Monday, April 01, 2013

Mahjong Titans and Chinese Culture

My experience with computer-based Mahjong and Chinese culture
by Tosin Otitoju

I like to play Mahjong Titans on my computer.  Not only that, I have been analyzing my play and posting advice online for other players of Mahjong.  

According to Wikipedia, Mahjong Titans is a computer version of Mahjong Solitaire developed for use on modern Windows machines.  Mahjong Solitaire appears to be any matching game in which the objects that are matched are not cards, but Mahjong tiles.

What are Mahjong tiles?  Traditionally used in the four-player Chinese games of Mahjong/Mahjonng, these tiles are in groups ranging from bamboo to winds and flowers. 

Some of the tiles are one circle, two circles, with circles three to nine also.  There are also bamboo tiles (sticks) from one to nine.  The one bamboo has a bird on the bamboo pole, so it can be called the bird tile.  The bird is one of the most conspicuous of the Mahjong tiles. 

The other most obvious tiles in my view are the flowers.  According to Wikipedia, the four types of flowers used in Mahjong are Plums, Orchids, Chrysanthemums, and Bamboo. 

Chinese love chrysanthemums, called mums.  Ancient paintings and poems from China use the mum a lot, and we also know of the interest in the mild mum tea.  Did you know that the four flowers are even more formal in their significance to Chinese art?  They are called the Four Gentlemen, and they represent a season each: chrysanthemums in autumn, winter plum, spring orchids, and bamboo for summer. 

There are some tiles that are referred to as character tiles.  To be honest, I have names for them which I use when matching them in play – dash, two dashes, three dashes, head, ‘sth’ - something, walking man, X, and Pi, the last is still unnamed.  This list of names is based on how the tiles look to me.  The tile set used in my current version of Mahjong Titans uses a number and tally-sticks for these character tiles.  Since I can’t understand Chinese characters, this system makes it easier for me to work with the tiles. 

Since Chinese characters are pictorial, it should be easy for an interested person to learn the symbols that represent words and ideas in the language.  On the other hand, there are thousands of these symbols in Chinese, so it is not so easy. 

In any set of mahjong tiles, you will notice a set of three beautiful tiles called the dragons.  There are red dragons, green dragons and black dragons.  Historically, they were red, green, and white – the white dragon being represented abstractly by a rectangle of sorts and the red dragon looking much like a sword.  However, my current version of the game has pictures of dragons.  Again, this is easier for me as a non-Chinese-speaking player.

Clearly, the Chinese revere dragons.  They are prominent at Chinese restaurants, in Chinese New year celebrations, and everybody knows about the year of the dragon in Chinese astrology.

Of course we know that some non-Chinese mythologies also employ fire-breathing, scale covered, giant beasts that look like Chinese dragons.  Think about the Western stories of knights saving damsels and princesses from burning castles or prisons – the girls were often guarded by dragons, and by ‘slaying the dragon,’ such a knight achieves a great feat.  The reward is elevation to great respect and likely the option to marry the precious girl. 

But in China, what does the dragon signify?  From the times of the Zhou dynasty and the Qin dynasty, the dragon was the symbol of the Emperor of China.  Fast forward two or three thousand years, and Wikipedia observes that “in Chinese daily language, excellent and outstanding people are compared to the dragon.” 

To complete the set of Mahjong tiles are the wind tiles and the season tiles.  

The four winds are denoted North, South, East, and West.  Visually, they are dramatic and energizing.  In Mahjong titans, they also have colours associated with them and one corner of each tile is marked with a letter N, S, E, or W for cardinal direction. 

The season tiles are autumn, winter, spring, and summer.  While there are four of most tile types, there is one of each flower tile and one of each season tile in a Mahjong titans layout. 

Mahjong Titans is included standard with most PCs, including Windows 7.  I have also played the game on a Linux computer, so you may be able to install a version suited to your computer’s operating system.  You can also play some versions of Mahjong solitaire online. 

You don’t need to know all about the tiles to try your hands at the game. 

To play, simply match the tiles (in pairs) and they disappear, until all the tiles have been matched.  The game would not be exciting if it was so uncomplicated.  Therefore, the catch is that an obstructed tile is not available for matching; you must first remove the tile(s) blocking it.  In some cases you will lose the game – when you have no matches available with some tiles left on the board. 

About a year ago, I started to study my performance of Mahjong solitaire.  Using the data stored on the software of my top five scores in each layout, I sought to discover how difficult the game is, if I was playing well, if I could improve my play, and such standard questions of game analysis.  I have posted many of my observations on my mathematics blog at . 

In the most popular configuration / layout of Mahjong solitaire, which is called turtle, I have improved from winning about 1 in 3 games (35%) to winning more than 2 in 3 (70%) by adopting right strategy.  This strategy is what I have called: focusing on The Blast Zone.  The line that runs horizontally through the middle of the turtle is what I have called the blast zone.  To win, one must focus on matching as much as possible the tiles from this zone while ignoring the tiles in other zones, relatively speaking. 

