Monthly Archives: February 2014



This bone and bamboo Mahjong set of Flowers bears studying.

Some of the images are somewhat difficult to really understand but a few come readily to mind.

Ray Heaton has helped with translations of these Mahjong tiles.

"Top row with the green Chinese characters are the Four Noble Professions: 漁樵耕讀, Yu, Qiai, Geng, Dou or Fisherman, to Gather Wood (an abbreviated way of saying Woodcutter), to Plow and Read (or to Study). These represent Fisherman, Woodcutter, Farmer and Scholar.  The images on the tiles representing "tools of the trade".
You can see the fishing creel and line on tile 1, the axe in the lower left corner on tile 2, the rake on tile 3 and symbols of reading and writing on 4. What's also fun is to see other images in the background: the umbrella used to shade the fisherman on 1, the trees, twigs gathered into a bundle and birds on 2, perhaps crops (rice?) growing in the foreground and trees in the background on 3, and what appears to be a lamppost in the back and candle burning on tile 4.
"Bottom row with the red Chinese characters are 琹棋書畫, Qin, Qi, Shu, Hua; these are the Guqin or Zither, Chinese chess or Go, Calligraphy and Painting.  The last character is more like the simplified character 画.  "

These Mahjong tiles also are intriguing. Tile 1 clearly is a musical instrument, but it appears with what looks like a steaming pot on a stand with other pots behind. Tile 2 has a real teapot, mugs and part of a board for the game of Go. Tile 3 looks like an abstract desk used for calligraphy. Tile 4 is quite interesting. Clearly there is an abacus, what looks like a ruler, a building and a pennant. It is very hard to make out what is written on the pennant, but it may be all about pursuing knowledge, as this is what is associated with the work of the scholar. Note the use of the diagonal going from lower left to upper right on all four Mahjong tiles.

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This is a wonderful bone and bamboo Mahjong set, with thick bone tiles. Many of you will remember seeing this Phoenix before.  It probably was the big selling point for the set. Phoenixes were only "seen"in times of good fortune, so they are strongly associated with good luck. This one seems to be quite prideful, with a fabulous strut.

From Wikipedia:
The fenghuang has very positive connotations. It is a symbol of high virtue and grace. The fenghuang also symbolizes the union of yin and yangShan Hai Jing's 1st chapter “Nanshang Jing” records each part of fenghuang's body symbolizes a word, the head represents virtue (德), the wing represents duty (義), the back represents propriety (禮), the abdomen says credibility (信) and the chest represents mercy (仁).[4]

In ancient and modern Chinese culture, they can often be found in the decorations for weddings or royalty, along with dragons. This is because the Chinese considered the dragon and phoenix symbolic of blissful relations between husband and wife, another common yin and yang metaphor.

In some traditions it appears in good times but hides during times of trouble, while in other traditions it appeared only to mark the beginning of a new era.[5] In China and Japan it was a symbol of the imperial house, and it represented "fire, the sun, justice, obedience, and fidelity."

The other Mahjong Bams have an unusual quality as well, with a cross between the columnar Bams we saw recently and the more rounded ones we often see.

The One Dots have a lovely plum blossom center, set within a floral outer circle. The remaining Dots have a modern circular look. The Craks have the elaborate Wan and green Arabic numbers with greatly decorative flourishes.

Each flower vase is unique, and each has a different plant. It is believed a scholar's rock is next to each vase. Notice how the plants almost interact with the rocks at their side, with echoing designs on each Mahjong tile. The Flowers have Chinese words for seasons on the left and plants on the right.

The phoenix remains an important symbol in China today. At the Cathedral of St John the Divine, a huge sculpture by Xu Bing is going on display.



This continues the discussion of the bone and bamboo Mahjong set from yesterday.

Looking at these antique bone and bamboo Mahjong tiles one is immediately struck by how bold and vivid the colors still are. Red is used for the letters on all tiles except for the Red Dragon, where green is used for contrast. Red letters used for Honors are somewhat unusual, but red is considered by the Chinese to be a good luck color, so it is not surprising to find it here.

From Wikipedia:

"Red, corresponding with fire, symbolizes good fortune and joy. Red is found everywhere during Chinese New Year and other holidays and family gatherings. A red envelope is a monetary gift which is given in Chinese society during holiday or special occasions. The red color of the packet symbolizes good luck. Red is strictly forbidden at funerals as it is a traditionally symbolic color of happiness;[1] however, as the names of the dead were previously written in red, it may be considered offensive to use red ink for Chinese names in contexts other than official seals.

In modern China, red remains a very popular color and is affiliated with and used by the Communist government."

Something about the Green Dragon with its red F (Fa for prosperity) makes it seem almost Christmasy!  The varied carving of the Western letters is fun to look at too.

