A Guide to Mahjong Tile Meanings

Identifying and Explaining Mahjong Tiles

While the origin of mahjong (麻將, ma jiang) is unknown, the fast-paced four-player game is very popular throughout Asia. Mahjong is played both as a casual game amongst family and friends or as a way to gamble. 

To learn how to play, you must first be able to identify and understand each mahjong tile. Each tile set contains 3 ‘simple’ suits (stones, characters, and bamboos), 2 ‘honor’ suits (winds and dragons), and 1 optional suit (flowers).

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Stones

Mahjong: Stones Suit
The stones suit is one of the mahjong suits which feature round shapes that represent coins on each tile. Lauren Mack / About.com

The stones suit is also referred to as wheels, circles, or cookies. This suit features a circular shape, and on the face of each tile is a range of one to nine round shapes. 

The round shape represents a 筒 (tóng), which is a coin with a square hole in the middle. There are 4 sets of each suit, and each set has nine tiles. That means there is a total of 36 stone tiles in each game set.

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Characters

Mahjong: Character Suit
The character suit tiles have the character 萬 (wàn), which means ’10,000’ plus the Chinese character for the numbers one through nine. Lauren Mack / About.com

Another simple suit is called characters, also known as numbers, thousands, or coins. These tiles feature the character 萬 (wàn) on its surface, which means ’10,000."

Each tile also has a Chinese character ranging from 1 to 9. Thus, it is necessary to learn how to read numbers one through nine in Chinese in order to be able to put the tiles in numerical order. There are 36 character tiles in each mahjong set.

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Bamboos

Mahjong: Bamboo Suit
Mahjong has up to six suits including bamboo (also called sticks). Lauren Mack / About.com

The bamboo simple suit is also referred to as sticks. These tiles have bamboo sticks which represent the strings (索, sǔo) that ancient copper coins were strung on in sets of 100 (弔, diào) or 1,000 coins (貫, guàn).

The tiles have 2 through 9 sticks on it. The number one tile does not have a bamboo stick on it. Instead, it has a bird sitting on a bamboo, so this set is sometimes also called ‘bird.’ There 36 bamboo tiles in a set.

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Flowers

Mahjong: Flower Suit
The flower suit is an optional suit in mahjong. Lauren Mack / About.com

Flowers are an optional suit. This set of 8 tiles features pictures of flowers plus a number ranging from 1 to 4. How the flower suit is played varies by region. The flowers could be used like the Joker in card games or as a wild card to complete tile combinations. Flowers can also help players earn extra points.

The 8 flower tiles include 4 tiles representing 4 four seasons: winter (冬天, dōngtiān), spring (春天, chūntiān), summer (夏天, xiàtiān), and fall (秋天, qiūtiān).

The remaining 4 flower tiles represent the 4 Confucian plants: bamboo (竹, zhú), chrysanthemum (菊花, júhuā), orchid (蘭花, lánhuā), and plum (梅, méi).

There is only one set of flower tiles. 

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Winds

Mahjong: Winds and Dragons Suits
The Winds (the first four tiles on the left) are one of six sets in a mahjong games. Lauren Mack / About.com

Wind is one of two honor suits. These tiles each feature the character for compass directions: north (北, běi), east (東, dōng), south (南, nán), and west (西, ). Like the characters simple suit, it is necessary to learn to read the cardinal direction characters in Chinese to recognize and organize this suit.

There are 4 sets, and each set has 4 tiles. The total number of winds tiles in each game set is 16. 

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Arrows or Dragons

Mahjong: Winds and Dragons Suits
The Dragons (the last three tiles on the right) are one of six sets in a mahjong games. Lauren Mack / About.com

The other honor suit is called arrows, or dragons. There are 4 sets of arrows tiles, and each set has 3 tiles. This threesome has several meanings which are derived from the ancient imperial exam, archery, and Confucius’ cardinal virtues.

One tile features a red 中 (zhōng, center). The Chinese character represents 紅中 (hóng zhōng), which connotes passing the imperial exam, a hit in archery, and the Confucian virtue benevolence.

Another tile features a green 發 (, 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 character features 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.

There is a total of 12 arrows, or dragons, tiles in each mahjong set.