While there is no historical verification that tarot descended from mahjong, their striking similarity in structure and the cosmological or philosophical correspondences associated with the playing pieces is still worth noting. Both seem to be subdivided into Trump cards and Minors, and within the Minors, further subdivisions into suits, with each suit numbered into pip cards or tiles. Both were intended for games, but both are also used for divination.
Recently I’ve been inspired to hunt down my own mahjong set, but there is a reason Chinese people get special tables for mahjong– the darn thing takes up a lot of space. There’s just a crap ton of tiles that make annoying clicking sounds when you shuffle, and the tiles remind me of Joy Luck Club or something, I don’t know. I knew I wouldn’t be using my set for games, and it’d be strictly for divination study. Intuitively, a whole set of mahjong tiles (the standard click-clack ones Chinese folk play with) didn’t feel right in my reading room, my personal sacred space. So. I opted for a more discrete alternative– mahjong in the form of cards. They have that now! It’s awesome. It’s a deck of 144 cards.
I’m using a cute little deck referred to simply as “Chinese Mahjong: Deck of 144 Cards for Oriental Play” published by Yellow Mountain Imports. You can get it off Amazon for all of five bucks. It’s great. The card quality is kind of meh. They didn’t produce this particular deck with esoteric or spiritual work in mind, that’s for sure. There’s a tacky high-gloss laminate and as you can see from the photos, it’s very, very basic in card imagery.
Mahjong consists of 3 suits: Wheels, Bamboo, and Characters. The 3 suits are correspondent with Heaven, Earth, and Man, after the Chinese cosmological concept of the Trinity of Lucks.
Heaven Luck represents circumstances you’re born into, beyond your control, like the social class of your parents or innate talents and physical attributes, i.e. nature. Heaven Luck is believed to be pre-ordained.
Earth Luck is your geographical location, and how where you are affects what you do or who you become, i.e., nurture. Earth Luck is your environment and how your environment helps or hinders your success.
Man Luck is free will, what you do with yourself, the choices you make, your education, your actions, behavior, attitude, etc.
Additionally, Wheels often indicate life circumstances, events, conditions, or things that “happen” to you, things beyond your control that you’re just going to have to figure out how to deal with, the cards you’ll get dealt; Bamboo will talk about wealth, finances, money matters, security; Characters talk about career, education.
Super-traditionally here, marriage was seen as orchestrated by the fates, and so might get expressed in a reading through the Wheels, or if some important things were about to go down, with the Honors or Supreme Honors (more on that later). So it wasn’t like in tarot divination where you might have a whole suit (i.e., Cups) associated with love, relationships, and our emotional plane. The emotional plane wasn’t really seen as this whole separate matter that might require its own suit. So there wasn’t a suit for it. Interesting cultural differences here, me thinks.