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Mahjong tiles

The Mahjong tiles meaning is something which a lot of people may not necessarily think about while playing the game. Like playing cards, the tiles have intricate designs and motifs, but they serve simply a distinguishing function within the context of the game more than anything else. The fact is, though, that the tiles in the game are steeped in meaning and cultural significance, so today we’re going to look in-depth at the subject of Mahjong tiles meaning.

Author: Jianyu Wang Li
Checked by: Felix Martins

Mahjong Tiles

Depth and significance of Mahjong tiles

Firstly, it’s important to note that there is indeed great depth in the Mahjong tiles meaning. Each design on the different varieties of Mahjong tiles is something based in Chinese imagery and folklore on one level or another. Some are simple naturalistic images, while others are more complex philosophical or metaphorical representations. In any case, the Mahjong tiles meaning are more than just pictorial representations.

Symbols and tradition in the game

Tradition plays a huge role in the Mahjong tiles meaning and Mahjong characters. Mahjong symbols are not necessarily related to how the actual tiles are used in the game, although with a few exceptions that we’ll look at later. The best example, though, is probably the dragon tiles.

The dragon is an immeasurably important image in Chinese culture and indeed in Asia more widely. It represents a variety of things like luck—which ties the tradition of Mahjong into Chinese folklore since Mahjong, at least at first, was seen as a game for gambling. Luck, then, is a centrally important motif in the very basics of the game, and so in this example you can see how the traditional Chinese symbols play into the actual tiles themselves.

The Suits and their meanings

Mahjong Suits Tiles

Now that we understand that Mahjong character tiles are very important in Mahjong tiles meaning, let’s look at each different classification of tiles and what cultural significance they might have. Firstly, we have the three different suits tiles.


Bamboo tiles, sometimes called sticks or bams, are one of the three main tile sets in the game. Bamboo, common as it is in China, has for a long time been seen as a symbol of the beauty of the nation and its natural landscapes. Historically, then, bamboo has been a go-to naturalistic image to use in representation of Chinese beauty.


The character Mahjong tiles meaning are also more than just what is represented on their face. At their tops, these tiles have a numeral, with a red character below. This red character is the same on each tile, and represents the Chinese character wán, meaning 10,000. The numbers above are 1 to 9. Dots

Finally, the dots, sometimes called stones or wheels. This suit is made up of nine different images of dots, each with a round shape and usually with a hole in the middle. This round shape is meant to symbolize a tóng, a coin with a hole in the middle in China.



A naturalistic image in Chinese culture


Representative of numbers


Supposed to physically represent tóng coins.

Honors tiles and their symbolism

Mahjong Honor Tiles

Moving on, the honors tiles also have a great deal of meaning and symbolic significance in the question of Mahjong tiles meaning. The honors tiles are split into two categories:


There are four wind tiles in the Mahjong tiles names in the set. These are simply the four cardinal directions: East wind, South wind, West wind and North wind. East wind is the dealer, and the east wind in China embodies driving forces of revolution and change. North winds in China are often bitter cold, and so this can represent a grievance.


There are three dragon tiles in a Mahjong set: the red, green, and white dragons. Dragons in general can represent multiple things in China and in Mahjong tiles meaning. They are often seen as images of good luck and of course strength. The red dragon in particular in Mahjong tiles meaning is the strong symbol of prosperity and good fortune. Green dragons are seen to represent the east and the spring; while white dragons are sometimes seen as images of death and rebirth.

In talking about Mahjong tiles meaning, it’s often said that the three dragons represent the three noble virtues of Confucius: sincerity, piety, and benevolence. There is some debate about this but no doubt many people do imbue the tiles with this meaning.

Bonus tiles and culture

Mahjong Bonus Tiles

Lastly, we have the two different styles of bonus tiles in the Mahjong tiles names: the flower tiles and the season tiles. Naturally, these too are imbued with great symbolic significance.


Different Mahjong sets may use different flowers for this part of the set, though the flowers most commonly used are plum blossom, orchids, bamboo, and chrysanthemum. Plum blossoms are a common symbol of the end of winter, and thus a symbol of hope. Orchids, like the dragons, are associated with Confucius, and are symbols of admiration and respect. Chrysanthemums are seen as images of happiness and vitality, and are particularly associated with new lunar year celebrations.


Of course, the importance of the seasons is an all but universal aspect of human culture. Seasonal transitions are of particular importance in China and by extension in Mahjong tiles meaning. We’ve touched on the transition from winter to spring, which is of particular importance in Chinese culture. Each tile in the set mirrors these transitions and being part of the bonus set means they have huge significance for Mahjong tiles meaning.

Interpreting color in Mahjong tiles

Looking at any Mahjong set, what you will immediately notice is how it explodes in color. The Mahjong tiles meaning, then, is naturally also influenced by this interplay of different colors, so let’s look at how this influences the Mahjong symbols meaning.


Red is a color with huge representative importance in Chinese culture. It is associated with the energies of life such as the sun, blood, and even fire, and is often the most important color in annual celebrations and prosperity.


Blue is an elemental symbol in China, seen both as an aspect of nature and of more intimate parts of human experience. Blue Mahjong tiles are often those associated with wood, since the color blue is closely associated with this material. In Chinese culture, there are often said to be five elements: wood, fire, earth, metal, and water.

Mahjong tiles meaning are certainly influenced by this.


White is a dualistic symbol in China and is seen as both a symbol of the unknown and of purity, as it is in many other cultures. Like blue being representative of wood, white is also seen as representative of metal, another of the elemental building blocks of the world. This is all centrally important to Mahjong tiles meaning.

Superstition and folklore

Traditions and symbolic images such as we’ve been talking about often blur the line between cultural metaphor and outright superstition in Mahjong tiles meaning. How, then, does Chinese superstition play into the Mahjong tiles meaning?

General superstitions

Naturally, taboos and superstitions vary by location in Mahjong. Some think that walking away and washing your hands, or even walking around your chair three times, can help to end a streak of bad luck. Reading a book while playing is considered to be bad luck as well as having a backpack nearby.

The Mahjong pieces names also influence, in superstitious terms, when you should discard a certain tile—such as never discard the South wind after the discard of a green tile.

The role of Feng Shui

Feng Shui is an ancient Chinese practice aiming to harmonize individuals with their surroundings through the arrangement of things, and in Mahjong tiles meaning it also comes into play. Firstly, the Feng Shui of your home itself will influence your luck in the games. When playing, you should try to sit facing the main door, and not in a seat that is blocked by back facing books.

Mahjong itself, then, is a cultural institution in China which is influenced by all other aspects of Chinese folklore and superstition.


To put it simply, you might even say that the Chinese are a people deeply in touch with their own culture and symbolism in a way that isn’t a given for everyone. We play with cards in the west, but those cards don’t necessarily hold much symbolic significance in their own right. Mahjong is a balance of luck, strategy, and cultural symbols, all of which come together to form the game and its associations.

Enduring motifs of Mahjong

Mahjong tiles meaning is an endlessly fascinating topic without ever even touching on the actual game and how it is played. For non-Chinese people, the game makes a great chance to learn about many facets of Chinese and broader Asian symbolism while also learning one of the most enduringly popular games of the last two centuries. Mahjong is much more than just a game but a reflection of countless different elements of Chinese culture.

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