Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

Learning Chinese by playing Mahjong 麻將 (májiàng)

Image credit: Sigismund von Dobschütz

Image credit: Sigismund von Dobschütz

One of the most important pieces of advice I give beginners is that they should, as much as possible, learn by doing. This can be difficult when you only know a few words, but there are lots of things in your life you can convert to Chinese after just one week of studying. The most obvious example is counting. Don’t just study the numbers and learn them for the exam, count in Chinese whenever you get the chance. Use 三 (san) eggs for your pancakes, do 十二 (shíèr)  pushups, count 三十六 (sānshíliù) steps up to your apartment.

Playing 麻将/將 (májiàng) to learn Chinese numbers

Once you have the basic numbers, down, you’re ready to play 麻将/將 (májiàng) or Mahjong as it’s often spelt in English, a game which is extremely popular in most Chinese speaking societies and beyond. It’s also fun and teaches you a bit about Chinese culture at the same time,Knowing how to play the game will also be much appreciated by native speakers. Although you can play for money, the games works equally well without doing so.

Apart from the numbers 1-9, you only need a handful of words and most of them are useful outside the game as well. I have played in Chinese with people who don’t even study Chinese, so it’s definitely doable. From a language point of view, playing mostly consists of naming the tiles you play and, sometimes calling an action based on what someone else just played. Naturally, Chinese people tend to talk a lot while playing the game, but most of this isn’t related to the game or isn’t strictly necessary.

The rules of the game

I’m not going to give a detailed description of how the game is played, but if you think of it as a card game (which it originally was), it becomes much easier. The game is played by drawing one new tile each round, then discarding one. Gradually, you upgrade the tiles you have on your hand until all tiles are part of different sets of three or four. The first person to combine all his or her tiles in this way wins.

I’m not going to go into scoring here, because there are so many different variants that it would make little sense. I have played the game many times with different native speakers, and even though the basic premise of the game stays mostly the same, the scoring system can be completely different. If you care about games in general (I do), this is frustrating, because changing the scoring system obviously changes the way the game ought to be played.

If you want a beginner-friendly introduction of how to play, check this video on YouTube.

The vocabulary you need to play

Below, I have included the basic vocabulary you need to play. There are of course more useful words than these, and there are also variants of some of them, but this is just meant to get you started, not teach you everything there is to know. There are also regional variants, so don’t be surprised if this list isn’t identical to what you have heard or what your Chinese friends teach you.

Numbers

  • 一 (yī) “one”
  • 二 (èr) “two”
  • 三 (sān) “three”
  • 四 (sì) “four”
  • 五 (wǔ) “five”
  • 六 (liù) “six”
  • 七 (qī) “seven”
  • 八 (bā) “eight”
  • 九 (jiǔ) “nine”

General

  • 洗牌 (xǐpái) “shuffle tiles (or cards)”
  • 出牌 (chūpái) “play a tile”
  • 摸牌 (mōpái) “draw a tile”
  • 和了 (húle) “I’ve won!”
  • 吃 (chī) said when you take a tile to complete a straight
  • 碰 (pèng) said when you take a tile to complete a set of three
  • 槓 (gàng) said when you take a tile to complete a set of four

Tiles

  • 筒 (tǒng) “circle (suite)”
  • 条/條 (tiáo) “bamboo (suite)”
  • 万/萬 (wàn) “characters (suite)”
  • 东风/東風 (dōngfēng) “east wind”
  • 南风/南風 (nánfēng) “south wind”
  • 西风西風 (xīfēng) “west wind”
  • 北風 (běifēng) “north wind”
  • 红/紅中 (hóngzhōng) “red dragon” (lit. “red centre”)
  • 发财/發財 (fācái) “green dragon” (lit. “make a fortune”)
  • 白板 (báibǎn) “white dragon” (lit. “white board/slate”)

If I’ve missed anything important, please leave a comment!

