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FAQ #18. Mah-Jongg Symbolism

In discussing the symbolism of mah-jongg, we examine the symbolism of the following aspects of mah-jongg:

The Suits - The three suits of mah-jongg are evolved directly from three-suited money cards: Coins, Strings of Coins, and Myriads of Strings of Coins ( see FAQ 11 , the History FAQ). Even older were four-suited money cards, which led to the development of Tarot, which led to the development of today's playing cards ( , the ultimate playing card website, has a page with links to several sites about the history of playing cards).

The Number of Suit Tiles - The fact that the suit goes from 1 to 9 (rather than to 10) may be rooted in Chinese numerology. The original money-suited cards, from which mah-jongg evolved, also numbered from 1 to 9. The fact that the numbers are quadruplicated seems to have been done for the purposes of gameplay (to permit multitudinous permutations of rummy-like combinations). And the fact that 3 suits of 1 to 9, quadruplicated, results in the number 108 - which has some kind of parallel with 108 revolutionaries of the Tai-Ping Rebellion (which occurred around or a little before the presumed appearance of mah-jongg).

The Winds - Chinese culture, traditions, and rituals are based on the four winds, which correspond to the four seasons. In the Spring, the wind (it is said) comes from the East. In the Summer, the wind comes from the hot South. In the Autumn, from the West, and in the Winter, from the cold cold North. If you visit Forbidden City in Beijing, you will learn of various ways that buildings and entrances were built to accommodate rituals related to the seasons and the four ordinal directions. Note: American players arrange the winds to spell "NEWS," but their proper Chinese order is "ESWN."

The Dragons - The Chinese do not call these tiles "dragons" - only we Westerners do. The three dragons can be thought of as being the tenth or "zeroth" number in the suit tiles, but not a lot of significance need be ascribed to that notion. In the Western and American games (and in some Hong Kong circles), the dragons are associated with suits as follows: Red ("ruby") with craks, Green ("jade") with bams, and White ("pearls") with dots. The "chung" symbol on the Red tile ( see FAQ 7e ) means "center" - it can be thought of as the fifth direction. The "fa" symbol on the Green tile means "get" - which expands automatically in the Chinese psyche to "get rich," which is why many Western authors call this tile "fortune" (which begins with F as does "fa"). The White dragon has a considerably more prosaic significance. Originally merely blank, the eventual use of solid monochromatic plastic caused a problem - one couldn't tell if one was looking at the front or back of the tile, so a differentiating design was needed. So the rectangular design was created. The "B" or "P" merely means "white" in Chinese ( see FAQ 7e ).

The Flowers - These extra 8 tiles are needed to fill out the set - for symmetry, so that the winds and dragons aren't outnumbered by the three suits. Taken together as a group, the winds, dragons, and flowers number 36 (the exact same number of tiles in one suit), so the set can fit neatly into four trays. Not that this is terribly significant - nor that this is terribly certain. The four seasons correspond to the four winds, and the four flowers do so as well. Some sets forego the use of "flowers" or "seasons" on these eight tiles, and use symbolic characters or themes instead, as discussed in FAQ 7e.

For further reading, Jesper Harder's site in Denmark has a discussion about the Chinese writing on mahjong tiles. And these books are also very useful if you are researching your flower tiles or other mah-jongg symbolism:

WHAT CHARACTER IS THAT?: AN EASY-ACCESS DICTIONARY OF 5,000 CHINESE CHARACTERS, by Ping-gam Go. Simplex Publications, ISBN-13: 978-0962311352 - second edition, paperback - May 1, 2002. Most Chinese dictionaries sort by the complexity of the character, IE the number of strokes in the character.  The unique feature of this dictionary is its arrangement: first by the English word of the character's root, and then by the number of strokes.  This simple arrangement dramatically narrows your field of search for any given character.  This dictionary teaches you how to identify the radicals and also provides etymology to help you memorize it. (Thanks to Bruce Bacher)

A DICTIONARY OF CHINESE SYMBOLS: HIDDEN SYMBOLS IN CHINESE LIFE AND THOUGHT, by Wolfram Eberhard. Routledge, London, 1986. ISBN 0-415-00228-1. Originally published in German as Lexicon chinesischer Symbole by Eugen Diederichs Verlag, Cologne, 1983.
Not about mah-jongg - the title is self-explanatory. Useful for mah-jongg researchers and historians.

OUTLINES OF CHINESE SYMBOLISM AND ART MOTIVES, by C.A.S. Williams. Dover Publications, ISBN-13: 978-0486233727 (multiple editions; available in paperback and hardcover). Not about mah-jongg, but useful for mah-jongg scholars, and those wishing to better understand their ornately carved tiles or unusual flower tiles in collectible sets.

The Name of the Game - As described in FAQ 11, "Mah jong" means "hemp sparrow" or "flax sparrow." Hemp and flax are of variegated colors, and the term "hemp" or "flax" is therefore used merely as a way of describing the color(s) of a sparrow. When a set of bone and bamboo tiles is mixed vigorously, the sound resembles a flock of sparrows squabbling over crumbs. There is more than that to the origin of the game's name, but I defer the reader to Millington and Foster (see FAQ 3) and to some articles which have appeared in the journal of the International Playing-Card Society. (Note: Those interested in facts about the history of mah-jongg are admonished to ignore exaggerated claims that mah-jongg is thousands of years old, thus not all books listed in FAQ 3 are recommended to researchers.)
The Chinese characters shown above are not the only way "mah jong" can be (or has been) written in Chinese. For those alternate writings, see FAQ 11 and see FAQ 6, the "mah-jongg rosetta stone," and scroll down to the section entitled "Mah-Jongg (how the authors spell 'mah-jongg')."

© 2004-2008 Tom Sloper. All rights reserved. May not be re-published without written permission of the author.
Disclaimer: Some of the ideas in this article may have been originated by mah-jongg scholar Michael Stanwick. My thanks to Mr. Stanwick for his excellent research.