The Origin and Development of the Mahjong Tile Set. Part 2.

Michael Stanwick

This article has been modified from the original, with the addition of extra explanatory material.

It may seem strange to our modern sensibilities that the Mahjong tile set had anything to do with money. Just cast a glance at any modern set – and by modern I mean from at least the early twentieth century – and you will see that the images on the tiles appear to bear no obvious resemblance to money. So, if there was a connection, how was Chinese money used for games and how did it influence the Mahjong tile set?

1.0. Tile Set and Card Deck Nomenclature

As I mentioned in part 1, there is good evidence that there was a connection between money and the iconography of the Mahjong tile set, via Chinese pasteboard playing cards.

Firstly, as we have seen, the Chinese names for the three suits in Karl Himly’s tile set (circa 1872) were;

  • 同 tóng (Copper Cash)
  • 索 suǒ (Strings of [100] Cash)
  • 万 wàn (Myriads of Strings of Cash).

Secondly, the Chinese names for the three suits from a three-suited deck in his playing card collection were;

  • bǐng (Silver Coin cast into the shape of a ‘cake’)
  •  索 suǒ (Strings of [100] Cash)
  • 万 wàn (Myriads of Strings of Cash).

[Note; Myriad = 10,000 strings]

All three names in both tile set and card deck were based on denominations of money. He also noted that the three suits, in both tile set and card deck, were quadruplicated – 36 tiles and 36 cards in each suit running from 1-9, respectively. Thus, the similarity in the suit names, the number of suits with each having cards numbered 1-9, plus the quadruplication of each playing piece, led Himly to infer that his tile set was in fact a three money-suited playing card game played with thick cards, that is, tiles.

Figure 1. Example of a Late 19th or Early 20th Century 3-suited Playing Card Deck. 30 of 120 Cards.

Figure 1 is an example of an early 3-suited deck based on denominations of money, with the cash suit in the bottom row, Strings of Cash (clearly represented in this example) in the middle row and Myriads of Cash in the top row.

2.0. The 40 Card Deck and Its Modification

So, to find out where the three money-suited card deck came from – and indirectly, where the three suits in a mahjong tile set came from – we need to examine early Chinese playing card manuals describing games played with money-suited playing cards. The writings and manuals we turn to are from the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644), notably those of the Late Ming scholars Lu Rong (1436-1494) and Pan Zhiheng (1556-1622), translated by Andrew Lo of the School for Oriental and African Studies (London).

In particular, there are two manuals that contain some of the earliest surviving descriptions, ‘A Manual of Leaves (Cards)’ and ‘A Sequel to a Manual of Leaves (Cards)’. From these extant records we find that the three-suited card deck was a modification of a pre-existing four suited card deck.

This particular four suited card deck was, in the case of Lu Rong, for the four player trick taking game called 鬥叶子 dòu yèzǐ (Compete with Leaves). For Pan Zhiheng it was for the four player trick taking game of mǎ diào 馬掉 (Horse Dropping [a Leg]) or, according to another Ming writer, Feng Menglong (1574-1646), either mǎ diào 馬吊 (Horse Hanging [a leg]), or mǎ diào jiǎo 馬吊腳 (Horse Hanging [up one leg]). [Note; A ‘Trick’ is where a card that is considered to have a higher value trumps a card of a lower value. A ‘Meld’ is a certain combination of cards]

The  diào card deck was comprised of 40 cards (38 in the case of Lu Rong’s deck) divided into four suits.

These four suits were called; [Note; a guàn = a string of 1000 cash coins. A myriad guàn = 10,000 strings of 1000 cash coins]

In Lu Rong’s description;

(1) 錢 qián (Cash); (2) 百 bǎi (100 Cash); (3) 萬貫 myriad guàn (10,000 strings of 1000 cash coins) and (4) 十萬貫 shí wàn guàn (10s of 10,000 strings of 1000 cash coins).

In Pan Zhiheng’s description;

(1) 文錢 wén qián or 錢 qián (Cash); (2) 索子 suǒ zǐ or 索 suǒ or 百 bǎi (Strings of 100 cash coins); (3) 萬貫 wàn guàn or 萬 wàn (10,000 strings of 1000 cash coins); (4) 十萬 shí wàn or 十 shí (10s of 10,000 strings of 1000 cash coins).


