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How are Mahjong tiles made?

Updated: Mar 6, 2023

Looking at the rich history of Mahjong, we all know that Mahjong started with playing cards - made out of bamboo. Over the centuries, Mahjong has developed in the ways we play the game. Today, the ubiquitous way to play Mahjong is with Mahjong tiles. But, do you know how are Mahjong tiles produced, and can you recognize the different materials used? Stay curious as we tell you more about it.

©Getty Images

As mentioned, Mahjong was initially played with cards made out of bamboo. This is because the technology was not as advanced. Thankfully, bamboo was easily accessible in China. Furthermore, bamboo is highly renewable and is one of the fastest-growing materials. Given its strong properties, it is even suitable for constructing houses.

Over time, humans evolve, leading to the creation of Mahjong tiles. In antiquity, people started making Mahjong tiles using ivory or bone, backed by bamboo. For the case of bone, one example can be the use of cattle shin bone. Although the common sight was to use ivory or bone, this does not stop others from using other materials like jade and shell in the past. Even today, there are still Mahjong sets with Mahjong tiles made out of ivory and bone. Due to their rarity, these Mahjong sets are more exorbitant.

Ivory Mahjong set


In the 1900s, due to a shortage of bone and ivory, new materials are needed to make the Mahjong tiles we have today. Some of them include Vinyl plastic, Bakelite, and Catalin. The main difference between Bakelite and Catalin is that the former is opaque while the latter is translucent. The similarity between these three new materials is that they are all thermoset plastic and are cheap. Henceforth, they are a great replacement for ivory which is expensive due to its medicinal purposes. Not to forget, ivory poachers are also banned when wildlife conservation becomes a thing.

Looking at the timeline of Mahjong tiles, there is one practice that still stays even to date. That is the art of hand carving albeit it is a dying tradition.

Hand Carving Mahjong tiles

©Kin Cheung of Associated Press

With the advancement in technology, the efficiency of machines far excels men. Hence, laser engraving machines are used in present times for efficacy. That explains why Mahjong craftsmen are depleting in numbers. While their work is appreciated, they are no longer needed. That is the harsh reality. The skill of hand carving Mahjong tiles takes up years to master. Walking down this path is no longer viable as this industry is a sunset industry. Fortunately, the community still supports these Mahjong craftsmen enthusiastically. Although the handcrafted Mahjong sets are more expensive, people still buy them to show appreciation for the blood, sweat, and tears put into the making.



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