Mahjong is one of the most iconic games in Chinese culture. Developed in the early 1800s in Shanghai, it came to represent a thing that united generations of families: giving Mahjong tiles. Mahjong is played casually among friends and family, and it can also be played as a way to gamble.

Today, Mahjong remains a popular game enjoyed by millions of people worldwide, and the Mahjong tile meanings have evolved to mean more than just a game. But what do the symbols on Mahjong tiles mean? And how do Mahjong characters on the tiles impact the game? Let's explore these and other questions below.

Find out the meaning of mahjong tiles

What is Mahjong?

Mahjong is a game of Chinese origin, played by four people who use 144 tiles that are drawn and discarded until the winning hand is collected. The game is very common in many Asian countries and is especially popular in China and Taiwan. If you visit these countries, chances are you will encounter people playing Mahjong in public places. It has become an indispensable part of the culture, and a traditional pastime passed down through the generations.

In many ways, Mahjong symbols can be compared to those in a deck of cards that most Western cultures are used to. However, while some of the game mechanics can be similar to card games, the tiles provide an additional element to the game. This means that there are a variety of unique Mahjong tiles numbers you will need to understand to play.

The game is played by four people at a time, each player collecting 13 Mahjong number tiles to start. Then, the goal is to collect groups of the same tiles. The first player to collect four groups of three and one pair of the same group wins.

Just as with playing cards, there are different suits of Mahjong tile names. Each has numbers from one to nine, and four sets of each suit of tiles. New players should take the time to study each Mahjong piece’s meaning, as that's the only way to distinguish between them and understand which pieces they need to collect. Luckily, learning the Mahjong symbols’ meaning is a quick study.

A single game can also be played fairly quickly. Although once you get hooked, you might end up playing for hours simply because of how fun and engaging Mahjong can be!

Mahjong Tiles: Meaning of Each Symbol

A big part of playing the game is understanding each Mahjong tile’s meaning. In each set, you will find three main suits, called stones, characters, and bamboos. There are also two honor suits, called winds and dragons (arrows), and one optional suit, called flowers.


The stones suit, also known as wheels and circles, is one of the main suits in Mahjong. The origin of the design comes from representing a coin with a square hole in the middle called tóng (筒). This suit has four sets, and each set has nine tiles. So, when collecting stones, you would have 36 total tiles to work with as you try to collect them.


The next simple suit is often called characters, numbers, or coins. This Mahjong tile’s meaning comes from the character wàn (萬), which literally translates to ten thousand or \"a great number.\" Just as with stones, this simple tile suit also has a range from one to nine. But to recognize which numbers you have, you will need to learn the Chinese symbols that represent each one. Finally, just as with other main tile suits, this one has 36 tiles in each set.


Bamboos, also known as sticks, are the final group of the main suits in Mahjong. The Bamboo sticks represent the bamboo strings (索) that were used in ancient China. Most of the tile numbers are represented using sticks, but number one has a bird sitting on a stick, which is why it's often called \"bird\" instead of one. There are four sets of bamboo tiles on a set, combining for a total of 36 bamboo tiles.


Unlike the tiles discussed above, flower tiles are actually an optional suit that isn't strictly required to play the game. However, many end up including them as well, and they can serve varying purposes depending on the region. Some use the flower tiles in a similar way to the Joker in card games, helping complete various combinations. Others might include them for extra points.

Unlike the other three tiles, flower tiles have eight tiles in total, and there's only one set available. Four of the flower tiles represent the four seasons in a year: winter (冬天), spring (春天), summer (夏天), and fall (秋天). The other four represent the four Confucian plants: chrysanthemum (菊花), bamboo (竹), orchid (蘭花), and plum (梅).

Honor Suits

There are two additional honor suits that can be part of mahjong: wind and dragons (sometimes called arrows). Winds have four different tiles, each representing the compass directions of north (北, běi), south (南, nán), east (東, dōng), and west (西, xī). There are four sets of tiles, which amounts to 16 total wind tiles.

Meanwhile, arrow tiles have three different types with multiple meanings specific to Chinese culture. But basically, they can be differentiated by the symbols and the colors red (中), green (發), and blue (白). There are four sets of the three tiles, making for a total of twelve tiles.

Find Fun and Meaning in Mahjong with Arkadium

Understanding each Mahjong tile’s meaning is a crucial part of not just learning how to play, but enjoying the full experience of the game. Mahjong represents a culture dating back thousands of years, allowing you to be a part of a rich and vibrant history.

At Arkadium, you can enjoy free mahjong games online that are designed to provide a fun and authentic experience. With various styles of Mahjong, you’re sure to find a game that suits you. Lose yourself in the history of Mahjong today, or browse our diverse collection of free games!

Category: Mahjong