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FAQ 7e. Those Mysterious Special Tiles
That Come in Some Mah-Jongg Sets

If you are looking for information about flowers or jokers, please click the above links. If that's not what you're looking for, then you probably have some tiles that you aren't sure what they are: "mystery tiles." To begin, I recommend laying out all your tiles in "the big square," like this:

Or you can lay them out like this:

Just laying them out, you'll identify "gaps" in your set, and you'll know that some of your mystery tiles have to be tiles that fill your gaps.

If you think you don't have any One Bams, then look for birds with the number 1 on them. Those are your One Bams. If you think you don't have any White Dragons, then look for blank tiles. Four of those are your White Dragons.

Once you have identified and arranged all the suit tiles and the winds and the dragons (and there don't seem to be any of those basic tiles missing), then your other mystery tiles are probably either flowers or jokers (or you may have both).

Or your "mystery tiles" might be other special tiles... Sometimes they are just DRAGONS that look different from what you're used to (below). But there are also other kinds of special tiles. For example, Japanese sets come with "red fives" (akago or akapai) such as these:

Red fives are bonus tiles that double the score. Each red five contained in the winning hand counts as a "dora" (worth one fan). See FAQ 25 for info about Japanese riichi-dora majan, and see FAQ 4b if you want to find other websites that describe the Japanese rules.

For the rest of this FAQ, I simply share some questions & answers about "mystery tiles" that were asked and answered on the Maj Exchange Q&A Bulletin Board:


Red Dragons and Green Dragons come in lots of different styles:

        

I am often asked what the Chinese writing on mah-jongg tiles means. And I usually don't know! (^_^)


Name: Tom Sloper
Date: 03 Sep 2002

Comments

Hello Chuck Longstreth in Duluth, MN (kxj), you emailed me:
>Hi Tom - I have a question about the type of characters used on the
>Wans.
>Is the type of character used to indicate the '10,000' a sign of the
>age of the set?
>(i.e. the more simple vs. the more elaborate)
No. It cannot be used as a definitive guide.


Most early (1920s) sets used the simpler-style crak character. But not all.

Most modern (1970s to date) sets use the more elaborate-style crak character. But not all.

>Or is it just a matter of how fussy the engraver wanted to be?
For some engravers, perhaps. I'm sure there also other factors behind the choice of which kind of crak to use.
Tom


What is the story behind the one bird bam?

>From: Rae T
>Sent: Monday, June 18, 2018 1:15 PM
>Subject: Mah Jong
>What is the story behind the one bird bam?

Hi, Rae!
Interesting question. I don't think there is a story, per se. The Chinese probably have legends or folklore about sparrows. If that's what you're looking for, I listed some books on Chinese lore at the bottom of FAQ 7E-F, the "Mystery Flowers" FAQ. All I can offer you is a theory as to how it came to be that there's a bird on the 1B tile...

The suits of mah-jongg (dots, bams, craks) are actually derived from the suits of madiao cards (coins, strings of coins, and myriads of coinstrings). When Chen Yumen took the idea of those suits and had them carved on bone dominoes, the carver represented strings of coins in a way that looked like bamboo sticks. For the #1 tile, the carver had to represent a single string of coins but wanted to give it some unique treatment -- kind of the same as the way the ace of spades in a deck of Western playing cards (which are also descended from the suits of madiao cards, by the way) is drawn larger and more elaborately than the others. As I described in FAQ 11-E, an early mah-jongg set from 1873 shows a stylized string of coins for the 1B. It's not a bird. Or is it?

Then by 1890 a set was made that shows a very birdlike string of coins for the 1B.

That's all I can come up with as to how or why the 1B usually shows a bird. By the way, did I mention that the Chinese name for the game (when J.P. Babcock asked, around 1918-ish), 麻雀, means "sparrow." The game was named for the sound made by players shuffling the tiles between hands - from a distance, shuffled bone-and-bamboo tiles make a tinkly sound not too dissimilar from the sound made by sparrows. But I don't think that is connected with the bird on the 1B tile.
May the tiles be with you.
Tom Sloper
トム·スローパー
湯姆 斯洛珀
Creator of the Sloper On Mah-Jongg column and the Mah-Jongg FAQs -- donations appreciated.
Author of "The Red Dragon & The West Wind," the definitive book on Mah-Jongg East & West.
Los Angeles, California, USA
June 18, 2018 6:25 PM



These tiles are used in Malaysian mah-jongg. From left to right: White Dragon, Fly (joker), Face (flower tiles).
For more about how these tiles are used in Malaysian mah-jongg, click here.

