Where Did Mahjong Originate and How to Play It?

With 500 million Mahjong players worldwide (and counting), it remains one of the most popular traditional Chinese board games today. 

Here’s a brief overview of the game’s origins, followed by a quick look at how to play Mahjong online and offline.

Where Did Mahjong Originate and How to Play It?

Mahjong’s origins remain a mystery to this day, but there are several theories and legends about how the game was invented.

One theory suggests that the game dates back to the time of Confucius (722-479 BCE), but there is no evidence to support this theory.

An ancient Chinese legend suggests that explorer ZhengHe invented the game in the 15th century to keep his crew entertained during their voyages exploring the seven seas across Asia and Africa.

This is a possible explanation of the sailing-related symbols on Mahjong tiles.

What makes Mahjong interesting is that several old Chinese games are similar to modern Mahjong. For instance, wood and ivory cards similar to Mahjong’s tiles appear in the ancient game Xuan He Pai, which originated in the Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE).

Historians are certain that Ma Diao, a trick-taking game originating in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 CE), is closely related to the original Mahjong game. Three of the four suits used in the game resemble the three suits in Mahjong.

Ma Diao inspired the popularization of several similar trick-taking and money card games, including Peng He Pai. In 1846, a Chen Yumen from Ningbo came up with the modern version of Mahjong known and loved the world over.

Since Ningbo was a business port city, it didn’t take long for the game to reach China. The turn of the 20th century brought word of Mahjong to the west through written accounts of white-collar workers’ experiences learning to play the game in mainland China.

The first Mahjong sets were sold in the United States in the 1920s, and the game continues to be popular a century later.

How to Play Mahjong: A Brief Guide

To learn to play Mahjong, you must first learn about the three tile sets in the game:

  1. Pungs/Pongs are sets of three identical tiles that players can call when a player discards a tile (given that they have two of the same tiles).
  2. Chows are combinations of three tiles in a suitable sequence. Exposed chows can only be declared from the discarded tiles of the player to your left.
  3. Kongs are sets of four similar tiles, so they’re sometimes referred to as the extended Pungs. The rules pertaining to claiming discarded tiles remain the same as Pongs; however, the players that complete Kongs must draw an extra tile before discarding.

You must get “Mahjong” – 14 tiles divided into four sets and a pair (two similar tiles) to win the game. Sets can be either pongs, chows, or kongs, and a tile cannot be shared between sets.

Setup of Mahjong

In a traditional game of Mahjong, the four wind tiles are shuffled and dealt to players according to their dice roll. Players seat themselves in the north, west, south, or east position according to the tile they receive.

Next, the players take turns identifying a dealer. This is sometimes done with a simple dice roll.

Then, all the tiles are shuffled, and the players build a wall of 34 tiles facing downward. Seventeen tiles are arranged in rows, and the arrangement is two tiles high.

Before the play begins, the dealer rolls the dice and counts tiles from the right edge of their wall of tiles. The dealer separates the wall at that point, dealing tiles clockwise from the left of the tile they stopped counting on.

The other players draw 13 tiles each, whereas the dealer starts with 14 tiles. The players then arrange their tiles facing themselves to be visible to them and not to the other players.

The dealer discards one tile from their wall, after which the game may begin from the player on the dealer’s right.

The Play

Whenever a tile is discarded, any player with two or three matching tiles can call “pung,” “kong,” or Mahjong and take the next turn. The player that claims to have discarded the tile to complete Mahjong is given top priority, and they must reveal their winning hand.

Players can pick up tiles that the other players discard to complete a pung. This can be done by declaring “pung” and showing the players the two tiles that match the discarded tile.

If no player claims the discarded tile, but you find that the tile will complete a chow for you, you can claim it at the beginning of your turn by declaring “chow.”

You will then need to reveal your chow to the other players, after which you can discard the tile.

If a discarded tile does not complete a set for you, you can draw the next tile from the open end of the wall on your next turn. If the tile gives you Mahjong, you hold onto it. Else, discard it facing upwards.

Mahjong ends when a player wins a pre-determined number of points, rounds, or hours.


Learning how to play Mahjong online is one of the best ways of doing it. You don’t have to rely on getting together with your friends to practice. You can visit websites such as to enjoy the game for free.

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