Playing the game with Chinese people

I’ve played a fair amount 麻将/ games in Chinese and the only drawback is that if you’re not already quite good at the game, it’s hard to chat and play at the same time. Some people also play ridiculously fast, so if you’re new to the game, you might need to ask them to slow down. If you want to familiarise yourself with the game on your own, there are plenty of computer programs and smart phone apps out there. If you have any specific recommendations for good apps, please leave a comment!

Do you want more practical exercises, audio versions of articles and Chinese transaltions? Check out my Patreon page!

Sign up for my free crash course in how to learn Mandarin:

Share this article:

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

12 comments

  1. 唐穆 says:

    Very helpful! I have looked up for smartphone apps but there seems to be many different kinds of them. Can you recommend one that is traditional mahjong? Thank you

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Sorry, no, but perhaps someone else knows? I’ll add a question to the article. I used to play on my computer, but I’m using Linux and it was three years ago, so it probably wouldn’t help you even if I remembered what program I used. 🙂

    2. Olle Linge says:

      Geoff W. recommends:

      I found the Tencent app quite good: http://majiang.qq.com/m/

      There is a simple mode to learn, which I’m finding helpful, as the network version I keep losing.

  2. Rolands says:

    Great article! Maybe I will finally need look at that as well – every time Chinese New Year or any longer holidys start here in Taiwan and my wife returns home – 回家 – especially in Hakka community in 苗栗 – never ending Majong’s starts in every and single house in the area. I felt extremely boring looking at that, but maybe just because I did not knew the rules (did not want to know).

  3. Margaret says:

    Hi,
    Do a web search for ‘real mahjong’. Here’s a video of one for Mac:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wSA5xyYHV1s

  4. Margaret says:

    Four Winds Mahjong for iPad looks even better as it helps beginners learn.
    I haven’t tried any of these, but I used to play mahjong as a child in the UK on a set my parents brought back from India.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Cool! I actually learnt the game as a child too, long before I knew anything about Chinese. My parents don’t speak any Chinese, but there was a kind of Mahjong craze in Sweden around that time (not sure why). I only learnt to play in Chinese twenty years later!

      Also, thank you for the app suggestions!

  5. Hey, great article. I learned to play it as a way to interact with my wife’s friends and family, before I learned Chinese.

    After I learned Chinese I picked up the terms, and the meaning behind what they were saying, but I never formally read up on it.

    Thank you for the characters and pinyin. I have been saying 槓 (gàng) without the last ‘g’ for a long time.

    One tile you forgot about were the flower tiles. Not everyone plays with them, but it would be good to mention them in case some one encountered them.

    Another benefit of learning both the game and terms is that it impresses people. Many Chinese college students I met thought learning it was hard, and were impressed that I had learned the game.

  6. -hgn- says:

    Hi Olle, great topic! Perhaps a similar article could be written about 斗地主 in the future, which is being played in many Chinese parks and side streets.

    Anyone has a recommendation for an Android real mahjong app to practice?

    1. Kai Carver says:

      “Hong Kong Style Mahjong” looks pretty good on Android, but I haven’t played it yet:
      https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.pvella.mahjong

  7. Enrico Brasil says:

    Nice article, specially for the related vocabulary.

    It would be nice to see other articles about other popular Chinese games such as 象棋, 五棋 and 斗地主.

  8. bonbon2 says:

    I think I’ll need to print this post out and carry this with me if invited to a mahjong play… I can’t play mahjong and I’m actually a native speaker of Mandarin… which is quite embarrassing actually, I guess? ^_^””

    For some reason I’d never been able to learn to play mahjong as a kid, I just couldn’t seem to figure out the rules, let alone the vocabs they use in the play. Never understood what the adults playing mahjong were mumbling grumbling about. Poker games are a bit easier to me, strange to say. Meh. : /

    Thanks again for… this nice simple post on mahjong play! 改天來試試看!

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *