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Mahjong tiles: everything you need to know

Even though games like Mahjong might only really need very simple and functional designs for the Mahjong tiles to work as they’re intended, human creativity is simply too strong an impulse to suppress. The tiles in Mahjong are based on centuries old, beautiful designs which represent widely recognized cultural motifs in China and Asia more broadly. There are many tiles in the game, so today we’re going to fill you in on everything you need to know about them.


Author: Jianyu Wang Li
Checked by: Felix Martins


Mahjong tiles

Origin of Mahjong tiles

The Mahjong tiles, broadly speaking, are based in a variety of Chinese imagery and folklore, as well as philosophical tradition. Mahjong as we know it today was first invented in the 19th Century, and so the Mahjong tiles have their origins only in the last couple of centuries during the Qing Dynasty. However, the ultimate origins go much further back than that, with the designs having their origin in the “sparrow card” game of the Tang Dynasty, as far back as the 7th Century.

Cultural significance of the tiles

There are many kinds of Mahjong tiles, each imbued with its own distinct cultural significance. The significance of some of the types of tiles is fairly straightforward. Take, for instance, the bamboo, or stick, tiles. These are one of the three suits tiles, and the number one in the bamboo is represented by a bird—usually a peacock though sometimes a sparrow. This is a simple representation of nature in China. On the other hand, you also have the dragon Mahjong tiles. A common myth states that Confucius himself invented Mahjong—while this is not true, it is true that the three dragon tiles are seen to represent what Confucius called the “three noble virtues”: sincerity, filial piety, and benevolence.

Understanding Mahjong tiles

Today, there are of course lots of ways Mahjong tiles can be made. Mahjong tiles can be mass produced using materials like plastic or polyester casting resin. Traditionally, though, Mahjong tiles would usually have been made out of bone, usually cow bone, or ivorine. Expensive sets might have been made of wood or real ivory. Mahjong tiles would then be mounted onto a piece of bamboo. Traditional Mahjong craftspeople today make tiles out of acrylic, and use four or five tools to carve the designs into each tile.

Evolution over time

As much as methods and practices have evolved over time, in terms of design, Mahjong sets have stayed fairly consistent over the course of the last two centuries. Of course, with more and more people producing sets, many have put their own spin on the designs and modernized them to a degree. Mahjong tiles might, for instance, be produced with brighter colors.

Classification of Mahjong tiles

Mahjong game tiles can be separated into three main groups, so let’s look at those now.

Suits

Suits Mahjong tiles

The most numerous Mahjong tiles in the game are the suits tiles. Suits tiles comprise the bamboo, dots, and character tiles. Alternative names for these tiles include sticks, stones, and characters are sometimes called numbers. There are four sets of nine of each of these suits.

Honors

Honor Mahjong tiles: Winds and Dragons

The honors Mahjong tiles are made up of the winds and the dragon tiles. These are the four cardinal directions for the winds: North, East, South and West. The dragon tiles are the red, green, and white dragons. There again four copies of each honors tile.

Bonus tiles

Bonus Mahjong tiles

Finally, the bonus tiles comprise the flowers and the seasons tiles. These Mahjong tiles are used differently than other tiles in the game. Flower tiles are usually, though not always, plum blossom, orchid, chrysanthemum, and bamboo. The seasons, unsurprisingly, are spring, summer, fall and winter.


SuitsHonorsBonus

Bamboo/sticks

Winds

Flowers

Stones/dots

Dragons

Seasons

Characters/numbers


Special and rare Mahjong tiles

Given the number of regional variations of Mahjong, it should come as no surprise that there are many rare and unique Mah Jong tiles. People around the world have put their own spin both on the game itself and its mechanics, as well as on the tile designs.

Red fives

One of the most popular variations of Mahjong is Japanese Mahjong, and Japanese Mahjong does have its own special class of Mahjong tiles: the red fives. In this variation, these special Mahjong tiles replace one five from each suit with a red five. When a player wins a hand, they will get bonus points for any red fives in their hand.

Collector’s sets

The 1920s were a time of booming popularity for Mahjong and Mahjong tiles. Some of the most highly sought-after sets originate from this time period, particularly red lacquered Chinese Mahjong sets which can fetch high prices. These sets typically contain traditional tiles and designs but are nonetheless prized by collectors.

Maintenance: Caring for your tiles

It’s important that you properly care for your Mahjong tiles with some simple steps:

  1. Keep the tiles dusted regularly. Make sure they are properly stored somewhere away from the sun.
  2. Periodically, clean your tiles with something like rubbing alcohol.
  3. Use a wooden manicure stick to get into the crevices.
  4. Leave the tiles out to dry completely.

Conclusion

Mahjong has only grown in popularity since it was first conceived. The game has gone through a lot of changes over the years, and now we even have solo versions of the game. It has endured and indeed ballooned in the number of people enjoying the game regularly, and today we have reached a fusion of tradition and modernity in the design of the tiles. The motifs of Mahjong tiles are based in ancient Chinese antiquity, and yet those very same motifs and images are just as recognizable to a global, modern audience as they were to a Chinese audience reaching as far back as the 7th Century.

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