The Phoenix In Chinese Art and Mahjong

The Chinese phoenix is a good luck sign. He only appears when the land is being ruled by a just king, according to Wolfram Eberhard, one of the leading Chinese symbolism scholars. The phoenix is one of the four fabulous creatures,recognizable by its long tail with a few feathers like those seen in peacocks. The other three fabulous creatures are the dragon, the turtle, and the Qi-lin, a special Chinese unicorn.  I fell for this bone and bamboo set because I loved the strutting phoenix: look at his attitude!

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Surprises can show up when you buy an old set. This set came with other tiles, covered by the Big Joker stickers that are issued by the National Mah Jongg League. (This allowed the previous owner to play with NMJL rules.) This is what I found under one such sticker, hidden for dozens of years. I believe this to be Cao Guo-Jiu, one of the Eight Immortals who often is seen wearing the official court clothing and holding a scepter. It is one of the finest carved mahjong tiles I have seen.

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The following tile did not come with the set, but it shows the Chinese character for Phoenix. The Mah-Jongg Sales Company of America, when they were first designing their own sets, placed the character for phoenix on what we call a Green Dragon today. (The Red was the symbol for Dragon.) There are two similar symbols for phoenix, one for the male and one for the female bird. MJSA used the male symbol, which has several small strokes at the bottom.

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