How to Play Tianjin Mahjong (天津麻将)

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Mahjong, or 麻将 (má jiàng), is a famous Chinese card game played with four players and a set of tiles. Dozens of variations exist on the game, with almost every major region of China having its own play style, not to mention all the other countries that also have their own variants of the game. The most popular version, at least in the United States, is Cantonese Mahjong, the rules for which can be found on Wikipedia. However, I grew up playing the game with a very different set of rules, and since I was unable to find any online versions of the game I played, this is my attempt to make my own.

The Chinese version of Wikipedia does have an entire page on the Tianjin variant of the game, but on the English Wikipedia, it gets just a single line of text. I don't care enough to try to go off the Chinese page, so instead, my game operates off Xing family house rules. In addition, since there don't seem to be established English translations for any of the moves, I'm making up my own names for everything. Feel free to use the contact form to let me know how terrible my names are.

These instructions assume no familiarity with the rules of any variant of Mahjong. If you already know a different version of the game, please note that the Tianjin variant has multiple key differences.


The game is played with a specialized set of tiles. The set consists of three suits, which I'll refer to as dots, shoots, and numbers, each containing tiles for 1 through 9, in addition to tiles for the four cardinal directions and three additional tiles, the blank tile, the center tile, and the fortune tile. There are four of each tile in the set. You can see them pictured below.

In Chinese units of 万, which is 10,000. In the English version of my game, these are numbered.
1 of Numbers12 of Numbers23 of Numbers34 of Numbers45 of Numbers56 of Numbers67 of Numbers78 of Numbers89 of Numbers9
As in bamboo shoots. The bird represents one. All the others can be counted.
1 of Shoots2 of Shoots3 of Shoots4 of Shoots5 of Shoots6 of Shoots7 of Shoots8 of Shoots9 of Shoots
Fairly self explanatory.
1 of Dots2 of Dots3 of Dots4 of Dots5 of Dots6 of Dots7 of Dots8 of Dots9 of Dots
Also labeled in the English version of the game.
EastEast SouthSouth WestWest NorthNorth Miscellaneous
These are not labeled, but you can differentiate them by color.
CenterCenter FortuneFortune BlankBlank

Those who have played other variants of the game may want to note that Tianjin Mahjong is played without the season and flower modifiers.

Each player has 13 tiles in their hand at all times. They take turns drawing a 14th tile and discarding a tile. The goal is to end up with one of the win conditions described below, all of which consists of four sets of three tiles and a base pair. A set of tiles can be three of the same tile or, for the numerical tiles, can be three consecutive tiles within the same suit. Tiles do not wrap around (3 4 5 is valid, but 8 9 1 is not). The final base pair is any two of the same tile.

Jokers (混儿)

One of the key distinguishing factors of Tianjin Mahjong (indeed, one of the only things listed on the English Wikipedia entry) is the fact that the game is played with seven joker tiles. These tiles can be used as any tile the player desires. Rather than being specialized tiles added to the deck, joker tiles are selected on a per-round basis and come from the normal set of tiles seen above.

The selection process will be explained in more detail later, but the gist is that at the beginning of each round, a tile from the deck will be flipped face up. The joker for that round is whatever tile gets flipped face up in addition to the tile listed in the table above immediately to the right of the face-up tile. For the purposes of Joker selection, the table above does wrap around.

For example, if the two of shoots was chosen, the jokers would be the two and three of shoots.

If the nine of numbers was chosen, the jokers would be the nine and one of numbers.
If the blank tile was chosen, then the jokers would be the blank and the center tiles.

The tile that is flipped up is not considered to be in play, so there are only a theoretical maximum of seven jokers, the four tiles adjacent to it and the three remaining identical tiles. Note that you may not discard a joker. Once you draw one, it must stay in your hand for the rest of the game. The game will handle all this automatically and announce at the beginning of each round what the jokers are.

Win Conditions

With the addition of Jokers, the ease of fulfilling the basic goal described above becomes significantly easier. To maintain game balance, Tianjin Mahjong does not consider merely having four sets and a base pair as sufficient to win. Instead, your hand must satisfy one of the following win conditions. The multitude of ways to win allows for significantly more strategy in your approach towards each round, as you will need to adapt your goals as your hand changes.

Note that unlike some variants of Mahjong, you do not declare victory in Tianjin Mahjong until after you have drawn the winning tile. In addition, you are required to draw the winning tile yourself, not obtain it from another player.

Listed below the name I use are the original Chinese name and the English name that Wikipedia gives, most of which I have chosen to not use.
Restrictions Example
If you had the following hand...and drew this tile, with these jokers
Go Fish
Joker Waiting Pair
The base pair must consist of a joker, and that joker must not be the last tile drawn.In other words, you were fishing for the second half of your base pair with a joker and would win no matter what tile was drawn.
Joker Free
You may not have any jokers in your hand.Remember, you may not discard jokers you receive. Thus, to qualify for this, you must never draw a joker over the course of the game.
Catch 5
Your last tile drawn must be the five of numbers, being paired with a four and six of numbers.No restrictions on joker usage, so you may substitute jokers for any of the three required tiles.
Three of your sets must form the consecutive numbers one through nine in a single suit.No restrictions on joker usage.
Joker's Dragon
Joker Suited Dragon
Same condition as a dragon, but the suit of your dragon must be the same suit as the jokers.No restrictions on joker usage. Not possible when the joker is not of a numerical suit.

