Mah-Jongg: Introduction

Mah-Jongg is the original Chinese game for which Mah-Jongg tiles were created. Mah-Jongg requires four people to play, and is similar to the card game Rummy. Players are dealt a hand of 13 tiles. The goal of the game is to go out (declare Mah-Jongg) first, with a winning hand comprised of 14 tiles. Play progresses counter-clockwise around the table.

History / Background

The origins of Chinese Mah-Jongg are much debated. Card games roughly similar to Mah-Jongg may have been played long before the twentieth century, but the tile game we know now most likely originated in the 1850's, and became widely popular among the general Chinese populace circa 1911 (after the fall of the Manchu Dynasty and the creation of the China Republic). It may be that the mah-jongg rules were not well-documented or standardized -- the rules may have been passed along by word of mouth only. Various table rules popped up, and soon the game was played in many different ways all around Asia.

Joseph P. Babcock, an American businessman in the city of Shanghai, was the first to write English rules for Mah-Jongg (giving it this name and spelling) in 1920. The game became hugely popular in the United States in the twenties. Other importers jumped on the bandwagon, usually writing the rules somewhat differently. By the 1930s there were so many different rule sets in use that confusion abounded and the game's popularity began to wane (the Great Depression may have been a factor as well). In the late 1930s, a league was formed to standardize the American rules (which were already very different from the rules commonly in use in Asia at that time) and keep the game alive.

To this day, American-style Mah-Jongg has endured. Players of the American game pay yearly dues to a league or society, and receive a card of hands which changes every year. Players greatly enjoy the excitement and challenge of having to change the strategy whenever a new card comes out.

Mah-Jongg is played differently in different countries. The varieties offered by Shanghai: Second Dynasty are:

- Chinese (the classic game as played in the 20s and 30s in China, still played today in Europe)
- Japanese (Japanese Modern Reach/Dora)
- American
- Western (originally American, now played in Australia and New Zealand)

Even more complicated: you can't count on finding out which variety somebody plays just by asking! It often happens that people learn (and are aware of) only one set of Mah-Jongg rules -- many Mah-Jongg players are not aware of the existence of any rules except the ones they learned! So if you ask a player "which Mah-Jongg rules do you play by?" -- s/he may give you a blank stare, as if you had asked "which Chess rules do you play by?"

Many players don't even know that there are other rules!

All the different Mah-Jongg games use pretty similar basic rules, but differing scoring and differing special hands and different special tile combinations make for differing play characteristics and differing strategies. If you are just starting out to learn Mah-Jongg, you need to pick one rule set to study -- you could get very confused if you learned "a little here and a little there" and later found out that it didn't all fit together!

The classical Chinese game is the basic game, and is the easiest to learn; it appeals universally to both genders. The Western/American games usually require the learning of numerous special hands, and are played by more women than men. The Japanese game is more complicated and exciting, with an emphasis on gambling -- it's played by more men than women.

So if you don't know anything at all about Mah-Jongg, you not only get to learn from scratch, but you also get to try to decide which variant to learn from scratch! See the next paragraph for help with making that decision.

How to Choose Which Mah-Jongg Game to Play

If you have never played Mah-Jongg before and you are just starting out, please take the "Just Starting Out" questionnaire (Questionnaire #1), below.

If you are already a Mah-Jongg player, it is possible that you do not know which kind of Mah-Jongg you play (and therefore which Mah-Jongg game to choose in Shanghai: Second Dynasty). Or it may be that you refer to your style of Mah-Jongg by a different name than used in Shanghai: Second Dynasty. If either is the case, skip to the questionnaire entitled "Which Style You Already Play" (Questionnaire #2), below.

Important note: there is no universally-accepted standard nomenclature for the various flavors of Mah-Jongg. Some authorities call the Western game "American Mah-Jongg," for instance. Shanghai: Second Dynasty nomenclature is internally consistent (but is not necessarily consistent with all authors).

