Monthly Archives: April 2014

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Cleveland Art Institute song S

This lovely work dating from the Song Dynasty is in the collection of the Cleveland Art Institute.  We see two figures surrounded by trees, with mountains in the background. In the foreground, we have a huge rock.  As mentioned before, the Chinese have a great appreciation for the natural beauty of rocks. According to Patricia Bjaaland Welch,

"interesting rocks ("strange stones" known as guaishi) were collected as early as the Tang Dynasty (618-906), a practice that was firmly established by the Song (960-1279)..."

The most valued rocks and stones were those that resembled sacred mountains or which were believed to embody inner energy.  Many of the larger rocks or stones found in Chinese paintings, gardens, still lifes and floral arrangements are "longevity stones" but not all."

Certainly, in the work above, the rock would have leant itself to contemplation.

Many of you have noticed how difficult it can be to identify images on mahjong tiles, and it is very easy to make mistakes differentiating stones from lingzhi.



We saw these tiles the other day. The lingzhi has a rounded organic look to it, and, in this case, is shown with its stalk.



These birds are seen with rocks. Rocks in Mahjong often have a bit of an angular look to them. At other times they have holes going from one side to the other, such as the one below.



As you can see, this Mahjong rock has a porous quality to it, similar to the real one in the photograph just below this. The red Chinese character on this tile translates as "mountain." It is a character you will often see on Flower tiles.



This rock, from the Ralph M. Chait  Gallery, is of the Taihu variety, limestone found at the foot of Dongting Mountain near Taihu Lake. The continuous movement of the water produces this porous effect. You can see how similar it is to the one on the Mahjong tile.


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Here we have a piece of fabric dating from the Ming Dynasty in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Here you can see stylized phoenixes and ruyi, the scepter based on lingzhi, the herb of immortality, that oval organic form that looks like it is folded in on itself.



This is a scepter auctioned off by Christies.  It is a ruyi, and thus is associated with immortality, good luck and power. This shape can appear in many aspects of Chinese art, including Mahjong.


carved scenekaminski Dec 1 2013

The box above was auctioned off by Kaminski Auctioneers.  Its handle is shaped like a ruyi. The set was owned by Marla Maples, the former wife of Donald Trump. It is now part of a major private Mahjong collection.


KH dragon

This exquisite dragon Mahjong box also features ruyi, certainly toward the lower left and right center, but probably above, hiding part of the right side of the dragon as well.



This detail is of a sutra cover in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Dating from the Ming Dynasty, it shows flowers, the round shapes, and lingzhi, the one toward the lower right.

As many of you know, lingzhi is a fungus, considered to be the Plant of Immortality. (C.A. S. Williams) It is so revered by the Chinese that often it was preserved and stored in temples, or copies of it might be made and placed there.

The heads of scepters were based on lingzhi. These scepters are called ruyi.



You can see how the head of the scepter has a very organic look to it. The ruyi became associated with power, and good luck and blessings. (Wiki)  Ruyi appears in Mahjong too, on tiles and on boxes. Often it is hard to see because it is so stylized, but if you look hard enough, you can see it.

Ruyi can come in the shape of clouds:



On this side of a Mahjong box we looked at before, we see this magnificent dragon. His leonine head is in the center of the design, and his body surrounds it.  But what is in the background? Ruyi shaped clouds! Those clouds take up most of the space around him.



On the back of this same box you can see the dragon, once again surrounded by clouds shaped like ruyi! ( I still love that fish involved with his inhale or exhale. Perhaps fish and dragons can be another post some day!)



These are two sets of Flowers from a Chinese Bakelite set that has 16 Flowers. Above we see above some gods on ruyi shaped clouds.




We also have some gods here. The two men in the middle are the He-Hes, the heavenly twins. The two tiles at either end of the row also have a bit of extra meaning. The one on the right is the magic bowl, often seen containing the lotus (left) and the herb of immortality, which here is represented by the clouds! The bowl, lotus and lingzhi mean "concord as your hear desires" according to Wolfram Eberhard. The He Hes are associated with marital harmony, so these Flowers bode well for happiness within the home.

