The Chinese Mahjong Tile Game: A Look into the Tiles, Suits, and Rules

The Chinese Mahjong Tile Game

The 144 tiles in a mahjong set form four sets of bamboos, dots and characters. There are also twelve arrow (or dragon) tiles.

Players draw and discard tiles to form melds. A meld of three matching pieces is known as a kong and can either be concealed or exposed. A player may steal a discard from an exposed kong.


In most variations of the game, each player begins with 13 tiles. They arrange them in a wall and discard a tile during their turn. They are trying to form melds of four sets and a pair. They win if they have all four of these.

Another simple suit is called characters or numbers, and has 36 tiles in each set. Each tile has a Chinese character that ranges from one to nine. It is important to know how to read these symbols in order to place them in numerical order.


The 36 Number tiles have the Chinese characters from one to nine engraved on them. Some sets also have the character Mo wan wn ‘10,000 or numerous’ underneath each number. Together with bamboos and flowers these form the feng pai bonus tiles that can give higher scores if collected in sequences (chows).

The dealer decides who is to start and this is usually determined by throwing dice or by drawing an East wind tile from the set of four. The player then picks tiles from either the walls or a central pool of discarded tiles.


Originally sets were made of cattle shin bone and bamboo but when celluloid, Bakelite, and catalin became available the manufactures offered sets with a lighter front and darker back. Today some sets are still made from bone and bamboo while others are manufactured with plastic fronts and a mix of both.

The bamboo suite has four suits of three tiles each. The fa fa tile illustrates wealth, the zhong zhong illustrates archery skill and the bai bai illustrates Confucian virtues. There are also four seasons and one dragon suit.


In most games, players win by acquiring sets of tiles. A set is a combination of three or more matching tiles, either chows (a run or sequence of four of the same rank and suit, such as five seven dots) or kongs (a pung plus a pair of eyes).

Wind tiles determine seating positions, with the player holding the East Wind tile sitting in dealer position, and the other three players sitting in the order of the inverted compass: North, South, West, and East.

The tiles also have symbolic meanings, with the Zhong zhong tile representing archery and the Confucian virtue of trustworthiness. The Fa fa tile represents wealth and riches, while the Bai bai tiles depict a miss in archery and the Confucian virtue of filial piety.


There are two honor suits in mahjong, the arrows and characters. These are money-based suits with ranks ranging from one to nine. There are 36 suited tiles in each suit.

The arrows feature Chinese characters for the four compass directions: north (Bei), east (Dong), south (Nan) and west (Xi). Like the Characters simple suit, a player must learn to read these characters in order to organize the tiles and meld them.

The arrows also have several meanings, including the imperial exam, archery and Confucian virtues. There are four sets of arrows in each game.


The flower tiles (, nhi khau) are the most common jokers in NMJL sets. In addition to the standard flower, there are four Singapore-style animal flowers: cat, mouse, rooster and centipede. If a player draws all four, they get a 4-point bonus.

Other extra groups include the ‘King’ [wang] tiles of East King Dong Wang, South King Nan Wang, West King Xi Wang and North King Bei Wang; and the Inner and Outer Flower Tiles of Table 1. These tiles are also present in the Himly, Glover, Sheng and Nakamura tile sets.


Depending on the variation a set might contain 36 Circles, 36 Bamboos and 36 Characters plus 4 Flowers and Seasons. These are a little like joker tiles. They are numbered 1 – 4 and (depending on the set) give bonus points when drawn. Their depictions vary widely by set but can include flowers and fruits, animals, professions or anything the carver could imagine!

These are then pushed together to form a wall 2 tiles high and 17 tiles long. Each player then rolls a pair of dice to decide where in the wall they should sit.

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