Mahjong Around the World

As one of the most popular Chinese games in the world, Mahjong has a rich and diverse history. First played around the 19th century in China itself, the game developed from its tile-based format played in China to the single-player game that most know of when they think of Mahjong. While the format of Mahjong that you have likely played on your PC is known as Mahjong Solitaire, it bears precious little resemblance to the real game of Mahjong that was formed in China.  And if you’re not familiar with online Mahjong, you should definitely try to play it, especially since there are now a huge number of online platforms to help you do it, one of the most famous of them is MahJong Online.

Unlike ‘PC Mahjong’, or Mahjong Solitaire, traditional Mahjong is played by four players (or three in some variations), and it is among the most commonly played games in East and Southeast Asia. However, the game has become very popular – in all of its forms – in the West, as well.

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If you have ever played the famous card game ‘rummy’, then you will be familiar with some of the concepts of traditional Mahjong. This game is mostly based on luck, but it is also built around strategy and skill. All four players participate in a 144-tile game that is complete using Chinese symbols. Players begin by receiving 13 tiles, and players must continue to draw and discard their tiles until they are left with a hand that contains four ‘melds’ and one pair. 

What can make Mahjong quite confusing, though, is the sheer variety of rules and variations that exist in the world. Though primarily built on a game of chance, it is also a game that forces players to observe the pattern of tiles and to create strategies that help them to build winning hands.

If we look around the world, though, the number of Mahjong variations can feel rather confusing to get your head around. Aside from Mahjong Solitaire, let us take a look at some of the different regional styles of Mahjong that are played in the most traditional sense. 

Variations of Mahjong Around the World 

Mahjong in China

In China alone, many various forms of Mahjong are played. From ‘classic’ Mahjong to Changsha Mahjong through to varieties like Fujian and Harbin Mahjong, there are so many different varieties. Most build upon the ruleset of the original game, adding and adjusting small but significant parts of the ruleset to create the ideal result.

In some forms of Mahjong in China, such as Changsha Mahjong, the rules of victory change. In this form of Mahjong, players must obtain specific ‘Jong’ tiles, and only the tiles of two, five, and/or eight. Classical Mahjong is the most commonly taught and shown version of the game in China, though it could be argued that classical Mahjong is more popular in the West than it is across Asia.

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The most popular form of Mahjong in Southern China is known as Wuhan Mahjong. It contains the Laizi tile, which can be used as a Joker of sorts in that it can stand in as a tile for anything. Players, like in Changsha Mahjong, must have a special set of two tiles – two, five, and/or eight – to win. 

Many forms of the game in China will disregard certain tiles and adapt the rulesets to bring in special tiles. Others will remove specific tiles and features such as winds, seasons, and flowers, as is found within Xiangyang Mahjong. China probably has the most diverse range of Mahjong varieties, and given it is where the game was first created, that feels like a logical conclusion. If you want to get closer to Chinese Mahjong, then play it now online!

Japanese Riichi Mahjong

Japanese Mahjong is increasingly popular and is found quite commonly within video game recreations of this pastime. Try to play this exciting game online for free! The introduction of some new features, such as Riichi – a ready hand – and Dora – a bonus tile – were added to the game to add more unpredictability to the experience. 

Another big change in Mahjong in Japan is that discarded tiles are typically laid out in front of each player in the order they were discarded. This means that discarded tiles are taken into account during a game, making it easier to understand what has and has not been discarded. In traditional Mahjong, discarded tiles lie in a large, disorganized pile. 

Typically, games end during the South round, and it is common for a game to end when a player reaches a negative score. Riichi and Dora are two of the main adjustments here, and declaring Riichi means to declare a ready hand. If you only need one tile to complete your hand, then you can declare Riichi. Once one declares Riichi, they must both pay a deposit, and they are unable to change their hand. 

A huge difference between Japanese Mahjong and Chinese Mahjong is the strategy. In Mahjong in China, it is most commonly expected that players will look to play a fast-paced game. In Japan, players tend to be more defensively minded. Unlike in Chinese Mahjong, too, there is a requirement to score within the Japanese system. The points system changes, too. 

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Korean Mahjong

The Korean adaptation of Mahjong is quite different and is primarily aimed at three players as opposed to four. Many who have played Korean Mahjong find that it is a quicker, simpler game, and the fact that you need only three players, as opposed to four, makes it an easier game to organize socially. 

Typically, the bamboo set is omitted entirely from play, and the seasons are often also cut out from the game. This creates a faster, simpler game that is much quicker to play. Play is rapid, and players can get through a game of Mahjong in Korea much faster than they could the Chinese version, which can become more prolonged.

