Jun 17 2014 4:00pm

In Praise of Mahjong


I first learned how to play Mahjong in high school. My best friend Arthur, an immigrant from Taiwan, taught me. Mahjong is sort of like a Chinese version of poker, only with tiles instead of cards. Like most games that are able to captivate an entire culture, Mahjong blends skill and luck. Four players sit at a square table, pulling tiles from the neatly stacked wall or pushing them into the mush pot middle. Sessions can often last for hours.

When I told my parents about my new pastime, my mother was thrilled. She’d played with her family when she was young, so she felt like I was reclaiming a piece of her past.

My father didn’t quite have the same reaction. “Mahjong is for kids who don’t have anything better to do,” he told me. “Mahjong is for kids who won’t have jobs when they grow up.”

I played anyway.

Our games usually took place on Friday nights at Arthur’s house. Sometimes we chatted about girls or teachers or sports while we shuffle the tiles. Other times, we played in a tense quiet, waiting for the right tile to be thrown. Nobody seemed to know the rules all that well, not even Arthur. We’d often have to consult his mom to resolve disputes.

For me, the thrill of Mahjong went beyond the game play. Not only did it connect me to my friends in the present, it gave me a tangible way to interact with a culture that I normally experienced only through echoes.

The Shadow Hero 5 Gene Luen Yang Sonny Liew

The game has a special place in my heart, which is why I included it in The Shadow Hero, my upcoming graphic novel with Sonny Liew. Hank Chu, a Chinese American teenager who becomes a masked crime-fighter known as the Green Turtle, has a special affinity for Mahjong. Hank’s father and uncles introduce him to the game, and it’s how they bond as a community.

But Mahjong also plays a part in the underworld of Hank’s Chinatown. The criminals of our story are like the Mahjong version of DC Comics’ Royal Flush Gang. Each character is named after a Mahjong tile. When Hank struggles to bring the bad guys to American justice, he’s also struggling against his connection to his community.

I haven’t sat down at a Mahjong table in well over a decade, but I can still hear the click-clicking of our shuffling when I think back to high school. You need to give Mahjong a try, if you haven’t already. There are plenty of digital versions these days, but I wouldn’t recommend them. No Internet game can beat sitting down at a square table, feeling the coolness of the tiles beneath your fingertips, and talking with your friends about nothing at all.

Gene Luen Yang’s first book with First Second, American Born Chinese, is now in print in over ten languages and was a National Book Award finalist and winner of the Printz Award. Yang’s other works include the popular comics adaptation ofAvatar: The Last Airbender, and the New York Times Best-Selling graphic novel diptych Boxers & Saints. The Shadow Hero, the story of the first Asian-American superhero is his most recent graphic novel. It is being published in six e-issues, starting in February, 2014; the fifth issue will be available on Tuesday, June 17th.

Sky Thibedeau
1. SkylarkThibedeau
'Risk' with the original board and wooden pieces does the same thing for me. Hang out in OZ til you have the cards to make your move.
Lisamarie LiGreci-Newton
2. Lisamarie
For a long time, I always thought Mahjong was that game where you had to clear the board by picking off pairs of matching tiles that aren't bordered by other tiles. It was one of my favorite games as a kid. But it wasn't until later (high school maybe) that I learned there was a 'real' multi player game behind it (which I've never played, but it sounds neat).
Alex Livingston
3. AlexLivingston
I used to love Mahjong, but haven't played a real game of it in over a decade. My dad was given an nice old set by an elderly relative, and my family played quite a bit for a while. As a lover of card games, I couldn't resist. Different suits? Seasons? Winds? DRAGONS?

Thanks for the post!
T S Davis
4. tee+D
Hah - ditto what Lisamarie said - I used to think it was just a matching game, but I'm really intrigued by it -- it seems as complicated and tricky as bridge, and for the same bygone era of people who actually had the patience to figure out games with real rules. Very cool.
Andrew Mason
5. AnotherAndrew
I would have thought rummy rather than poker?
Lisamarie LiGreci-Newton
6. Lisamarie
Well, as a child I also thought the sole purpose of Dominoes was to line them up and knock them down - it blew my mind when I learned there was actual game with them too (although I was a bit younger then, at least).
7. Miriam12
I learned how to play 'Jewish' mahjong when I was seven. I played a few games of Korean mahjong but I like the Jewish version better. The rules for calling are different and you build your hand based on a card with different options. Part of the game is trying to figure out what hands the other players are attempting and then withholding the tiles they need.
Brent Longstaff
8. Brentus
Sounds interesting. I'll give it a shot electronically and buy a set if I like playing.

