In a thoughtful response to my earlier post on mah-jong suits, one gentleman mentioned the Flower and Season tiles. Like him, I think they’re marvelous and evocative. Therefore, when I pursued my research, I was rather surprised to discover that hard-core mah-jong gamblers usually exclude these tiles from the game, because the extra points (usually doubling of base score, but as I’ve noted elsewhere, mah-jong rules vary widely) throw off the calculations on which serious gamblers thrive.
I, however, am all for including the Flowers and Seasons, and glorying in their potential.
Flower and Season tiles are the only unique tiles in the mah-jong set, each tile occurring only once. (All the other tiles are duplicated four times). In some early rules, these tiles are referred to by the evocative term “the Eight Guardians.”
Four of the five directions (center is excluded) are very important in mah-jong, so it’s no surprise that the Flower and Season tiles are keyed to the four directions. Often the tiles are numbered so there will be no confusion: one for east, two for south, three for west, and four for north. Especially with the Season tiles, these numbers can be very necessary.
The Flower tiles usually depict the same four plants: plum blossom, orchid, chrysanthemum, and bamboo. These plants are also called “The Four Gentlemen of the Garden.”
Depending on how expensive the set is, the Flowers vary in how elaborately they are presented. Sometimes the depiction is so sloppy and generic it’s hard to tell one Flower from another without referring to the number etched on the upper edge. Other times, the depiction is so accurate that—especially for one who loves flowers—the number is hardly necessary. The flowers are presented free-standing or in vases. (Vases are symbolic of peace and safety). A few times, I’ve seen tiles where the flower is held by a human figures.
What is depicted on the Season tiles is not nearly as systematized (which is why the numbers on the tiles come in so handy). Sometimes, on the most generic sets, the same four plants are depicted, since the Four Gentlemen can be associated with the seasons.
In some version of Chinese symbolism, the flowers associated with the four seasons are different from the Four Gentlemen. This difference can be reflected on the mah-jong tiles. In these cases, the four flowers (listed beginning with that associated with spring) are tree-peony, lotus, chrysanthemum, and prunus (which includes almond, peach, apricot, and cherry).
In the better mah-jong sets, variety runs wild in the Season tiles. Sometimes this takes the form of different plants, often others with symbolic significance in Chinese folklore. I’ve seen tiles with peaches (associated with immortality), pomegranates (associated with fertility), gourds (highly magical), and lotus (immortality or rebirth).
As can be seen from these brief examples, the Chinese had their own “language of flowers.”
In other cases, the Season tiles show animals, professions, musical instruments, and just about anything the person commissioning the set or the imagination of a bored carver might desire.
One of the great delights in mah-jong is that within the system there is room for tremendous variety. Perhaps nowhere else in the set is this more evident than in the Flower and Season tiles.