Monthly Archives: January 2014



This post was sent to us by our friend Katherine. It often is very hard to determine who made old vintage sets.

"One can read in CHarli's, "The Preface", to her book that she believes there were few manufacturers in the 1920s and 1930s, but many different labels. I am hoping to help illustrate this with a few images. Link to CHarli's site:


The tiles with the three very distinct colors are all most likely from the same manufacturer,
from sometime during the 1920-30s. While they all have some similarities, they are all
different labels. Top row, most likely, Rottgames. Middle row, Macys. Bottom row, Ivorycraft.
Seen in the lone image of the Rottgames tiles... These tiles are all thought to be from the
same label, Rottgames. We know the top row and bottom row are for certain, they are in the
1940s Rottgames catalog. The middle row (from the 1920-30s) because of the similarities in
the dot tiles to later Rottgames sets is likely a Rottgames set. Top row, "round" Peacock
(Turkey) Set.
Middle row, Sparrow Set. Bottom row, Crane (Chicken) Set."
Thank you Katherine!


So, do you think this set is a Rottgames too? Many do. The Flowers are the same, the White Dragon is like the one above, and the Green and Red Dragons are similar too.


Babcock Set

You all recognize these Flower tiles made by the Mah-Jongg Sales Company of America. I thought you might like to see how some images here were very familiar, and often seen in decorative art pieces.


The handcart on tile 1 often was used to transport items. You can see it is an early form of a wheelbarrow. The handcart above was auctioned off at Christies.

And this below by Liveauctioneers:


A sedan is seen on tile 2. Following is a piece of art that was auctioned at


At one time in Hong Kong, according to Wikipedia, sedans were the only form of public transportation.

Usually when we think of getting around Hong Kong many years ago, the rickshaw (tile 3) is the form of transportation that comes to mind. Wikipedia states that it is believed the rickshaw was invented in Japan in 1869 after a ban on wheeled vehicles was lifted following the Tokugawa period. It first appeared in China in 1873. The following image is from Wikipedia:


And here it is seen on an exquisite plate currently offered for sale by the Ralph M. Chait Galleries, Inc. at the Winter Antiques Show


And finally the Chinese junk (tile 4) which was invented during the Song Dynasty which lasted from 960 until 1129, according to Wikipedia.


To see more beautiful pieces of Chinese art from the Ralph M. Chait Galleries, Ltd. click here



Sometimes a set appeals because it is so odd. This is one of those times.

The figures on the 1 Bams (yes, those are the One Bams on the bottom row) are completely strange.

The One Dots have a longevity symbol inside.

The Dragons are the frame and Chinese Characters of Chung for Center, and F for for Prosperity.

Anyone notice the Winds are all mixed up? The North has a W on it, and West an N.



This is another treasure from the private collection of Mahjongmahjong. The bone and bamboo Mahjong tiles are finely carved, with long thin rounded Bams. This set was meant for export because of the Arabic numbers which are beautiful and delicate.


Look at the wonderful expression on this peacock, with twelve dots on his tail. (In Mahjong, these dots originally started as coins, but morphed into dots of the tail instead.) The colors used in the paint for this set are unusual, perhaps more subtle in hue than what we see more often. Both of the birds feet are on the ground, and this often can be an indication the set was made in Japan.


The One Dot is especially detailed, with many different circles going from the head of a flower in the inner most circle into almost a sunflower outside circle. The other Dots are simpler, although the 2 Dot has many more petals in its floral center than six the others have.


The Craks have the elaborate wan. Here the Arabic numbers are green instead of the blue seen on the other suits.


Green is used again for the Western wind letters, and the Dragons are the traditional Chinese characters.


The delicate carving continues on these Flower tiles. The top row of Flowers is the usual flowers: plum, orchid, bamboo and chrysanthemum, and the lower row are the seasons starting with spring.There are also four Singapore capture tiles: the cat catches the mouse, and the rich man the silver shoe. In China, shoes can symbolize wealth because their shape is similar to that of a silver ingot. I believe the circle in the shoe to be a pearl, with the trident like shapes symbolizing luminescence, somewhat similar to what we saw on the Dragon and pearl box earlier this week. Click here to see that article Dragon and pearl

To read about the symbolism of shoes:

From wikipedia you can see this ingot:


and to read more:

To see more of the wonderful private collection of mahjongmahjong click here

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A reader sent these photos of an interesting set. It features the Singapore capture tiles, seen on the left: the rooster and the centipede, and the cat and the mouse. The pheasant looks very much like pheasants we see on some of the cb and bakelite and even tri-color tiles. The Flowers have Chinese numbers on one set and Arabic numbers on the other. The tiles look delicately carved and painted. The Bams in this photo seem to have an interior ghost circle, perhaps the same circle seen in the White Dragons below. Another reader pointed out that some Dots have that same ghost circle. Does anyone know why? Could this be symbolic or the result of some "manufacturing" process?