In December 2012 there was a bulletin board discussion about another tile from that part of the world: reader Stefan L. sent this picture of a tile in a set he purchased in Singapore.

Stefan added, "In addition to the normal Chinese tiles there are also animal tiles, fly tiles, face tiles and blanks. But there are also four more tiles thrown in. They have the characters 聽用 (simplified 听用)." The post prompted an exchange with noted mah-jongg scholar Michael Stanwick.

>From: Michael Stanwick
>Sent: Sunday, December 9, 2012 10:34 AM
>In my article in The Playing-card Volume 37, Number 1, I document the use of this tile as it appears in the 1941 edition of the book titled "Maque de jingyan yu jiqiao" (Maque's Experiences and Skills) by Liu Yishu. According to Liu " we have "Multipurpose" tile ting yong, engraving two characters "ting yong" on a blank tile, means this tile can act as any of the 'Cash', 'Strings', 'Myriads', 'Directions', or 'Center', 'Fortune', 'Blank'.
>In case your reader has not read my articles on the game set of maque, these tiles are, respectively, in common parlance, 'Circles' or 'Dots', 'Bamboos', 'Cracks or 'Characters', North, South, East, West and 'Red Dragon', 'Green Dragon' and 'White Dragon'.
>... soon you will be able to read all my articles, plus view research books and papers plus view Chinese money suited playing cards and many types of MJ sets on my web site.
>For the time being however, the presence of these eight jokers is in accord with a type of MJ called Changsha's Wang Ma Que or Changsha's Kings MJ. It has eight wang tiles that are what we call Innner Flowers and these Inner Flowers function as substitutes for the particular target groups, be it the Suits or the Directions or the 'Dragons' or combinations of these.
>There is a variant of this game in Vietnam which sports similar tiles for similar functions to these tiles in Wang Maque. This was reported to me by Thierry Depaulis and he suggested that this type of Wang game is a southern variant. If this is the case then perhaps we are dealing with another version of the tile set used to play a version of this southern variant?
>For further information I would urge your reader to obtain a copy of my article from Playing-card journal from the i-p-c-s.org website.
>Best Regards
>Michael

Michael,
I look forward to seeing your website. I'm guessing from what you're saying that the Fly tile and the Ting Yong tile may be different types of jokers, akin to the different joker types in Vietnamese mah-jongg.

>From: Michael Stanwick
>Sent: Monday, December 10, 2012 4:37 AM
>Subject: mystery tile part 5
>Hello Tom. Yes. It may be that the different types of jokers are Inner Flowers that are used as substitutes for the tile groups that are used to form melds for scoring purposes. Because they are Inner Flowers they are concealed in the player's hand, as opposed to Outer Flowers that are exposed upon acquisition.
>So one group of jokers, say for example the face tiles, might serve as substitutes for the Suit tiles, whereas the fly tiles, for example, might serve as substitutes for the Directions and Dragons and the ting yongs might serve as a substitutes for the three Suits, Directions and Dragons.
>This is one probable explanation based on the similar set of Changsha Wang ma Que and the Vietnamese tile set.
>Regards
>Michael


>Date: Fri, 30 Sep 2005 15:48:15 -0500
>From: Adam
>Subject: Special Unknown TIles
>I recently purchased a mahjong set with 168 acrylic tiles. 24 of the tiles were blank (though 4 seemed to have been digitally printed with images of flowers) Of the remaining 144 tiles there are a complete 136 suits and honors, but no season or flower tiles. However, there are eight tiles in their place. I have attached a JPG of these tiles. There are four tiles matching each of the two tiles in the image. 4 tiles with the Chinese character "Ruler" in orange, and four with a four-point star pattern with a rhinestone (!) embedded in the center.

