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There is some dispute over when mahjong emerged. According to some, this game is more than 2,500 years old, while actual verification only points to the mid-19th century and it is believed that the game originated in the Chinese provinces located around Shanghai. One thing is for sure from being China’s favorite past time, mahjong went on to conquer the world in the 1920s to such an extent that is caused a worldwide shortage of ivory and bones!

In Chinese, mahjong means ‘chattering sparrow’. There is a story behind the naming of this game. It is believed that Confucius loved birds and he devised this game as a means of teaching people. So, he named the game after one of the birds he loved. However, there is no proof or evidence whatsoever that mahjong was invented by Confucius. The oldest mahjong tile that has been identified dates back to the 1880s. In fact, there are many games which were similar to mahjong that used paper cards instead of tiles. One such game is Ya-Pei. This is one of the oldest card games played way back in the 10th century. This game is very similar to mahjong.

According to some other legends, mahjong was invented for the Chinese royalty and common man was not allowed to play this game. However, evidence points that mahjong was only adopted by the Chinese royal courts some time in the 1890s. So, this myth also holds no substance.

As per most experts, mahjong most probably came out of a 15th century card game known as Mah-tiae, or Hanging Horse. This game was played quite a bit across China and used the same tiles that are used in mahjong.

At the start of the 20th century, mahjong became popular with the Western population living in Taiwan after an American mentioned the game while researching the history of Taiwan. Thereafter, some UK nationals living in Shanghai brought the game to the expat cafes. Then the game made its way to Japan. The rest as they say is history. From here, mahjong spread all over the world and rules kept evolving as there were no official rules listed in China for the game.

Strangely, mahjong tiles are not as talked about as the game. But, the history of mahjong tiles is also very interesting. For centuries, tiles have been made from any and every thing, including paper. Initially ivory tiles were the preferred tiles, but after worldwide ban on ivory in the 1970s, wood, ceramic and plastic were used to make the tiles. This is trend is followed even today. The tiles are available with intricate designs, especially when it comes to flower tiles and season tiles.

Mahjong is played with 144 tiles. These are some times referred to as cards. However, the most common moniker for them is tiles. The various tiles have different images on them, and based on the images or pictures on the tiles, the various tiles are categorized.

There are three groups of tiles primarily. These are suit tiles, honor tiles and bonus tiles. The suit tiles are further sub-divided into bamboo tiles, character tiles and circle tiles. Each suit tile has 4 sets of tiles which are numbered from 1 to 9. There are a total of 108 suit tiles.

The honor tiles are divided into dragon tiles and wind tiles. There are four sets of 4 different kinds of wind tiles and four sets of 3 different kinds of dragon tiles. In total, there are 28 honor tiles.

Bonus tiles represent the four different seasons, namely spring, summer, autumn and winter, and four different flowers.

Bamboo tiles have tiny images of bamboo on them and are numbered from 1 to 9. These tiles are some times known as bams or sticks. The color of the bamboos on the tiles is invariably green, but tile 1 and 7 are multi-colors, 5 and 9 are red and green, and the image on 1 tile is either green or multi-colored.

Character tiles are the ones that have Chinese symbols on them. They too are numbered from 1 to 9. Some times, character tiles are known as cracks. The numbers are usually blue in color with a symbol of wan, which is red in color. The wan is located at the bottom of the tile. On the left corner of the tile, you will see the numbering in green color using the Western numbering format.

The circle tiles are numbered from 1 to 9 and have different colors. Tiles 1, 3, 5 and 9 are multi-colored; tiles 2 and 4 are blue and green in color; tiles 6 and 7 are green and red in color; and tile 8 is blue in color. Circle tiles are also known as dot, cash, wheel or ball.

The wind tiles depict the 4 directions of the wind. These are East (E), South (S), West (W) and North (N). Even the players seating designation in the game is based on the wind tiles and the game starts in a counterclockwise direction with East going first and North going last.

The dragon tiles are with Chinese symbols. The tiles are either red or green. There can also be blank tile, which is usually white in color.

The flower tiles represent 4 different flowers, namely plum, orchid, chrysanthemum and bamboo. Some times, instead of a bamboo flower, it is quite possible to have a lily. These tiles are numbered from 1 to 4 and they are considered to bonus tiles and used only in certain variations of mahjong.

The name season tile is self explanatory. The tiles represent the 4 seasons — spring, summer, autumn and winter. The images on the tiles are representation of the season.

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