It’s All About the Tiles

The focus of Mah Jongg (麻將, ma jiang) is obviously the tiles. Whether we play with newly purchased tiles or some that have been passed down from other generations, whether from different materials or slightly different background colors, the basic features remain the same. How much do you know about the symbolism? Here is a look at the meanings of the elements of the tiles, with Chinese symbolism. There may be some differences with other tiles in Thai, Vietnamese, and Malaysian Mah Jongg sets.

                                            The Colors

Red– most distinctive in the Chinese culture, as it symbolizes blood, and therefore life. Red is also considered a lucky color, as it symbolizes luck and good fortune.

Blue– in the Chinese culture, it symbolizes the sky, and therefore the heavens. It also signifies purity and dignity.

Green– in the Chinese culture, it symbolizes the earth and nature with grass, trees, and plants. It therefore also stands for fertility.

                                           The Winds

One of the two Honor suits; Honor tiles (字牌, pinyin zìpáilit. word tiles)
Wind (風牌/风牌, pinyin fēngpái, Japanese romaji fompai or kazehai)

East (東, dōng)- represents spring, the color green, the dragon, and wood
South (南, nán)- represents summer, the color red, the phoenix, and fire
West (西, )- represents autumn, the color white, the tiger, and metal
North (北, běi)- represents winter, the color black, the tortoise, and water

                                            The Suits

Suited tiles (序數牌; xùshùpái; “ordinal number tiles”) have a suit and a rank.

Bamboo (索子, pinyin suǒzi -woven thread); also 條/条, pinyin tiáo (strip); Japanese romaji sōzu), is also referred to as sticks. They have bamboo sticks which represent the strings (索, o) that ancient copper coins were strung on in sets of 100 (弔, diào) or 1,000 coins (貫, guàn). The number one tile has a bird sitting on a bamboo, so this set is sometimes also called ‘bird.’, or the sparrow (麻雀 – má què).

Circle (or Dot) (Chinese: 筒子; pinyin: tǒngzi; literally: “barrel”); also : 餅; pinyin: bǐng; Japanese: 餅子; romajipinzu; literally: “flatbread”); represented by a series of circles. Because of the large size of the circle in the 1 Circle, it is commonly nicknamed da bing (大餅 pinyin dàbǐng, literally: “big pancake”). The round shape represents a 筒 (tóng), which is a coin with a square hole in the middle.

Character (or Cracks or Craks)- (萬子/万子, pinyin wànzi (myriad), Japanese romaji wanzu or manzu); also known as numbers, thousands, or coins. These have a萬 (wàn) on their surface, which means ’10,000.” The rank of the tile is represented at the top, in blue, with Chinese numerals, while the character below 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.

                                            The Flowers

Flower tiles (花牌 pinyin huāpái, Japanese hanahai or fapai)

The eight flower tiles include four tiles representing four seasons

Spring (春天, chūntiān)- symbolizes the fisherman; common sense and patience

Summer (夏天, xiàtiān)- symbolizes the woodcutter; success through activity

Autumn (秋天, qiūtiān) – symbolizes the farmer; physical and arduous labor and rich rewards

Winter (冬天, dōngtiān)- symbolizes the scholar (or Confucius); a cultured mind and prudence

The remaining four Flower tiles (Four Gentlemen [or the Four Noble Ones]) (四 子, sìjūnzi) represent the four Confucian plants:

Bamboo (竹, zhú)-As bamboo has some features such as uprightness, tenacity and hollow heart, people endow bamboo with integrity, elegance and plainness, though it is not physically strong. An ancient poet thought that to be a gentleman, a man does not need to be physically strong, but he must be mentally strong, upright, and perseverant.

Chrysanthemum (菊花, júhuā)- In the Chinese culture, the chrysanthemum signifies a life of ease. Buddhists are fond of using this flower as offerings on altars. Symbolic of powerful  Yang energy, this flower is an attractant of good luck in the home

Orchid (蘭花, lánhuā)- Orchids in general stand for beauty, charm, elegance, strength and peace. The Chinese also associate orchids with fertility, and with refinement, thoughtfulness and the innocence of children.

Plum (梅, méi)- The plum blossom is seen as a symbol of winter and a harbinger of spring. The blossoms are so beloved because they are viewed as blooming most vibrantly amidst the winter snow. In Confucianism, the plum blossom stands for the principles and values of virtue.

                                        The Dragons

The other Honor suit; in Chinese, “three elemental tiles” (三元牌). They are also known as the arrow tiles (箭牌). They have several meanings which are derived from the ancient imperial exam, archery, and Confucius’ cardinal virtues.

Red-中 (zhōng, center); it represents 紅中 (hóng zhōng), which signifies passing the imperial exam, an achievement, a hit in archery, and the Confucian virtue of benevolence.

Green– 發 (, wealth). This character is a part of the saying, 發財 (fā cái), which translates to “get rich,” and to commence or begin; it also represents an archer releasing his or her draw and the Confucian virtue of sincerity.

White– 白 (bái, white), which represents 白板 (bái ban, white board); a blank, the mysterious, or the unknown. This means freedom from corruption, a miss in archery, or the Confucian virtue of filial piety. The tile usually has a blue border.

                                           The Jokers

Joker tiles (百搭 pinyn bǎidā, ‘a hundred uses’ or 聽用 tīngyòng, ‘many uses’ or 飛 fēi, ‘to fly’)