I like that it'll appear in the new graphic novel as well; Louis Sachar's The Cardturner and Yumi Hotta's Hikaru no Go are great examples of using games (contract bridge and go) in a story (although they are probably more focused on the games than The Shadow Hero sounds like it is with mahjong).

I'd also recommend go, another Asian game. The rules are ridiculously simple and yet it's so deep that it's played professionally and computers still are a ways away from being able to play as well as skilled humans.
9. hoopmanjh
Someday I need to learn to play the real game. Sadly, my chief knowledge of it comes from seeing it played in many, many movies from Hong Kong.
Chris Meadows
11. Robotech_Master
Back when I lived in Springfield, Missouri, I went to Incredible Pizza a lot, and one time I encountered some elderly ladies who were playing Mahjong there. I had a bit of an interest in Mahjong because it was heavily featured in one of my favorite anime shows, Detective Conan (aka Case Closed).

So I asked if they might teach me how to play, and they graciously consented. I met with them several times over the next few months and learned how to play—though it's been long enough I'd have to learn it all over again now. It was fun. It was basically kind of like playing a rummy- or Hearts-style card game, but with tiles.

(Some other great and memorable cinematic Mahjong scenes: Sammo Hung playing Mahjong through a Jackie Chan fight scene in "Project A". And of course, there's the wacky no-holds-barred grab-what-you-can duel from Chow Yun Fat's God of Gamblers.)

One really funny thing about Mahjong is that 99% of the Mahjong computer games ever made are all tile-removal solitaire games. Which are fun enough in their way, but it's as if the only computer card game you can ever find is Freecell, with no Poker, Blackjack, or anything else that has multiple players. It's next to impossible to find a computer game for the multiplayer game of drawing tiles.

Even if you can, there are about a zillion different variations of Mahjong. The one I learned from the ladies at Incredible Pizza wasn't the same version as Detective Conan's bunch play.

Another weird thing: at least for the American version, there are yearly scoring cards for the game put out by some sort of Mahjong federation. You have to buy a new one every year, and they include various scoring combinations of tiles that change from year to year. I don't think I've ever seen another game where the rules change year to year like that (outside of roleplaying games, I guess, and even then it's not a new edition every single year).

Fun, weird stuff.
12. shellywb
While we're talking mahjong and graphic novels, you really must read (and or watch on crunchyroll) Akagi, a story devoted to the play of the game, about a legendary player. The drawing style can be off-putting to some, but the story, tension, and game play are amazing. It's all about strategy and reading people and putting it all on the line. The story is serialized in a mahjong magazine and has been going on for decades.
13. guillaumeutsa
For those of you looking for more info on mahjong, as well as instructional videos, I recommend this page on the BoardGameGeek website:
Lis Riba
14. lisriba
Are there any decent computer game tutorials for mahjongg (either web-based or for Android)? All my attempts at searching for one have only turned up tile-matching puzzles.
Chris Meadows
15. Robotech_Master
When I googled "multiplayer mahjong Android" it came up with a number of traditional-style Mahjong games, such as "Mahjong and Friends". Googling "multiplayer mahjong" came up with a number of web-based multiplay games.
Ori Avtalion
16. salty-horse
If you're looking for a good introduction video for the game, try this one by Scott Nicholson:

(If you're interested, there are videos about many other board games on this channel)
Angela Korra'ti
17. annathepiper
Mah Jongg! :D

I played a game of this last night, in fact. I own a set, and my household uses a set of rules inherited from the Michigan State University Mah Jongg Club. Which, we're given to understand, is a set of rules that probably came from south China and possibly Hong Kong.

It's a great game, though depending on what ruleset you're using, the learning curve can be steep for newbies. Particularly once you start getting into the various combinations that can make limit hands.

I'm now totally interested in this graphic novel, too! I'll have to check it out!
Lisamarie LiGreci-Newton
18. Lisamarie
Well, I have to chime in and say - Go Green! ;)

Subscribe to this thread

Receive notification by email when a new comment is added. You must be a registered user to subscribe to threads.
Post a comment