>I have other info: The plastic trays are stamped with the Nintendo logo, so I assume they are the manufacturer (though I can find no information on the web regarding this)
>Any helpful ideas an how these tiles might be used?
>Cheers,
>Adam
>PS - through examination I have found
>The set uses only two inks: Black and red, and the tiles all seem to have been created from molds rather than stamped as they are completely identical without variance in detail between identical tiles. Except for: The 4 white dragons (simple black double border), the Rulers, and the Stars, Which all seem to have been engraved by hand, which leads me to believe that this set was customized with these tiles as well as the digital flower tiles (which would explain the use of the orange ink which is out of place). There were some cheap stickers on the blank tiles, so am assuming this set was customized to play NMJL games, but that still doesn't explain these 8 tiles. Is there anything more info you can offer? It's more of a curiosity than anything, since I collect out of the ordinary sets. Thanks!

Hello Adam,
Very interesting out-of-the-ordinary set you have there! Nintendo sets are not common here in the U.S. I have one, but mine is a normal Japanese set. Nintendo, of course, used to make all sorts of game supplies before they got into video games in the 1980s.

You didn't mention if your set has Western indices on it or not. I assume not, since as far as I know Nintendo made stuff for sale within Japan only. Which makes it odd that it would have been adapted for play by NMJL players, since Americans can rarely read the Chinese characters on the craks and winds.

You also didn't say if your set includes the original paper materials that usually came with the set. The writing on the orange tile says "white king" (or white "ruler" as you say). Presumably, it could be used as a joker. And the star tile too, I suppose. The real mystery is why the set has so many blanks. There's no mystery why the set has only 4 manufactured flowers (see FAQ 7a). And a minor mystery is what the heck you mean when you say the 4 other flower tiles are "digitally printed" - I guess you mean somebody put home computer-printed stickers on them.

I'm going to add your picture to FAQ 7e. Maybe somebody will know more and will write me.
Tom Sloper (湯姆スローパー)
Los Angeles, CA (USA)
September 30, Year of the Rooster


Explaining one mystery

>From: Raymond L
>Sent: Tuesday, May 17, 2016 2:24 PM
>Subject: Explanation of Adam's special unknown tiles
>Hi Tom,
>I've been going through your FAQ's and noticed an old mystery from 2005. Allow me to shed some light on the rhinestone star tile first. The set was made by Nintendo so logically it might have been a Japanese mahjong set. Remember Nicholas Cheung's 2012 alert that there are lesser known variants that contained red 3s and 7s? There's also red white dragons! They are called 白ポッチ (shiro potchi) in Japanese. These two websites will provide more information:
>The first is the Japanese wiki for dora.
>https://ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E3%83%89%E3%83%A9_%28%E9%BA%BB%E9%9B%80%29
>The second shows a tile that's almost like Adam's.
>http://arcturus.su/wiki/Dora
>The second tile is a bit more puzzling. 皇 means emperor which is also found in Vietnamese flower tiles. You suggested that it could mean white king (白王) but I consider it unlikely. If it were two words, they would be colored differently to avoid confusion. Searching 皇麻雀牌 after confining it to Japanese led me nowhere (my Japanese is horrendous).
>I've also noticed some errors in the FAQ's which I will help you correct but that's for another day.
>Best regards,
>Ray L.

Hi, Ray.
Great information! Thanks. You're referring to this image:

At the sites you cited, I see these images:

Those sites do confirm that these are "red whites" (white dragons acting as score doublers). As for the 皇 emperor tile, I guess the mystery continues.
I look forward to getting further info that I can use to improve the accuracy of my site. Thanks again, Ray!
May the tiles be with you.
Tom Sloper
トム·スローパー
湯姆 斯洛珀
Creator of the Sloper On Mah-Jongg column and the Mah-Jongg FAQs -- donations appreciated.
Author of "The Red Dragon & The West Wind," the definitive book on Mah-Jongg East & West.
Los Angeles, California, USA
May 17, 2016