IMG_0721The Dots are the simple circles with actual dot interiors, the Craks are elaborate Wans, and Bams the rounded stalks. Both Green and Red Dragons have Chinese symbols, Fa for prosperity on the Green, and  Chung for Center on the Red. The White Dragon is a simple frame with a circle interior.

This set is very similar to one CHarli has on her website, in the Book, Wood Chapter, page 11. She feels this kind of set may be from Tibet, and of recent origin.


At first this set resembles most cb sets we have seen, but there is a small difference which adds to its charm.  As you can see on the Bam suit, the bamboos are very close together, made possible by the placement of the numbers beside the bamboo, instead of between the stalks. The One Dot is an abstract meander around a floral interior, and the other Dots have floral interiors. The Craks are the elaborate wan.


You can see the difference between the look of the small set versus the bigger one.

IMG_0706A reader sent this photograph of this exquisite red lacquer box. As you can see, a dragon is depicted, playing with a pearl, and frolicking in the clouds which are hiding parts of him.

Helmut Nickel, the Curator Emeritus from the Arms and Armor Department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote in his paper in 1991 that in China dragons are not fearsome creatures. They are often seen playing with a pearl in the clouds, bringing life-sustaining rain to the world. Oftentimes the pearl has flamelike swirls surrounding it, indicating some type of luminescence. Because of that, people in the West often think the pearl is either the sun or the moon; the dragon plays with it, trying to swallow the pearl to cause a solar or lunar eclipse. But in Chinese art, it seems that the dragon merely plays with the pearl and the pearl enriches his life. The image of dragon with a pearl started in the T'ang period (618-907), and the motif might have originated in Central Asia.

Wikipedia indicates the pearl is associated with wealth, good luck and prosperity.

Here is a panel from the front of another box


You can see the dragon partially obscured by the clouds here too.

And now a view of a piece of furniture offered for sale by Philip Colleck, Ltd., on display at the Winter Antiques Show in New York City:

Chinese export lacquer etagere middle

This magnificent dragon is the middle level of a Chinese export lacquered three tiered etagere.

For more about Philip Colleck, Ltd., click here

and the Winter Antiques show, click here:


There is something just lovely about this set. The 1 Bam swooping crane and the other rounded Bams, the simple wans, and the One Dot flower within a flower pattern that becomes a simple flower inset on the other Dots, along with the patina, make it quite delightful. The top Flower tiles are translated: Plum, Orchid, Bamboo, Chrysanthemum And the bottom ones are: Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter. Those characters were carved with a bit of flair, making translations challenging for me. Thanks again Ray. A peach is the bottom #3, a symbol of longevity according to Patricia Bjaaland Welch. She goes on to further explain that peaches are often seen with the God of Immortality, Lao Shouxing, who carries a peach and is easily recognized because of his large forehead, big ears, and protruding stomach covered by a robe. In addition the Daoist goddess Xi Wangmu has a garden where peaches of immortality grow. Each year she distributes the fruit to her heavenly guests on her birthday. Here is a statue of Lao Shouxing taken from Wikipedia


You will note he has a peach in his hand, and another printed on his robe. He often appears on Flowers.

1 Comment

april 24, 2013 hybrid set 006One of our readers sent along these photographs of a very early and interesting bamboo set. As you know, the first Mahjong tiles were probably carved on bamboo. This set has many markings of early sets, although the presence of Arabic numbers indicates it was probably made for the export market. You can see the similarity of the Flower tiles to this one on Michael Stanwick's website:

It is set # 54

According to the owner of this set seen here:

"This is a hybrid set from the early 1920s, the design of the characters were transforming from the earliest sets. You can see this in the style of the winds, one bam, and flower tiles."

You can see the more rectangular shape of the West, for example. Early sets had Flowers somewhat "framed" by borders.

april 24, 2013 hybrid set 014This swooping crane One Bam


april 24, 2013 hybrid set 017A close up of four of the Flowers.

Ray Heaton has written this very interesting piece about these Flowers and their meanings:

"the green Chinese characters show the names of "flowers" referred to as the "Four Gentlemen" or as as the "Four Noble Ones" though my personal preference is to keep the Chinese terminology, Si Junzi, 四君子 (The Four Junzi).

