All You Need to Know to Start Playing Chinese Mahjong

by | Oct 12, 2022 | Chinese Culture

AAll You Need to Know to Start Playing Mahjong
Can you play mahjong?
And how much do you know about the game?
Mahjong Tiles | That's Mandarin
It’s an amazing game to play with friends, family, and strangers alike.

We’ve already hosted a few mahjong nights at That’s Mandarin and Beijing campuses, and many of our students have already learned how to play mahjong (and even became pros 😎).

So this week, we’ve put together some useful tips for mahjong beginners — for you to be better prepared for the next game!

What is Mahjong?

麻将 (májiàng) is a Chinese tile-based game that was invented about 150 years ago.

Mahjong Tiles

There are 36 different tiles in 麻将 (májiàng), and each tile has 4 duplicates.
So the game is played with a set of 144 tiles.

Mahjong Tiles | Infographics by That's Mandarin

Mahjong Players

There are usually 4 players in the game. Everyone shuffles the tiles together and forms 4 decks of tiles.

Mahjong Goal

The goal of the game is to create order out of chaos and form matching sets of tiles. The first player to complete all the sets wins.

How to Play

The are many variations and rules. Today, let’s look at the basic rules and lead you through the game step by step.

Step 01.

A group of 4 people shuffles the tiles together with their hands.

Step 02.

Everyone rolls the dice to choose the dealer (庄家 zhuāngjiā) by the biggest number of the dice. Then the dealer rolls the dice again to choose how many tiles to put aside.

Step 03.

The players create 4 walls. Every wall is formed with 34 tiles in 2 rows.

Mahjong Table | That's Mandarin

Once the walls are ready, everyone (starting from the dealer) starts drawing their tiles clockwise, grabbing 4 tiles at a time, 3 times. After that everyone grabs 1 more tile.

Step 04.

Every player gets 13 tiles. The dealer gets 14 tiles and starts the game by throwing 1 tile out.

Step 05.

The next player takes 1 tile from the deck. He/she can choose to 1) keep the tile to form a set of 3 tiles or, 2) if it’s not a good match, to throw the tile out.

Step 06.

Then the next player takes his/her turn.

How Do You Win?

In order to win the game, you need to collect all sets ahead of other players:

4 sets of 3 tiles

(including the triples you revealed)


1 pair of identical tiles

There are 2 ways to win:

1. You can steal the last tile you need from someone who throws it out;

2. You can draw it from the deck.

Once you draw the final tile and win, shout:

Mahjong Winner | That's Mandarin

Hú la!

I won!

Mahjong Origins

The actual origins of Mahjong are unclear.

A popular legend says that Confucius invented the game, inspired by his love of birds.

But actual records of mahjong only date back to around 150 years, to the 1870s. Before Mahjong there were similar card games, like yezipai, which dates back to the Tang Dynasty.

It was played with 32 cards made of ivory or wood. As time passed the number of cards increased and the game became more complicated. By the late 1800s, the cards were replaced with tiles.

One popular story attributes the reason to a sailor, who had his cards blown away while playing the game on the ship.


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