How to play Sichuan-style mahjong

Sichuan-style mahjong is popular in throughout southern China. It is the simplest version of mahjong*, so a good place to start for beginners.

Mahjong is like the card game rummy – you’re trying to make runs or three-of-a-kind. Here are the rules in detail:

THE TILES**

Mahjong uses three suits, each numbered one to nine:

Circles    筒子   tǒng zi

 

Characters    万子   wàn zi

 

Bamboo   条子   tiáo zi

 

Each suit has four of each tile:


(four five of characters)

 

THE AIM OF THE GAME

During the game each player has a hand of 13 tiles.

On their turn, each player picks up a tile and chooses one tile to discard, with the aim of making a pair and four sets of three tiles (your winning tile brings your hand up to 14 tiles).

The set of three tiles can be either a run (3,4,5, or 6,7,8 etc) or three-of-a-kind.

A winning hand:

Note you can ONLY have two suits in your hand at the end of the game – there’s a penalty if you still have three.

 

HOW TO PLAY

1. Building the wall

First build the wall as shown, with each of the four players building their side:

2. Breaking the wall

Next each player rolls two dice, the player with the highest roll is known as the “East,” (东   dōng,  also known as the dealer  庄家  zhuāng jia) (( In other versions of mahjong each player is a directional wind, and it plays a much greater role in the actual game )) .

The East player rolls the dice again. The total of the two dice decides which wall to break, as counted clockwise starting with themselves. So, a roll of three would be opposite the first player (one for the player’s position, two is the person on their left, three is the person opposite).

Then the lowest number of the two dice decides where exactly to break the wall, counting in from the nearest (clockwise) end of the wall (that is, for whichever player is sitting at that side of the wall, it would be on their right hand).

This might sound a bit tricky, but to give an example:

A roll of a one and a four. With a total of five the East player is to break their own wall, and the lowest roll was one, so they start one tile in from their right.

After the first game, whoever won the last game is now East and gets to break the wall.

 

3. Taking your tiles

The East player is the first to take their tiles, and they take a stack of four. Going anti-clockwise round the table, each player takes four tiles until everyone has 12 tiles in their hand.

Then the East player takes two tiles off the end of the wall, like this:

(The East player gets one tile extra because they have to discard one tile to start the game).

The remaining three players take one tile each in sequence.

Now that each player has a hand of 13 tiles you can begin the game.

 

4. Playing the game

For the first turn in the game, the East player discards one tile.

After this, standard play begins. Each player picks up one tile, and chooses a tile to discard (the discarded tile can be the one they have just taken). Play continues anti-clockwise, with the player on the right taking the next turn.

Usually, players pick up a tile from the remaining wall.

However, instead of picking up a tile from the wall, there are two alternative moves that can be made: peng and kong.

 

The Peng   碰   pèng (( Unlike other versions of mahjong there is no chow (“eat”) move, where you take the discard tile from the player on the left to make up a run. ))
When you have two of a kind in your hand, and ANY of the other three players discards a matching tile, you can shout PENG! And grab that tile, placing the three of a kind face up on the table.

Then discard one tile. Play continues from the player to the right.

 

The Kong   杠   gàng
When a player has three-of-a-kind in their hand and ANY of the other three players discards a matching tile, you can shout KONG! And grab that tile, placing the four-of-a-kind face up on the table.

If you have three-of-a-kind in your hand and draw a matching tile from the wall, you still shout KONG! If the three-of-a-kind was face up on the table you add it (known as an exposed kong***).

Regardless of whether the player got the kong from a discarded tile or from the wall, they still have to draw another tile – otherwise you’d be one short, and couldn’t complete your hand.****

Then discard one tile. Play continues from the player to the right.

 

5. Winning

When a player picks up their final tile completing a winning hand, they shout HU LE! (  和了   hú le) and put that tile face up next to their concealed tiles. Some of the sets will still be concealed because they were made by tiles drawn from the wall – these concealed sets are not revealed until everyone has gone out. Sichuan mahjong is often played as a “Battle to the Bloody End,” ( 血战到底  xuè zhàn dào dǐ ) so when one player goes out the three remaining carry on. Then when the next player goes out the two remaining fight it out.

 

6. Scoring

Methods of scoring are different everywhere, but as an example here is how scoring works in Yunnan province:

If the winning tile is drawn from the wall ( 自摸  zì mō) all the players who have not yet gone out have to give the winner money.

If the winning tile is taken from a discard, the player who discarded that tile is the only one that has to pay the winner.

  • Standard hand, including runs: 1 point
  • Standard hand, three-of-a-kind and a pair only – no runs (called  大对子  dà duì zi): 2 points
  • Special hand, all one suit (  清一色   qīng yī sè ): 4 points
  • Special hand, all pairs (  小七对   xiǎo qī duì ): 4 points

 

  • For every kong in your hand: double your points

So it would be possible to have a winning hand of all pairs (4 points) that was all one suit (4 points) including a kong (double the points) for a total of 16 points.

