Updated: Sep 22
Flower tiles are my favorite tiles and are the most ornate tiles in Mah Jongg sets. They are rich in symbolism and are associated with the seasons and plants that are symbolic of life, death, fertility, heaven, and earth. Flower tiles once served as the wild tiles, like joker tiles with which we now play.
In the 1920s, Mah Jongg sets came with 8 flowers, however, during the year 1937 into the 1940’s, there were 8 to 20 flowers in play. The increase was supposed to affect the ratio of luck and enable the play of more challenging hands. 20-24 flowers were used in the 1950’s, and from 8-14 flower tiles in the 1960s. Circa 1971, eight flowers became the standard in American Mah Jongg sets and American Mah Jongg play today uses 8 flowers.
Flowers tiles can be numbered one, two, three or four which once corresponded to the player’s seat position at the game table, either North (4), West (3), South (2), or East (1). At game’s end, the addition of flower score number was added if it correlated to where you were seated. Contemporary American Mah Jongg play does not include this scoring system with flower tiles.
Chrysanthemum, Plum Blossom, Orchid, and Bamboo represent the Confucianist
"four noble ones" (four gentleman or women), and are familiar blooms featured on current American Mah Jongg flower tiles. They represent the virtues of modesty, purity, strength, humbleness and righteousness.
The four gracious plants have important symbolism and are frequently the subject in Chinese brush painting.
~ A flower that blooms when others cannot.
~ Colorful, harmonious, tranquil and withstands adversities.
Plum Blossom (WINTER):
~ A delicate yet resilient flower that perseveres and maintains inner beauty.
~ A fragile, graceful, elegant bloom that represents humility and is as light as it’s fragrance.
~ A flower that sways yet does not break.
~ Bamboo is strong, flexible and epitomizes the values of integrity and open-mindedness.
In modern sets of tiles, each flower denotes a season with the inscription of the season’s abbreviation as follows:
WIN for winter
SPR for spring
SUM for summer
AUT for autumn
In today’s Mah Jongg, players can disregard numbers and seasons on the flower tiles as they have no relevance. I instruct my students to “disregard the flower fluff!” A flower tile is simply named “flower,” regardless of numbers or seasons.
I also reinforce that all flower tiles go together in the groupings of pair, pung, kong, and quint…just like a beautiful bouquet. Creating a mental picture of a vase filled with tulips, daisies, roses, peonies, lilies and mums can be a helpful reminder that flower groupings may include many different species. Flower tiles, when grouped for a meld will not look identical as are other tile groupings. For example, a pung of two Craks will contain three identical tiles of two Craks and tiles will be indistinguishable. Flower tiles are neutral and are found in a plethora of hands on the NMJL playing card identified as the letter F. They are often, but not always, found at the beginning of a hand.
A misstep for beginner Maj players is to place a 1Bam tile with Flower tiles. The 1 Bam bird and flower tiles are both ornate tiles, however, a 1Bam tile usually has a bird with wings, a beak, and often the number one depicted and should not be confused with nor substituted for a Flower tile. Many species of birds are found on the 1 Bam tile. When playing Maj with an unfamiliar or new set, always take a good look at the flower tiles and the 1 Bam tile. In my many years of playing Maj, I have, thankfully, never seen a bird depicted on a Flower tile!
Elaborate designs on Flower tiles depict ordinary life of people, such as scholars, farmers, scribes, fishermen, and woodcutters engaged in common tasks. Flower tiles may feature musicians, animals, dragons, deities, adults, and children participating in various tasks and leisure activities. They may also display modes of transportation such as boats, carts, and rickshaws. Pagodas, gates, bridges, and pavilions are examples of structures you may find etched on Flower tiles. Also carved can be fruits, symbolizing fertility and immortality, and vases embodying safety and peace.
Flower tiles of old, when placed in the proper order, may have a sequential storyline that threads from one tile to the next.
Intricate details and the creative imagination of the artists make the Flower tiles unique, attractive, and sometimes humorous.
Please pause and delight in the flowers during Mah Jongg play!
You may even feel like humming or singing, "Where have all the Flowers Gone" or "Everything’s coming up Flowers"!!
May the tiles be Ever in your Favor!
Sources: Tom Sloper, Balanced Garden Blog, Ann Israel & Gregg Swain