Mah Jong Tiles

by Dave Rankin
Issue No. 243 - July 1993

Many years ago while doing research on Cambridge Glass in the trade journals, our group of researchers came cross an article in the November 17, 1924 issue of China, Glass and Lamps which made reference to Mah-Jongg tiles and the Mah-Jongg etching by Cambridge. When this article was read, the immediate question was: "What are Mah-Jongg tiles?" Occasionally, the reference would be encountered again while researching other subjects with the same question coming to mind. In Mark Nye's article last month, he made reference to this topic once again. This time, however, I went to our old, but trusty, 1968 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica and found the following interesting explanation. I believe this provides some clue about what inspired Cambridge to produce this etching.

MAH-JONGG, a western version of a Chinese game, is played with 136 or 144 tiles or p'ais, similar to dominoes but engraved with Chinese symbols and characters and divided into suits and honours. A fad in England, the United States and Australia in the mid-1920s, the game was revived in the US, after 1935 but never regained its initial popularity.

The game that came to be known as mah-jongg is probably of 19th century origin. Before World War I, each Chinese province had its own style of play and dialect name for it. Signifying "sparrow" or hemplike bird, the name has been variously transliterated as ma tsiang, ma chiang, ma cheuk and ma ch'iau. The sparrow or a Mah Jong game tiles mythological "bird of 100 intelligences," appears on one of the tiles. The name mah-jongg was coined and copyrighted by Joseph P. Babcock, a US resident of Shanghai who is credited with introducing mah-jongg to the west after World War I. He wrote a modified set of rules, gave English titles to the tiles and added index letters and numerals familiar to western card players.

Pieces - Modern mah-jongg sets are usually made of plastics instead of bone or ivory. A full mah-jongg set contains 136 or 44 tiles depending on whether the flowers or seasons are used. Some sets include 20 flowers. The pieces are named and numbered as follows:

  1. Bamboos. Numbered 1 to 9, four of each number (36 tiles)
  2. Circles. Numbered 1 to 9, four of each number (36 tiles)
  3. Characters. Numbered 1 to 9, four of each number (36 tiles)
  4. Honours. 4 red dragons, 4 green dragons, 4 white dragons (12 tiles)
  5. Winds. 4 East winds. 4 South winds, 4 West Winds, 4 North winds (16 tiles)
  6. Flowers and Seasons. 4 of each or 8 of either (8 tiles)

(Total of 136 tiles without Flowers and Seasons, 144 tiles with them.)

The bamboos are often called sticks or bams, the circles dots, the characters cracks or craks. The set also included two dice, a quantity of tokens or plastic chips used for score keeping and a rack for each player wherein he can place 14 tiles with their faces visible only to himself.

THE GAME - The usual game is for four, each playing for himself (there are no partners). The object of play, similar to that of the rummy card game, is to obtain sets of tiles. There are three kinds of sets:

  • CHOW - a run, or sequence of three tiles of the same suit in numerical order
  • PUNG - a sequence of three like tiles of the same suit and rank, three dragons of the same colour or three identical winds
  • KONG - a pung plus the fourth matching tile.

The winner is the first player to hold a complete hand; ie,, four sets and a pair of like tiles (14 tiles). The strategy of mah-jongg, like that of rummy, is both offensive and defensive: to complete a or winning hand as quickly as possible; to block other players by not discarding tiles useful to them; and to build a high-scoring hand. Beginning with "east wind" (who collects or pays double according to whether he or another player wins), each player draws his "hand" and places it in his tile rack, east taking a total of 14 tiles and the others 13. The flowers or seasons are not counted as part of a 13 tile hand; on drawing such a tile, the player immediately "grounds" it face up and draws another tile.

East begins the play by discarding one tile, reducing his hand to 13. Thereafter, the other players, in counterclockwise rotation, each draw one tile, which may be the last discarded tile or a loose tile from the "wall" (comparable to stock in rummy). Any player, regardless of whether it is his turn, may claim the previous discard if it completes his set. (If two or more players claim the same discard, there is a detailed order of precedence.) The losing players settle with the winner and with each other according to the accepted schedule of values for the sets or combinations of sets. A concealed set held in the hand scores differently from an exposed set on the table.

Under certain rules, exceptionally complete hands or "limit hands," picturesquely named "the three scholars," "four small blessings," etc., are scored differently. In U.S. play the emphasis on limit hands eventually far exceeded that under Chinese rules until high scores were accented over playing skill. A certain school of players restricted the winning hand to a very narrow list and made the flowers wild. Various other innovations followed. One was the "clear-handed" rule"; woo hand may contain only tiles of one suit plus honours. The conflict led to publication of Laws of Mah-Jongg (1925) by Babcock and others, giving an option between the Chinese game and the clear-handed variant. Shortly after, the Mah-Jongg fad collapsed.

In 1937 Viola Cecil organized the National Mah Jongg League in the U.S. to standardize a new version of the game. Its innovations included the "Charleston", or exchange of tiles between players before the start of play, and the use of 22 flower tiles (wild or jokers except in certain winning hands).