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7 Mar 2022

Learning to Play Mahjong

Cultural exchange is a core element of any Chatteris Tutor’s time in Hong Kong. This year, with colleagues from his placement school, Chatteris’ own Ethan Richold dove into a cherished local pastime – mahjong.

So… You want to learn how to play mahjong (麻雀). Well, you’ve come to the wrong right place! 

What is ‘mahjong’?

Mahjong is a traditional Chinese tile-based game, normally played by four people. It is deeply rooted not only in Chinese culture as a whole, but especially in Hong Kong culture. It is played with family and friends at formal and informal events and throughout festivals such as Lunar New Year. A short and satisfyingly ‘2000s’ documentary from Hong Kong University showcases what mahjong means to different young and old people in Hong Kong, complete with English overdubbing and worries about the rise of digital technology.

If you’ve been in Hong Kong for any extended length of time you’ve undoubtedly had some exposure to mahjong. The sight of elderly Hongkongers swarmed in public parks, playing on tables, benches, and any other available surface, is almost as common a sight as sparrows skitting about the trees and rooftops. 

Even if you haven’t seen it you’ve definitely heard it. Aside from participants calling the iconic phrases “pong 碰”, “kong 槓”, “sheung 上”, and “sik wu 食糊”, mahjong is easily identified by the distinctive clacking together of plastic (maybe ivory or bamboo) tiles, from which it gets its name – mahjong 麻雀, meaning “sparrow” as the clacking of the tiles resembles the chattering of the sparrows. 

This guide definitely won’t help you defeat the seasoned retirees that patrol Hong Kong’s outdoor spaces (see this video of street mahjong). But, you may learn enough to roughly explain the rules to some friends and enjoy a few casual games. 

For those of you out there who already know how to play mahjong (you’ve probably read this guide a few times) and just want to buy yourself a set, or get some suggestions for mahjong related media, feel free to skip to the end sections of this guide. For everyone else, get your notebooks out, brew that tea, and get comfortable. Let’s begin!

Before you jump in

As we’re in Hong Kong, it only seems right that we’ll focus on ‘Hong Kong Mahjong’ rules and scoring. This is the version I learnt when a teacher from my school eagerly invited all the Chatteris Tutors round for dinner and a few games after work. My teacher enthusiastically showed us this video by the South China Morning Post, an event which seems to be a tradition of theirs and has become a bit of an inside joke between the tutors as the video does absolutely nothing but leave you staring wide eyed at each other out of confusion and feeling completely overwhelmed upon playing. This breakdown, although it may take more than 2.5 minutes to read, will hopefully leave you feeling at least somewhat competent.

Mahjong is played with a set of 144 tiles based on Chinese symbols and characters. These tiles are made up of three categories, suits, honours, and bonus tiles.

Suits

There are three suits: characters, dots, and bamboo. These work like suits in a deck of cards. Suit tiles will be numbered 1-9, and like with playing cards, each suit contains 4 sets of each tile.

一,二,三,四,五,六,七,八,九 are numbers one through nine in Chinese (it may be handy at first to keep these displayed on the table whilst playing).

Suits | Image by Ethan Richold

Honours

There are two different sets of tiles: Dragons and Winds. The wind tiles are played in the order, east , south , west 西, and north . My teacher told me to remember this by repeating “Eat Soy With Noodles.” The Dragons are Red , Green , and White 🀆 (the characters given here do not translate to red, green and white, but were chosen to give a clearer representation of the tile engraving). Unlike the suit tiles, honours have no numerical sequence. 

Honours | Image by Ethan Richold

Bonus Tiles 

Bonus tiles add extra points to your score at the end of the round. There are 4 Flower tiles and 4 Season tiles. It is not necessary to know the character or corresponding flower/season for each bonus tile (though click here if you are interested). Rather, the number in the top corner of the bonus tile is associated with a specific direction and the player receives points when the bonus tile matches their seat direction. The tile number/direction combinations are: 1/east, 2/south, 3/west, and 4/north.

Bonus Tiles | Image by Ethan Richold

Setup and Gameplay

To begin the game players need to decide the seating positions. The dealer, or ‘east seat’, is decided when one player, it doesn’t matter who, throws the dice. The rolled number is counted anticlockwise from the rolling player. The seat of the player which the counting lands on is the East seat.

Next, shuffle one of each of the four wind tiles, face down, and stack them on top of each other. The player currently in the East position rolls the dice. Starting from the east seat, count anticlockwise to the number that is rolled. That player takes the top tile from the stack, going anticlockwise until each player has a tile. The players will then sit in their corresponding seat (the east tile is the east seat, south is south… you get the idea). 

