So why thirteen orphans? Why not nine or eleven?
The answer comes back to mah-jong, specifically to mah-jong limit hands.
What’s a limit hand?
Basically, a limit hand is a combination of tiles that would otherwise not go mah-jong. However, a particular set of rules has decided that this combination not only will score, but will score “the limit”—that is, the maximum amount of points previously agreed upon by the group.
This score might be a “win” for the round. It might be 500 points. It might be a 1,000. One thing to understand about mah-jong is that there are a lot of different variations. I currently have nine different rule books (several produced by the same publisher). None of them agree absolutely how the game should be played. None of them have the same list of limit hands, even. Some organizations, especially those geared to high-level gambling, don’t permit limit hands (or bonus tiles).
Thirteen Orphans is the name of a specific limit hand. The same combination is also called “Thirteen Improbable.”
Once I’d decided I wanted to write a tale where mah-jong would be at the heart, I also knew I wanted to use limit hands. Scanning the various lists, Thirteen Orphans jumped out at me.
Aside here: in these posts or in interviews or when talking on panels, I tend to make my writing process sound a whole lot more linear and logical than it is.
True confession time: I never know where a book is going. I get a gut feeling the story is there, then pursue it with the enthusiasm of a hunting tiger on a trail. If I knew where I was going, I’d get bored out of my mind and stop writing.
So when I say that Thirteen Orphans jumped out at me, what I mean is that gut feeling said: “Tah-dah! This is It! This is important!” Then I set out to figure out why.
To do that, I pursued various avenues of Chinese myth, lore, legend, and fable. Almost immediately, the Chinese zodiac showed promise.
Wait, you say. There are only twelve elements to the Chinese zodiac!
Ah... But in most stories there is a thirteenth: the Cat. Stories vary as to why the Cat is not included among the animals of the zodiac. These include: lost a race, too proud, invitation to a banquet lost or stolen. Interestingly, in some variations of the zodiac, often the Korean and Vietnamese, the Cat replaces the Rabbit or Hare.
(And, yes. I am familiar with the manga Fruits Basket. However, the use of the Chinese zodiac in this novel predates my reading Fruits Basket—which, by the by, I love).
So I had my thirteen... Then I had to figure out why they were orphans...
There was another place where the limit hands came in very useful: for magical spells. Thirteen Orphans is not the only limit hand with an evocative name. To list a few: All Pair Ruby, Buried Treasure, Dragon’s Tail, Heavenly Twins, Imperial Jade, Sky Ladder.
Orphans. Encoded Magic. A story that had to begin when mah-jong itself was available in its modern form. Therefore, some key events would be such that the older characters might even remember them.
Thirteen Orphans. And a story.