The Game of Mahjong

Brooklyn Museum Quarterly, Volume XI, October 1924, pages 153-168

by Stewart Culin

Note: For the most part, this is a direct transcription of the paper by Culin. His spelling and sentence structure have been maintained, but some punctuation has been altered. Words in Chinese with diacritical marks are transcribed from his text, and are presented within the limitations imposed by HTML. The paper was scanned from a photocopy of the printed text, edited in a word processor, then created as a Web Page. The graphics are slightly edited copies from sketches accompanying the original text. Graphics in color are of objects in the Museum and Archive of Games Collection.

Playing cards existed in China in or before the twelfth century, were introduced into Europe from China in the thirteenth century and were spread quickly from Europe over the civilized world. Certain Chinese cards which have come down to the present time were imitated from Chinese paper notes which bore pictorial symbols of their value. These pictures furnished the suit marks of the Chinese pack, and, copied again in Europe, without knowledge of their true significance, gave rise to the suits of coins, clubs, swords and cups of the early European game. The Chinese game we call mahjong is a recent Chinese modification of this Chinese game played with paper cards derived from Chinese paper notes, with copies of which and for which the games were played. In mahjong we have a reintroduction of a famous old Chinese game which may be numbered with silk, printing type, porcelain, tea and paper money among China’s important material contributions to Western civilization. All existing playing cards, whatever their kind, in all countries except China and Korea, and including Japan, Persia and India, were derived through Europe from this Chinese game.

The present game of mahjong, although in itself new, has a very remarkable ancestry. An admirable game, it will, in my opinion, increase in popularity and become a permanent addition to our amusements. It is my intention to give some account of the origins of the game and to do so it is necessary for me to tell something about Chinese games in general and especially of Chinese dominoes and playing cards. Incidentally I shall give descriptions of other Chinese games played with these implements, games which like ma-jong could be introduced and incorporated among our own. It is many years since my first papers on Chinese (Page 154) games appeared in the reports of the United States National Museum and the information about Chinese playing cards which is here embodied is based upon observations which I made and recorded in 1895.

Chinese Dominoe Set There is no essential difference between cards and dominoes in China and the Chinese game pieces that are known to us as dominoes, from their superficial resemblance to our dominoes, are used for the most part precisely as we use cards. The same game will appear either in the form of a pack of coarsely printed slips of pasteboard, or as highly finished tablets, “dominoes,” in short, of ivory or bone, bamboo or ebony, neatly fitted into a metal or wooden box.2

Mahjong is not the first reappearance of the Chinese game in Europe. It was introduced by W. H. Wilkinson of H.B.M. Consular Service, and published in card form by Messrs. Goodall of London, prior to 1895, under the name of Khanhoo. This card game does not seem to have made any impression, the success of mahjong resting in no small part upon the elegance of its mechanism as embodied in the domino-like pieces.

The old Chinese money-derived card game, the immediate source of ma-jong, was and is still played by Cantonese laborers in America with narrow strips of flexible cardboard from three-sixteenths to three-eighths of an inch in breadth. They knew nothing of ma-jong as we understand it. A complete pack (Plate 1) consists of one hundred and twenty cards composed of four identical sets of thirty cards each. Each of these sets is composed of three money-derived suits of nine cards each, and three extra cards. These suits are: First, tsín, Chinese coins of the lowest denomination, called by the slang name of “ping” or “cakes,” from one to nine; second, strings of one hundred each of these same Chinese coins, called sok, “strings,” from one to nine; and third, of mán or “ten thousands of strings” of one thousand coins, kún, from one to nine, called mán, ten thousands. These three suits are marked respectively with pictures of individual coins, of strings of coins, and with the characters mán kún, ten thousand kún, these marks being the source of the circle, bamboo and “character” suits of the present mahjong game. The three extra cards, which correspond more or less closely with the joker of our euchre pack, are called hung fá, “red flower,” pák fá, “white flower,” and lò tsín, “old thousand.” These extra cards, which I shall explain later, are distinguished by pictorial figures, seals and inscriptions. Our Chinese colonists were not as a rule familiar with the game with these cards and I have seen them played only at New Year. Foreign cards are in more general use, poker being their favorite game. It should be understood that card playing is not considered respectable in China and shares the disesteem in which all forms of gambling are held. Chess, and wai k’í, played on a board with black and white men, are the only games that have the sanction of the educated classes. Apart from them, the terminology of Chinese games is made up of slang and is highly elusive.

In the year 1893, Mr. W. H. Wilkinson of HRM.’s consular service, then stationed at Chemulpo in Korea, sent to the writer for exhibition at the World’s Columbian Exposition at Chicago, specimens of cards and dominoes from different parts of China. This very complete and perfect collection, numbering forty-five examples, furnished the first adequate material for an exhaustive study and classification of Chinese cards.

The cards to which I have referred as being used by the Chinese laborers in America, and which were represented in this collection, were minutely described and catalogued 3 by Mr. Wilkinson under the name of kwan p’ái, “stick cards,” or má tséuk, “hempen birds,” i. e., “sparrows,” the last name a transliteration of the Cantonese pronunciation of the name we know as mahjong.

There are two distinct types of Chinese card games corresponding to types of European games. In one the cards do not take each other but unite to form certain winning combinations as in poker. This is the type published by Mr. Wilkinson as khanhoo (name of game), and known to us as mahjong(name of cards). In the other type of game the cards do take each other as in our game of euchre. Both kinds are played by the Cantonese who use the same cards for the two types of games. No (Page 156) account of these games having appeared in print I shall describe them in detail.