NMJL member tiles

>From: Sherry M
>Sent: Wednesday, July 23, 2014 6:51 PM
>Subject: Member tiles
>Tom,
>I have recently been collecting Bakelite tiles that are stamped with National Mahjongg Member tile. The ones that I have found are either red or yellow, have a hole in them for a keychain, and a couple have decoupaged flowers on them. I have asked NMJL about them and originally they replied, “WE HAVE NEVER SOLD THOSE!”. I sent them a photocopy of my tiles and was rewarded with a reply that yes indeed NMJL had sold them but when, why and for how long was unknown. (Wouldn’t you think they would have records SOMEWHERE regarding them?)
>The last tile I bought I asked the seller if she had had any information regarding them. She told me that they were sold with mahj sets through the NMJL and these were attached to the case of the member that had purchased them. She dated them during WWll and the profits were donated for the war effort. I have recently bought a vintage set from the early 30’s and in it were 3 member tiles! Along with the 3 member tiles, there was also 2 blank Bakelite tiles with the exact same decoupaged flower on them.
>So…was wondering if you have ever seen them and if you have any additional information regarding who long they were sold for and where?
>Thank you!
>Best regards,
>Sherry M

Hi, Sherry. You wrote:

(Wouldn’t you think they would have records SOMEWHERE regarding them?)
Not necessarily. I used to work at Atari. When I joined, the company had been bought and sold twice. I had more information about their products than they did. Then I worked at Activision. The company was bought and sold while I worked there, and a lot of "records" were being thrown away - I snagged some from the trash, and wound up being a repository of company history afterwards. The NMJL has been around a LOT longer than that. They would need someone who dedicated herself to archival storage, and that's not a top priority for businesses.

She dated them during WWll and the profits were donated for the war effort. I have recently bought a vintage set from the early 30’s and in it were 3 member tiles!
That's great information you got there!

Along with the 3 member tiles, there was also 2 blank Bakelite tiles with the exact same decoupaged flower on them.
I explained the deal with those flower tiles in FAQ 19-AI and column 509.

was wondering if you have ever seen them
Just pictures.

and if you have any additional information regarding who long they were sold for and where?
No, sorry. You know more about them than I do.

May the tiles be with you.
Tom Sloper

Creator of the weekly Mah-Jongg column and the Mah-Jongg FAQs -- donations appreciated.
Author of "The Red Dragon & The West Wind," the definitive book on Mah-Jongg East & West.
Los Angeles, California, USA
July 23, 2014


Extra info for the FAQs

>From: Nicholas Cheung
>Sent: Thursday, November 15, 2012 5:19 PM
>Subject: Extra notes on FAQ 13c and FAQ 7e
>Hi Tom:
>Just want to let you know on a couple of uncommon variants with Japanese
>mahjong...
>For FAQ 13c-
>I'd like to add that one variant of 3-player Japanese mahjong that does
>happen, but very rarely, is not to treat the north winds as "flowers."
>As such, they count as separate 1 han dora each in a winning hand, and if
>the West wind is the dora indicator, each north wind counts as 2 han dora in
>a winning hand - and the "dead wall" will contain 14 tiles as normal instead
>of 18 tiles.
>For FAQ 7e-
>Most Japanese sets come with red fives, but a very small number of Japanese
>sets come with red threes or red sevens instead of red fives. With that
>said, the San Group conglomerate of mahjong parlors is well known for using
>red threes (specifically, two red 3-pin tiles), instead of any red fives.
>Thank you again.
>Nicholas Cheung

Great info, Nicholas. I'll add that right away. Sorry your email fell through the cracks. When I was mentioning red fives in my response to Elizabeth, I realized I hadn't yet acted on your email. Better late than never, I suppose!
May the tiles be with you.
Tom Sloper

Creator of these Mah-Jongg FAQs -- donations appreciated.
Author of "The Red Dragon & The West Wind," the definitive book on Mah-Jongg East & West.
Los Angeles, California, USA
November 23, 2012


Which ones are my winds, dragons, and flowers?

> From: vivian m
> Sent: Friday, April 25, 2014 2:45 PM
> Subject: Can you identify winds and flowers in this set?
>This set has 4 of each of the pictured tiles, plus 8 jokers made with stickers on blanks. My question concerns the bottom row. I infer that 1,2,3 are white, red, and green dragons, respectively. (Correct me if I'm wrong.) I assume the 24 tiles represented by 4-9 are flowers and winds. Can you identify them for me?
>Thanks.
> Vivian M

