Little known to most players, the suits of the tiles are money-based. In ancient China, the copper coins had a square hole in the center. People passed a rope through the holes to tie coins into strings. These strings are usually in groups of 100 coins called diao (弔 or variant 吊) or 1000 coins called guan (貫). Mahjong’s connection to the ancient Chinese currency system is consistent with its alleged derivation from the game named ma diao (馬吊).
In the mahjong suits, the coppers represent the coins; the ropes are actually strings of 100 coins; and the character myriad represents 10,000 coins or 100 strings. When a hand received the maximium allowed winning of a round, it is called man guan (滿貫, lit. full string of coin.)
A Mahjong game is described in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie, ending with the very unusual event of a player getting a complete winning hand on the initial draw. This success makes the character unduly talkative, which leads to significant plot developments.
British superspy James Bond plays a dangerous game of mahjong in Zero Minus Ten, a suspense novel by Raymond Benson.
In the 1940 film Charlie Chan’s Murder Cruise, the title character remarks, In China, mahjong very simple; in America very complex – like modern life.
The character that translates to “centre” is found on the super-hero suit worn by The Greatest American Hero. Since the character is typically painted red, the tile is commonly called “red centre.” For this reason the HongKong TV station TVB named the Chinese-dubbed The Greatest American Hero “the Flying Red Centre Hero” [飛天紅中俠]. (ABC, 1981-83).
Mahjong is featured in Amy Tan’s novel The Joy Luck Club, and its 1993 film adaptation.
Mahjong has always appeared in one way or another in Hong Kong made movies or TV drama, since it is considered as a “daily life” of a Chinese lifestyle. Two recent Cantonese movies, Fat Choi Spirit and Kung Fu Mahjong, parody the game’s subculture.
The tile that translates to “Red Dragon” is used as a major plot point in the same titled Thomas Harris novel, as well as its two film adaptations, Manhunter and Red Dragon.
Graham Edwards’ Stone trilogy features mahjong prominently. Much of the books’ imagery focuses around the mahjong symbols, and one character owns a set of mahjong tiles, on which she paints throughout the trilogy.