Mah-Jong suit tiles are derived from an earlier Chinese game, played with cards, which showed different denominations of ancient Chinese cash.
The round shape of the Circles suit actually represents a copper coin. The coin had a square hole in the middle to allow collections of them to be fitted onto a square rod so that the rough edges could be filed down. They could then be threaded onto string for ease of handling.
The representation of strings of coins (or cash), when carved onto bone, looked to Western eyes like Bamboos so this name was adopted for the suit. However, the 1 Bamboos tile invariably has a picture of a bird. This one is a peacock, an emblem of beauty and dignity.
The Character tiles each show two Chinese symbols. The top one stands for 1 to 9 and the red ‘wan’ character is a symbol for a Myriad of cash (10,000 strings).
The Joker tile
The final tile, the Joker, is a delight. It’s an unusual design showing a crane and plum blossom. The Chinese characters mean ‘a hundred uses’ – a reference to its use as a ‘wild’ tile. The Joker tile is often not present in British sets so the 2 Bamboos tile is given this role when required.
From the design one might think the tile was used in the Chinese game, but it’s more likely a response to the changes made to the rules when the game was exported to the West. Joker tiles often have ‘Joker’ on them.