This discovery goes to the heart of why the Chinese invented these Mahjong games.  Games are an enjoyable past-time; but they are also educational tools.  In ancient China, strategy was a highly valued skill and an important part of the education of nobles. 

To see this, consider popular Chinese literature.  The Art of War is a popular read used to train soldiers and businesspersons across the world on clear-headed problem-solving and decision-making.  From the words of its ancient author Sun Tzu in The Art of War, one can see the importance this civilization placed on good strategy in war and leadership. 

This deep respect for strategy is also clear from Chinese war movies such as Battle of Wits.  In this delightful film, a Chinese village was going to be attacked by a very large army, but with the arrival of a highly-trained special agent, the villagers were able to win victory.  This was because of the application of knowledge and strategy. 

Wars may not always be won by brute force, but by application of force at the weakest point.  Conversely, in Mahjong titans, the game is won by applying the maximum force at the zone of most resistance.  Both examples show that power without wisdom can only result in failure. 

I became very interested in the Chinese war film genre after watching Red Cliff a few years ago.  It was a film utterly concerned with battle-planning based on careful consideration of own resources, enemy resources, and even the weather, terrain, and other aspects of the physical and social environment. 

One of the actors in Red Cliff that I have enjoyed watching subsequently is Takeshi Kaneshiro.  Clearly, this is not a Chinese name.  It turns out that this handsome actor is part-Japanese.  When I consider the success of this actor in portraying historical and iconic Chinese characters, what comes to my mind is the similarity between Chinese and Japanese people and the irony of war between brothers – that war so often arises between those most closely related. 

Consider the shared Confucian philosophy between China and Japan.  Consider too, the shared genetics that make both peoples appear quite alike.  The written forms of their languages share a similar appearance.  And yet, between both countries is a bloody history and tense diplomatic relations.  Perhaps China and Japan could consider shared cultural pursuits?  In the film industry at least, it seems that these two great nations are friendly and united. 

When I was an engineering student in a top technology institute in America, I noticed that people from Hong Kong, from the Chinese mainland, from Taiwan, Korea, and Japan sometimes considered themselves to have important differences.  Over time however, their similar challenges as immigrants, coupled with their shared values – stoic hardwork, devotion to study, to family, and to privacy – meant that they forged good friendships.  So while I saw first-hand some of the inherited hostilities between various East Asian people, happily I also saw many cross-boundary friendships. 

Students from China are successful at entering, and then graduating from, such elite programs of study.  Someone joked that having learned thousands of characters as children to gain basic language literacy, they are well prepared for the rigours of advanced mathematics, science, and engineering.  More likely, it is their work ethic, and their habit of co-operating that results in their continued high performance.

China is known for the invention of printing, paper, gunpowder, and the compass – canonized as the Four Great Inventions.  Chinese ingenuity continues into the present day.  My sister who loves fashion enjoyed shopping in China where factories currently produce excess amounts of clothing for the world’s consumption.  In fact, China is currently the manufacturing center of the world.  Through higher education also, Chinese citizens have been heavily involved in the high-tech industries. 

Although it is clear that China can do research and development and manufacturing, few understand the role of Chinese culture in recreational mathematics.  I am very glad to be able to introduce people to the joy of maths and strategy using Mahjong solitaire.  Furthermore, my published hints on playing the game have yielded around 800 visits to my blog site, or 1 in 4 visits to the blog, in the past twelve months.  This shows that the world is interested in this little Chinese game.

Should you choose to play Mahjong titans, my preliminary findings show that the easiest layouts (assuming random matching without a clear strategy) are Cat and Crab.  The other four styles – Spider, Fortress, Dragon, and Turtle – can be won almost exclusively when your strategy is correct.  To win these, you should understand the lines of dependency in the layouts, and attack at the thickest points.  This makes the difference between winning and losing these games.  My blog shows you such strategies. 

Once you have learned to win, your next concern may be raising your score.  On my blog , I share a hint from the scoring rules of traditional Mahjong: you can raise your score by matching two identical pairs (the same group of tiles) at once.   This appears to be relevant for Mahjong Titans, since I have steadily raised my score using this hint.  Now, I have also read at a different site about a scoring system that values some tiles (Season, Flower, Dragon) more highly than the common tiles.  This is interesting.  I look forward to trying the game with this new knowledge and recording/analyzing my results.  

Having watched an interesting documentary video clip about the history of Mahjong, I also look forward to trying the traditional Mahjong game, the version popular throughout East Asia and known in China for centuries.  Someday, I hope to enjoy other aspects of Chinese culture: the architecture and archaeology, music and theater, and certainly the food. 


Flowers as Four Gentlemen:
Pictures of all the Mahjong Tiles:
Actor – Takeshi Kaneshiro:
CCTV – Mahjong history: 
Mahjong (traditional):
My Blog – Observations and Hints for playing Mahjong titans:

I wrote this essay in September 2012 for a Chinese tourism outreach effort called "Window of Shanghai."  Find my latest comments on playing Mahjong Titans here.   

Advertisement: Read my books.