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Mahjong tiles (Chinese: 麻將牌 or 麻雀牌; pinyin: májiàngpái; Japanese: 麻雀牌; rōmaji: mājampai) are tiles of Chinese origin that are used to play mahjong as well as mahjong solitaire and other games. Although they are most commonly tiles, they may also refer to playing cards with similar contents as well.
The earliest surviving mahjong sets date to the 1870s when the game was largely confined to Zhejiang, Shanghai, and Jiangsu. They already exhibited various traits found in modern sets. The core of the set is the 108 suited tiles which were inherited from Chinese money-suited playing cards. The Wind honor tiles and the Four Seasons tiles were also found in the earliest sets. The honor tiles known as Arrows (Dragons in English) developed to their current form by 1890 concurrent with a new style of play called Zhōngfā (中發). Flower tiles, once known as Outer Flowers (Chinese: 外花; pinyin: wàihuā), were not universally accepted until the 1920s. In contrast, many early sets contained wild cards with specific powers known as Inner Flowers (裏花; lǐhuā) which disappeared from most of China but are still found in Vietnam and Thailand.
A set of Mahjong tiles will usually differ from place to place. It usually has at least 136 tiles, most commonly 144, although sets originating from the United States or Southeast Asia will have more usually in the form of flowers or jokers. Some sets also contain blank tiles which owners can use to replace damaged or missing tiles.
Mahjong tiles can be organized into several categories:
Suited tiles (序數牌; xùshùpái; "ordinal number tiles") have a suit and a rank. There are three money-based suits with ranks ranging from one to nine. There are four tiles of each rank and suit combination, thus there are 36 tiles in a suit, and 108 suited tiles in total. To refer to a suited tile, the rank is named, followed by the suit. The ones and nines of each suit (幺九; yāo jiǔ) are collectively referred to as the terminal tiles. The objective of the game is to form melds with them.
The 1 Circle is generally a large circle of multiple colors, while the rest of the circle tiles consist of smaller circles, each circle being of one color. The 2 Circle consists of a green and a blue circle, the 3 consisting of one green, one red, and one blue circle arranged diagonally (the order the circles appear in, as well as the orientation, differs between sets). The 4 Circle has two blue circles and two green circles, arranged in a rectangle with circles of like color in opposite corners. The 5 Circle is similar to the 4 Circle, with another circle (its color depending on the set) in the middle. The 6 Circle consists of two green circles at the top and four red circles in the bottom (with a space between the green and red circles). The 7 Circle is similar to the 6 Circle, but has 3 green circles arranged diagonally from top-left to bottom-right. The 8 Circle has eight blue circles arranged in a 2x4 rectangle. The 9 Circle has three each of green, red, and blue circles, with each color occupying a row. There is some space between each row, and the middle row is always of the red circles (the blue and green, of course, depends on the orientation of the tile).
Because of the large size of the circle in the 1 Circle, it is commonly nicknamed da bing (大餅 pinyin dàbǐng, lit. big pancake).
From the monetary origin of this suit, the circles represent the copper coins known in English as "cash". (1銅=one copper coin).
The bamboo suit (索子, pinyin suǒzi (woven thread); also 條/条, pinyin tiáo (strip); Japanese romaji sōzu), with the exception of the 1 Bamboo, which is commonly represented by a bird, is represented by outlines of sticks.
The 2, 3, 4, 6, and 8 Bamboo are represented entirely out of blue and green sticks, while the middle stick in the 5 Bamboo, the top stick of the 7 Bamboo, and the sticks along the center column of the 9 Bamboo are red. Some sets may also have the sticks along the bottom row or center column of the 7 Bamboo in blue. The 8 Bamboo has its sticks forming an M-shape and its mirror image.
From the monetary origin of this suit, the sticks are actually rope strings (索) that tie 100 Chinese copper coins together by the square holes in the middle. (1索=100銅) The repeated bumps in the sticks depict the individual coins in the strings, but they were mistaken as the knots on the bamboo plants, hence the English name of the suit. The 1 Bamboo, as it commonly depicts a bird, is often referred as the sparrow (麻雀 - má què). In early sets, there was no bird but a single bent string of cash capped with a red knot.
The character suit (萬子/万子, pinyin wànzi (myriad), Japanese romaji wanzu or manzu) is represented by Chinese characters.
Although some sets use Simplified Chinese characters, many use traditional Chinese characters as they are more complex and considered more aesthetically pleasing. The rank of the tile is represented at the top, in blue, with Chinese numerals, while the character below (萬 wàn, meaning myriad) is in red. Older sets used the simplified character 万 when tiles were still hand-carved. Some sets use the character 伍 for five instead of 五.
