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Mahjong: the Winds, the Seasons, the Flowers

Updated: Feb 7, 2021

Jenni and I love to put on a movie and play a game. When we feel simple, it's Yahtzee. If we want a little more setup: backgammon. When we don't mind the longer set up, we love diving into mahjong. Usually a four person game, Jenni and I will set it up and play just the two of us.

Mahjong is a game similar to rummy, played with tiles that may be made out of bone, ivory, or plastic, and sometimes with a bamboo back. A game is played holding 13 tiles and the goal of the game is to draw into four sets of three and a pair, where the sets of threes may be either the same tile(pung) or a run of the same suit(chow).

The Winds and Their Directions

Being of Chinese origin, the game is filled with the cultures imagery in both the tiles and the game set up and play. Players are assigned a wind which is designated by a direction. We usually think of a clockwise direction: North, East, South, West…..what I learned as Never Eat Soggy Waffles, but whatever mnemonic you might have learned.

In mahjong, East is the primary direction, and the order is in a counterclockwise direction: South to the right of East, West to the right of South, etc. When we visualize a compass, we see it from the standpoint of looking down on a map, or from the standpoint of how we are associated with the earth. The Chinese visualized their compass not from the association with the earth, but with the stars, as if they were looking up to navigate. (Go Ahead.....look up and think about the directions.....the compass is then seen in a mirror image) When you play, you just have to pretend you are upside down in the world!

The Bonus Tiles

The bonus tiles relate to the winds, as each season is associated with a direction and a flower with a season. Some tile sets will have the seasons and flowers numbered 1-4; these numbers correspond to the wind direction it is associated with: 1=East, 2=South, 3=West, 4=North. Some tile sets have bonus tiles adorned with different pictures with no relation to season or flower. These are also not to be confused with Joker tiles that are present in an American mahjong set.

When you play the game, there are points for the bonus tiles, an extra bonus double if you get the bonus tiles (both season and flower) associated with the wind direction in which you are playing, and a bonus double for completing a “bouquet,” which is a complete set of the four seasons or the four flowers.

The Seasons

East, with the rising sun, the beginning of the new day, is associated with Spring, the time of growth and renewal. The warmer Summer months like the warmer Southern climate, as the colder North was like the Winter. West, where the sun faded away each evening, was likened to Autumn, the fading of the year's growth.

The Flowers: the Four Gentleman

The four flowers are known as the Four Gentlemen. They represent traits that are present in a person of good character. For two of them, their traits are related specifically to the season. The plum flower blooms come forth in the winter months. With a soft fragrance, they represent humble resilience through adversity. It often heralds the coming of spring, hence it's association in the game. The chrysanthemum flowers when all else is preparing for the cold months ahead, again symbolizing strength and beauty in the face of adversity. It is associated with autumn; in some games, you will see this, but in some games it is paired with winter.

The bamboo, along with the pine and plum flower, are known as “the three friends of winter”, as they all persevere through the cold, dead months. The Gentlemen characteristic of bamboo is its strength under pressure; it is revered for its ability to never yield, breaking before bending. It's hollowness shows us to be open-minded and tolerant. But as it is also green through summer, it is traditionally associated with this season. Among the Gentlemen, the orchid is the one to show modesty and a sense of humbleness. It carries a soft fragrance, that may not be picked up on by all. And in nature, it’s beautiful stems of flowers are usually not easy to find, as it tends to grow hidden and shaded. Traditionally related to the spring, in the game, it's paired with summer.

The Four Gentlemen remind us to be strong but humble, and that in those times when things seem at their bleakest, our inner beauty and strength can still shine forth and bring splendor to the world.

Want to know more about the rules? Here you go!!

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Yueh Han
Yueh Han
Dec 20, 2022

I teach mj to seniors where i live and have a group. Good luck and chance.

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