Kán Ú

The usual game, known to the Chinese laborers as kán ú (khanhoo), is played by two or more persons with one complete pack of one hundred and twenty cards. In this game the following triplets are called ngán, “eyes”:

  • 1, 2 and 3 of “cakes”
  • Red flower, old thousand and 9 of strings
  • White flower, 9 of ten thousands and 8 of strings
  • 1 of ten thousands, 1 of strings and 9 of “cakes”
  • 2 of ten thousands, 2 of strings and 8 of “cakes”
  • 3 of strings, 2 of ten thousands and 8 of “cakes”
  • 3 of strings, 3 of ten thousands and 7 of “cakes.”

A winning hand must contain at least one of these “eyes” and the remaining cards must be disposed in one or more of the following combinations called pát tsz’, “boys.” These are a sequence of three or more cards of the same suit from one to nine, or three cards of the same denomination belonging to three different suits. The ones or aces of each of the three suits and the red flower, white flower, and old thousand have extraordinary powers and may be added to the “eyes,” or to the sequences or triplets called pát tsz’, to form a winning hand. In playing the cards are well mixed and the dealer determined by one of the players drawing a card from the pack, and, commencing with himself, counting around the players from right to left up to the number on the card drawn. The one at whom he stops becomes the dealer. The dealer gives himself the first card, and then, one at a time, deals around fourteen cards to each of the other players and to himself fifteen. The players take up their cards and endeavor to arrange the cards in the “eyes” and pát tsz’ requisite for a winning hand. Fifteen cards are required for this, and as the dealer alone gets this number, he alone has chance to win on the cards dealt him. If he has not dealt himself a winning hand he discards one card and lays it face up on the centre of the table. The next player on the right may take this card up into his hand, or lay it aside and draw a card from the top of the pack not dealt which has been placed, face down, on the table. If he is unable to form a winning (Page 157) hand he discards one card and the third player may take this card up or draw from the pack, as before. And so on round. The player who first gets a winning hand composed of one or more “eyes” and the sequences or combinations before mentioned lays down his cards face up and wins the game. The winner becomes the next dealer and deals from the pack 1eft on the table for the next round. This game is played for money, each player putting the same sum in a box on the table at the commencement of each game and the winner takes the entire stake except in gambling houses where the house deducts a commission of five per cent.

Kím T’ái Shap

Another game played with the same cards is called kím t’ái sharp, “to grasp many tens,” or chap tái chap, “to complete many tens.” Two or more men play. The cards are shuffled and laid in a pile on the table. One of the players draws a card and counts around or throws two dice and counts around to determine the dealer as before. In this game the dealer gives each of the other players fifteen cards and himself sixteen. The game consists in one of the players getting a hand of sixteen cards in which there are two cards of the same denomination of the suit of ten thousands which form what is called an “eye” and the remaining fourteen cards so paired that the sum of the value of the cards in each pair is ten. It is not necessary that the cards in each pair shall be of the same suit. The red flower, white flower and old thousand count as ones in forming the pairs. The manner of play is precisely the same as in the preceding game. It is played for money, the stakes being put in a box before the opening of the play. This game was adapted to cards from the dotted domino game, and played, with wooden dominoes under the same name, is the favorite game with dominoes in Chinese gambling houses.4 As many as twenty can play.

Cha Káu Tsz’

A game belonging to the second type in which the cards take each other is known to our Chinese as cha kau tsz’, “taking nine tricks.” Three play with two packs numbering together sixty (Page 158) cards. The cards are shuffled, placed face down in a pile, and each player draws a card. The one getting the highest card becomes the first player. In this game the suit of “ten thousands” is the highest, the cards ranging from nine down to one. The next suit in rank is strings, and lowest cakes, in the same order. The cards drawn are replaced and each player draws a card in turn from the top of the pack beginning with the first player until he gets fifteen and the others fourteen cards. The first player may now play out a card or cards putting them face up on the table. He may lead one card, or a sequence of three or more cards of the same suit or three cards above the ones of the same denomination of all the three different suits. To these three cards, called “perfect twos,” “threes,” and so on, any other cards of the same denomination may be added. The red flower, white flower and old thousand rank as ones and with the three ones of the three different suits may form a lead called won- yat, “perfect ones.” Players are not required to follow suit, but must play a higher card, or a higher combination of similar components, to win. The player who first takes nine tricks, each card-set forming a trick, wins the game. The first player may not elect to play, in which case he hands a token which he retains to mark his position to the next player .to his right. If the latter accepts and leads he must pay both of the others if he loses, and conversely, both pay him if he wins. If, however, the first player plays and loses he pays only the winner. After a player has won a game his stakes are doubled when he wins again and he must pay double if he loses. The next time he wins the stakes are trebled. This game has its counterpart in the popular game with dotted wooden dominoes – called tá tín kau5 from which I believe it was derived. Another name for this game is p’úng shap ú, p’úng shap being a general name for card playing in Cantonese, while playing cards, chi p’ái, “paper tablets,” are also called ú p’ái. This name distinguishes the special kind of cards here referred to which are so called from their being ornamented with pictures from the romance entitled the Shui a chun to be hereafter described.

A final game with cards called tiú ü, “fishing,” played by three persons was not explained to me. I infer it to be analogous (Page 159) to the game of tiú ü,6 the name of which means also angling or fishing, played ordinarily with dotted wooden pieces.

The above games may be played more conveniently with the pieces of the mahjong set than with cards, using the three numbered suits and four of each of any three of the supplementary pieces. Having described the games played by the Cantonese with the money-suit cards I shall give a more detailed account of the money cards (Plate I) themselves.

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Elliott Avedon Museum and Archive of Games
University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada