mj_Mah Jongg Tile History

Mah Jongg (Ma jiang) means sparrow in Chinese.  All Mah Jongg suits originally represented forms of Chinese currency.  What are now called bam’s or bamboo, were originally bags of sparrows.  People were encouraged to catch sparrows and then used them as a form of currency. Eventually the sparrow bags became bamboo sticks. That is also why the 1 bam tile traditionally has a bird on it.

The dots suit’s round shape represents a 筒 (tóng), a coin with a square hole in the middle. The dots suit is also referred to as stones, wheels, circles, or cookies.

The crak, or character suit is also known as numbers or thousands. These tiles have the character for one to nine and the character 萬 (wàn) below, which means 10,000.

The eight flower tiles include four tiles representing the four seasons: winter (冬天, dōngtiān), spring (春天, chūntiān), summer (夏天, xiàtiān), and fall (秋天, qiūtiān). The remaining flower tiles represent the four Confucian plants: bamboo (竹, zhú), chrysanthemum (菊花, júhuā), orchid (蘭花, lánhuā), and plum (梅, méi).

It is common to see the Flower tiles in sets of four, as four plants or flowers, and as the seasons of the year.  Depending on the Mahjong set, the flowers are commonly the Bamboo, Chrysanthemum, Orchid (or Iris), and the Plum Blossom.  These four flowers/plants represent the Four Confucian Gentlemen/women.

Wind is one of two honor suits. These tiles each show a character for a compass direction: north (北, běi), east (東, dōng), south (南, nán), and west (西, xī).

The other honor suit is called arrows or dragons.  The dragon meanings are derived from the ancient imperial exam, archery, and Confucius’ cardinal virtues.  The red dragon (zhōng), symbolizes the middle or animal order (including humans), the green dragon (fā), symbolizes the lower or plant order of life, the white dragon (bai pan – white tile), symbolizes the higher or spiritual order of beings.

A red dragon tile can feature a red 中 (zhōng, center). This Chinese character represents 紅中 (hóng zhōng), which connotes passing the imperial exam, a hit in archery, and the Confucian virtue of benevolence.

The green dragon can feature a green 發 (fā, wealth).  This character is a part of the saying, 發財 (fā cái). This saying translates to “get rich,” but it also represents an archer releasing his or her draw and the Confucian virtue of sincerity.

The last arrow or dragon tile (white dragon) can feature a blue 白 (bái, white), which represents 白板 (bái ban, white board).  The white board means freedom from corruption, a miss in archery, or the Confucian virtue of filial piety, which advocates a set of moral norms, values, and a practice of respect and caring for one’s parents.

And what’s up with that classic joker tile?  The joker tile is a relatively recent addition to Mah Jongg tile sets and is not always used or included.  The current standard joker tile has been redrawn so many times, it is difficult to see what it represents. The original joker design was a dragon in a circle:


old (left) vs new (right) classic joker design

Our custom digital “Pro” tile set included with MahjonggPro brings back the dragon in a circle. The new dragon is guarding a rare blue diamond.  The blue diamond is featured because the joker tiles are so valuable in American Mah Jongg.


MahJonggPro “Pro” joker