Mahjong Tile Meanings - A Helpful Study Guide

Posted by Steven Barnhart on 14th Jan 2021

Mahjong Tile Meanings

What is the board game Mahjong?

According to   Wikipedia the tile game Mahjong is:

Similar to the Western card game rummy, Mahjong is a game of skill, strategy, and calculation, and it involves a degree of chance. 

The game is played with a set of 144 tiles based on Chinese characters and symbols, although some regional variations may omit some tiles or add unique ones.

The Meaning Of The Mahjong Tiles

Early on the board game Mahjong was often played as a gambling game and as such was banned after 1949 in China but reintroduced after the Cultural Revolution ended in 1976.

There are numerous variations in game play from one country to another. There Western Mahjong game sets as well as Oriental game sets.

Mahjong game sets contain 136 or 144 tiles. There are 16 rounds in a game and a winner is decided after each round.

The origin of Mahjong is heavily debated. 

The true origin of mahjong is unknown and may be debated for hours.

Determining its origin depends on who you ask, there are a variety of opinions about mahjong's origins, most theories are unsubstantiated, and several stories have been embellished.

One story is that mahjong was an idea brought about by Confucius, the famous Chinese philosopher.

There is even a story that the beginning was on Noah's Ark. 

This fast paced 4 player game is very popular throughout Asia, however it is gaining traction in the West.

Mahjong can be played as a casual game, with mahjong clubs or at a variety of mahjong tournaments throughout the world.

Understanding the Mahjong tile.

If you want to learn how to play, you must first be able to identify and understand the different mahjong tile. 

Each Mahjong tile set contains 3 ‘simple’ suits (stones, characters, and bamboos), 2 ‘honor’ suits (winds and dragons), and 1 optional suit (flowers).

Speaking of Flowers

In recent years, the National Mah Jongg League reconfigured the number of Flowers needed for play (as well as what the Flowers function was, because Flowers did serve as jokers or wild tiles for many years).

Often people would hide Flowers, and the blank tiles that came with the set, under stickers to turn them into Jokers.

For a deep dive about the makeup of tiles you may have in your Mahjong set browse  Understanding The Makeup of the Tiles in Your Mahjong Set.

Information about the Stones – Referred to as circles or wheels they highlight one to nine round shapes on each tile.

Normally there are 4 sets of stones containing 9 tiles, making a total of 36 stones in each game set.

Bamboo tile - Can also be referred to as sticks because the image of bamboo sticks over the tile representing the strings.

The Mahjong characters – May be referred to as coins, numbers or thousands. The tiles have the wan character over them.

Go to this page to learn more about the  mahjong tile meanings. This study guide will help to understand and identify the various game pieces.

There are several spelling versions of Mahjong depending on how you are speaking to about it.

Some of the variations are Mahjjong, Mah Jong, Mah Jongg and others.

Mahjong Tile Sets

What is my mahjong tiles made of?

Ever wonder what your Mahjong tile are made of? Listed below are the most common or in some cases uncommon materials used to make the tile.

Bakelite mahjong tile – This material is the most common used in most of the American made plastic tiles.

It was one of the first synthetic plastic made from a mixture of phenol (carbolic acid) and formaldehyde.

Once it has been molded and formed with heat and pressure, it can no longer be melted again.

These tiles are usually yellow-orange in color, but there are other colors.

Catalin mahjong tile – These are a phenol-formaldehyde plastic developed as a competitor to Bakelite tiles that are mentioned above.

Some tile collectors say that Catalin tiles are rounded from a difference in the molding process, while Bakelite tiles feature sharp edges.

Celluloid mahjong tile -- Celluloid was the one of the first man made plastics, and was developed as a direct substitute for ivory and tortoiseshell.

The earlier celluloid was extremely flammable and burned with the smell of camphor and nitric acid; it is unlikely that your tiles were made from celluloid, since it is more expensive to produce.

Bone mahjong tile - Bone is the most common material used in antique Chinese sets, and it is usually dove tailed with bamboo.

It is not uncommon for bone to be mistaken for ivory.

When in doubt, assume your set is bone, not ivory.

Not only is ivory illegal it would be extremely expensive.

Wooden mahjong tile - Many of the economical sets are made of solid wood.

The type of wood may vary, and they may be solid wood or some laminated but visual identification is usually easy.

Some tiles may be carved and painted directly on the wood, or may have paper or plastic stickers on them.

Bamboo mahjong tile - These tiles are cut from bamboo and may feature a curvature to both sides, reflecting the structure of the bamboo.

Some tiles may be the natural color of bamboo, or painted, often with black featuring bright designs.

Composition mahjong tile - Some American companies produce inexpensive sets using composite wood featuring paper or plastic fronts.

When these sets are considered mint condition, they have value to some collectors.

Vinyl Plastic mahjong tile – Most present day American sets are made of vinyl plastic and usually white with brightly colored stamp-painted faces.

But these may be the only sets that have all 8 jokers for current American-style play.

Jade mahjong tile - Jade sets are very rare.

Usually we think of jade as being green, but there are limited green jade mah-jongg tiles if any. Commonly they are found to be black jade and white jade.

The bottom line with the Mahjong Board Game

Regardless how you want to spell it or what version  you play Mahjong is a fascinating board game that can become addictive very quickly.

Regardless whether or not you understand the tile meanings at the moment, you should not let that discourage you from pursuing this amazing board game. 

If you need your own  Mahjong game sets then browse our selection!