From the monetary origin of this suit, the myriads (10,000) are actually 100 strings of coins described in the bamboo suit section above. One myriad equals ten thousand coins or 100 strings of 100 coins. (1萬=100索×100銅)
Red tiles (赤牌, Japanese akapai) are unique to the Japanese set. They appear as a red version of tiles from each suit and are not quadruplicated. They first appeared in the 1970s with the Red 5 Circle which were followed with red 5 tiles for the other suits. Red 3s and 7s later appeared and were followed by red 1s and 9s although they are much less commonly found in sets than red 5s. There is also a rare red white dragon (白ポッチ, shiro pocchi) which can act as a joker if tsumo conditions are met.
These tiles are entirely optional. When inserted into play, one copy of its regular non-red counterpart is removed. They increase the score when melded. Japanese sets typically do not include the Four Gentlemen flower tiles to make room for the red tiles as flower tiles are rarely used in Japanese Mahjong anyway. Some mahjong parlours will have their own house tiles which may be red tiles for even ranks, even higher scoring green or gold tiles, or colored wind tiles.
Honor tiles (字牌, pinyin zìpái, lit. word tiles) have neither rank nor suit but like suited tiles they are also formed into melds. They are divided into two categories: four Wind tiles (風牌/风牌, pinyin fēngpái, Japanese romaji fompai or kazehai) and three Dragon tiles (三元牌, pinyin sānyuánpái, Japanese romaji sangempai), each of which is quadruplicated. Thus, there are 16 wind tiles and 12 Dragon tiles for 28 honor tiles.
The four types of Wind tiles are: East (東, dōng, Japanese romaji ton), South (南, nán, Japanese romaji nan), West (西, xī, Japanese romaji shā), and North (北, běi, Japanese romaji pei or pē).
Each type of Wind tiles corresponds to a point along the compass, written in blue traditional Chinese characters (even for sets where the Character tiles are written in simplified Chinese). Bonus points are scored if melds match the seat wind or prevailing wind or both. They are also known as the Four Happiness Tiles (四喜牌, sìxǐpái).
The three types of Dragon tiles are:
- Red (紅中/红中, pinyin hóng zhōng, Japanese 中 romaji chun) - a tile with a red traditional Chinese character (中) meaning center or middle. Some sets may also have a black letter C in a corner of the tile, denoting the first letter of the Wade-Giles romanization of 中 (chung).
- Green (青發/青发, pinyin qīng fā, Japanese 發 romaji hatsu) - a tile with a green traditional Chinese character (發), even for sets where the Character tiles are written in simplified Chinese. Often the variant character U+24F35 𤼵 (癶 over 弓矢 instead of 弓殳) is used. It is a contraction of 發財/发财 (pinyin fā cái) which loosely means "to strike it rich") Some sets, notably American, use a green dragon in place of the character. Some sets may also have a black letter F in a corner of the tile, denoting the first letter of the Wade-Giles romanization of 發 (fa), despite the fact that many believe that the F is taken from a form of Cantonese romanization (fat). This tile was absent in the earliest sets.
- White (白板, pinyin bái bǎn, Japanese 白 romaji haku or shiro) - a tile which can be without any markings (白), although most modern sets employ tiles with a blue border to distinguish them from replacement tiles. Some sets may also have a black letter B in the center of the tile, denoting the first letter of the Wade-Giles romanization of 白 (bai). Japanese tiles of this kind have no mark on them, and are occasionally dubbed tofu (bean curd) in some Japanese mahjong clubs.
The Chinese name for the Dragon tiles means "three elemental tiles" (三元牌). They are also known as the arrow tiles (箭牌).
Flower tiles (花牌 pinyin huāpái, Japanese hanahai or fapai) are not used in melds. When drawn, they are set aside and the player gets to draw again but from the dead wall. Winners can double their score if the number on their flowers matches their seat number. There are also bonuses from collecting an entire quartet and in some variations, immediately winning from collecting all flowers. As they reward points for pure luck, many games do not include them or are considered optional. In American Mahjong, flowers are treated as honor tiles but from the 1930s to 1960 they were considered jokers. Some Japanese players treat flowers as higher scoring honors that cannot be used to form pairs.
The earliest known sets contained twelve flowers but no Four Gentlemen tiles and the Four Seasons were unadorned. Sets with large numbers of flowers were once popular in Northern China to play the game of "Flower Mahjong" (花麻雀). They typically had 20 or more flowers with some described as having up to 44.
Flowers are grouped into quartets with each containing four unique tiles, which are numbered from 1 to 4 or otherwise distinctly labelled. Each number matches a seat (1=East, 2=South, 3=West, 4=North). These tiles usually depict stylized representations of flowers in many colors (hence the name). Nevertheless, other non-floral themes also exist, which vary from set to set. The average set, if it contains flower tiles, will have two quartets of flower tiles, differentiating the color and/or style of the labels. Common Chinese sets will have one quartet with blue Arabic numerals and the other group having red Chinese numerals, numbered one to four.
In mahjong solitaire, the two groups are often called Flower tiles (not to be confused with the blanket term for all groups of flower tiles) and Season Tiles (季牌 jì pái, Japanese 季節牌 kisetsuhai).