The four wind tiles are then shuffled and stacked facedown on top of each other. The game starts with all the players shuffling the tiles face down in the middle of the table, called “washing the tiles”. Everybody selects 13 tiles randomly from the middle, not showing their tiles to the other players. 

Ethan and a teacher from his placement school play a game of mahjong | Image by Ethan Richold

The wall

If you want to set the tiles up in the proper, more aesthetic, arrangement, then you’ll need to build the wall. Each player takes 36 of the shuffled tiles and arranges them into two rows of 18 stacked on top of each other. The players then push the rows together to form this diamond/ square shape. To determine which row to draw from, the east seat throws the dice and counts anticlockwise according to what is rolled, starting from themself. Using the same total on the dice, the player then counts the columns from right to left and starts drawing their tiles (e.g. if the dice total was 12, the player draws from the 13th column). 

The Wall | Image by Ethan Richold

Drawing tiles

Starting with the east player followed by south, west, and north, each player takes two columns (four tiles), going around the table until everyone has 12 tiles. The East player then takes the first and third tile on the top row, the South player takes the first leftover tile on the bottom row, the West player takes their tile from the top row of the next column, and the North player takes the leftover tile from the bottom row of the same column. The east player should have 14 tiles, and everyone else should have 13. 

Initial hand

Flip your tiles to face yourself. If you have any bonus tiles in your hand, flip them over and reveal them to the other players. Starting from the East player followed by South, West, and North, draw replacement tiles from the end of the tile row you drew from (if you don’t have any bonus tiles that’s fine too).

Gameplay

Then, players take turns anticlockwise to draw their 14th tile from the tile middle/wall and discard one tile face up in the middle of the table. The discard can be claimed by other players to complete pongs, kongs, or sheungs (but only at the time of their discard – you snooze you lose, no claiming tiles from previous turns!). If no claims are made, the turn passes to the next player. If a claim is made, the turn will jump back to that player and continue from them. 

A player wins once a winning hand of 4 sets and a pair is assembled, either by drawing a tile or claiming a discarded tile, calling “sik wu 食糊” (Cantonese for ‘Eat Congee’) to signify their win. If more than one player wants to claim the same tile to win, the player whose turn is the soonest takes the win. This is called snatching the win, or “jit wu 截糊”. If no player wins when all middle tiles are picked up, the round ends in a draw.

Sometimes, you find that you do not have the right number of tiles in your hand, either because you forgot to draw an extra tile when needed or you forgot to discard a tile. In both cases, the player cannot claim any discarded tiles or a win during the game (You need to pay attention!). 

Pongs and Kongs 

A pong is a set of three identical tiles. You can call pong when any player discards a tile as long as you have 2 of the same tiles. Pongs can be formed with matching tiles of a suit (e.g. 🀇🀇🀇, 🀛🀛🀛, 🀗🀗🀗) or matching honour tiles (e.g. 🀆🀆🀆). A kong is a set of 4 identical tiles. It follows the same rules as pong, but is called when a player has 3 of the same tile and claims a discard to form 4 matching tiles (e.g. 🀆🀆🀆🀆 or 🀇🀇🀇🀇). If a pong and kong are claimed at the same time, the kong takes priority.

Pongs and Kongs | Image by Ethan Richold

Sheung 

A sheung is a combination of 3 tiles of the same suit in a sequence (e.g. 🀙🀚🀛, 🀓🀔🀕, 🀍🀎🀏). Unlike other combinations, a sheung may only be declared from the discard of the player on your left. 

Sheung | Image by Ethan Richold

Pairs

A pair, as you would imagine, is a set of any two matching tiles. This can be made with matching suit or honour tiles.

Pairs | Image by Ethan Richold

Bonus tiles

If you draw a bonus tile during the game, it is immediately revealed to the other players and another tile must be drawn. The bonus tile is then placed face up to the left of the player’s tiles until the end of the game. If the bonus tile’s direction matches the player’s it gives an extra point to their score. 

Bonus Tiles | Image by Ethan Richold

Important rules about claiming tiles

  • You can claim pong from any player as soon as it is discarded.
  • You can only claim sheung from the player immediately preceding you.
  • After claiming a tile, you must then reveal that completed set and place it face up in front of your tiles. 
  • Once you form a set with a claimed tile, it cannot be split apart to form other sets.
  • You cannot use a discard to complete a pair unless it forms your winning hand.

