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Players 4
Age range > Any
Setup time 2-5 minutes
Playing time 0-3 hours
Rules complexity High
Strategy depth Medium
Random chance Yes
Skills required Tactics, observation, memory

Mahjong (Traditional Chinese: 麻將; Simplified Chinese: 麻将; pinyin: Májiàng; Cantonese: Màhjeung; or Chinese: 麻雀; pinyin: Máquè; Cantonese: Màhjeuk; other common English spellings include mahjongg, majiang, and hyphenated forms such as mah-jong or mah-jongg) is a game for four players that originated in China. It is a game of skill, strategy, intelligence, calculation and luck. Depending on the variation which is played, the amount of luck may vary from 20 to 80 percent. In China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan, and other countries mahjong is often used for gambling. The Chinese character 麻将 literally means “hemp general”. In Cantonese an alternate writing, 麻雀, is more common (the same kanji are used in Japanese). In Cantonese this literally means “sparrow”, while in Japanese it means “hemp sparrow”, and is pronounced mā-jan.

In English, in addition to Mahjong, the name of the game is variously written as Mah Jong, Mahjongg, Majong or simply “M-J”; there are other, less common variations as well. The spelling “Mah-Jongg” was trademarked by Joseph Park Babcock in 1920.

The closest Western analogue is probably the card game gin rummy. Both games involve selecting or discarding units (tiles in one case, cards in the other) to score points by forming groups or runs of similar units.

The game pieces (tiles) and scoring rules used in the game are slightly different depending on regional variations. The game play in general is very similar in all versions, as players compete to build sets including the highest point value.

The object of the game is to build complete suits (usually of threes) from either 13 or 16 tiles. The first person to achieve this goal is said to have won the game. The winning tile completes the set of either 14 or 17 tiles.


Little known to most players, the suits of the tiles are money-based. In ancient China, the copper coins had a square hole in the center. People passed a rope through the holes to tie coins into strings. These strings are usually in groups of 100 coins called diao (弔 or variant 吊) or 1000 coins called guan (貫). Mahjong’s connection to the ancient Chinese currency system is consistent with its alleged derivation from the game named ma diao (馬吊).

In the mahjong suits, the coppers represent the coins; the ropes are actually strings of 100 coins; and the character myriad represents 10,000 coins or 100 strings. When a hand received the maximium allowed winning of a round, it is called man guan (滿貫, lit. full string of coin.)

A Mahjong game is described in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie, ending with the very unusual event of a player getting a complete winning hand on the initial draw. This success makes the character unduly talkative, which leads to significant plot developments.

British superspy James Bond plays a dangerous game of mahjong in Zero Minus Ten, a suspense novel by Raymond Benson.

In the 1940 film Charlie Chan’s Murder Cruise, the title character remarks, In China, mahjong very simple; in America very complex – like modern life.

The character that translates to “centre” is found on the super-hero suit worn by The Greatest American Hero. Since the character is typically painted red, the tile is commonly called “red centre.” For this reason the HongKong TV station TVB named the Chinese-dubbed The Greatest American Hero “the Flying Red Centre Hero” [飛天紅中俠]. (ABC, 1981-83).

Mahjong is featured in Amy Tan’s novel The Joy Luck Club, and its 1993 film adaptation.

Mahjong has always appeared in one way or another in Hong Kong made movies or TV drama, since it is considered as a “daily life” of a Chinese lifestyle. Two recent Cantonese movies, Fat Choi Spirit and Kung Fu Mahjong, parody the game’s subculture.

The tile that translates to “Red Dragon” is used as a major plot point in the same titled Thomas Harris novel, as well as its two film adaptations, Manhunter and Red Dragon.

Graham Edwards’ Stone trilogy features mahjong prominently. Much of the books’ imagery focuses around the mahjong symbols, and one character owns a set of mahjong tiles, on which she paints throughout the trilogy.


Print matter

  • Lo, Amy. The Book of Mah jong: An Illustrated Guide. Tuttle Publishing. 2001. ISBN 0804833028
  • Oxfeld, Ellen. Blood, Sweat, and Mahjong: Family and Enterprise in an Overseas Chinese Community (Anthropology of Contemporary Issues). Cornell University Press. 1993. ISBN 0801499089.
  • Pritchard, David.Teach Yourself Mahjong. McGraw-Hill/Contemporary. 2001. ISBN 0658021478. 

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