Nov 03, 2017

The Origins of Mahjong

Mahjong (also sometimes known as Mahjongg or Mah Jong) is a four-person tile-based game which originated and is hugely popular in China.

The Legend

Mahjong’s origins are shrouded in myth, but one popular and enduring legend is that the game was invented by Confucius, the great Chinese philosopher, in the year 500 BC. Though this legend is believed to have originated in the West, there are some facts that support it.

Confucius’ travels during his teachings do coincide with the appearance of the earliest forms of the game. Philosophically, too, the game aligns with the philosopher’s teachings. The three tiles used in Mahjong coincide with the three Confucian virtues; the Red tile represents benevolence, the Green tile represents sincerity and the White tile represents Filial piety.

The Theory

The myths around Mahjong are quite widespread, making it appear ancient. However, Mahjong in its current form did not come into existence until as late as the mid nineteenth century.

The predecessors of the game, though, stretch back several hundred years.

The game’s tile design was inspired by a game called Ya Pei, which was played during the Sung Dynasty (960-1279 AD).

Ya Pei evolved into Ma Diao during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1844 AD). The suits in Mahjong are visibly similar to the ones present in Ma Diao.

Ma Diao changed over the years too, including three different coloured sets of tiles and also allowing for players to collect cards rejected by another player. This new game was called Mo He Pai.

Mo He Pai continued to develop, transforming into Peng He Pai. In this game, the number of tiles doubled, the sets were defined as a set of three consecutive numbers, a set of three identical tiles and a set of four consecutive tiles; a rule that we follow with the modern Mahjong, which emerged somewhere in the 1850s.

Western Influence

Joseph Park Babcock, an early Western importer in China is believed to have been responsible for bringing the game to the world’s attention.

As well as getting the game trademarked, he also is believed to have renamed the game from Mah Que (meaning Hemp Sparrow) to Mah-Jongg (meaning Hemp Leader).

Babcock is also responsible for making the complex rules of mahjong easier. He wanted to make it more appealing to the new audience it was exposed to… and he succeeded!

The game that we know today has resulted from Babcock’s influence on it.

The Game


The game of Mahjong in itself is not very complex and is played on a table with tiles instead of cards amongst four persons sitting on four different sides.


The total number of tiles present in the game of Mahjong are 144, divided into Suits tiles, Honours tiles and Bonus tiles.

Suits Tiles

The Suits tiles have three further sub-categories: Bamboo, Dots and Characters. Each of the bamboo, dots and characters tiles have a set of tiles numbered from 1 to 9. There are four identical copies of every suits tiles, making a total of 108 different suits tiles.

Honours Tiles


There are two types of honours tiles: Winds and Dragon. These tiles do not have any numerical sequence.

The Winds tiles are further divided into four major tile types: East Winds, West Winds, North Winds and South Winds.

The Dragons tiles are further of three types based on colour: Red, Green and White.

Bonus Tiles

There are two different types of Bonus tiles: The Flowers and The Seasons.

There are no copies, numbered or otherwise, of the bonus tiles. These are not used directly in the playing of the games.

Depending on the different versions of the game, bonus tiles are not even used in some versions of Mahjong.


The game begins by choosing a dealer which is usually done by throwing dice. The game moves from the dealer towards the person on their right.

After the dealer has been chosen, the tiles are shuffled and thirteen tiles are given to each player from the draw pile. Throughout the game, thirteen tiles remain with each player.

The objective of the game is to form Melds (a set of three identical tiles), Kongs (a set of four identical tiles) and Chows (a set of three tiles in sequence).

A tile not needed by a person can be traded with a tile from the draw pile. If another person takes a tile from the discard pile, he/she has to let the other players know what set they are working on but if they are taking from the draw pile, it is not necessary to share your set details.


The person with the most number of points at the end when all the players have dealt once, becomes the winner.


Challenging, fun, and bearing that unique mix of China and the world that Hong Kongers know and love, Mahjong is a great way to connect with friends and strangers alike!

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