Monthly Archives: December 2013


I am ending the year on a very wishful note. This delightful ebonized box with mother-of-pearl inlay has five stylized bats on the front panel, and another five on the top of the box. According to Wolfram Eberhard's A Dictionary of Chinese Symbols, a bat is a symbol of good luck and happiness and this might be because the Chinese word for "bat" is very similar to the  word for "good fortune." Five bats together signify the five blessings: long life, riches, good health, a life of virtue, and a natural death. The five bats here on the panel surround a symbol for longevity, so this really is a wish for wonderful luck.


This is the top of the box which also is a wish for longevity and good fortune. You see the five inlaid mother-of-pearl bats surrounding a metal butterfly. In Chinese a butterfly is a symbol for longevity, because the second syllable in "hudie," the word for butterfly in Chinese, is pronounced the same as "die,"the word for 70 or 80 years of age. *

This is a good online resource for symbolism in Chinese art.


And here is how you can tell if a box is real ebony or ebonized: real ebony has very few visible grains in it. Most often boxes were painted black to give them a more dramatic look, and certainly a black box offsets lovely mother-of-pearl inlay.

DSC_0546You can see the grain hidden below the black paint here.


DSC_0437You will often see tiles with these scenes on some of the older bone and bamboo sets. These scenes refer to the Ruse of the Empty City, a story from the Romance of the Three Kingdoms.  Zhuge Liang, the Prime Minister of Shu State, was in a terrible situation. He had sent the army to defend one of the cities in his territory, but heard the enemy was on the march, and nearing his city. He thought quickly and decided to act as if the city was well defended. He put himself on the city wall, playing music with two other people, and he ordered the people left in the city, mostly old men, to sweep the streets. (He told them there were soldiers scattered hiding everywhere.) When the enemy arrive at the city, they sensed a rap, because surely no one could look so untroubled as Zhuge Liang unless there was a trap. The enemy turned around, never entering the city. On the tiles you will see Zhuge Liang, playing an instrument atop the city wall, a drummer, and some older men sweeping the streets.

Here is a link to the story:

Here is a scene taken from the following website



And above is a photo of the scene in a Chinese opera, taken from the China highlights website linked above.


The following addition was written by Ray Heaton, who translated the words on the tiles and provided the story information. Thank you, Ray.

This row is the story of Mi Heng beating the drum to curse Cao Cao.
Cao Cao, the main villain in the Three Kingdoms story, disregards a famous scholar, Mi Heng, who answers back sarcastically. Later, at a banquet, Cao insults Mi by ordering him to beat the drum for the guests. As he beats the drum, Mi describes the crimes of Cao Cao and strips off his clothes.  Cao becomes enraged and wants to kill Mi, but is afraid what other people would think if he did. So he sends Mi to a warlord who arranges to have him killed.




DSC_0456 I love this set. It is hand carved and painted, and highly unusual. The tiles are made of bright white laminate glued onto black painted wood backs. The graphics are very different, and the artist has taken great liberties with the real looks of the Chinese words and numbers. The choice of colors is interesting, and one of the few, perhaps only, times I have seen pinks and lilacs used.

I think the One Dots may have had a special center, because all four of them now look like someone might have carved into them to inset something.

Here is the comparison of Winds of this set with those from the one made by the Chinese Game Company, another highly stylized set seen earlier this week.



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I thought you would enjoy seeing this "helpful" sheet. It certainly seems to me that the person who made it up did not play Mahjong. You will note that some tiles, such as the Craks, are upside down, while others are right side up.

If only this had the same value as the Inverted Jenny stamp!

Translations of the suits are interesting. Kringel is a ring shaped biscuit or ring, Matador means matador, and Drachen is Dragons. Each flower pot looks like it has a scholar's rock next to it. These rocks are often seen on Flower tiles.'s_rocks 

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This little set is quite delightful in the designs seen on the tiles. The Craks are painted with a bit of flair, and the Dots have plum blossom centers. (Plum blossoms have five petals, symbolizing the five blessings. ) I think the One Bam bird has a lot of spirit, and the other Bams are unusual with their white striped markings. One set of the Flower tiles has the flowers often seen on these tiles. The Red and Green Dragons have the traditional letters and symbols on them: Green has the F for Fa (prosperity) and Red has C for Chung (Center). The White Dragon has the P for Po (blank).



These are wind indicators. Interestingly they have some French words (Nord, Est, Sud but not Ouest for West) for the directions, but English words for the seasons and flowers. These pieces of wood are quite big, each about the size of 12 tiles put together. The Winds have a lot of "personality" in the way they are painted.



The set came in this sweet cardboard box with wooden button drawer pulls.

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Chinese Games Company
Chinese Game Company

Chinese Game Company was based in Montreal, Canada. It made fabulous hand-carved and painted Mahjong sets.

You can see here the Bamboo sprout One Bam, very much resembling a pineapple which many people call it.  The bright colors and unique arrangement of the Dots are also hallmarks of these sets. If you look carefully at the Dots, from the 4 Dot upward, you will notice that those four dots stay constant in their positions and colors, and other dots are just added to the tile, making the carving much simpler.

The red Flowers show a fisherman, musician, farmer and scholar. The green Flowers have an unusual placement of the 2. None of the Flowers have a Chinese word on them.

