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FAQ 2b. Identifying a Mah-Jongg Variant

Before You Buy A Mah-Jongg Set or Book, Make Sure You Buy The Right Thing

Like it says in FAQ 1, Mah-Jongg is played in many different ways. The first thing you have to do is make sure you know which kind of mah-jongg you want to learn.

a. So, if you are new to mah-jongg, first you need to choose a rule set to study.
b. If you are already playing mah-jongg, and are not sure which of the 30+ known varieties of mah-jongg you play, it's helpful to have a name to put on it. Especially if you have a question to ask about your variant on our Q&A Bulletin Board.

This FAQ will help you with both. Click the following links to jump to the appropriate section of this FAQ.


Mah-jongg map I made for my Smithsonian talk in 2002.



Click the tree to see a larger picture of the mah-jongg family tree!


How to find out which version of Mah-Jongg you [or your friends] play.

If you have friends who play Mah-Jongg and you want to get a book so you can study up on the way they play, you have to first know which version of Mah-Jongg your friends play. There are two problems with this:

A. Most people who play Mah-Jongg are unaware that there are more ways to play. If you just ask them "which style Mah-Jongg do you play?" they may give you a blank stare (or they may give you an imprecise answer). So you may have to ask in a different way (described below).

B. Very few books on Mah-Jongg make it clear which variety of Mah-Jongg they describe. The books too seem to have this attitude that there's just one way to play. In order to find the proper book, you can refer to the books FAQ (once you know which flavor of Mah-Jongg you want to study).

C. There is no one established standard naming system for the various flavors of Mah-Jongg. Different authors use different names to refer to the same style of Mah-Jongg. The naming system used here is just the naming system that this author chose.

To find out which game your friends play (or to identify the version you are already playing), start by asking your friends a few simple questions:

1. Do you use a card that changes every year?
- If yes, your friends play American (probably NMJL), and you can stop asking questions. All other varieties of Mah-Jongg use constant rules that stay the same from year to year.

2. How many tiles do you hold in your hand during play? 13 -- or 16? (When you win, do you go out on 14 tiles -- or 17?)
- If your friends say they play with 16 and go out on 17, then your friends play Taiwanese or Filipino style, and now you only have to ask one more question: "when you get a Wind or Dragon do you keep it in the hand and make groups of them, or do you treat them like flowers?"
- If they treat winds and dragons as flowers, then it's Filipino. Otherwise, it's Taiwanese. Also, it's likely that if you've narrowed their game down to Filipino or Taiwanese, you could simply ask, "Do you know if it's Taiwanese? Or Filipino?" Most likely, when you ask this question, the person will look puzzled briefly, then say "Well, the person who taught me the game was from Taiwan" (or the Philippines), and you will have your answer.
All other styles use 13 tiles in the hand, winning (going out) with 14 tiles in the hand.

3. Do you use "Reach" and "Dora"?
- If yes, your friends play Modern Japanese style, and you can stop asking questions.

4. How many tiles do you use when you play?

The main problem with that last question is, of course, that most people never bother to count their tiles. And most people do not want to go through all the work of figuring out how many tiles they used just to satisfy your seemingly unending barrage of questions. But in fact this is the last question that can be asked to easily identify a style of mah-jongg.

In May of 2016, Raymond Lee provided the following table showing types of flowers and jokers used in different Chinese and Southeast Asian variants:

For more on the variants Hua Maque and Wang Maque, see the learned research of Michael Stanwick and Hongbing Xu at mahjongtileset.co.uk. And for more about the difference between "general jokers" and "special jokers," see FAQ 7E, the "mystery tiles" FAQ. In the table above, "Animals" refers to what I call "Singapore flowers," also described in FAQ 7E.

4. Are the players all female and caucasian?
If so, your friends are probably playing American or Western/British (which includes Wright-Patterson, Australian, and India/Mumbai styles).

5. Is a substantial portion of the other players of Asian descent?
If so, your friends are probably not playing American or Western/British. They are playing one of the other variants.

If you have not yet identified which style your friends play, they may play Chinese Classical, Chinese Official, Hong Kong, New Style, Malaysian. . . to name a few possibilities. So below I describe the main characteristics of all the major varieties of Mah-Jongg which I can describe as of this writing, and you can figure out the questions from there. Don't stop reading before you get to the bottom. Variants are usually mentioned numerous times.

Note: the names of the various flavors of mah-jongg are not necessarily universally recognized. Some authorities may call a particular style of mah-jongg by a different name.


Detailed overview of the major varieties of mah-jongg


Brief overview of styles and English-language authors (see FAQ 3, the books FAQ for more on the books themselves) - listed in no particular order:

For a comparative analysis of several of the earliest known forms of mahjong, see http://www.sloperama.com/mahjongg/analysis.html.

