Debunking a Tiled Tradition: Mahjong from its Beginnings to the Present Day – SHINE | Hot Mobile Press

Gaming culture has been alive and well here in China as a pastime for a long time, from ancient progenitor to modern day football known as cuju to Chinese chess (xiangqi) to the plethora of games played with normal playing cards in China today. But when one thinks of traditional Chinese games, Mahjong (麻将 majiang in Chinese pinyin).

Even if you’re not familiar with the game, you’re very likely at least vaguely familiar with what the game looks like, with its various rectangular tiles embossed with Chinese characters, circles, lines, numbers, and other symbols. Traditionally made of bamboo or ivory, but now mostly made of acrylic or plastic, the tiles are shuffled and stacked, lined up and rearranged, drawn and discarded until a winner is determined.

Those of us who used previous versions of Microsoft’s Windows operating system probably remember a game called Mahjong that used these tiles and installed as the default program in the Games folder alongside Minesweeper and Solitaire. However, anyone who has ever watched a real mahjong game knows that this version of Windows, in which tiles are stacked into a kind of tower that is gradually deconstructed, does not resemble the mahjong game at all as it does being played in China.

Although the game of mahjong has cultural significance that suggests the game dates back to ancient times, it only dates back to the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) in the second half of the 19th century.

Originally called “Sparrow Cards,” the game can trace its origins back to the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), to a type of game that shared some basic aesthetic similarities to its modern counterpart, although it was more of a dice game -style game as like mahjong itself.

Over the course of the following centuries and through dynastic upheaval, the game and its methods of play evolved into the sequentially played mahjong of the present day, the oldest historically recorded set of which dates back to 1875. Its explosive popularity thereafter saw it thrive in the decades that followed, then survived a period when it was banned after the “Cultural Revolution” (1966-1976), a ban later reversed.

Although it may seem mysterious to the uninitiated, it’s actually a fairly simple game similar to the card game rummy, in which the tiles, which are divided into suits and ranks, are arranged to form combinations of two, three, and four . Filling a hand with these merged combinations allows a player to complete a hand and whoops (和牌) or win the round.

Courtesy of Alexander Bushroe

Alexander Bushroe is a master at playing the traditional Chinese game of mahjong.

I must add a disclaimer here and acknowledge that mahjong is often used as a gambling vehicle, along with many other parlor games. First, I do not advocate gambling outside of certain venues and areas that are designated by law for that purpose. However, it is important to note that unlike most poker games, for example, mahjong is still useful and fun when played simply for the pride of victory rather than for money. This is because the gameplay itself does not involve in-game betting and is not a battle of gambling protection where success depends on how much money you are willing to risk. Rounds are simply played and at the end a winner is determined.

The tiles, each of which has four copies in the complete mahjong set, are divided into three different suits, much like playing cards have four – spades, hearts, clubs and diamonds. Other tiles with characters such as the four cardinal points and the four seasons are also included. There is a staggering number of different ways to play, differing in different places across the country and continent.

The variations on the base version of the game are somewhat comparable to the different regional dialects across the country – there is a standard version, like the Mandarin of mahjong, but different regional styles add twists and turns to spice up the experience.

Whether on the street, at home or elsewhere, this internationally recognized but especially nationally popular pastime is a classic staple of traditional games in China. If you’re interested in learning a little more about the tiles themselves and actual mahjong gameplay, check out the second part of this series, titled Mahjong Basics: A Brief Guide to a Classic Chinese Pastime. Contrary to many misconceptions, it’s actually fairly easy and accessible, and learning to play offers an opportunity to immerse yourself in a unique and fun aspect of Chinese culture.

A short tutorial on a classic Chinese pastime

Many visitors to China and people who have settled here have seen it, but few have decided to learn the game.

Here I will share some basic knowledge and give a brief introduction to Mahjong. Hopefully those of you interested in learning some of the basics and maybe giving it a try can start here.

Let’s look at some of the tile types used and basic rules to get an understanding of how the game works.

While playing cards are divided into four suits – spades, hearts, clubs and diamonds – mahjong tiles have three basic suits plus a few other tiles that don’t fall into the appropriate categories.

