Monthly Archives: March 2014

In Chinese art there is no requirement that an object be seen in its entirety, and this idea has existed for hundreds of  years. In landscapes, water scenes with boats, mountains and rock outcroppings with trees often appear, sometimes in simplified form.

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These two tiles are from a Chinese Bakelite set. You can see the boat continues from one tile to the next, but still not seen in its entirety. Notice how a tree trunk is captured on the right tile.

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This special ink and color scroll was painted by Zhang Daqian (Chang Dai-chien) who lived from 1899 until 1963. It is entitled The Bridge to Eternity. You can see a lone fisherman in his boat at the water's edge, with the boat somewhat hidden behind a small projection of the landscape. But objects don't have to be hidden to be simplified:


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(This tile is not half of a two tile set)

There is no need to show the whole object if people can figure out what it is.

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Looking at these tiles again you can note how here too boats are somewhat hidden by land outcropping, with trees along the rocky shoreline and mountains. You will see a partial bridge on the lower left tile,  a structure also seen on the Zhang Daqian scroll above.




From the Metropolitan Museum website:

"Images of nature have remained a potent source of inspiration for artists down to the present day. While the Chinese landscape has been transformed by millennia of human occupation, Chinese artistic expression has also been deeply imprinted with images of the natural world. Viewing Chinese landscape paintings, it is clear that Chinese depictions of nature are seldom mere representations of the external world. Rather, they are expressions of the mind and heart of the individual artists—cultivated landscapes that embody the culture and cultivation of their masters."

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The artist who carved these bone and ebony tiles created designs similar to those done by other Chinese artists who worked in other media such as watercolors and ink drawing. Objects were captured with a few strokes giving the viewer all necessary clues to know what was depicted.

Here are two works from the Metropolitan Museum of Art:


The artist has captured the essence of the scene, with a fisherman in a boat halfway up on the left, and two bridges, one in the forefront and one in the center.


This beautiful work features sailboats in the distance. The boats in each help to fill the void created by the water, fitting in with Chinese design principles.

This from the Metropolitan Museum website describing these works:

"In 1691 Wang Hui, the leading artist of his day, was summoned to Beijing to oversee the creation of a mammoth imperial commission documenting the Kangxi emperor's southern inspection tour of 1689. The painting, consisting of twelve monumental handscrolls, is the largest pictorial work of the Qing dynasty. (The Metropolitan owns one scroll from this set; acc. no. 1979.5.) Since the finished set bears no artists' signatures or seals, it is only through group works such as the Museum's new acquisition that the identity of Wang's artistic team can be established. The album, in which four younger artists from Wang's home region practiced the methods of ancient artists, is a rare example of a master painter's having recruited assistants and shaped their style to conform to the orthodox manner, which epitomized scholarly taste at that time. This academic style became the hallmark of all later Qing court commissions.

The leaf illustrated here, Mountain Waterfall, is by Wang Hui's leading disciple, Yang Jin, who has inscribed it with a poem:

For ten days spring clouds have obscured the stream's source;
In the middle of the night a west wind brings rain to the [mountain's] foot.
But I feel the urgent thunder roar in the empty valley,
So from a distance I know that the myriad gorges are competing in their flows."

Anyone else notice the artist wrote a poem on the painting?  It is just like the carvers who added poems and sayings on many of our Mahjong tiles!

This paraphrase from the Ink Dance Chinese Paintings's website helps to explain the reliance on boats in waterscape scenes:

When painting a landscape scene featuring water, a mountain is the face, buildings on ridges are the eyes and  a fisherman in a boat is the soul. Water becomes charming when it embellishes a mountain; it becomes clear when it has buildings near it; it shows greater perspective when there are boats.

Following are examples of some boats on Mahjong tiles.

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You can see different  boats on these tiles, a sailboat and some small fishing boats.

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A sailboat from The Pung Chow Company

And a small Chinese Bakelite boat

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This beautiful screen is on view at Sothebys, for Asia Week. It dates from the late 18th to early 19th Century. Here is a somewhat blurry detail.


You can see a similar kind of boat on these Flower tiles:

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Note also the trees along the shoreline on the screen and the tiles. On the screen detail you also see some diaper patterns just above the boat. We see those patterns on boxes, just like the one below, used as trim around the window.


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The scene above may be from Romance of the Three Kingdoms. You can see people on the top of the city wall, just as we see on some of the Empty City Tiles:



and below from the mahjongmahjong collection

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You will see some other elements often carved into Flower tiles on this beautiful scroll, painted by Lan Ying who lived from 1585 until 1666.

