My mama's mahjong

My mama's mahjong
Earlier this week, the online space was in a flurry about a company led by 3 White American women who decided to give the traditional Chinese game of Mahjong a makeover. The Dallas based company, the Mahjong Line, designed various sets of Mahjong with names such as the Kelly Green release and the Paris Pink release. The backlash they received from the Chinese community put them on the map, but not for reasons they had hoped.


I don't usually like to publicly voice my opinion but I couldn't hold my tongue this time. kyth + kyn was created to preserve Chinese culture and spread awareness of Traditional Chinese Medicine in every day life. This was a topic I knew I had to weigh in. 

My two cents

Just....don't. Don't feel the need to have to "respectfully refresh" or "elevate" our beautiful, history filled game of Mahjong. Don't whitewash our game. Don't put a whoopie cushion on our Mahjong tiles. We respectfully decline. The "refresh" with different words and shapes and squiggly lines show that the Mahjong Line has no clue why the tiles are designed the way they are. Each line, circle, character and shape is lined perfectly for a reason. You know you're amongst a Mahjong pro if you can see that they can tell what tile they hold in their hand simply by feeling the grooves and lines of the tile without looking. The craft of Mahjong, even in Hong Kong and China, is quickly disappearing as more and more people play online, and no one to take over the Mahjong tile making trade. This does not grant permission for cultural appropriation and complete dismissal of the origins and cultural significance of the game and of the tiles, specifically. 

So, what do the Mahjong tiles signify?

The game of Mahjong is full of meaning around fortune and prosperity!

筒子 Coins: They represent, well, coins! In Ancient China, coins were copper and circular with a square hole in the middle.  

子 Bamboo: Bamboo is known to have the meaning of peace. There's a proverb, 竹步平安 ("juk bo ping on" in Cantonese), which means to announce peace and safety. The bamboo tile is also said to represent the strings of copper coins that people use to string together 100 coins at a time. 


萬子 Characters: This one is particularly important to me as it's the character of my last name. It means 10,000. 子 also means "sons" so these tiles represent tens of thousands of sons! Each character on top of "萬"  are numerical and go from 1-9.

字牌 Word/Honour tiles have two categories:

  • Wind tiles each represent a direction
    • 東南西北 (East, South, West, North)

  • Dragon tiles each have their own meaning:
    • 白板 means a whiteboard which denotes freedom from corruption
    • 紅中 means "red middle" which represents a bulls eye in archery
    • 發財 means wealth

    花 Flower: These signify the seasons and the flowers corresponding to each one.

    • 梅: Blossoms for Spring
    • : Orchids for Summer
    • : Chrysanthemums for Fall
    • : Bamboo for Winter

    I had a Facetime conversation with my momma around this whole ordeal about these White women disrespecting and trying to change the face of Mahjong. She said something so simple yet true about this matter: change the tiles and designs if you want, but don't call it Mahjong. Thinking about Mahjong and how we play with my poh poh (maternal grandmother) at special occasions such as weddings to ordinary gatherings like family dinners brings a smile to my face. I can almost hear the clanking of the tiles as they're being shuffled between games and the banter between family members. I refuse to let some random strangers ruin a cultural game that holds so many fond memories for me. It is incidents like these that make me hold onto my Chinese roots even closer. 

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    • Your Momma is right. It is a terrible thing when folks want to change history. Without history, what are we? Thanks for explaining the tiles. I love this game.

      Lenore on
    • Thank you for this post! I was very heated until I read the line about what your mother said about the designs. I too refuse to let strangers to our culture add in their 2 cents, especially when they haven’t had to endure the loud shuffling tiles and yelling until 2-3 in the morning lol!

      C on

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