mah-jong tiles (was: Emoji: emoticons vs. literacy)

From: Julian Bradfield (
Date: Tue Jan 06 2009 - 11:33:56 CST

  • Next message: Michael D'Errico: "Re: Emoji: emoticons vs. literacy"

    On 2008-12-27, Michael Everson <> wrote:
    > On 27 Dec 2008, at 12:06, Julian Bradfield wrote:
    >> (Seriously, *can* anybody explain why on earth the mah-jong tiles were
    >> encoded? I write and research on mah-jong, and I see no conceivable
    >> benefit in having these codepoints.)
    > Did you read the encoding proposal?

    Yes. As Jukka has said (referring to a preliminary version rather than
    the final version, but his comments apply equally to the final
    version), it provides no evidence of plain text use of mah-jong
    tiles. My rather substantial collection of mah-jong textbooks contains
    no evidence of tile symbols being used as plain text, even in recent
    books where digital typography makes it trivial to do so. It's done
    on the Web in some pages for beginners - but if every graphic used in
    Web text were counted as plain text, Unicode would be in big
    trouble. For mah-jong, such use is about equivalent to babies' books
    putting pictures of dogs and cats instead of the words "dog" and
    "cat". Unlike in chess, there is no established convention of using
    icons in plain text. When describing tile combinations in plain text,
    or even usual typography, one typically writes, for example, 1B-1B-1B,
    or一索-一索-一索, or some such.

    Moreover, the description of mah-jong is very cursory. The proposal has
    simply taken the set of tiles from an American text book, and added
    the odd feature of Taiwanese mah-jong (though the Taiwanese proposal
    incorporated into the final proposal itself describes only one of several
    variants in use in Taiwan), while ignoring the vast majority of
    mah-jong players, who are in the rest of East Asia and Indonesia.

        The tile set described does include the "standard" for western,
    non-American play. It used to be more or less standard in China in the
    1910-20s, although by that time the flowers were falling out of
    fashion - and in any case, the flowers were never standardized exactly
    to the four described in the proposal. There was another very common
    variant for the flowers; and often the flowers and seasons might be
    rendered by completely different pictures and characters, according to
    the whim of the engraver or commissioner. (I even have one early 20th
    century set that has four sets of flowers.)
        The tile set described is not that used by the (numerical)
    majority of mah-jong players. In Hong-Kong, Singapore, much of China,
    Indonesia and their expat communities elsewhere, flowers and seasons
    are not used, but rather other tiles, such as the "rich man",
    "fisherman", "pot of gold", "rat", "centipede", "cockerel" and so on,
    with quite different rules for their use.
        The American joker is never represented by the baida tile, but by
    a tile with the English word "joker". It is different in origin and
    usage from the baida joker. There is at least one other reasonably
    common form of joker, though it escapes my memory right now; and in
    Vietnam, a entire complex range of ranked and suited jokers is used as
    well. Also in Indonesia there are different jokers.
        For Japanese mah-jong, it is necessary to have "red" tiles for
    certain values (always the five circles, and sometimes others), which
    are distinct (by virtue of being painted in all red instead of red and
    black) from the plain versions.
        The proposal says the scoring bones "are not sufficiently
    well-understood to encode". It is misleading to use the passive to
    suggest that nobody understands them. They're well understood by those
    who play mah-jong! It's not simple, though; there are several
    different systems of marking (though only two are now really common),
    and the values assigned depend on which ruleset you're playing by, and
    (like everything else in the game) are ultimately a matter of the
    host's "house rules". However, encoding the scoring bones is even more
    absurd than encoding the tiles - you don't surely want to encode poker
    chips? Scoring bones are no more than a cultural variant of poker chips.

    So in short, even if one accepted that it was useful to encode the
    tiles, the currently encoded tiles are adequate only for writing
    about European mah-jong and "Chinese classical" mah-jong (which is a
    useful but actually abstract rather than historical concept); not
    adequate for writing about the game played by most of its users, nor
    for any historical purpose.

    Perhaps the most surprising thing about the proposal was that
    apparently no attempt was made to consult anybody who knows about
    mah-jong. A simple post to would have reached a
    community of very knowledgeable people, including the leading current
    Western historians of mah-jong; and, had we felt it appropriate, we
    could have involved the leading Japanese and Chinese mah-jong scholars
    via our contacts.
    What happened to the principle of expert review and consulting the
    user community?

    Indeed, as far as I can see, no notice of the proposal was even posted
    to this list, where I might have picked it up (if I hadn't been
    indisposed for most of 2006).


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