Before playing mahjong (麻將, ma jiang), it is important to identify and understand each mahjong tile. Each game set contains: three ‘simple’ suits (stones, characters, and bamboos), two ‘honor’ suits (winds and dragons) and one optional suit, flowers.
Stones (also called wheels or circles)
Characters (also called numbers, thousands or coins)
Bamboos (also called sticks)
Flowers (or bonus tiles)
This set of eight tiles featuring pictures of flowers is optional. Whether and how they are 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 eight flower tiles include four tiles representing the four seasons: winter, spring, summer and fall:
- Winter (冬天, dōngtiān)
- Spring (春天, chūntiān)
- Summer (夏天, xiàtiān)
- Fall (秋天, qiūtiān)
The other four tiles represent the four Confucian plants: bamboo, chrysanthemum, orchid, and plum.
- Bamboo (竹, zhú)
- Chrysanthemum (菊花, júhuā)
- Orchid (蘭花, lánhuā)
- Plum (梅, méi)
There is one set of eight tiles. Total flowers in each game set are eight.
Winds (or honors)
These tiles each feature the character for compass directions: East Wind, South Wind, West Wind, and North Wind. It is necessary to learn to read the directional characters in Chinese:
- East Wind (東, dōng)
- South Wind (南, nán)
- West Wind (西, xī)
- North Wind (北, běi)
There are four sets (each set has four tiles). Total winds in each game set are 16.
Arrows or Dragons (or honors)
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) character which represents 紅中 (hóng zhōng), passing the imperial exam, a hit in archery, and the Confucian virtue benevolence.
Another tile features a green 發 (fā, wealth) character which represents 發財 (fā cái, get rich), an archery marking that means a person will release his draw, and the Confucian virtue sincerity.
Finally, the last character features a blue 白 (bái, white) character which represents 白板 (bái ban, white board) which means freedom from corruption, a miss in archery, or the Confucian virtue filial piety.
There are four sets (each set has three tiles). Total arrows or dragons in each game set are 12.