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FAQ 7-EJ. Those Mysterious Special Joker Tiles
That Come in Some Mah-Jongg Sets

Jokers come in a variety of styles. They can sometimes help determine a set's age.

Jokers are usually used as "wild tiles," a tile that can be used to represent any other tile in the set. This Wikipedia discussion of jokers in playing card games might prove helpful in understanding how to use jokers in a variant other than American mah-jongg. For information about the special requirements of joker usage in American/NMJL, see FAQ 19. If you don't play American/NMJL rules, you can decide for yourself how to use jokers. Read FAQ 14.

For the rest of this FAQ, I simply share some questions & answers about "mystery jokers" that were asked and answered on the Maj Exchange Q&A Bulletin Board:

What the heck is it?

>From: John O
>Sent: Tue, February 15, 2011 2:40:59 PM
>Subject: Mah-Jongg Q+A
>My mah-jongg question or comment is:
>Honestly, I looked in the FAQ but didn't find the answer to this one...
>What is the image/pattern shown on the standard "Joker" tile? You know... the circle filled with gold squiggly stuff with a kind of stumpy comet's tail sticking up? All the other tiles make sense, even some of the obscure flower and season tiles, but the Joker has me stumped. Maybe that's it's purpose?

I don't know, John.
I think it's supposed to be a dragon. I think I can see its head, but I can't tell if its mouth is open or not, or what the other details are.
I'm adding this to FAQ 7E. May the tiles be with you.
Tom Sloper
Author of "The Red Dragon & The West Wind," the definitive book on Mah-Jongg East & West.
Los Angeles, CA (USA)
February 15, 2011

What the heck is it, part 2

>Date: Sun, 06 Mar 2011 08:04:58 -0600
>From: Chris Schumann
>Subject: Joker Tile Image
>I found this image while browsing eBay. It looks very much like the current American-style joker, but is in color. I can see how this became the joker we have today.

Hi Chris,
Thanks. Would be good to know more about the set you found that joker in (especially, how old that set is, information about the manufacturer). But you are right, it does help understand the monochromatic version. I'll add this to FAQ 7e, thanks to you.
May the tiles be with you.
Tom Sloper

Author of "The Red Dragon & The West Wind," the definitive book on Mah-Jongg East & West.
Los Angeles, California, USA
March 6, 2011

What the heck is it?

On Friday, July 10, 2020, 06:51:16 AM PDT, Mary Ann M wrote:
Joker symbol
Hello Tom,
I am a huge fan of your site and have found it to be very helpful over the years. Thank you!
On the Facebook mahjong page someone posted a question about a common symbol on the joker in many sets. Of the many replies, the most common was it looked like a pizza. I somehow doubt that is the derivation of that particular symbol. Can you possibly shed some light?
Warm regards
Mary Ann M
Sent from my iPad

Hi, Mary Ann!
I assume you mean this joker design:

As I wrote in the Mystery Jokers FAQ, I think it's the head of a dragon. In 2011 someone found this image on eBay, which might offer a clue:

The fact that the design has over the decades melted into an inscrutable mishmosh of squiggles raises a mystery: "why?" It's partly tradition, I suppose - Chinese manufacturers see that this symbol has gained acceptance on tiles made for export to America, so they don't want to mess with it. The copying process can muddy the details, since nobody knows where the design originated or what each line in the design was originally intended to represent. Further confusing the issue is that the manufacturers do not put their company name or address on their products, eliminating the possibility of customer feedback. ... But now I've rambled.

Edit (added later): here, I've annotated the typical gold mishmosh and found a Chinese dragon head for comparison - see if this makes any sense:

Stay safe and healthy. And may the tiles be with you.
Tom Sloper
Author of "The Red Dragon & The West Wind," the definitive book on Mah-Jongg East & West.
Author of the Sloper On Mah-Jongg column and the Mah-Jongg FAQs -- donations appreciated.
July 10, 2020
Los Angeles, California, USA

Name: Tom Sloper
Date: 21 Jan 2002


Hello karole couture, you emailed me pictures of your two mystery tiles and wrote:
>The alligator you say is common ...
It's not an alligator, I tell you! It's a dragon! (^_^) And I didn't say it was common. I'm not saying it's UNcommon either.
>...but have not seen the china man with the letter j.
OK. But since it's not a dragon, not a wind, not a flower, and not a suit tile, then what's left? Jokers. Coincidentally enough, this one is (as you said) marked with the letter J. There is no question what this tile is.