The four tiles in the Four Seasons (四季, sìjì) quartet are:
The four tiles in the Four Gentlemen (四君子, sìjūnzi) quartet are:
- Four arts (四藝, siyi): 1. Guqin (琴), 2. Go (棋), 3. Calligraphy (書), 4. Painting (画)
- Four Noble Professions: 1. Fisherman (漁), 2. Woodcutter (樵), 3. Farmer (耕), 4. Scholar (讀)
While some Vietnamese sets use the Four Arts or the Four Noble Professions, most of them use emperors (皇, Hoàng) and empresses (后, Hậu). They are not decorated with pictures but just the number and character (e.g. Third Emperor 三皇, Fourth Empress 四后).
Animal tiles (动物牌, pinyin dòngwùpái) are unnumbered flowers that automatically match the player's seat. These tiles are found in pairs with their subjects usually based on popular Chinese fables. Immediate payment occurs if both tiles in a pair or all the animals are collected. Singaporean sets contain two pairs of animal tiles while Thai and four-player Malaysian sets have four pairs. Some examples of tile pairs include:
- Cat (猫 māo) & Mouse (老鼠 láoshŭ)
- Rooster (公鸡 gōngjī) & Centipede (蜈蚣 wúgōng)
- Caishen & Sycee
- Jiang Ziya & Fish (魚)
- Liu Haichan & Jin Chan
Three-player Malaysian sets have two pairs of animals accompanied with a quartet of identical animal tiles decorated with a face.
Joker tiles (百搭 pinyin bǎidā, 'a hundred uses' or 聽用 tīngyòng, 'many uses' or 飛 fēi, 'to fly') can be used to replace any suited or honor tile in putting together a hand subject to local restrictions. Four Jokers are sometimes used in certain variants of Southeast Asian and Chinese mahjong, including Shanghainese mahjong. American mahjong uses eight jokers.
Vietnamese and Thai mahjong is related to extinct Chinese variants that used specialized jokers such as "King Mahjong" (王麻雀):
- Blue/green jokers (Khung Xanh):
- Circle joker (筒王, Thùng)
- Bamboo joker (索王, Soọc)
- Character joker (萬王, Màn)
- Universal joker (縂王 or 百搭 or 將, Tổng): In King Mahjong it is a Suit and Honors joker
- Red jokers (Khung Đỏ):
- Flower joker (花王 or 皇, Hoa): Like an animal tile; it replaced the King Mahjong joker that functioned as a second Suit and Honors joker (陞王)
- Suit joker (合王, Hợp)
- Dragon joker (元王, Nguyên)
- Wind joker (喜王, Hỷ)
- Honors joker (番 or 字 or 元喜, Nhị khẩu): Exclusive to Vietnamese mahjong, it is an optional tile used as an alternative to the dragon, wind, or flower joker
The first four jokers have a long lineage. They are found in the earliest sets and were inspired by the suit-restricted jokers in older Chinese card games. Modern Vietnamese sets triplicate or quadruplicate all nine jokers but each copy will have a different frame (rectangle, circle, lozenge, and hexagon) which allows them to be melded with each other.
Traditionally, Mahjong tiles were made of bone, often backed with bamboo. Bone tiles are still available but most modern sets are constructed from various plastics such as bakelite, celluloid, and more recently nylon. There are a small number of sets that have been made with ivory or jade, but these are exceedingly rare: most sets sold as ivory are in fact made from bone. Regardless of the material used to construct the tiles, the symbols on them are almost always engraved or pressed into the material. Some expert players can determine the face value of their tiles without actually looking at them by feeling these engravings with their fingers.
There are generally two size categories available, the larger mainland-China size and the smaller Taiwanese/Japanese/American size. However, within the former category (Mainland Chinese), 4 sizes have been roughly standardized:
- Size 8 ~ 39 × 30 × 23 mm
- Size 7.5 ~ 38 × 28 × 22 mm
- Size 7 ~ 36 × 26 × 21 mm
- Size 6 ~ 34 × 25 × 19 mm
The length/thickness ratio in all of these must be above 1: 1.5, so that the tiles can steadily stand upright, since Chinese players use no racks to support their tiles in hand during play.
The sizes within the second category (Taiwanese/Japanese/American tiles) have lengths that vary roughly between 3 cm (1-5/32") and 2.5 cm (1"). However, the Japanese tiles set themselves apart within this class by virtue of their thickness, which allows them to stand upright—despite their diminutive overall size. This enables Japanese mahjong players also to dispense with the use of racks (these are pervasive in the American game, in combination with slimmer tiles.)
Mahjong tiles were added to the Unicode Standard in April, 2008 with the release of version 5.1.
The Unicode block for mahjong tiles is U+1F000–U+1F02B:
Official Unicode Consortium code chart (PDF)
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