American Mahjong

The American version of Mahjong that is most commonly played is quite different to what you would traditionally come across in China. For one, it introduces Joker tiles, an exchange of tiles between players known as the Charleston, and it also allows melds of five and above tiles. On top of that, there is little notion or idea of a ‘standard’ hand, as you would find in most forms of Mahjong.

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Every year, the hands that are legal within American Mahjong change and are set by the National Mah Jongg League as well as the American Mah Jongg Association. The US version of the game has become very popular and has been going for the best part of a century. Mahjong sets have been imported into the USA since 1923, and to help make the game easier for Western audiences to understand, newer, simpler rulesets were developed. By 1986, Americans had their own standards to set, which became the dominant way to play the game in the USA.

In US Mahjong, there are 152 tiles as opposed to 144. Most tiles come complete with an Arabic number or a word written on them, such as one of the specific seasons of the year, making it easier for an English-speaking audience to understand what is going on. The minimum score for a winning hand in American Mahjong is 25 points. Discover the world of American Mahjong with MahJong Online!

European Variations of Mahjong

Interestingly, the most common form of Mahjong played in Europe is based on the old classical rules of the game. This is rarely, if ever, played in Asia today, but it has become the common form of Mahjong enjoyed by Europeans. It is among the simplest variations of Mahjong and is very similar to popular European card games such as gin rummy.

The game aims to create a set of combinations with 136 different pieces (as opposed to 144) to play with. Three suits exist within the game – characters, bamboo, dots – and the special directional and cardinal tiles. Most players in Europe will stick to a game that is ironically more traditional than the game that is now played in the home of Mahjong itself – Asia! 

For the most part, rules are extremely simple and follow much of the traditional ones laid out in the original game.

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Mahjong’s Global Influence and Fusion Styles

Across the years, too, many unique forms of the game have appeared that combine various game styles. Given that the game has spread to so many different parts of the world, this should be no surprise. However, it would be fair to say that Mahjong has transformed as a game, and its global appeal today means that it has seen many fusion styles appear. 

For example, most forms of Mahjong are a variation or an adjustment of another form. The form of the game played in South Africa, for example, is a variation of the Cantonese version of Mahjong. Most forms of the game do tend to take on some blend of either the classic game or the Japanese version of the game, though.

Arguably the most effective fusion form of the game is the three-player equivalent commonly played worldwide. This is widely played in countries like Malaysia and the Philippines and uses a three-person setup with each player having a hand of 13 tiles each. In total, only 84 tiles are on the table. This combines many of the scoring rules seen in other forms of the game, such as Korean Mahjong, and makes it an even faster-paced game than you would get with other forms of the game.

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The game has evolved, and it has been quite uniquely changed to suit the personality and taste of where it is played. In some countries, there is a more attack-minded, fast-paced culture when it comes to gaming. In cultures like China, this is often the case. In other cultures more like Japan, though, playing a more methodical, strategic and defensively-minded game fits the culture.

Most forms of Mahjong, though, are a combination of at least one kind of game with another. A player must understand what form of Mahjong they are going to be playing, as everything from the size of the tile set to the rules of scoring changes dramatically from one country to the next.

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Preserving Cultural Authenticity in Mahjong

There are, though, some worries that many forms of Mahjong are negatively impacting the cultural authenticity of the game itself. For example, arguments over the years have broken out about changing the symbols on the tiles themselves. Things like changing the wording on the tiles, or changing the characters entirely, have seen many Chinese players feel insulted because they think their game has been transformed beyond recognition.

We must understand that while varieties of Mahjong exist – even the entirely different Mahjong Solitaire – this is still a game made in China. Adjusting things as important as the symbols on the tiles can feel quite insulting, and it feels like appropriating the game and changing in a way that is insulting to the very culture that created the game in the first place.

Various recreations have come around, but most variations of Mahjong have focused on changing things like the rules as opposed to the tiles. Where changing regulations and creating variations of the game is seen as fine, there is a worry that as we continue to see Mahjong evolve as a global game, with tens of millions of players worldwide, we risk removing the game’s authentic Chinese roots.

This should be a topic of focus for all players of Mahjong. This game was formulated not in Asia but in China, and we mustn’t remove the cultural backbone of the game, that is, the Chinese representations on the tiles. If we do that and change the rules so dramatically, are we even playing the same game?

Cultural appropriation is never an easy argument, as it is often an emotionally charged topic. While we can always adapt and modernize any game, recognising who founded the game and the cultural backbones of the game are essential to make sure that we never disrespect those who came before us. Without Mahjong’s original creators, we would have no forms of this wonderful game.