Hi, Vivian.
I have no idea how the set's creator intended those tiles to be apportioned. Of course you'd want a sequential group of 3 to be the dragons, and yes, the first three do seem most logical - but which should be "red dragon"? Looking at the craks in your set (which, by the way, is weirder than most of the weird sets in my own collection!), it looks like those tiles all have green on them, so the #3 tile (the green dinosaur) might best be the "dragon" that goes with your craks. And the #2 tile (the castle) is architectural, so goes nicely with your bams, leaving the #1 tile (the blue dragon) to go with your dots (yin and yang). As for which are flowers (#4 and #5, OR #s 8 and 9), that is entirely up to you. I recommend you make a reference card each player at your table can use while playing.
Afterthought: your #7 tile is the Big Dipper, which points North - so most likely your #4, 5, 6, and 7 tiles are E, S, W, and N respectively, leaving #s 8 and 9 as your flowers.
And another afterthought: your 8-bams are upside-down in the picture. Notice how all the bams are letters. I, T, K, X, A. Then Hi, ON, BY, WE. I don't think there's any rhyme or reason to those (they don't spell out a sentence that means anything, like "Itkxa hi on by we," which is nonsense) except for the number of lines (pen strokes).
May the tiles be with you.
Tom Sloper

Creator of the weekly Mah-Jongg column and the Mah-Jongg FAQs -- donations appreciated.
Author of "The Red Dragon & The West Wind," the definitive book on Mah-Jongg East & West.
Los Angeles, California, USA
April 25, 2014


Which ones are my winds, dragons, and flowers, part 2 (continued from April 25, 2014) - and a donation

>From: Dinah B
>Sent: Monday, June 6, 2016 5:46 PM
>Subject: Answer to a question asked in FAQ 7e
>Hi Tom,
>I started Mah Jongg a year and a half ago, and am totally hooked. I love your site, and have poured over almost every word and picture. While reading the FAQ, I came across one that I had found more info on, and thought you would want this info too.
>Thanks for reading.
>Dinah
>*****
>In regard to FAQ 7e. Those Mysterious Special Tiles...
>The last question -
>"Which ones are my winds, dragons, and flowers?
>> From: vivian m
>> Sent: Friday, April 25, 2014 2:45 PM
>> Subject: Can you identify winds and flowers in this set?
>>This set has 4 of each of the pictured tiles, plus 8 jokers made with stickers on blanks. My question concerns the bottom row. I infer that 1,2,3 are white, red, and green dragons, respectively. (Correct me if I'm wrong.) I assume the 24 tiles represented by 4-9 are flowers and winds. Can you identify them for me?
>>Thanks.
>> Vivian M"
>


>*****
>The reason these tiles are so puzzling is that this is not a Mah Jongg set at all. It is a similar game called "Magic Dragon". I came across it listed on ebay as a MJ set, and then found it accidentally while researching something else:
>https://boardgamegeek.com/thread/225168/magic-dragon
>The Mah Jongg Museum has a picture of the box and tiles
>http://www.mahjongmuseum.com/mj023.htm

>From: Dinah B via PayPal
>Sent: Monday, June 6, 2016 5:51 PM
>Subject: Reference: MJ@Sloperama Sloperama Mah-Jongg Answers - Donation from Dinah B
>PayPal
>Hello Thomas Sloper,
>This email confirms that you have received a donation of$10.00 USD from Dinah B. You can view the transaction details online.
>Donation Details
>Total amount: $10.00 USD
>Currency: U.S. Dollars
>Reference: MJ@Sloperama
>Purpose: Sloperama Mah-Jongg Answers
>Contributor: Dinah B
>Message: Thank you for the great resource you provide. I have your book also.
>Sincerely,
>PayPal

Hi, Dinah -
Great work, finding that set on the MahjongMuseum! I never saw that there. Now if only I could see the rules for that game so I could see if it's at all mah-jongg-like! And thanks very much for the donation.
May the tiles be with you.
Tom Sloper
トム·スローパー
湯姆 斯洛珀
Creator of the Sloper On Mah-Jongg column and the Mah-Jongg FAQs -- donations appreciated.
Author of "The Red Dragon & The West Wind," the definitive book on Mah-Jongg East & West.
Los Angeles, California, USA
6/6/16


Occasionally someone sends me a photo of their "mahjong" set and it turns out it isn't mahjong at all, but rather Rummikub (sometimes made under alternate names):


Rummikub. NOT mahjong.


© 2001-2018 Tom Sloper. All rights reserved. May not be re-published without written permission of the author.

Thanks also to British mah-jongg scholar Michael Stanwick; his research has informed some aspects of this article.

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