The Dragons are old style. The Green is the symbol Fa for prosperity, the Red Chung for center, and the White P for Po meaning white blank.

Chinese Game NEWS
Chinese Game NEWS

These wind markers came with the set. The color goes really well with the paint on the tiles. Sadly the West was lost, but desperation prevailed, and a new bit of the set's history came about.

The brass box with 5 drawers, tiles and wood racks
The brass box with 5 drawers, tiles and wood racks. Often a drawer would be used for counting/betting sticks, dice and mings which indicate wind direction.


This delightful brass box holds an equally lovely set of Mahjong tiles. The panel which forms the front of the box has a man in a boat, similar to those often seen on some Chinese Bakelite Flower tiles. The wood racks were early versions and were only used to keep a player's Mahjong tiles secret; when a tile was called, that grouping would be placed on the tabletop.

Small brass box with fine carving
Small brass box with fine etching and tile and quarter used for scale

Note the lovely flowers seen on the back of this box. As in many very expensive sets, this box was designed to have all its sides seen. The box handles are very heavy, giving an important look to the box.

Unusual Flower tiles and soaring swallow One Bam
Unusual Flower tiles and Soaring Swallow One Bam

The Flower tiles on this set feature modes of transportation and types of buildings. The unusual One Dots have linear interiors, and the others are circles within circles. The Bams are of the simple rod type. One of the Flowers features a man in a boat, similar to the one seen on the front panel of the box. The tiles are in exceptional condition, with few of the streaks often seen in the bone and bamboo sets. The counting sticks are smooth, unlike the more ragged appearance of those in less expensive sets.


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ebony and bone higlights
ebony and bone highlights

This Mahjong set is beautifully carved, with extraordinary details everywhere.

The One Bam peacock is charming, and the other Bams are ornate. The arrangement of the 9 Dots is unusual.

The top row of Flower tiles represent shanshui, a landscape with mountains and water. Frequently these scenes include someone in a small boat, as can be seen on tiles 1 and 2. Tile 3 has a pagoda nestled on the bank with a small junk beyond. Birds soar through the air on tile 4. The words on the tiles translate to wishes for a long and happy life.

Notice the different leaves and trunks on each tree in the bottom row of Flowers. The trees are pine, cypress, paulownia or Chinese parasol tree, and Chinese Toon or tree of heaven.

I am still trying to understand two images seen on the tiles: the one which looks like a pennant seen on the top #3, and the one that might be an abstract image of a pagoda, seen on top Flower tiles 1, 2 and 3. If anyone has any ideas, please let me know!

For more information about other images, Patricia Bjaaland Welch and her book Chinese Art A Guide to Motifs and Visual Imagery is very helpful. Excerpts from her book may be found online.

Below you will see what really sells these sets: the exquisite bone and ebony dovetail.

ebony and bone dovetail
ebony and bone dovetail



One of the great things about Mahjong is the fabulous variations that exist within the strict parameters of the game tiles.

The tiles with numbers were clearly intended for the export market. The other tiles may have been as well, but often carvers did not put numbers on the tiles that were readily recognizable: the One and Two Dots can be easily understood.

Here you can see the Two Dots are either circles within circles or flower petals, both of which are often seen. With these circles within circles you can see the variations in ring width and color. The floral centers also have variations, going from the simple flower seen in row 2 on the left, to the more detailed one on the bottom row right. The flowers can be placed within other flowers.

The top left One Dot is  reminiscent of some of the earliest Dots with four dots inside the circle.

The top right One Dot is very similar to the bottom row left, similar to a flower within a flower, and is quite common. The second row left is one of the four tiles made by the Mah-Jongg Sales Company of America(MJSA); each of their four One Dots have a different interior, spelling out Free Mah-Jongg, supposedly an encouragement for people to play Mah-Jongg in their spare time. Notice the abstract cog-like center of the MJSA tile is seen in the lower right tile, where the partial flower petal in the NESW positions is a partial Shou in the lower right.

Although the second row right and third row right have different One Dots, you will see something in common: they both have the Shou (immortality) interior, seen more clearly in the second row set within the floral center, with two Shous divided into halves in the bottom One Dot, on the side of the floral center. The lower right Dot also has the plum blossom, the five petaled flower symbolizing the "five blessings": longevity, wealth, health, virtue, and natural death at an old age.

See here for more hidden meanings in Chinese art:





This Mahjong One Bam is ornately carved in contrast to the simplicity of the others Bams which are shaped like rods.  The One Dot has the round shou in its center, symbolizing longevity and immortality, whereas the other Dots are simple circles. The top quartet of the Flowers/Seasons reads; fu 'good fortune and happiness'; ru 'like', dong 'eastern' and hai 'sea' = fu ru dong hai = "happiness and good fortune like the Eastern Sea". The bottom quartet reads; shou 'longevity'; bi 'compared'; nan 'Southern' and shan 'Mountain' = shou bi nan shan = "longevity compared to the South Mountain".

While typing this up, I noticed the top #1 Flower has a bat on it, another symbol of longevity. The moon rise appears on the #3 tile. The crane appearing on Bottom tile #1 is also a symbol of longevity.