(Tile #1) 梅, Mei, Plum a Winter flowering shrub, symbolises courage and hope, standing firm in conviction because it blossoms first and bravely stands against the dangers of Winter. The plum blossom is also symbolic of endurance as it often flowers when the snow is still on the ground. The flowers, which may be pink or white, appear before the leaves and this is how they are depicted in paintings. There's a Chinese saying "...bitter cold adds keen fragrance to plum blossoms..."

(Tile #2) 蘭, Lan, Orchid, an indicator of the Spring and stands for humility, modesty, beauty and refinement. It is the delicate wild orchids that are referred to as they tend to grow in inaccessible areas such as crevices in rocks overlooking rivers or streams, and you could easily walk past without noticing them.

(Tile #3) 竹, Zhu, Bamboo, a Summer flower. Perceived as upright, strong and resilient while still being gentle, graceful and refined. The bamboo is symbolic of both physical and mental strength as it will bend and sway in the severest of gales but does not break.

(Tile #4) 菊, Ju, Chrysanthemum, blooms late in Autumn and in facing the coming Winter symbolizes people who maintain their virtue despite adversity and temptation. The chrysanthemum is thought of as a loner, as it prefers the Autumn, which is less crowded with flowers than the profusion in Spring.

So why do I prefer the Four Junzi, well...

Junzi is the term used in the Analects of Confucius, and although can be translated as "Gentlemen" I think this only correct if and when "Gentlemen" is used in a rather loose way to encompass a wide range of moralistic behaviours.

The Analects are the collection of sayings attributed to Confucius who placed at the foundation of human life both the study of books and of human relationships followed by the repeated practice of what one has studied. Becoming a Junzi is the goal of all who practice such self-cultivation and who truly love learning—regardless of their birth, their social status, or gender. You can see how the definitions of each of the "flowers" reflect on the moralistic behaviour of the Junzi.

According to the Encyclopaedia Brittanica, until the late-20th century, many Western scholars and Chinese scholars writing in Western languages translated the term Junzi as “superior man” or “superior person.” From the mid-20th century, however, it was increasingly common to use such translations as “exemplary person,” “gentleman,” or “gentleperson,” which highlight Confucius’s point that the Junzi is not a commander of or ruler over inferior subjects but rather a moral person who leads by his character and conduct."

Thank you, Ray!

And here is some speculation involving the abstract symbols in the corners of the Flower tiles seen above. The question was : can they be abstract bats? Michael Stanwick weighed in:

"I see what you mean. If this set is in the line of sets that I think it might be, then frames should appear on the flowers and Seasons. Your idea is a good one. I have looked through the rendition of bats in the books on Chinese art and symbolism but I cannot find any with the type of body as shown on the tiles.

I have sets with these 'frames' so My initial thought was to place them in the context of my interpretation of what this type of set represents - that is, the style of engravings and the presence of frames etc places it in the same type as the 1901 Laufer set and the 1875 Glover sets. Initially, only the Seasons were framed, as far as the surviving sets tell us, and then the frames started to appear around the enlarged sinograms for the four flowers as well.

If the lines are in fact the developmental remnants of the lines for the frames then what do the little circles represent? My thought is that they might be coins. Their rendition is identical to the circles found in this type of set where the circles are actually represented by a single circle with a dot in the middle. This rendition is found in the earliest set we know of.

So we have two explanations of what they might represent.

You know, Bats and coins are a potent combination. Just a thought."

And more from Michael:

"I should stress that it is easy to fall into confirmation bias. That is why I have tried to fall back on to referring to the old sets and comparing the newer ones with them. Then we can draw some observations from that and then formulate explanations. So my last comment was just a thought. I don’t have any evidence that bats were made out of a combo of wings and coins.

Oh, and of course the frames could just be decorative, without any symbolic meaning. A bit difficult when considering that the Chinese used symbolic representations in just about everything.
IF the frame corners are coins, then I don’t know what rebus they would form in the four seasons combo. The same question too, if the corners are bats."
So, still a mystery but some fun things to ponder!


april 24, 2013 hybrid set 005

And the box. You will often see  a box with this design either in wood or in metal.

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This a a rarely seen wood set made for Murok in Canada. You can see the unusual arrangements of Bams and the Dots; often these design details are what makes the sets appealing. The colors are also different.



Isn't this dragon wonderful?!?



Obviously the company loved the dragon too!



There were many incorrect beliefs about the origins of the game, and perhaps some of these were used to help promote the game. This pamphlet is an amusing example of the types of rule books that accompanied games.