Interrupting Plays

During typical gameplay, play procedes in a circle, as each player draws and discards tiles. However, there are two scenarios where a player may interrupt the turn order, forcing play to resume with them. These are the Bump (碰) and the Bar (杠).

If you have two of a tile in your hand and someone else discards a third, you may bump the tile. Doing so means you take the tile they discarded, form a set of three identical tiles in your hand, and then permanently display the three tiles. You then discard a tile (as you now have 14) and then play resumes with the next person who would have gone after your turn. You may not win via a bump, as you did not technically draw the winning tile.

If you have three of a tile in your hand and someone discards the fourth, you may bar the tile. The procedure is almost identical to a bump, except the set of four tiles is, for the purposes of fulfilling win conditions, considered as only three tiles. Thus, since you only have 13 counted tiles in your hand, you draw a tile from the back of the deck. If this turns out to be a winning tile, this is an "Open Bar" (杠开) victory and you get double the points. Otherwise, discard a tile and play resumes as with the bump. A bar is worth a point when scoring.

In my game, after every tile discard, the game will pause for five seconds, indicated by the blue progress bar. This is to give other players a chance to bump or bar as they wish. If no one chooses to bump or bar within the five seconds, then the discarded tile is locked in and play continues. At times, it may be advantageous to not bump or bar the tile. Those five seconds are the only time that tile can be bumped or barred, so the decision must be made quickly.

In addition to the normal type of bar, there are two additional ways of barring.

First, if you bumped a set of three tiles earlier and then organically draw the fourth tile, you may convert the bump to a bar. Simply add the fourth tile to the bump and then proceed with the normal bar procedure.

Second, if you manage to draw all four tiles of a type on your own, you may declare a Dark Bar. You still display all four tiles as with a normal bar (some of the tiles may be flipped upside down to represent the dark bar, but at least one should still be visible), but the bar is worth twice as much. If you form a dark bar with the joker, then it's worth eight times as much and is called a Golden Bar.

In both cases, if you choose not to bar the four tiles, you don't get the points. You may only bar a tile the turn you draw it.


Each player starts with a set number of points (50 in my game). At the end of each round, every player must transfer a set number of points to the winner and any other appropriate parties, depending on the victory type.


If a player satisfies multiple win conditions, multiply the point values together.

If a player wins an open bar victory by drawing a winning tile immediately after a bar, double the points won.

If a player wins on their first turn of the game, this is a Heavenly Victory and is worth eight times the number of points.


For each bar a player has, every other player must transfer the player one point.

If the bar is a dark bar, transfer two points instead.

If the bar is a golden bar, transfer eight points instead.

Bumps are not worth any points.


If, on the very first turn of the game, every player discards the exact same tile, then the player in the east position got Shoveled. That player must transfer one point to every other player.

If the first player to move (sitting in the East / 东 position) chooses to step up at the beginning of the round, every individual point transfer to and from that player has its value doubled for the duration of that round.

For example, if John steps up and wins via go fish, everyone transfers 4 points (2 × 2) to John. If, instead, Bob wins via a dragon, John must transfer 8 points (2 × 4) to Bob, while other players need only transfer 4. This multiplier applies also to bars.

Detailed Game Flow

This section is here for completeness sake. The majority of this information is handled for you by my game and is not something one needs to worry about when playing my game.

Before the game itself starts, one player is randomly selected to be seated in the East (东) position. This player will go first and will also be the only one given the opportunity to step up for the round.

The round begins when the tiles are shuffled and placed into the "deck" which consists of 4 rows of 17 stacks of two tiles, placed into a square around the center of the tile, with one leg in front of each player. The player in the east position rolls two dice. Then, counting counterclockwise from the player in the east position, including the player themselves, that player rolls the two dice again. For instance, if the total was 5 the first roll, then the player in east rolls again (count to four for every player in the table, and five comes back around to themselves). Sum the total from both rolls. From the leg of the deck in front of the second player to roll, starting from their right, go clockwise that many tiles. Tile distribution starts there, continuing clockwise.

Traditionally, players take turns grabbing handfuls of four tiles until everyone has grabbed 12 tiles. Then, each player grabs one additional tile to make 13. The player in east then starts play by grabbing the 14th tile. Tiles are grabbed top to bottom, clearing a pair of two before grabbing from the next pair.

The player sitting across from the player in east then rolls the two dice to determine the joker. Count in that many tiles counterclockwise from the back of the deck and flip the final tile over. That tile determines the joker, as described above. Every tile in the deck starting at that tile and going clockwise is no longer in play, except when grabbed as part of a bar.

Before beginning, the player in the east position decides whether they wish to step up. This is the only opportunity to choose, and the decision cannot be changed for the rest of the round.

Play proceeds as detailed with the rules above, continuing counterclockwise around the table. Every discarded tile is added to the sea, which anyone may inspect at any time. When someone finally declares victory, transfer points as detailed above. If the deck runs out of tiles, reaching the flipped up joker tile without anyone declaring victory, then the round is a tie. No one gets points for winning, though bars are computed as normal.

Upon the conclusion of the round, if the player in the east position wins, then they get to keep the spot. Otherwise, the east position transfers counterclockwise around the table. The tiles are then shuffled and the next round begins.

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