Mahjong is a tile based game started in China in an ancient dynasty. It has been mentioned in novels like Driving Miss Daisy, The Joy Luck Club, The Kitchen God’s Wife, and Crazy Rich Asians. Most Americans will recognize the hands as being similar to Rummy, but the ritual of the game is nothing like our western culture. It’s visual, auditory, and kinesthetic.
The 144 tiles are the visual and the kinesthetic. They are beautifully painted and shaped much like a set of dominoes. Unlike dominoes they are marked with Chinese characters and represent suits, similar to a deck of playing cards. There are three suits, bamboo (bams), characters (or cracs), and dots, numbered from one to nine, there are four of each number in a suit.
Each suit has a corresponding dragon. These are considered honor tiles The bamboo suit has a green dragon, and there are four in each set of tiles. Likewise, cracs have red dragons, and dots have white dragons. The dragons are usually beautiful tiles. In some sets they are literally dragons. In others, they are depicted as swords or other characters, but the white dragon is always a square shape and blank in the middle. In western Mahjong they are called soaps, because they resemble a bar of soap.
There is another set of honor tiles which do not have a suit, the winds. There are four of each wind, north, south, east, and west.
There are two sets of bonus tiles, eight flowers and eight jokers. Jokers are wild, but can only be used in a run or group of more than two. A group of three is called a pung, and a group of four is called a kong. In western mahjong there are also quints (five). This doesn’t exist in eastern Mahjongg because there are not jokers in eastern tiles.
Mahjong sets are varied and beautiful. Chinese art is depicted on the flower tiles. Older sets are made of jade, ivory, and bamboo. Sets in the United States have been made of bakelite, acrylic, and now can be enhanced with glitter. Jokers can depict the owners monogram or name. Mahjong sets can be an investment, but once a player becomes addicted to the game, they’ll usually have a set for home and a set in their car, ready for a game at any time.
The auditory part of the game is the clicking of the tiles when they are being shuffled or racked. A man stationed in Korea said it was common to walk down the streets there and hear games in each home as the clicking sounds of the tiles came from open windows. Another auditory component is the requirement to call the name of a tile when it’s discarded. For example when a player discards three bam, they must say the name of the tile aloud as they place it in the center of the table. If another player wants that tile, they must say “call”, “take”, or depending on the group, they may say “hold up” or anything else to get attention.
Another auditory experience will be laughter, lots of laughter. However if you pass a table of Mahjong players they may appear intense and focused. The laughter is sporadic and unpredictable to observers.
It is the Chinese Year of the Pig and Mahjong groups, being the sensory people that they are, will be addressing the senses by serving pig shaped cookies, maybe bacon, and buying each other pig shaped coin purses. It can be betting game.
Learning to play Mahjong is a chance to identify with another culture. It’s challenging. Part of the game is the luck of the draw. There is also strategy in deciding which tiles to keep in a ritual called the Charleston. Figuring out the hands of other players in an attempt to play defensively is also a challenge.
Most groups of players are made up of four. However, a fifth can be added as a bettor. There are adaptations made for three players, and a version of the game called Siamese Mahjongg for two. It’s a stimulating game, keeping players on their toes. It can inspire cursing and players might be heard saying “I hate this game.” However, at the end of the day when someone says, “Did you win?” No one can remember. It’s all about your senses and being in the moment.