Why is Everything "Four" In Mahjong?


Chess is played by 2 people, but for other games, four seem to be quite popular. Poker comes in spade, heart, clover, and diamond, mahjong comes as multiples of four, and even the Korean Go-Stop game is made up of sets of four. Why?

We do not have all the answers. Maybe more players creates more complexity, but four does seem to be a magic number in our universe. Bounded by the gravity and the horizon, shapes come naturally to be 4-sided which are good for filling up surfaces. We also orientate ourselves by describing directions front, back, left and right. We found the sun and moon rise from the east and set at the west, and magnet points perpendicular to this axis as the north and south. These make the cross or the square so natural for us to relate ourselves to the surrounding.

In mahjong, four is also a very important number. Mahjong is played by four persons around four sides of a table. That is why in Chinese, playing the game is described as attacking a four-walled castle (攻打四方城) and when the players are in a situation of three-missing-one (三缺一), they are so unhappy and disappointed. 

The position around the table is described by the four directions with the lead in the East 東, and remaining as the South 南, West 西 and North 北 in a clockwise direction (or the wind in mahjong terms). The lead in the East will be the master who leads the game by tossing the dice and picking tiles first while the other follows one by one. 

So every person got his own direction or wind. If he ends up winning with the right wind tiles, he got a special bonus for it. 

(E.g. he got special bonus at the West position having the West tiles).

Each player in the game will take chance to be the lead as the East. If he does not win, he will pass the East position to the one on the left. After all four players have taken their chances, it is described as a round of the game. 

Not only the position of each player, but each round of the game is also named after the four winds, the first round is the East round, the second round is the South round, the third is the West and then the fourth is North. Players not only gain a bonus for being at the right position in the table, but also got that from the wind of the round. But you can imagine, it is more difficult to collect the wind of the round which is loved by everyone than those specific to one’s own position.
So, you will ask what happens if someone got the wind tile in the right position as well as the round. Yes, he gains a double bonus for that wind. 

Apart from the winds, these are some special bonus tiles numbered from 1 to 4 relating again to the position as 1 for East, 2 for South, 3 for West, and 4 for North. When one gets one of these, they will be put aside to tell everyone and gain an additional chance to draw a tile from the opposite end.

Despite there may be variations in the total number of tiles in different places, as mentioned earlier it is always multiples of four. They can be stacked into paired rows creating a pinwheel like this with a central pool for tossing the dice. In the most popular version of mahjong, it got 144 tiles which can be stacked as 18 pairs for each.

Hope you can follow so far or even pick up the Chinese characters of the wind. In the coming video, we will help you to recognize the tiles. It may seem a bit difficult at the beginning, but if you watch our last videos on the 10 reasons to learn more about mahjong, you may find the game worth picking up.

Back to blog
1 of 3