One more note: Some people believe that the only "correct" rules for Mah-Jongg are "the original" rules. Unfortunately, the question "what were the original rules" is a topic of ongoing debate. Even in Mah-Jongg's beginnings, there was a tendency for different table rules to pop up. Tom Sloper, the producer of Shanghai: Second Dynasty, has a theory. He says: "The day Mah-Jongg was introduced to a second table, a second set of rules undoubtedly came into being." If you want to learn the "original" rules, we recommend Chinese Classical.


Use this questionnaire if you are new to Mah-Jongg and want help in choosing which style of Mah-Jongg to start with.

On a separate piece of paper, write down the mysterious letters that follow the answer you choose (like CJO or AWCO).

1. I know someone who often gets together with other folks to play Mah-Jongg:
(i) True-Learn the rules they play. Then do the other questionnaire ("Which Style You Play") if necessary. We assume you want to play with those folks.
(ii) False-Keep going with this questionnaire.

2. My gender is:
(i) Male-CJO
(ii) Female-AWCO
(It is assumed that you will be playing primarily with players of the same gender.)

3. The place where I live is:
(i) North America east coast-AWC
(ii) North America west coast-AWCJO
(iii) North America middle-AW
(iv) Japan-JW
(v) Europe-C
(vi) Australia-WCO
(vii) Other-O

4. My heritage is:
(i) Jewish American-A
(ii) Japanese-J
(iii) Chinese (incl. Taiwan and Hong Kong)-CO
(iv) European-C
(v) Australian-W
(vi) Other-WCO

5. I want to learn a game with simple rules. Complex rules give me a headache.
(i) Yes (simplest possible rules please)-C
(ii) No (I'm up for a challenge)-AWJO

6. I want to learn a style that's well described in English-language books:
(i) Yes (want a selection of books about the style I choose)-CW
(ii) Sort of (as long as there's one book I'll be happy)-A
(iii) No (don't care if there are books or not; I'll learn from friends or from
the Web or from Shanghai: Second Dynasty)-J

Count up the totals for each capital letter you wrote on your piece of paper. For example, if you are female, you wrote "AWCO" and if your heritage is Jewish American, you wrote "A" -- you now have two A's, along with one W, one C, and so on. Figure out which letter you wrote down the most, and look for that letter in the list below. That is the game that you should study. These results are by no means scientific.

A-American Modern (at the Mah-Jongg Game Setup dialog box, choose American)
W-Western Classical (at the Mah-Jongg Game Setup dialog box, choose Western)
C-Chinese Classical (at the Mah-Jongg Game Setup dialog box, choose Chinese)
J-Japanese Modern (at the Mah-Jongg Game Setup dialog box, choose Japanese)
O-Other (Shanghai: Second Dynasty does not yet include the type of Mah-Jongg you want most; see if perhaps the second most-frequently-circled option is suitable, or just start by studying the Chinese game).


Use this questionnaire if you already play Mah-Jongg but are not sure what it's called in Shanghai: Second Dynasty.

1. Do you use a card that changes every year?
- If yes, you play American style, and you can stop asking questions. All other varieties of Mah-Jongg use constant rules that stay the same from year to year. At the Mah-Jongg Game Setup dialog box, choose American.

2a. Do you use a large number of special hands in your game (50 or more)?
2b. Do you know what "knitting" means when used in Mah-Jongg?
2c. Do you know what a "Charleston" and a "chow" are?
- If you answered yes to all of the question in number two, you play Western Mah-Jongg.

3. Do you use "Reach" and "Dora?"
- If yes, you play Modern Japanese style. Don't say "arigato," just select Japanese at the Mah-Jongg Game Setup dialog box.

4. If you didn't say yes to any of the questions in Questionnaire #2, you may be playing Chinese Classical. Even if you don't already play Chinese (but you do play some form of Mah-Jongg), you should have no difficulty playing Shanghai: Second Dynasty's Chinese game.

Next chapter:

Mah-Jongg Basics