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What Is Mahjong?

Mahjong originated in China.
Some people believe that Confucius invented mahjong.
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  • Written By: Christina Edwards
  • Edited By: W. Everett
  • Last Modified Date: 19 August 2014
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Mahjong is a Chinese game with an interesting history. It is traditionally played with several tiles. Like most decks of cards, these tiles have several suits and ranks. After a dealer is chosen, the tiles are shuffled, and each player chooses his tiles. The players then try to make matches with their tiles.

There are a few theories about the origins of mahjong. Some individuals believe that Confucius invented the game around 500 BC. Many other individuals dispute this claim, stating that there is no evidence of this game before the 19th century. Another theory suggests that mahjong was created by soldiers who were simply looking to pass the time during the Taiping rebellion in the 1800s. Mahjong, however, was most likely based on a similar card game called ma tiae.

After 1900, this game became increasingly popular in China. The People's Republic of China banned mahjong and all other gambling games, however, in the 1940s. It wasn't until 1985 that the ban was lifted. After this time, mahjong once again became a popular game, not only in China, but in many parts of the western world as well.

Mahjong tiles or cards may be used when playing this game, but the former is more common. These tiles are often split into suits. A mahjong set may include 136 or 144 tiles, depending on where it originated.

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The three main suits of mahjong tiles are circles, bamboo, and characters. Tiles in each of these suits are numbered one through nine. Tiles in the circle suit have one to nine circles on each tile, while tiles in the bamboo suit have one to nine sticks on each tile. Tiles in the character suit, on the other hand, are traditionally labeled nine different Chinese numerals. There are four of each of these tiles, for a total of 108 suited tiles.

Honor tiles have no suit or rank. Two types of honor tiles exist. The four wind tiles represent each of the four directions — north, east, south, and west. The three types of dragon tiles are red, green, and white. Also, there are four of each of these tiles as well, for a total of 28 more tiles.

Before shuffling, a dealer is chosen, usually by rolling a die. The tiles are then placed face down on the table, and each player moves them around to shuffle them. Each player then gathers 36 tiles and places them in groups of two, arranging them to make a wall. All of the walls are then pushed together to make a square.

Players then choose their tiles. Hands usually consist of 13 tiles. The game is played by picking up and discarding tiles in order to make sets and matches, and it is often compared to the card game rummy. Other variations, like solitaire mahjong, also exist.

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