We must not allow ourselves to be confused by the wonderful variety of mah-jongg sets - we should instead EMBRACE the wonderful variety, and enjoy it! I refer you again to the series of columns I'm writing for the AMJA newsletter. http://www.amja.net.
>LMK what you think about the vintage of this set.
It's not from the 1930s, IMO. The NMJL introduced jokers in the 1960s. But I suppose it's possible that the notion of jokers was already in use in mah-jongg prior to that time. But most likely it's from after the introduction of jokers by the NMJL.
>Seems like we have 151 pcs ...
Even more reason to assume that the set is considerably newer than the 1930s, then.
>... and missing one pc.
See our "Tiles Wanted" and "Tiles For Sale" bulletin boards. Read the text at the top before you post (there are several sources for replacement tiles).
>No markings on the set as of a manufactor.
Yeah. It's a mystery to me why manufacturers don't put their names on their products. It used to be the standard practice but it isn't anymore.

Name: Tom Sloper
Date: 13 Aug 2002


Hello Kate Cohn (k8_cohn), you emailed me:
>I have a question about a ring I recently bought to give to some one... I was told that it was a bonus tile, or joker, but I am unsure of the meaning of the characters. I have attached a picture (if it works).
I was traveling when you emailed me, and I didn't have a program that could handle a .PSF file.

This is a Chinese joker tile. I wrote about these in my article on jokers for the AMJA newsletter (http://www.amja.net). The Chinese writing on the tile means "100 uses."

>Do you have any suggestions?
Next time you send someone a picture, it should be JPG format rather than PSF! (^_^)

6/24/04 Update. These Chinese jokers usually come in fours, with each one having different corner decoration:

Typical "100 Uses" tiles. The different corner decorations have no significance in play.

10/27/2012 Update. The writing on the Chinese joker tiles, 百搭, is pronounced "bǎidā." nciku.com translates "baida" as "joker." (Thanks to Ray H for the tip.)

Mystery tiles

On Sunday, May 3, 2020, 07:58:12 PM PDT, pat harmoniqueinc.com wrote:
What are these tiles?
I have several mahjong sets that we purchased in dusty markets in Beijing about 15 years ago. We bought them to make jewelry, (not to play) but now Iím interested in learning to play and am trying to understand which sets are complete and have not been cannibalized beyond use for the game. Every few sets have 4 of these tiles which I canít figure out. Any ideas what these tiles mean or how they are used? Thanks!
Patricia B
ďThe world is a book and those who do not travel read only one pageĒ St. Augustine

Hi, Pat.
The "Mystery Tiles FAQ" is FAQ 7-E (see links above left). Your tiles look like they might be jokers but I'm not sure (the writing doesn't match the usual joker "100 uses" I'm used to). They might be special "king/emperor" tiles, I'm not sure. You might enjoy browsing the Mystery Flowers FAQ too, if nothing in the Mystery Jokers FAQ comes close enough.
If you are trying to decide which mah-jongg variant to learn, it depends on whether you want to play with an antique set (in which case you can't play American mah-jongg), or whether you have friends who play, in which case you should learn their variant. See FAQ 1.
Stay home, stay safe. Don't panic! And may the tiles be with you.
Tom Sloper
Author of "The Red Dragon & The West Wind," the definitive book on Mah-Jongg East & West.
Author of the Sloper On Mah-Jongg column and the Mah-Jongg FAQs -- donations appreciated.
May 3, 2020
Los Angeles, California, USA

More information on this "antique" set, part 3

On Tuesday, April 25, 2023 at 06:44:16 AM EDT, Ray Heaton wrote:
Sarah G's mystery tile.
Hi Tom,
A little while back you had an issue with Sarah's tile being a "ting yong" tile, the top character is a variant of "ting", more usually written 聽 but on the tile the character is shown as the variant 聼
Ting yong has been determined by others to be a joker tile, Michael Stanwick has a particularly informative description here, themahjongtileset.co.uk

On Tuesday, April 25, 2023 at 07:20:26 AM EDT, heaton.ray wrote:
Re: Sarah G's mystery tile.
Hi Tom,
A bit more on 聽用, ting yong, and why it's a phrase meaning joker.
I've seen this translated as "Many uses", hence leading to an interpretation as it being a joker tile in mahjong game play. I couldn't get my head around that translation as 聽, ting, does not translate to "many", at least until I came across 聽 being a slang term in the Shanghai dialect meaning "thousand", so perhaps "thousand uses" is a more valid translation.

