A full mahjong set contains 144 tiles. The tiles are made of various materials, depending on quality of the set. A set of higher quality contains tiles made of a mix of ebony and ivory. These tiles are usually enclosed in a rectangular oak or teakwood casket. These sets retail at around several hundred dollars. Most mahjong sets manufactured today, however, are not quite as expensive because of the materials. The tiles in these sets are made of white bone or plastic which comprises a thick layer of each tile. A thin bottom layer of each tile is made of imitation onyx, usually of a green shade, although new colors of purple, yellow or blue have been used. In the past, these tiles were stored in a small cabinet similar to a doll’s chest of drawers. There were usually four drawers in which the tiles were kept. The cabinet was made of oak or wood of cheaper quality and had brass or nickel trimmings. Today, these sets are either stored in a rectangular tin box or a faux leather briefcase. If a set is stored in a briefcase, four trays made of plastic are provided as to prevent the tiles from sliding back and forth while in transit.
Each rectangular shaped tile is about 1 ½ inch x 1 inch x ¾ inch. The thick layer, the layer made of white bone or plastic is ½ inch of the tile’s height, while the thin layer, the layer made of imitation onyx, is ¼ inch of the tile’s height. Each tile weighs about ½ ounce and has a smooth texture, much like the smoothness of marble. This can be attributed to the fact that all sides of each tile, including the edges, are polished to the point where no roughness exists. This is usually the work of machines which have the capacity to obtain complete smoothness.
The face of each tile (length 1 ½ inch x width 1 inch) is carved with different letters or symbols. Due to the complexity of some of the characters and symbols, the designs are hand carved and filled in with paints of various colors. The tiles can be divided into 4 groups of 34 tiles each. Within each group, the tiles are divided among the five suits or series. Each of the 4 groups are identical. In other words, there are four tiles of each design (4 x 34=136). The remaining 8 tiles are flowers. Each flower in a mahjong set is different.
The different suits/series are as follows:
The wan suit, sometimes referred to as the character suit, consists of the Chinese characters 1-9. The numbers at the corner of the tiles were put there so that Americans and Europeans could understand what the tiles stood for. Some mahjong sets today have the numbers, while others do not.
The circle suit also consists of numbers 1-9. However, in this case, the numbers are much more identifiable than the wan suit.
The bamboo suit, also known as the stick suit, consists of numbers 1-9. The bird that appears on one of the tiles is the mythical "bird of 100 intelligences," who is said to have great wisdom beyond any human being. This bird represents number one in this particular suit.
The wind suit consists of tiles representing each of the four directions, north, south, east and west. The English letters E, S, W and N were added to the corner of the tiles to identify the directions. This series was not added until the mid 19th century.
The prime suit is sometimes referred to as the dragon suit. In the early version of mahjong, the red tile was engraved with the character for dragon, the green tile with the character for phoenix and the white tile was left blank. In modern sets, however, the red tile is engraved with a character for hitting a jackpot, the green tile with the character of prosperity and the white tile with a rectangle. This series was also not added until the mid 19th century.
The flowers consists of two series, each numbered 1-4. The flowers are considered to be bonus tiles because they earn extra points.
Other than the tiles and its case, a mahjong set also includes a pair of dice, a roll of chips for scorekeeping and a few extra blank tiles (in case a tile is lost or misplaced).
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