You can read more from Wikipedia about the symbolism of colors in China here


The tiles on the left represent the seasons, with the East a peony, West a Chrysanthemum, and South a lotus

From Primaltrek"Because the Buddha is often depicted as seated on a lotus, the lotus is considered a sacred Buddhist symbol (one of Eight Auspicious Symbols) representing purity and detachment from worldly cares.The lotus signifies the seventh month of the lunar calendar.The Chinese word for lotus is lianhua (莲花) or hehua (荷花).  Lian is also the pronunciation of the word for continuous (连) and he is also the pronunciation for the word harmony (和) so the lotus has the hidden meaning of "continuous harmony".A lotus stem and lotus pod shown together symbolize marital harmony and sexual union.Lotus seeds (lianzi 莲 籽) have the hidden meaning of "continuous birth of children" because the lian sounds like "continuous" (连) and the zi has the same pronunciation as the word for son or child (zi 子)."


For more about the lotus from Primaltrek, click here 

The Right tiles are also visually interesting. Note how in tile 1 the birds are quite similar to the Chinese , so the 1 almost becomes a bird. On tile 3 we see a pennant which often appears on Mahjong tiles, and a pagoda. And on 4 the small boat among the reeds: the cover of the boat and the reeds echo each other.

Thanks to Ray Heaton we have a translation of the Flowers on the right:

"They are 一統山河, Yi Tong Shan He, which means to "unify the whole country".
This could be a reference to the post Qing era where the country was united under the
nationalists, the rise and take over of the country of the communists or (and my preference)
all the way back to the Han dynasty unifying the country after the fall of the Qin."


We thank mahjongmahjong for providing these photographs. For more treasures in their collection click here




This lovely bone and bamboo mahjong set features a One Bam bird perching on a branch.


Attention was given to depicting the different feather patterns. You can clearly see the claws holding onto the branch, and a graceful twig echoing the curve of the bird. The other Bams are of the barbed variety and here  they are much more sturdy looking than others. Notice the number of strokes used to make each Bam. There is something that always delights on this type of 8 Bams.


The Craks have elaborate wans, and green Arabic numbers.


The One Dot is the flower within a flower, with the outer flower looking like a sunflower, and the other Dots continue the flower pattern. The 2 Dot has eight petals and the rest of the Dots have six. Note the Arabic 5 is carved with a unique style, and the One Dot has a red number and the others have blue ones. This same arrangement is seen on the One Bams. We have seen this on other sets too.

The Winds, Dragons and Flowers will be shown tomorrow.

We thank Mahjongmahjong for sharing these photos with us. To see more of their Mahjong Collection, click here



Carol Ann Harper "CHarli" has a writeup about Pung Chow

The swooping crane One Bam and the flat ended Bams, the simple wans with Arabic numbers, and the Dots going from a stylized flower center to circles within circles appear in these mahjong sets.

The Winds are standard, but the Dragons are highly unusual, and probably were one of the selling points for the game. Who can resist those beautiful creatures?

The Flowers deserve some study, however. They all have the Western letters for the seasons, but the top row has the Chinese words for seasons, whereas the bottom one has the words for the four flowers.


The interest in showing different forms of architecture appears on these tiles as it does in other sets such as those by the Mah-Jongg Sales Company of America, one of Pung Chow's biggest competitors in those early days.

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It is clear the images are quite similar, but the Pung Chow designers have a more streamlined approach. The mountains and hills in the background have turned into triangular pyramidal shapes. And don't you love the birds? Look carefully at the South and you will see a bird flying up to the sky, as opposed to all the others flying downward.

And now for the forms of transportation:

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You can see how Pung Chow's images are simpler here too, but birds still are included on three of the tiles. (The only bird in the Mah-Jongg version is the duck seen on tile 4 under the tree.) The hills are  triangular here too.

To see another write-up about forms of transportation on this site, click here


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This lovely Mahjong set is unusual in its size: the tiles are only 1" high, whereas others are usually 1 1/4". They are made of Chinese Bakelite, a substance still somewhat mysterious that really is a catch-all phrase for a number of different kinds of plastic, made in sheets and then hand-carved (in this case).

This Mahjong set was made for export, but interestingly, the maker did not feel all tiles need numbers. The only suit where foreigners really need assistance is in the Craks, thus all of those tiles are numbered. (Some sets only start numbers after 3 or 4). The Bams have a peacock One Bam, the other Bams are rounded, the Craks have the elaborate Wans, and the Dots continue their floral center throughout.

The Flowers are the flowers and seasons. Note that every vase has a different pattern and shape, often seen in these vase Flower tiles.

Top row: plum, orchid, chrysanthemum, bamboo

Bottom: spring, summer, fall, winter

The Red and Green Dragons are often seen on these CB sets, but the White is unusual.

