Shanghai.

An Intro to Mahjong

Mahjong (麻将, 麻將 májiàng) is a chinese game that is widely played throughout Eastern and South Eastern Asia. Similar to rummy, mahjong is a game of skill, strategy, and calculation and involves a degree of chance. The game is commonly played by four players, with a set of 144 tiles based on Chinese characters and symbols. Each player begins by receiving 13 tiles. Players in turn draw and discard tiles until they complete a legal hand using the 14th drawn tile to form four groups (melds) and a pair (head).

In Chinese, the game was originally called máquè (麻雀, 麻雀) —meaning sparrow—which is still the name most commonly used in some southern Chinese languages such as Cantonese and Min Nan, as well as in Japanese. However, most Mandarin-speaking Chinese now call the game májiàng.

Many historians believe it was based on a Chinese card game called Mǎdiào (马吊, 馬吊) in the early Ming dynasty, however there is still some debate about its creation. One theory is that Chinese army officers serving during the Taiping Rebellion created the game to pass the time. Another theory is that a nobleman living in the Shanghai area created the game between 1870 and 1875. Regardless of its origin it has made a profound impact on Chinese culture.

An Important Form of Entertainment

Mahjong is a traditional form of entertainment in China. I remember that my family often played Mahjong when I was a little child. The families would get together to play and celebrate the traditional festivals, or a family member’s birthday or simply because they haven’t played recently. They played mahjong before and after meals, so I spent many years playing with my brothers and sisters around the mahjong table. We could name all of the tiles in our dialect, but the parents never taught us how to actually play mahjong. We just used them as building blocks. At that time, the players were very busy because they had to mix the tiles well and divide into four groups by themselves. Then the automatic mahjong table was invented and then quickly popularized.

At the same time, chess and card rooms (棋牌室 qípáishì) started becoming popular, and Mahjong quickly became a favorite in those rooms. They even developed a “Mahjong Street” and employed cooks to offer cheap meals for clients during the best years. Nowadays, the “Mahjong Street” has mostly disappeared with the development of modern entertainment, but there are still some chess and card rooms if you care to explore.