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The bridge, the boat, the trees and rocks along the shoreline, all were important to Mahjong craftsmen who had a thorough knowledge of Chinese art.





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There are two main reasons this website was begun: we hope readers will develop an appreciation for the incredible skill of the men who carved and painted the designs we love so well, and wish the word would spread that these sets are truly special pieces of art. The carvers who made these sets had a great grasp of Chinese art, and used many of the inspirations around them while designing these tiny tiles.

Asia Art Week is going on in New York City this week. Collectors and dealers come from all over the world. There are fabulous pieces of art, ranging from very early pieces that are thousands of years old to Contemporary works. So far, no mahjong sets have put on display, but we're working to change that! You can see some of the pieces of art online on the Asia Week website.

These tiles have been on the website before. They are from the Bone and Ebony set on Michael Stanwick's website. Here are two photos taken of traditional Chinese landscapes that were on view at Sotheby's NY over the weekend. You will quickly see  the inspiration behind these tiny landscapes. The artist was able to capture a very restful scene on each one. The Chinese translates to wishes for longevity extending life.

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This painting was done by Dong Bangda who lived from 1699 until 1769. It is entitled: Fishing Boat on River. You can see a person in a boat, on the left about a third of the way up from the bottom, trees along the water's edge, rocks and mountains, quite like we see on the Flowers. You can also see a small pavilion on a rock, just above the boat. A pavilion is also found on two of the Flower tiles.

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This is a more recent work by Huang Binhong who lived from 1864 until 1955. The work is entitled landscape, but has much in common with the older one above and the Flower tiles. Once again we see a small boat on the water, rocks, mountains and trees.

On both paintings we see Chinese characters, not unlike the Chinese writing that accompanies the numbers on the Flower tiles.



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The Flowers here are flower pots with plants, each pot different one from the other. Continuing the one color look, they are all blue with only the Chinese characters painted in green and red. The designs on the pots include mountains, seen on Green 2, and some diaper patterns on Red 1, 3 and 4. The flowers include a lotus seedpod on green 4, (a lotus symbolizes purity, and the seedpod fecundity, according to Patricia Bjaaland Welch).

The use of the single color on the tiles continues to the Dragons and Winds.

DSC_0731 again The Dragons are like those normally seen in some of the old bone and bamboo sets, as well as some bakelite ones. The presence of the P for Po (blank) is there to differentiate the front from the back of the tile. When White Dragons were made of bone and bamboo, it was easy to tell the front from the back of the tile, but when made of plastic, people could not tell the front of the blank White Dragon from the back. (When sets were first made of plastic, manufacturers did not think that they needed to mark the White Dragon. You can see how people would have a problem knowing front from back as you can see between the White Dragon and the blank back  of a tile to the right of it. The companies soon demarcated  the White Dragons, probably after receiving many complaints!)

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The Winds have a bit of style in the carving.


The top of the box it came in.

Flowers will be shown March 16th.


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DSC_0731 shiny

This rare set was made by the Mah Jongg Company, Ltd. in England.  The tiles are a white shiny substance which did not age very well; these have all been cleaned! The colors on some of them have faded, and some color transferred to the backs of other tiles when stored. The carvings are shallow, which explains why so many have lost their color. Most tiles are painted with just one color.

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Note the unusual design on the 7 Dot, and the use of black on the 4 and 8 Dots, although we do see black 8 Dots from time to time.

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The pheasant standing on the rock is very like others we have seen

The other Bams are rounded, and unique in their slightly squat designs, making this Bam a hallmark of this set. The One Dot is cog-like, and the other Dots circles within circles. The Craks are the simple Wan, with the Wan looking like a runner caught mid-stride.

And for those of you who are not familiar with a wonderful collector, here is a link to Tony Watson's collection. You will see the same set there.


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These Flowers are from the hand carved Chinese Bakelite Mahjong set we saw yesterday. The top Flowers show a female musician and three other ladies, perhaps dancers with long sleeves. The Chinese symbols are those of the seasons: Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter.  A wall background is carved behind these ladies, as we often see on these type of Flowers, though the author misplaced those four tiles which should read 4321 to have the wall work! The lower set are the Singapore capture tiles, the Rich Man and the Pot of Gold, and the Cat and the Mouse.

The color silver, seen above, is rare on Mahjong tiles.

Many scholars, including C.A.S. Williams and Wolfram Eberhard, acknowledge that owls were not looked upon favorably in China in the 1900s, and rather were harbingers of ill fortune and death, unlike the phoenix which is associated with good fortune. Clearly, though, the Western market did not have those thoughts about owls.