The book I wrote with Ann Israel is being published by Tuttle. To see more about it:


To order it click here:

or here from Amazon




We often see ladies on Flower tiles. The ladies in the top row are performing a Chinese long sleeve dance. They are goddesses, as seen by the round stylized clouds at their feet. The Chinese have a long tradition of long sleeve dance. Here are a couple of paragraphs from Wikipedia:

"Qin-Han period

Historical texts mentioned many dances in this period, for example a sword dance is mentioned in a story where the dance was performed during an attempt to assassinate Liu Bang (who later founded the Han Dynasty) at the Hongmen Banquet.[18] The event at the banquet was also said to form the basis of the "Gong Mo" Dance (公莫舞) - "Gong Mo" literally means "Sir, Don't!" and describes the blocking action by Xiang Bo during the sword dance to prevent the assassination.[19] "Gong Mo" Dance was later known as Scarf Dance (巾舞), where a long scarf is held in both hands similar to today's Long Silk Dance. Liu Bang was also said to be fond the war dance of the Ba people called Bayu dance (巴渝, given various names such as Zhaowu, 昭武 in later dynasty), and large scale performances of the dance involved the brandishing of various weapons to the accompaniment of drums and songs in the Ba language.[20]

During the Qin and Han period, the imperial court established the yuefu (literally, Music Bureau), which was responsible for collecting folk music and dances for performances at the court. A popular dance of the Han Dynasty was the Long Sleeve Dance and there are many images and sculptures of the period depicting dances with long sleeves. This is a dance tradition that dates back to the earlier period and one still performed today.[21] The sleeve may be long and narrow, or long and wide, or similar to the "water sleeves" (水袖, long flowing detachable silk sleeves extended at the wrist) used in today's Chinese opera. Historical texts also recorded dances where the dancers danced bending at the waist while moving their sleeves. Other dances included the Drum Dance (鞞舞), Bell Dance (鐸舞), Sabre Dance, and mixed couple dance.[22]"

For more information about Chinese dance, click here

And to see a quick video, click here

The goddesses on the bottom row are playing musical instruments, perhaps playing the music the long sleeve goddesses are dancing to! We can see the



perhaps a pipa

and ruan


The Winds are what we normally see, as are the Dragons below.





This particularly beautiful hand carved French Ivory Mahjong set actually greatly resembles a lot of high-end bone and bamboo Mahjong tiles.

The One Bam bird is delightful, perched on a branch.

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Notice how many  strokes are used to create this bird, giving it a great deal of detail. The cross hatching gives it more visual interest.

The other Bams are the rounded variety. The Craks are the elaborate Wan.

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The One Dot has a central plum blossom surrounded by meanders, the abstract pattern used to fill what could have been unadorned space.  The other Dots have a six-petaled flower within an outside circle.

The backs of these tiles are black. French Ivory is made by alternating two slightly different colors of plastic, and slicing through this block to make tiles with the lines reminiscent of real ivory.

The Flowers will be posted tomorrow.



This thick bone  set has one of the Chinese porcelain ball-like One Dots. Here the center is a flower, with partial flowers at the compass points. The other dots continue the floral center, meaning they all have to be hand-carved (the circle centers can be made with a handheld drill).  The Bams are  barbed, and the Wans on the Craks very simple and small, almost looking too small for the space. The color green is certainly predominant in this set.

The Winds are uniform in color and the Red and Green Dragons are the Chinese characters, with the White being blank.

The Flowers on the right are plum blossom, orchid, bamboo and chrysanthemum. (The Chinese word for bamboo is usually easy to read with its two similar sticks with two left jutting upper strokes.) The flowers on the left may be peony, lotus,  unknown and narcissus.



This continues the discussion of Bill's lovely tile set seen yesterday. The Green, Red, and White Dragons are the types that we normally see on Bone and Bamboo tiles. The use of red paint on the Winds letters is somewhat unusual.

The Flowers are really special. You will note that the flowers being held by the people on the top row are the same we saw in the center of the One Dots. (Click here) Thanks to Ray Heaton, we have an understanding of the tiles.

Starting with the bottom row of Flowers:

"The four noble professions, (green Chinese characters, simplified characters), 渔樵耕读, Yu, Qiao, Geng, Dou.  (The way the characters have been written simplifies them further.)

Tile #1,  渔 (traditional character is 漁), Yu, Fisherman
#2, 樵, Qiao, to Gather Wood, an abbreviated way of saying Woodcutter
#3, 耕, Geng, to Plow (Farmer)
#4, 读,  (traditional character is 讀), Dou, to Read or to Study (Scholar)

So these represent Fisherman, Woodcutter, Farmer and Scholar


The four seasons, (red Chinese characters), 春夏秋冬, Chun, Xia, Qiu, Dong

Tile #1, 春, Chun, spring
#2, 夏, Xia, summer
#3, 秋, Qiu, autumn
#4, 冬, Dong, winter. 

I guess (again) the flowers are Peony, Lotus, Chrysanthemum and Plum Blossom.  The 1 dots show the same flowers (in a different order in the photo), though the Lotus has the seed pod and leaf too (an auspicious symbol of fertility)."

You can see how the objects normally associated with the four noble professions have been very much simplified in the lower set of Flowers.