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   Mahjong History

The counters dice and wind discs have been portrayed as far back as the Han Dynasty  (202BC-220AD).  Records of the Chung Dynasty 960-1279AD show a similar game to MJ known as Ma Chuek which was played with 40 curved pieces similar to dominoes, as a gambling game. So the origin is partly based on a Chinese form of dominoes and a card game similar to rummy called ‘108 Brigands’  popular since 17th century [There are 108 suit tiles in the game of Mahjong]

Mahjong as we know it is believed to have developed in the Ningpo region of China in the 1870s – it was further developed in China with each region having its own rules with special hands. Chinese children learned to play  by watching, so there were no written instructions – no standardised rules.

Joseph P Babcock who was a rep for the Standard Oil Company in Suzhou collected and interpreted the many conflicting variations throughout China.  Arabic numbers engraved on to the tiles were first intro by Mr Babcock in 1920 when he imported to the USA sets of tiles in sufficient quantity.   He simplified the game and introduced a standard set of rules which could easily be understood giving us the game of Mahjong as we know it today.

In its present form Mahjong is most closely linked to rummy -   Sets of 3 or 4 tiles to complete a set common in both games. It has its own terminology and suits there are 108 suit tiles, 16 wind tiles, 12 dragon tiles, four flower tiles and 4 season tiles – total 144 + 4 white ‘joker’ tiles for use if no one goes Mahjong and a deciding game called a ‘Goulash’ has to be played. The game has evolved in China, Japan, NZ US & Britain with differing national characteristics.

The Chinese game is a fast, noisy and stylised form of rummy played for high stakes, whereas the Western game appears to Eastern eyes as slow, unnecessarily complicated and of little interest as far as gambling is concerned.

The U3A has a book (due to be revised) that you can buy if you wish to teach yourself Mahjong.  It costs £4.  It is based on British Mahjong Association Rules.  Some people play using the Australian book ‘The Game of Mahjong Illustrated by P A Thompson & Betty Maloney’ which clearly explains and illustrates the game - with an easy scoring system.

Hilvary Robinson is the Subject Adviser and you can contact her above.

 The Game


The advanced game requires some skill, strategy and calculation - a whole game could take 5 hours. [Needless to say we stop after an agreed length of time rather than play to the end]  It may not be as intellectual as chess or as easy as backgammon  or as chancy as poker but it is probably not as addictive as bridge.  However, no other game uses such beautiful equipment. The quality of the set adds to the pleasure of the game.  It is fun to play – the outcome is determined by mental or physical skill as well as chance.

Mahjong is a game for 2,3, or 4 players – usually played by 4 as individuals.   Players have a special routine for choosing who will break the ‘Great Wall of China’ and each player takes 13 tiles then East Wind takes a 14th – so that they are first to discard a tile.   Each player takes one tile from the wall at a time in turn anti-clockwise.

The objective of the game is to obtain a complete set of 4 defined groups of three or four tiles and one pair i.e. 14 tiles – [ no discarded tile] in order to call Mahjong.  There is a selection of ‘Special’ hands that can be collected in order to score more highly. 

The Tiles


There are three suits Circles, Bamboo and Characters – 4 of each of the numbers 1-9 = 108 plus 16 wind tiles, 12 dragon tiles, four flower tiles and 4 season tiles – a total 144 + 4 white ‘joker’ tiles for use if no one goes Mahjong and a deciding game called a ‘Goulash’ has to be played.

Play starts by throwing two dice to see who will be East Wind first.  The tiles are ‘twittered’ (mixed up) and East Wind calls ‘Pow’ when he/she considers them sufficiently stirred. Players each proceed to place 18 tiles in front of them and build another 18 on top – the tiles are then moved forward to create ‘The Great Wall of China’.  The dice are thrown again by East Wind to decide who will break the wall.  The person due to break the wall throws the dice again and adds the two scores together to decide where the break should be by counting the tiles from his/her right hand side and pushing two tiles out and placing them on top of the wall.  These last 14 loose tiles form the ‘Flower or Season Wall/Kong Wall’ and are only used when a player picks up a Flower or Season or forms a Kong (a set of 4 tiles the same).  Players take 4 tiles each in an anti-clockwise direction starting with East Wind until everyone has 13 tiles – East Wind then takes a 14th tile. Play begins by East Wind discarding a tile face up leaving 13 on the rack.  If someone wants it and already have 2 tiles the same on their rack they call ‘Pung’ and take it and display it in front of them.  There are other rules for forming a ‘Chow’ which is a run of three tiles – but only 1 ‘Chow’ is allowed per hand and it does not attract any score.

Play continues until some calls ‘Mahjong’ or all the tiles are used up (apart from the Loose Tiles).  If the game is unfinished then a ‘Goulash’ is played by adding the 4 ‘Joker’ tiles.  The rules are slightly different but the game is played in the same way.



document Mahjong Book (3.00 MB)

Below is a great guide to playing Mah Jongg by Dr Paul Roebuck from Keyworth District U3A (Nottinghamshire).
pdf Mah Jongg for Keyworth U3A (2.61 MB)

Further information can be obtained from:  Mahjong-BritishRules.com