Q: When is a dragon not really a dragon?
A: When you are looking at the tiles in a mah-jong set.
When I started my research into mah-jong in anticipation of writing Thirteen Orphans, I looked forward to learning the answer to a question that had puzzled me since the first time I’d looked at a set of tiles.
Why is the Red Dragon tile inscribed with the character that means “center”? What does “center” have do with dragons?
The answer is that “center” has absolutely nothing at all to do with dragons. In fact, even the idea of dragons entered mah-jong terminology fairly late in the development of the game.
In the earliest surviving sets of mah-jong tiles, there are only six “honors” suits: the four directions (or winds) and two tiles with no set association of any sort. One of these is usually labeled “center” and the other is usually left blank.
Experts still argue when the final honors suit—now called the Green Dragon—was added, but certainly it had appeared by the late 1800s, as it is included in a set purchased in either 1889 or 1890.
Just as the Red Dragon tile is actually “center,” the late added Green Dragon tile is labeled with the character meaning “get rich.” The White Dragon very well may have begun life as a blank replacement tile or a joker. However, as time passed, the White Dragon became a standard part of play. The tile was now sometimes labeled with “B” or “P”, the first letter in the word “bai” or “pai” (depending on your transliteration system) meaning “white.”
When the White Dragon became standard for play, additional tiles were added to serve as replacements or jokers. This is why in some sets you have both tiles that are blank and tiles labeled “B” or “P”. Sometimes the spare tile has a border around the edges. If there is a pure white tile and a bordered tile, it’s up to house rules which tile serves as the White Dragon.
But how did center, get rich, and white become three dragons, adding richness to the imagery of the game, and contributing to any number of poetically named limit hands?
Likely the transition had to do with the game’s acquiring Western players. Western players would not recognize what the inscribed characters “center” and “get rich” meant, and a blank tile is just plain confusing. Someone sought for something to call those three odd honors tiles, and settled on the symbol almost universally associated with the mystic Orient. This is, of course, the dragon.
Moreover, because these tiles were often printed in red, green, and white, you ended up with three colors of dragons.
It is quite likely that the direction tiles had been associated with winds for a long while. Therefore, the honors tiles became known as Winds and Dragons, creating poetry where none had been initially, once again transforming a mere gambling game into something that inspires not only enjoyment, but strange twists of the imagination.