Awesome, Ray! Thanks so much. I guess it's like "grand." An online dictionary might not necessarily define "grand" as "thousand." (Dictionary.com does list it as an "informal" meaning, but you know what I mean.)
Also, I see that we talked about yet another way of writing "ting yong" in 2012.
I'll let Sara G know about this confirmation that the tile is indeed a joker.
Play safe out there. And may the tiles be with you.
Tom Sloper
Rochester, New York, USA
April 25, 2023
Donations appreciated

These tiles are used in Malaysian mah-jongg. From left to right: White Dragon, Fly (joker), Face (flower tiles).
For more about how these tiles are used in Malaysian mah-jongg, click here.

In December 2012 there was a bulletin board discussion about another tile from that part of the world: reader Stefan L. sent this picture of a tile in a set he purchased in Singapore.

Stefan added, "In addition to the normal Chinese tiles there are also animal tiles, fly tiles, face tiles and blanks. But there are also four more tiles thrown in. They have the characters 聽用 (simplified 听用)." The post prompted an exchange with noted mah-jongg scholar Michael Stanwick.

>From: Michael Stanwick
>Sent: Sunday, December 9, 2012 10:34 AM
>In my article in The Playing-card Volume 37, Number 1, I document the use of this tile as it appears in the 1941 edition of the book titled "Maque de jingyan yu jiqiao" (Maque's Experiences and Skills) by Liu Yishu. According to Liu " we have "Multipurpose" tile ting yong, engraving two characters "ting yong" on a blank tile, means this tile can act as any of the 'Cash', 'Strings', 'Myriads', 'Directions', or 'Center', 'Fortune', 'Blank'.
>In case your reader has not read my articles on the game set of maque, these tiles are, respectively, in common parlance, 'Circles' or 'Dots', 'Bamboos', 'Cracks or 'Characters', North, South, East, West and 'Red Dragon', 'Green Dragon' and 'White Dragon'.
>... soon you will be able to read all my articles, plus view research books and papers plus view Chinese money suited playing cards and many types of MJ sets on my web site.
>For the time being however, the presence of these eight jokers is in accord with a type of MJ called Changsha's Wang Ma Que or Changsha's Kings MJ. It has eight wang tiles that are what we call Innner Flowers and these Inner Flowers function as substitutes for the particular target groups, be it the Suits or the Directions or the 'Dragons' or combinations of these.
>There is a variant of this game in Vietnam which sports similar tiles for similar functions to these tiles in Wang Maque. This was reported to me by Thierry Depaulis and he suggested that this type of Wang game is a southern variant. If this is the case then perhaps we are dealing with another version of the tile set used to play a version of this southern variant?
>For further information I would urge your reader to obtain a copy of my article from Playing-card journal from the i-p-c-s.org website.
>Best Regards

I look forward to seeing your website. I'm guessing from what you're saying that the Fly tile and the Ting Yong tile may be different types of jokers, akin to the different joker types in Vietnamese mah-jongg.

>From: Michael Stanwick
>Sent: Monday, December 10, 2012 4:37 AM
>Subject: mystery tile part 5
>Hello Tom. Yes. It may be that the different types of jokers are Inner Flowers that are used as substitutes for the tile groups that are used to form melds for scoring purposes. Because they are Inner Flowers they are concealed in the player's hand, as opposed to Outer Flowers that are exposed upon acquisition.
>So one group of jokers, say for example the face tiles, might serve as substitutes for the Suit tiles, whereas the fly tiles, for example, might serve as substitutes for the Directions and Dragons and the ting yongs might serve as a substitutes for the three Suits, Directions and Dragons.
>This is one probable explanation based on the similar set of Changsha Wang ma Que and the Vietnamese tile set.

Name: Tom Sloper
Date: 25 May 2001


Hello Mike Meulemans (vmmeule), you posted a "Sets Wanted" post (on our Sets Wanted board) and also a mah-jongg question:

>I would appreciate any information you have regarding these [Vietnamese] types of sets, the palying rules and where the sets can be purchased.