And for a bit more about the owl in early Chinese history, Ray Heaton provided us with a link to a Sotheby's article.


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Here is an excerpt I thought was interesting:

"The myth of the origin of the Shang people is found in The Book of Songs (“Heaven bade the dark bird”) . Of course, this song cannot be regarded as an original record of the Shang dynasty.  It is more likely that it was transmitted orally through the Shang into the Zhou period, with slight variations over time. In Shang and Zhou lexicography, the word xuan (black) can also be understood as “mysterious” or “divine”8,  and in Shang oracle bone inscriptions, we find a pictograph depicting a beaked owl with round eyes and plump torso, which is the name of a star, or it can be rendered as the character standing for the owl itself (Heji: 522, 11497, 11498, 11499, 11500).  In other cases, it is used together with the ancestral names Fu Gui and Fu, and  can be interpreted as “Father Gui of the Owl clan” (fig. 11) and “Lady of the Black Owl clan” (fig. 12). Thus, the evidence from Shang archaeology and historical literature render it quite possible that the Shang people believed in some mythical relationship with the owl. Liu Dunyuan has argued that the Shang people perceived the owl as the god of night and dreams, as well as the messenger between the human and the spirit world – on account of its silent flight and hunting in darkness9.  If so, this would explain why the owl is employed repeatedly in Shang ritual art and is found in a burial context, as we have seen in the examples previously discussed.

The conventional explanation is that the black bird is a swallow (yanzi). This was the view of scholars of the Han dynasty, and Han paintings and murals did indeed present the swallow as the black bird (or sun-bird, taiyangniao) and the owl as the bird of the underworld. For example, the silk funerary banner from the Mawangdui Han tomb (no. 1) depicts a black bird (swallow-like) in the sun, and an owl-like bird near the entrance of the heaven, and moreover, on left and right sides of the earth platform are two owl-on-turtle images.  Their meaning, according to Eugene Wang, is to signify “the sun setting at dusk in the west and re-emerging from the east at dawn.”10  Han ideology favored the association of the swallow with filial piety (xiao) – after all, the swallow faithfully returns every year – and the owl was conversely portrayed as an evil bird that ate its mother11.  We however do not find such opposition in the earlier period, and in Shang archaeology, while there are a few references to the swallow, the owl is clearly more prominent."



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Who (WHO? WHO?)  can resist an owl, especially a horned one? Certainly the owl on this hand carved rare Chinese bakelite Mahjong set was one of the key reasons the set was bought, both recently and when it was first carved.

The Dots go from being the flower within a flower on the One, to being a flower center in the others. The Bams are the simple rounded Bams usually seen in Chinese Bakelite, and the Craks are the elaborate Wan.

One of the charms of these hand carved sets is the little differences in each tile.




The Flowers will be discussed tomorrow.

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DSC_0720 dragons

This post features the hand carved Dragons and Flowers for the laminate mahjong set discussed on March 9 and 10.

The unusual writing style we noted on the Winds continues here on the Green Dragon which is deeply carved. The color palette continues with the gray Green Dragon and the pink Red Dragon.

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You can easily see the varied depth of the carving, most apparent on the tiles on the top row with gold paint, especially on tile 2. These images are also highly stylized. The top row features the Arts of the Scholar, and the bottom flowers.

Ray Heaton has once again provided the translations. The characters on these tiles are stylized as well, making for a translation challenge.

"We need to use a bit of knowledge of the likely characters helped by two or three which are reasonably straight forward.

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The top row are the arts of the scholar, and are versions of the simplified characters, 棋琴书画.
Qi Qin Shu Hua; chess, qin (the zither), calligraphy and painting.

The last two characters are the give away for me and are close enough to 书画 to allow all four characters to reveal themselves.

Although first two are "educated guesses", you can just about see the first character as 棋, (especially the second element of this character, 其, excluding the radical).

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Bottom row are 梅兰竹菊, Mei Lan Zhu Ju; plum, orchid, bamboo, chrysanthemum.  The second tile uses a character close to the simplified character for orchid, 兰.  I don't see what else tile three could be other than 竹, and tile four is reasonably close to the expected look of the character."

For those of you who have an ipad, ipod, iphone or android device there is an app which can be helpful with the straightforward translations of Chinese characters. It is Pleco, and it allows you to write on the screen the symbol you see, and it will translate it for you. It often seems easier, though, to guess at the word on the tile and get the Chinese character for it, and see if that character bears any resemblance to what appears on the tile.