The three suits contain points (Tongs筒 or am饼 in Chinese), bamboo (Tiao条 or soo索) and numbers (weak万). These are not direct translations, but what the tiles are commonly called in Chinese. Each of the colors is numbered 1 through 9 and there are four identical tiles of each value in a complete mahjong set.

Debunking a Tiled Tradition: Mahjong from its Beginnings to the Present Day

Courtesy of Alexander Bushroe

Tiles of the dot, number and bamboo suits

These tiles are arranged into sets of three or four identical tiles or sequences of three consecutive tiles of the same color (e.g. 3 dots, 4 dots and 5 dots) by drawing, discarding and picking up unwanted tiles from other players towards the target to fill an entire hand with these complementary groups of tiles.

Outside of the appropriate tiles, each of the four cardinal points – north, south, east, and west – are represented with four copies of each of those directional “wind” tiles. Plus four, one red each zhong中 or middle; a green fa发, for wealth; and a plain white tile complete the basic tiles in a mahjong set.

These tiles, unlike their matching counterparts, can only be arranged in sets of three or four identical tiles, and cannot be combined with tiles other than their identical copies.

Debunking a Tiled Tradition: Mahjong from its Beginnings to the Present Day

Courtesy of Alexander Bushroe

The extra direction tiles plus zhong, fa and white

Mahjong sets also contain eight “flower” tiles, four of which represent the four seasons and four different types of flowers or plants, but these are simply bonus tiles for extra points and have no direct impact on gameplay. Upon entering into a player’s hand, these tokens are set aside and awarded bonus points that are counted after the hand.

There are 144 pieces in total in a standard mahjong set, with four copies of each main tile plus the eight flower tiles.

Each player starts each round with 13 tiles and begins their turn by drawing an extra tile to reach 14, adding it to the tiles in their hand, then choosing one to place in the center of the table and the turn completed. After each turn, a player must have exactly 13 tiles in their possession.

Aside from simply drawing a tile and discarding another to complete a round, there are four basic moves a player can make: bang (Set of 3), gear (杠 set of 4), chic (吃 sequence of 3) and whoa (和 accomplished hand and victory).

Instead of drawing from the deck, if a player has a pair of identical tiles — say, two bamboo 6 tiles — when an opponent discards an additional bamboo 6, a player can jump in and yell, “bang!” and snap it up, making a set of three. When you do so, the player reveals that set of three identical tiles face up on the table. It is still counted as part of the 13 tiles in the player’s hand You then discard a tile and the next player in the rotation begins.

Debunking a Tiled Tradition: Mahjong from its Beginnings to the Present Day

Courtesy of Alexander Bushroe

Pick up a tile you just discarded to make a bangor a set of three

When a player has three identical tiles in their hand, but all three were drawn from the deck without the bang method, this player can perform a gear, or secure a set of four once the fourth tile has been discarded or drawn. That player then draws an additional tile and discards one. This leaves the player with 14 tiles left, giving the gear Move the only time a player can exceed 13 tiles after a hand.

If a player wins a hand with a set of 4, he gets an additional point.

the next train chic, creates a row of 3 consecutive tiles of the same color (e.g. 6, 7 and 8 points or 2, 3 and 4 bamboo). If a token is discarded by the player directly to their left (and only the player on their left for that particular turn) that would allow the next player to make three consecutive tokens, they may take it instead of from the stack to draw this set and get closer to a fully formed, winning hand.

To win, turn your hand (after receiving your 14th checker at the start of a round) into four groups of three checkers – identical or consecutive melds are both acceptable – plus an extra pair known as the “eyes” and you have completed the game whoa and secured victory.

Debunking a Tiled Tradition: Mahjong from its Beginnings to the Present Day

Courtesy of Alexander Bushroe

A complete winning hand with sets of threes, rows of threes and an extra pair – the “eyes”

Although it may seem complex and mysterious to those who haven’t tried it yet, the game is quite fun and its principles aren’t too difficult to grasp.

Hopefully this basic tutorial has given you some insight into how mahjong is played. For more information, search Mahjong rules and strategies online or ask a friend who is familiar with the game.

Good luck learning this fun and beautiful pastime!

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