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Special interview with the creator of Zung Jung rules, Alan Kwan

This month, we had a chance to conduct a very special interview with the creator of Zung Jung rules, Alan Kwan. Mr. Kwan is a world-renowned Mahjong scholar who has enriched the global Mahjong community with his influential writings and, of course, the Zung Jung rule set. Zung Jung was the style of choice for the biggest Mahjong tournament in the world: The World Series of Mahjong!

Q: How did you originally discover Mahjong?
A: I discovered mahjong when I watched my family play while I was a small child. Then during a Sunday family gathering, my elder sister taught me a simplified version of the game. I was around 8 years old then.

Q: What inspired you to create the Zung Jung rule set?
Q: What are the features that make Zung Jung unique?
A: I would answer these two questions as one. For a couple of decades since my first encounter with the game, the Hong Kong version (Old Style), with its very limited set of scoring patterns, was all I knew. Then one day, I came into contact with the Modern Japanese (Riichi) version, which has imported some patterns from the New Style version (the version which also formed the source of many of the patterns in the MCR version). I was very fascinated with the New Style patterns, and played Modern Japanese a lot for quite a while.

But after a while, the Riichi game grew stale on me. As the initial infatuation wore away, I began to see the imbalance in that scoring system, which encourages certain easy patterns and combinations (namely, those easy tanyao-pinfu type hands) too much over others, eventually undermining the game's variety and causing it to become more monotonous than it should be. (I later learned that this problem has been inherited from the version before it, namely Japanese Classical.) In other ways also (such as its retaining of triplet-point counting, and a logically inconsistent pattern set which for example recognizes "Two Identical Sequences" and "Two Identical Sequences Twice" but not "Three/Four Identical Sequences"), Modern Japanese is confined too much by its historical roots. Also, the rules of the game are the consequence of patch atop patch, with new rules added to fix problems created by a previous addition; the end result is a rather complex set of rules with lots of little pesty prohibitions and exceptions here and there, quite a bit more complex than what the original game is supposed to be.

Around that time, I also came into contact with the rest of the New Style patterns. I then began to develop my own variation by addressing the problems I saw in Modern Japanese, and above all by learning about the rules used in the early history of the game and finding the principles which should form the core of the scoring system. I realized that my fascination with Modern Japanese was really with the New Style patterns adopted by Modern Japanese, rather than with Modern Japanese itself. Hence I developed Zung Jung with the focus on those patterns themselves, and discarded those elements I deemed obstructive or unnecessary.

In a nutshell, Zung Jung is New Style which has a similar set of principles to Modern Japanese over which patterns to adopt and which not (as opposed to common New Style, where the choices tend to be arbitrary), while in most other areas adhering to the same principles of the game as it was originally conceived (around the 1850s to 1900s, probably). The game balance (pattern values) has been reconsidered anew in accordance with mathematical principles and empirical data, enlightened by modern theories of game design and playability, thereby shaking off deeply-rooted historical imbalances in the established systems.

Or in simple words, Zung Jung is pattern-building mahjong which tries to be well-balanced for high variety and good fun, as well as being easy to learn. :)

Q: What is the philosophical meaning of the name “Zung Jung”?
A: There are two layers in its meaning. On the surface, it means the "intermediate" or "middle" way, which is for example neither too simple and plain-tasting as for Hong Kong mahjong, nor too complicated and overwhelming as for MCR. On a deeper layer, the term philosophically means the way of consistency, the way of stability, and the way which things should be.

Q: What is your favorite rule set other than Zung Jung?
A: Something close to the original Classical rules. The original rules scored the hand primarily by each set it contains (triplet-point counting), instead of by the patterns found across multiple sets or the hand as a whole as in the later/modern systems. Although it did not offer the excitement of pattern-building, it was a consistent and elegant set of rules in its own right. As later variations added patterns atop it without carefully considering their impact on game balance and other issues, the game got distorted and deformed.

Q: What piece of advice would you give to a Mahjong player looking to improve their skills?
A: Zung Jung is designed to exhibit some principles in the original conception of the game, but some other versions tend to bury them, especially certain house rule versions such as Hong Kong with 3 faan minimum. Also, many players of various versions of the game, from New Style versions such as Zung Jung and Riichi to even Hong Kong Old Style, tend to become overly attached to the scoring patterns and forget that the primary goal of the game is to complete a winning hand (regular hand). One can see and learn new discoveries by occasionally going back and playing the original Classical version, or by playing with uniform scoring (winning hand scores constant value regardless of patterns).

Q: Tell us more about yourself! What would the Mahjong Time community be surprised to know about you?
A: I play mahjong, but I also believe in God. And I also believe in the sciences and mathematics. And I even believe that, mahjong is among one of the good games that will be played in the Kingdom of Heaven. :-)
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