Mike, we recently had a thread about Vietnamese sets and rules. It was deleted to make room for more posts (old posts have to be cleared off after about 10 days or 2 weeks due to the volume of posts here), but here it is again.

= = = = =

The Vietnamese game uses a set of 160 tiles, broken down as follows:

+ The usual basic set of 136 tiles (bams, craks, dots, winds, dragons)

+ 16 flowers/seasons/whatever (call them all flowers or call them all seasons, I don't care what you call them -- they should all be numbered 1-4 (four 1s, four 2s, four 3s, four 4s.).

+ 8 special jokers (illustrated below).

I am giving here: my own names for these tiles -- then Alan Kwan's translations of the Chinese writing -- and lastly the actual Vietnamese names of the tiles, sent to me by Chuong Bui Van in 1998.

The 4 red-character jokers in the photo (in order, left to right):

* Emperor -- almighty joker -- "To^?ng"
* Lord of Bams -- bamboo joker -- "Soo.c"
* Lord of Craks -- myriad joker -- "Ma`n"
* Lord of Dots -- circle joker -- "Thu`ng"

The 4 blue-character jokers in the photo above:

* Lord of Winds -- wind joker -- "Hy?"
* Dragon Lady -- dragon joker -- "Nguye^n"
* Big Flower -- double flower -- "Da.i Hoa"
* General (joker that can represent any suit tile only) -- honor joker -- "Ha.p"

Bigtime thanks to Erik Roenholt for the picture, to Alan Kwan for the identification, and (some years after the fact) to Chuong Bui Van for the Vietnamese terminology.

So -- the next challenge is actually finding a set like this. If you don't make it to Vietnam much, or if you don't live in a big city with a large Vietnamese community, this may be difficult. So you could try what I do -- I have made one by taking two sets and applying labels to some of the tiles from the 2nd set. Then, of course, that leaves you with some extra parts, but those can be sold on eBay.

As for the rules of the game, I don't have many specific details. But from the information I've collected, I believe you play the classic Chinese game.

You may use any rules you devise (the mah-jongg police will not arrest you). Be prepared to adapt to the rules of other players when playing at their table. Just be flexible (see my 3 rules on table rules at the bottom of FAQ 13 -- link is above left).

Hope this is enough to get you started! -- Tom

Explaining one mystery, part 5

>From: Raymond L
>Sent: Monday, June 20, 2016 11:00 AM
>Subject: Re: More obscure dora tiles and the Thai set
>Hi Tom,
>The key things from my last email that you can share with your readers is that there are red terminals which you can add to 13c, that modern Vietnamese sets can come with 188 tiles but only 184 will be used as four of the tiles are alternate jokers, and that the red 皇 tile in 7e is also found in Vietnamese mahjong, possibly as a flower joker.
>Best regards,
>Ray L.

Thanks, Ray. I'll add that info to those FAQs.

Vietnamese jokers (Explaining one mystery, part 6)

>On Sunday, August 25, 2019, 03:16:54 AM PDT, Raymond L wrote:
>Solved Adam's mystery emperor tile
>Hi Tom,
>This is a followup and correction to an exchange we had
three years ago regarding mystery tiles. In 2017, I did a tour of Hong Kong and visited some MJ dealers. Unfortunately, many have moved or gone out of business. However, Ying Fat Cheung is still around and Mr. Huen was very helpful in answering my questions. His business is very analog, no email or website.
>The eight jokers from the Vietnamese set made their way into Hong Kong. Apparently, the 縂 joker which is capable of replacing any tile was too confusing for HK players so they replaced it with 皇 (emperor). In http://www.sloperama.com/mjfaq/specialj.html I speculated that it was a flower joker, that is incorrect. The Vietnamese flower joker (花) was also replaced with the 將 joker which acts as the 2, 5, or 8 of any suit. I've attached a picture with the Vietnamese jokers on the top with HK jokers touching the tiles they replaced. Other similar jokers popped up which replaced certain ranks.
>Mr. Huen said jokers had fallen out of popularity. When I asked him where these jokers were still popular, he said Canada and Australia! A shopkeeper at Chi Ming Majong Shop also mentioned Canada.
>Mr. Huen confirmed that MJ sets are no longer made in HK, they've moved to mainland China in such places like Dongguan. I tried to visit a mahjong factory only to find a construction site for a new hotel.
>Best regards,
>Raymond L

Thank you so much for the followup and correction, Raymond! I'll add this to the FAQ.