  • (1) Qián = Cash referred to a quantity of single coins. So the qián/Cash suit was Zero Cash, Half Cash, then 1 cash coin up to 9 cash coins. Thus 11 cards.
  • (2) Suǒ = Strings referred to strings of cash coins that came in various lengths, for example a string of 80 cash coins or a string 100 cash coins or 1000 cash coins etc. The length depended on the economic circumstances in a particular time and place. Here, the Suǒ suit was 1 string of 100 cash coins up to 9 strings of 100 cash coins. Thus 9 cards.
  • (3) Wàn = Myriads (of guàn) or its shortened form, Myriads, referred to 10,000 strings of 1000 cash coins. So the Myriads suit went from 10,000 strings of 1000 cash coins up to 90,000 strings of 1000 cash coins. Thus 9 cards.
  • (4) Shí wàn = Tens of Myriads (of guàn) referred to 10s of 10,000 strings of 1000 cash coins. The Tens of Myriads (of guàn) or Tens suit, went from 20 x 10,000 strings of 1000 cash coins, up to 90 x 10,000 strings of 1000 cash coins. Then there were three more higher value cards – 100 x 10,000 strings of 1000 cash coins, then 1000 x 10, 000 strings of 1000 cash coins and, lastly, 10,000 x 10,000 strings of 1000 cash coins. Thus 11 cards.

Hence a 40-card deck. These 4 suits can be seen in this reconstructed mǎ diào deck, Figure 1. But note that two of the three higher value cards in the top row, the shi wan suit (Tens of Myriads of guàn), are missing from this deck. In Figure 1 the top row shí wàn suit  runs from left to right as 20 x 10,000 strings of 1000 cash coins – 90 x 10,000 strings of 1000 cash coins and the last card is 10,000 x 10,000 strings of 1000 cash coins. Thus the 100 x 10,000 strings of 1000 cash coins and the 1000 x 10, 000 strings of 1000 cash coins cards are missing.

Figure 2. A four-suited mǎ diào deck of cards, circa 1887.

Looking at Figure 1 we can see the top row represents the shí wàn or tens of myriads suit (a myriad is 10,000 strings). For example, the 1st card on the left of the row is the 20 myriad guàn card. At the top of the card above the portrait is the number wàn shí èr 万十二. Reading from right to left we have two (èr), ten (shí), ten thousand (wàn). Two tens is twenty. Hence twenty x ten thousand strings = 200,000 strings of guàn. (A guàn is 1000 cash coins). Next is the Myriads or wàn suit (10,000 strings of cash) then the Strings or suǒ suit (strings of 100 cash). The Strings suit is represented by spools of string. The bottom row is the Cash suit with depictions of coins on the cards.

From Lo’s translations we find that the four-suited deck of cards was modified by having the top Tens suit discarded, but one of the cards retained (the Thousand Myriad guàn card (1000 x 10,000 guan)) which became the top card of the ‘Myriads’ suit (this card was sometimes called ‘Old Thousand’). So 10 cards in the Myriads suit + 9 in the Strings suit + 11 in the Cash suit created a three-suited deck of 30 cards.

This deck was in turn modified by most probably altering the use of the Zero Cash and Half Cash cards. The Zero Cash card was most likely used with the Cash suit and became the Red Flower card. The Half Cash card became the White Flower card for the Strings suit. See Figure 2.

Figure 3. 3-suited Deck Derived from the 4-suited mǎ diào deck in Figure 2.

So, from a 40 card money-suited deck consisting of four suits, we have now a 30 card money-suited deck consisting of three suits, with each suit having a ranking from 1-9.

Although the 40-card, four-suited mǎ diào game also continued into the Qing dynasty (1644-1912), by the Late Qing in the 19th century it had died out.

The three-suited 30-card deck was doubled to a 60

3.0. The Fate of the 30 Card Deck

The three-suited 30-card deck was doubled to a 60-card deck. This deck was also used for trick taking games but, as we find in the important 18th century book on card games, Jin Xueshi’s Mu zhu xianhua (Idle Chats on the Swineherds’ Game), 1783, it could also be used for games of the draw and discard variety – the variety to which Mahjong belongs – such as the 60 card game of 默 和 mò hú (Silent harmony or Playing Silently). When this 60-card money-suited deck was doubled to a 120 cards, then effectively each card was quadruplicated.

This deck of 120 cards allowed for the formation of melds of three or four cards from the same suit, as found in the 18th century game of 碰和 pèng hú (Encountering Harmony, or Playing for Points). These melds, in addition to sequences of consecutive numbers from the same suit, were found in another pèng hú type game called 十壺 shí hú (Ten Points or sometimes Ten Pots).

The term pèng hú was used for, amongst other things, an 18th century domino game using 105 cards and also as the name for a group of games that shared the basic characteristics of the pèng hú money-suited card game. Importantly, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries it was also used as the name for the game of má jiàng (Mahjong), as shown on this sliding front of an early 1920s Mahjong cabinet, Figure 3.

Figure 3. Front Panel of a Mahjong Cabinet, 1920s.

The stage was set for the emergence of the má jiàng (Mahjong) tile set and game. The raw materials were there – a quadruplicated money-suited deck of 120 cards, the system of draw and discard and the formation of melds of three and four of a kind and melds of consecutive numbers from the same suit. It just took the transfer of the three quadruplicated suits onto a domino tile format and then the addition of the Directions and extra tiles.

But when and where this emergence happened remains a mystery. The earliest tile sets we know of give us a glimpse of what the insignia may have looked like when the first sets were produced. We will have a look at these earliest sets in the next installment.