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Saturday, January 28, 2012

Year of the "Dragon"

There has been a lot of talk about soaps going around lately, but in honor of Chinese New Year I think it appropriate to bring out the story of How the Dragon Got Its Name.

We all know that mahj originated in China, and as such there are distinctive Chinese elements to the game.   But because the game has a long history and myriad variations, these elements have been adapted to suit the cultural preferences of the time and place.  So - what are dragons, really?  The information wasn't difficult to find, and the words that follow are not mine.  I found all this stuff on line and it's fascinating.

Chinese writing originated 1500-1000 BC and the earliest depictions of characters were known as Oracle Bones.  These were simplistic pictures found on turtle shells and animal bones.  According to Osamuko's mahjongg blog the Oracle Bone depictions of what we currently know as dragons were:


The symbol that we now know as "red" is a flagpole inserted into a holder.  "White" is the meat of an acorn.  The oracle bone symbol for "green" is not known.

Later depictions of these symbols became more advanced.  The flagpole has evolved into the Chinese character for "middle way" or "center" and there will sometimes be a C on it.  The "white" tile is sometimes blank, but may have a P on it (Pa in Cantonese = white).  The green tile is a character which represents a sack of coins and stands for good fortune.  It may sometimes have an F on it (Fa in Mandarin = prosperity)

In mahjongg divinity the tiles are identified as White = heaven, Green = earth, Red = Man (in the middle between heaven and earth)

In addition, the three tiles stand for something more physical and that is archery.  The red symbol is a direct hit, the blank tile is a miss and the green symbol is that of the archer drawing his bow.

The symbols also correspond to Confucian virtues; red for benevolence, green for sincerity and white for purity, or freedom from corruption.  I would speculate that the use of the word "soap" for white dragon is adapted from the idea of purity or cleanliness, but that is just my humble opinion.  And because it is sometimes depicted as a blank tile and represents a miss in archery, it is a natural go-to tile for use as a null or zero when needed.

So how did these symbols become known as dragons?  I cannot say for sure.  It says on Wikipedia that it was introduced by Joseph Babcock when he first imported the game to the West in the 1920s.  Dr. Foster in his 1923 book Foster of Mah Jongg refers to the red, green and blank tiles as Dragons but says it is not necessary to refer to them as such; merely as red, white and green.  I am thinking that Babcock wanted to spice up the tile set and make it seem more exotic and what could be more "Oriental" than the all-powerful dragon?  I may be wrong, but hey, marketing is marketing.

So here's the the year of the dragon - may you draw your bow, hit the mark and stay free from corruption.


  1. Thank you for the historical information about dragons. I began playing mah-jongg 3 years ago and missed all last year of play. I now play infrequently. I would like to improve my game, but I think that comes with practice. Has anyone tried the League on-line games? ON-line might provide more practice for me.

    1. Yes! Ihave a windows 7 that was purchased this year...yet whenever I play my pc mj players say that I'm too slow. I use the Practice section and they say I'm too slow...I must have some type of a PC delay.

  2. I had an exposed kong consisting of 3, 8 craks and 1 joker. A player discarded an 8 crak instead of exchanging it for my joker. Can I call the 8 crak, replace my joker and the use it to call Mah Jongg on the same turn?