May the tiles be with you.
Tom Sloper
Author of the Sloper On Mah-Jongg column and the Mah-Jongg FAQs -- donations appreciated.
Author of "The Red Dragon & The West Wind," the definitive book on Mah-Jongg East & West.
August 25, 2019
Los Angeles, California, USA

Emperor tiles

On Saturday, December 9, 2023 at 12:16:20 AM EST, R, Charles wrote:
Emperor tiles
Hi Tom-
I spent a few hours on your website reading your faqs. Great job. My question is I bought a 148 tile set in a thrift store and it comes with 12 of these emperor tiles. I'm wondering if you might know any more about this set and why it has these weird tiles.
Chuck R

Hi, Chuck!
a. Do I know any more about this set, you ask. Only that it was made for use in Asia, not for export to the West, since there are no Western indices. And that it's in a zipper case. I can't tell if the tiles are closer to 1-5/32" tall (typical Western size) or 1-7/16" tall (typical Hong Kong / Vietnamese size), since the ruler in the photo isn't aligned with the tiles. I'm guessing that they're the bigger size, but the set might predate those larger tiles.
b. Why does it have Emperors instead of flowers and 4 blanks, you ask. I can only guess.
1. Could be that the target market is a region where players don't use the flowers in the classical way, thus don't care that they aren't numbered for seat positions, thus the tiles could be used as seatless flowers or as jokers, according to player preference.
2. Could be that the set is targeted to Southeast Asian players who just want a lot of jokers, without the complication of all the specialized jokers many Vietnamese players use.
I'll add this Q&A to the "Mystery Jokers" FAQ (FAQ 7-EJ).
Play safe out there. And may the tiles be with you.
Tom Sloper
Rochester, New York, USA
December 9, 2023
Donations appreciated

My mystery tiles are blowing my mind

On Tuesday, March 16, 2021, 08:56:08 AM PDT, Hugh o wrote:
Mah-Jongg Q A
My mah-jongg question or comment is:
Hi Tom.
Can you help me identify these strange mah-jongg tiles with bombs on. I'm not sure but think there may be english words on the side that I cant make out but one word could be atomic??
Thanks for your time.

Hi, Hugh.
The Chinese characters 原子 mean "atom." It looks to me like the script writing says "atom weight." As for how the tiles are to be used, I can't tell you unless I see the tiles in context with all the other tiles of the set.
Play safely and stay healthy. And may the tiles be with you.
Tom Sloper
Author of "The Red Dragon & The West Wind," the definitive book on Mah-Jongg East & West.
Author of the Sloper On Mah-Jongg column and the Mah-Jongg FAQs -- donations appreciated.
March 16, 2021
Los Angeles, California, USA

My mystery tiles are blowing my mind, part 3

On Wednesday, March 17, 2021, 03:18:49 AM PDT, Hugh o wrote:
Re: Mah-Jongg Q A
My mah-jongg question or comment is:
Hi Tom. Re Atom weight tiles.
I have attached photo of full set in the hope you can help me identify the Atom weight tiles use/purpose.
Great site btw. Very interesting and informative.
Thanks. Hugh

Hi, Hugh.
Interesting. Aside from the regular 136 basic tiles, you have 4 flowers (Chinese figures from history and/or legend), the 4 Atom tiles, and 4 extra blanks. So you can use the Atom tiles as either flowers (albeit unnumbered) or jokers. If you play without flowers and without jokers, you would take out those 8 tiles and 4 of the blanks (the other 4 white tiles are, of course, your white dragons). Thanks for sharing your interesting set. Cheers!
Play safely and stay healthy. And may the tiles be with you.
Tom Sloper
Author of "The Red Dragon & The West Wind," the definitive book on Mah-Jongg East & West.
Author of the Sloper On Mah-Jongg column and the Mah-Jongg FAQs -- donations appreciated.
St. Patrick's Day, 2021
Los Angeles, California, USA

© 2001-2021 Tom Sloper. All rights reserved. May not be re-published without written permission of the author.

Thanks also to British mah-jongg scholar Michael Stanwick; his research has informed some aspects of this article.

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