Also: I have written my own simplified set of mah-jongg rules, in FAQ 10. It's basically Chinese Classical, but without any scoring whatsoever (players simply say "ooh" and "aah" when any difficult or "pretty" pattern exists in the winning hand), and without any significance to the winds or the flower numbers, using my philosophy of harmonious play without gambling. See FAQ 10 for details on these simplified rules; see FAQ 9 for my philosophy of harmonious play.

Again: the names of the various flavors of mah-jongg are not necessarily universally recognized names. Some authorities may call a particular style of mah-jongg by a different name. The names attributed herein represent my own naming convention for the various styles of mah-jongg. Somebody has to make sense out of it all!

* Whitney's "American" game lies somewhere between the game defined by Babcock and the Western game defined by S&E and T&M (primarily in that Whitney lists the common Chinese/Japanese/"American" special hands, and not the full list of Western special hands; Babcock's rules do not include special hands at all).

There is bound to be some difference between the game defined by one author and the same game defined by another author (see P&C vs. Constantino vs. Li vs. Lo vs. Tsui, for example). For the people who use a particular book to determine their table rules, the book defines the rules -- some play groups may agree on different table rules. The main criterion that makes a book "authoritative" is whether or not a reasonable number of people play (or at one time played) according to its rules.


What about Siamese Mah-Jongg?
That's the name given by Gladys Grad to her 2-player subvariant of American/NMJL mah-jongg. It's not from Thailand (Siam), so is not listed among world variants above. You can read about it at SiameseMahJongg.com.


Got a question about this FAQ? Ask the expert -- visit http://www.sloperama.com/majexchange/bulletinbd.htm to get answers to your mah-jongg questions.


Archive-name: mjfaq02b.htm
Newsgroups: rec.games.mahjong; fj.rec.games.mahjong
Posting-frequency: n/a (only FAQ 0 is posted on the NG, and it is posted weekly)
Last-modified: July 22, 2002
Version: 2.23
The other mah-jongg FAQ articles are located at: http://www.sloperama.com/mjfaq.html

-------------------------------------------------

UPDATE LOG

FAQ2b (How to identify a rule set)

Feb. 9, 1999 -- added clarification about names of various MJ rule sets. ("Note: the names of the various flavors of MJ are not necessarily universally recognized. Some authorities may call a particular style of MJ by a different name.")
March 28, 1999 -- added newly-identified authors.
April 5, 1999 -- clarified which rule set is described by Headley & Seeley
June 23, 1999 -- further clarified difference between "American" and "Western" styles.
October 26, 1999 -- changed "Filipino" to "Philippine"
July 8, 2000 -- combined two older FAQs together into one concatenated FAQ.
September 29, 2000 -- changed FAQ URL from activision.com to thegameguru.net, added Glass book to list of Western authors.
October 18, 2000 -- corrected the FAQs' URL to match actual direct URL
December 8, 2000 -- changed thegameguru.net to sloperama.com
January 3, 2001 -- updated the Babcock Red Book information; updated info re the HKOS-VS.-CC controversy and added info to the Vietnamese section; changed "Philippine" back to "Filipino"
January 5, 2000 -- added Chinese Official style.
January 28, 2001 -- various wording improvements throughout.
February 19, 2001 -- added WMPA style and made a couple of adjustments. Finished a sentence.
March 15, 2001 -- changed the Taiwanese/Filipino question in Part II, thanks to a suggestion from J. R. Fitch.
May 4, 2001 -- added Hunan style mah-jongg. Thanks to Sehat Nauli for the information. Added details regarding WMPA and Zung Jung styles.
May 25, 2001 -- added info about Korean mah-jongg.
May 25, 2001 -- clarified the info about Korean mah-jongg (I ought to research before I publish!) Thanks very much to Sangchol Sheen for all the help!
May 25, 2001 -- further clarified the Korean info
June 4, 2001 -- added carriage returns (this is a TXT file and displays as is)
July 13, 2001 -- added the Tjoa and Lo books under the New Style category
July 16, 2001 -- cleaned up the Overview section; Lo describes not only New Style but also Taiwanese and HKOS.
July 30, 2001 -- modified references to Hakka style, now that I've learned it's HKOS. [March 2005 note: have now learned that the Hakkas originated around the Yellow River, far north of Guangdong - so Hakka MJ may not be the same thing as HKOS]
August 21, 2001 -- minor cleanups
September 2, 2001 -- Added 12-tile mah-jongg.
October 1, 2001 -- added Pritchard book.
November 17, 2001 -- added Mhing to the list of mah-jongg variants.
December 12, 2001 -- changed a couple URLs is all.
December 14, 2001 -- converted FAQ to HTML format. And of course I had to touch up here and there in the process.
January 2, 2002 -- separated the two parts of FAQ 2 into two separate FAQs again. No regrets over having combined them in the first place.
Groundhog Day, 2002 (02/02/02) -- added Vietnamese Modern.
April 24, 2002 -- added family tree picture and link.
July 18, 2002 -- subsequent updates now logged at log.html.

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Copyright 2000-2017 Tom Sloper. All rights reserved. Reproduction of this and my other FAQs by written permission only.