Winning (Sik Wu)

The goal of the game is to get mahjong, which consists of getting all 14 of your tiles into four sets and one pair. There are two ways to win: by discard or self-draw. Winning by discard means that another player discards your winning tile and only they would need to pay you for the win; however, if you win by self-draw, meaning that you draw your own winning tile, then everybody has to pay you. When a player completes their hand of four sets and a pair they are the winner of the round (remember to shout “Sik Wu”). The wind seats then rotate anticlockwise and the tiles are reset into four walls. 

A Chatteris Tutor proudly bears a winning hand | Image by Ethan Richold

Scoring (Faans)

A faan is a point scored by a specific combination of tiles or bonus tiles, it is usually three faans minimum to win, meaning you can only win if you are able to count at least three faans in your hand. You can get a faan from drawing your corresponding bonus tile, pong-ing a dragon tile or your corresponding wind, and self-drawing your winning tile. However, it is unreliable to score by these methods, therefore, I recommend aiming to form hands that already have a minimum value of three faans to win and count any extra points scored after. There is a large number of winning tile combinations and scoring criteria, click here for a complete guide to winning hands and the Hong Kong scoring system.

For a quick start guide, here are some basic winning hands:

Basic hand (gai wu)

A mix of sequence and matching sets + a pair from different suits and honours. This is the most basic winning hand, but in Hong Kong rules it will score 0 points (faans) and so is not usable to win.

Basic Hand | Image by Ethan Richold

Common hand (ping wu)

Four sets of sequences + a pair from different suits.

Common Hand | Image by Ethan Richold

Mixed one suit (wun yat sik)

Sets of one suit’s tiles and honour tiles + a pair.

Mixed One Suit | Image by Ethan Richold

All one suit (qing yai sik)

All sets made up of one suit’s tiles + a pair.

All One Suit | Image by Ethan Richold

All triplets (dui dui wu)

Four sets of matching tiles + a pair. If the mahjong is made with all pongs or all one suit it will score bonus points.

All Triplets | Image by Ethan Richold

Great Dragons (dai saam yun)

Three sets of dragons, one random set (can be a sequence or three of a kind) + a pair.

Great Dragons | Image by Ethan Richold

Small Winds (siu sei he)

Three sets of winds, one random set (can be a sequence or three of a kind) + a wind pair.

Small Winds | Image by Ethan Richold

Great Winds (dai sei he)

Four sets of winds + a pair.

Great Winds | Image by Ethan Richold

Seven Pairs (cat deoi zi)

A hand containing seven pairs of any suit.

Thirteen Orphans (sup saam yiu)

A hand containing the number 1 and 9 tiles from each suit, one of each Dragon and Wind tile, and the fourteenth tile forming a pair with any of these. The hand must be concealed (but the winning tile can be a discard).

Thirteen Orphans | Image by Ethan Richold

Where to buy a mahjong set

Now you know how to play, I imagine you’ve wasted no time and sent a group message inviting all your friends round, but hold your horses! You don’t even own a mahjong set… Where are you going to get one in the time it takes three people to buy some drinks, snacks, and get the MTR to your house?! I recommend grabbing your face mask and purse and heading to one of these three places:

  • CN Square, Yau Ma Tei (or any large-ish stationary shop if you’re on the Island): Budget friendly travel and table sized sets available (can attest that these sets are cheap and do the job).
  • Toy Street, Sham Shui Po: Another budget friendly option, selling travel and table sized sets (this is where my set is from and so is clearly the best option).
  • A Mahjong Specialist shop: A range of affordable and more premium, hand carved, sets available. Many of these shops have closed down as demand for mahjong sets has diminished and factory produced sets are cheaper and more available. As such, if you find yourself becoming a bit mahjong mad, or want to splash out on a gift, it is definitely worth supporting these local businesses!

Check out these two interviews with mahjong craftspeople: Sister Mei and Uncle King. Uncle King offers mahjong tile carving workshops, which can be booked here.

A specialist mahjong shop selling a range of affordable and high end tiles | Image by Ethan Richold

Final Comments

Well that’s that, you know how to play mahjong, bought yourself a set, and booked a tile carving course with Uncle King. What? You still want more mahjong content? Unfortunately, I have nothing left in the mahjong tank. All I can do is point you towards some other mahjong media.

If you fancy kickin’ back and watching a film whilst still getting your mahjong fix, you can’t beat Fat Choi Spirit, a classic 2002 comedy flick about mahjong, gambling, love, and family. Other films with mahjong scenes include, In the Mood for Love, No Flowers or Seasons, Crazy Rich Asians, and Lust, Caution

Haa ci gin! (See you next time). 

Are you keen to immerse yourself in Hong Kong’s rich culture, like Ethan? Apply now to join us as a Chatteris Tutor.

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