And how much is a point worth? It could be could be two mao or it could be 20 yuan depending on who you’re playing with.

 

Other useful words:
suit  门   mén
to discard  打掉  dǎ diào
to build the wall  理牌   lǐ pái

 

* Of the many different variations of mahjong, the Sichuan version has stripped down the rules to a minimum and no special tiles are used – no flowers, seasons, winds or dragons. Why take out all the fun pieces? One reason is that this makes it far harder to cheat, and therefore better for gambling. With the special tiles it is easy for two players to agree on a special code: If my first discard is a season, the second a dragon, that means I want circle tiles.

** The mahjong tile images are from Wikipedia Creative Commons, drawn by Jerry Crimson Mann.

*** exposed kong   明杠   míng gàng )) ), if the three-of-a-kind was still concealed the player puts the four-of-a-kind face down on the table and turns them over on their NEXT turn (a concealed kong (( concealed kong   暗杠   àn gàng

**** This is known as  小相公  xiǎo xiàng gong. Having too many tiles in your hand is  大相公   dà xiàng gong…  相公  is a common term in operas and novels for a young gentleman, or the way a wife addresses her husband – the modern equivalent would be   老公   lǎo gōng , the etymology is unclear – big husband / small husband?

7 Comments

  1. Thank you so much for these clear and entertaining (because of your illustrations) instructions. I am happy to learn this version because I am bored with the regular Chinese mahjong but the scoring is so complicated that we don’t bother with it. I usually can only find people to play American mahjong. So the Sichuan style is a nice middle ground. Many thanks for taking the time and effort to share!
    Nani Blyleven
    La Palma, California
    USA

  2. HEY! THANKS SO MUCH FOR THIS~
    It’s been awhile since I enjoyed the game in Chengdu, and was looking for this kind of thorough instructions.
    I have a few questions though..

    1) When I played I seem to remember there was a fee for “Gang”. (meaning if I provided a tile, and someone made a ‘gang’ with it, I was to pay certain amount – maybe 1 yuan?)

    2) You Jiao(有叫?) – when the game is over, and the last person does not have a ready-to-hu hand(Winning hand minus one last tile), he/she has to pay everyone? is there a such rule?

    3) What was the penalty for having all three kinds in the end?

  3. Hi TJ,

    Wow, sounds like you got further than I did – I had to go ask people about this. The scoring I mentioned above is the Yunnan method that the people I know use, it is much simpler than the Sichuan scoring. If you’re going by the Sichuan scoring (like you did in Chengdu) the answers are…

    1. Yes, if you discard a tile that someone else uses to make a kong/gang (known as a straight kong, 直杠 zhí gāng), you have to pay them 1 yuan (or whatever the lowest amount you’re using in the game is) immediately. Sometimes they’ll add the fee at the end instead when you’re all totalling up the scores.

    2. If you’ve have all your tiles except one for a winning hand it’s known as a listening hand (听牌 tīng pái), which is a bit different to the you jiao/da jiao hand. To explain…

    So in regular mahjong as soon as someone completes their hand the game stops and everyone pays the winner. If you get down to the last 14 tiles on the wall and no one completes their hand the game is called a ‘wash out‘ (流局 liú jú), but in Sichuan-style mahjong ‘wash out’ has a different meaning. In Sichuan-style you keep playing on even after the first person has completed their hand (hence “Battle to the Bloody End”), so ‘wash out’ is the term used for those players at the end of the game who have not completed their hand, there’s a special penalty for them. Scoring for these players is known as “checking for the pied pig and the big screamer” (查花猪查大叫 chá huā zhū chá dà jiào, the ‘da jiao’ is the ‘you jiao’ you mentioned I think).

    A pied pig (花猪 huā zhū) is anyone with three suits still in their hand (you should only have two), there’s a huge penalty of 16 points (or yuan, or the lowest denominator you’r playing with) paid out to each of the other players.

    A big screamer (大叫 dà jiào) is someone who is left with only two suits but still needs more than one tile to complete their hand. They pay extra (I can’t work out how much) to anyone with a listening hand (ie lacking only one tile), but don’t have to pay extra to those with completed hands or pied pigs. I think. :)

    The scoring for a listening hand (听牌 tīng pái) seems even more fiendishly complicated, I will try and find out more when I have a bit of time.

    3. See pied pig above.

    Take care,

    Jason

  4. Dear Jason,

    Wow, Thanks so much for that. It must have been a pain.
    It’s huge help~ I’m trying to find (or teach) some of my friends here in Korea.

    Hats off to you!

  5. Can I use this for university board game events as a great explanation for my friends and schoolmates? I will print your article and post it to show how to play Sichuan Mahjong. I will appreciate it if you allow me to do so.

    thank you

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