Zung Jung: a Perspective of Mahjong History

Appendix C ~ Basic Rules of Mahjong

This appendix introduces the basic playing rules of mahjong, to enable the reader who is new to mahjong to understand the main contents of this book. Because the intent is not to substitute as an introductory-level mahjong textbook, this appendix covers only the rules on the play of the tiles, and omits such rituals as the shuffle and the deal as well as some rules details. Those who wish to learn from scratch how to play the game should refer to another introductory-level textbook, or consult the mahjong rules on the World Series of Mahjong website. ¹

The composition of the mahjong set

A standard mahjong set consists of 136 tiles in 34 different designs, with 4 identical tiles for each design. The 34 designs include number tiles in three suits: Bamboos, Characters and Dots, numbered 1 to 9 in each suit, thus 27 designs total; and honor tiles in 7 designs, separated into four Winds: "East", "South", "West" and "North", plus three Dragons: "White", "Green" and "Red". (Some players also add the bonus tiles, jokers or other extra tiles.)

from top to bottom: Bamboos, Characters, Dots

東南西北 白發中
honor tiles in 7 designs

Game objective

Each player is dealt 13 tiles to start with. The objective is to be the first player to complete a winning hand through the process of drawing and discarding.

There are two types of winning hands: the Regular Hand and the Irregular Hand. The Regular Hand consists of 4 sets and a pair (called the "eyes"), with each set being a sequence, a triplet, or a kong.

6索7索8索 1筒2筒3筒 6筒6筒6筒 北北北 4萬4萬
a sample Regular Hand

three tiles of consecutive numbers in the same suit, e.g. 3筒4筒5筒
three identical tiles, e.g. 6索6索6索 or 南南南
Four identical tiles. A set is normally three tiles, but a kong uses up four tiles to make a set. Thus, in order to preserve the correct number of hand tiles needed for a complete Regular Hand, four identical tiles count as a kong only when declared as such, and a supplement tile is drawn during the declaration.

Naturally, honor tiles cannot compose sequences. But in most scoring systems, triplets (or kong) of certain honor tiles are worth special value (value honors).

Besides the Regular Hand, the scoring system usually specifies some Irregular Hands. A player may also win by completing an Irregular Hand. The number and types of Irregular Hands vary, depending on the scoring system.

Scoring system and payoff scheme

Normally, after someone wins the hand, the winning hand will be evaluated and scored according to its content. There are countless variations in the scoring, over different time and place. This book is largely a discourse on mahjong scoring systems; the proposed "Zung Jung Mahjong Scoring System" is one among the many. Often, besides just winning the hand, the player also wishes to complete a more valuable winning hand.

Besides evaluating the winning hand by its content, most scoring systems have a section on how the three non-winning players should split the payment for the winner's hand. This part I call the payoff scheme, and is a very important part of the scoring system (despite its typical brevity).

Draw and discard

After dealing 13 tiles to each player, the players take turn playing. On a player's turn, he first draws a tile from the wall, and then discards an unwanted tile from his hand. The players try to complete a winning hand mainly through this draw-and-discard process. Besides drawing from the wall, under certain situations (explained below) a player may also claim a tile discarded by another player.


A player's normal hand size is one tile less than the number of tiles in a winning hand. (Kong excepted, a sequence or triplet is three tiles, so four sets plus a pair are 14 tiles, one more than the 13 in one's hand.) When one's hand is organized to the extent that it is just one tile short of completing a winning hand, this is referred to as calling. When calling, if the player draws a tile which completes the winning hand, he may declare win ("go out" or "mahjong" in some places); this case is called a self-draw win.

When calling, if another player discards a tile which would complete the winning hand, the player may claim that tile and win. This case is called winning on discard, and the player who discarded the winning tile is called the discarder. In most modern versions, the payoff scheme specifies that the discarder has to pay most or all of the losses.

Chi and pong

Besides claiming the last tile for winning, in the process of building the winning hand, one may also claim discards for chi and pong in order to complete sets. Note that a discard can only be claimed when it is freshly discarded; once further plays have been made, previously discarded tiles can no longer be claimed.

If a player has a pair of identical tiles in his hand, and another player discards a third identical tile, the player may claim the discarded tile to form a triplet with his pair. This is known as pong. Once used for pong, the three tiles must remain face up on the table and locked as a triplet; they cannot be discarded, taken back into the hand, or rearranged into other sets (exception: small exposed kong). After claiming pong, the player discards a tile as normal, and then turn passes to his lower seat (the next player in turn after him).

If a player has in his hand two tiles out of the three which compose a sequence (such as 3筒5筒 or 7萬8萬), and his upper seat (the player whose turn is just before his) discards the third tile in the sequence (and it is now normally the player's own turn to draw), the player may claim the discarded tile to form a sequence with the two tiles in his hand. This is known as chi. Note that, unlike pong and win, one may only claim for chi a tile discarded by his upper seat; tiles discarded by the two other players may not be claimed for chi. Once used for chi, the three tiles must remain face up on the table and locked as a sequence, and cannot be modified thereafter. After claiming chi, the player discards a tile as normal, and then turn passes to his lower seat.


In order to use four identical tiles as a kong, the player has to declare the kong and draw a supplement tile; this preserves the correct number of tiles in his hand for the Regular Hand. There are three cases of kong declarations:

Concealed kong:
The player has four identical tiles in his hand, and declares a kong with them.
Small exposed kong:
The player has previously pong a triplet (exposed triplet), and now adds a fourth identical tile from his hand to form a kong.
Big exposed kong:
The player has three identical tiles in his hand (concealed triplet), and when another player discards the fourth identical tile, he claims the discard to form a kong.

Once declared as kong, the four tiles must remain face up on the table (in some modern versions, a concealed kong is placed face down) and locked as a kong, and cannot be modified thereafter. After declaring kong, the player first draws a tile (supplement tile) before discarding a tile.

Robbing a kong

There is a special rule: when an opponent declares a "small exposed kong", and one is calling for the tile which is being declared as a kong, one can claim the declared tile to win. This is known as "robbing a kong".

A concealed kong cannot be robbed.

Precedence of claims

When two or more players want to claim the same discarded tile, the following order of precedence is observed: a "win" claim has the highest precedence, followed by "pong" and "kong" (big exposed kong), with "chi" having the lowest precedence.

If two or three players want to claim the same discard for "win", the order of precedence is, from high to low, the discarder's lower seat, opposite seat, then upper seat. Resolving competing "win" claims this way is known as interception. (Some recent versions do not use the interception rule, but instead allow two or three players to win simultaneously.)

No win

The last 14 tiles in the wall are called the "Dead Wall", and are not played. When all but 14 tiles in the wall have been exhausted, the hand ends in a draw. (In some recent versions, the Dead Wall is not used, and the game goes on until the last tile in the wall has been played.)

1: The URL of "World Series of Mahjong" official website is worldmahjong.com

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© 2009 Alan KWAN Shiu Ho