(After writing this, I used the app Pleco, available for ipad, and got the translation which worked with the visual interpretations of the bottom tiles, from left to right:  harmony, combine, two, celestials!)


A book by this author and Ann Israel is entitled Mah Jongg The Art of the Game.

You can read reviews on the book's website and find author appearances:

You can order it by clicking here

or here



On this Ming Dynasty scroll from the Metropolitan Museum you can easily see the lingzhi, growing right out of the earth. Given its close resemblance to a flower, and at times a rock, you really have to look closely to know what you are seeing. Above the lingzhi is growing near clumps of flowers, as we often see on mahjong tiles.

From C.A. S. Williams  Chinese Symbolism and Art Motifs

"The lingzhi, or Plant of Immortality, is a species of fungus, probably the Polyporus lusidus, which grows at the roots of trees."




The above two sets of flowers might resemble lingzhi, but these are felt to be rocks.


The Flowers below are lingzhi; you will see the difference:



The above ones are lingzhi, and you can see that the fungus is much more rounded, with a noticeable stem on these tiles at least.

Here is a photograph of a real lingzhi, taken from Wikipedia:


This one has the more rounded head than the ones we saw on the Mahjong tiles above.


As many of you know, Flower tiles can be wonderfully varied, ranging from flowers in pots, to landscapes, to scenes from literature, etc. The tiles today represent a scene from Romance of the Three Kingdoms, when Liu Bei met Zhuge Liang. (Zhuge Liang was the brilliant military strategist who fooled the attacking enemy when he appeared relaxed as he played the qin on top of the wall surrounding his empty city.)

Today's post was made possible by Ray Heaton who translated these four tiles.


Ray suspects

"these tiles refer to Zhuge Liang (or Kongming, the great military strategist) being recommended to Liu Bei, but the four characters shown are just part of a longer 6-8 character phrase.

The name Zhuge Liang should be three Chinese characters, but on these tiles his name is abbreviated to just one character, the "ge" part!

(On tile 4 it shows the 'ge' part (葛) of Zhuge (諸葛), itself all short for Zhuge Liang (諸葛亮).)
"Portraits" of Zhuge Liang are plentiful, as he was very important in Chinese history.
Zhuge Liang MJ portrait 2
Zhuge Liang MJ portrait 2

above photo courtesy of Laurie

The following shows the meeting of Zhuge Liang and Liu Bei, from Oriental Discovery



The love of Zhuge Liang and his story continues to this day. This poster is from a recent film


Red Cliff, featuring Zhuge Liang portrayed by Takeshi Kaneshiro.
Here follow some excerpts from wikipedia:

"Zhuge Liang (181–234),[2] courtesy name Kongming, was a chancellor of the state of Shu Han during the Three Kingdoms period. He is recognised as the greatest and most accomplished strategist of his era, and has been compared to another great ancient Chinese strategist, Sun Tzu.[3]

Often depicted wearing a robe and holding a hand fan made of crane feathers,[4] Zhuge Liang was not only an important military strategist and statesman; he was also an accomplished scholar and inventor. His reputation as an intelligent and learned scholar grew even while he was living in relative seclusion, earning him the nickname "Wolong" (literally: "Sleeping Dragon").

Zhuge is an uncommon two-character Chinese compound family name. His name – even his surname alone – has become synonymous with intelligence and strategy in Chinese culture....

According to historical texts, Zhuge Liang was eight chi tall, roughly between 1.85 metres (6 feet and 1 inch) and 1.95 metres (6 feet and 4.75 inches)...

The Temple of the Marquis of Wu inChengdu, Sichuan, a temple worshipping Zhuge Liang.


Service under Liu Bei[edit]

....Liu Bei resided at Xinye while he was taking shelter under Jing Province's governor, Liu Biao. Liu Bei visited Sima Hui, who told him, "Confucian academics and common scholars, how much do they know about current affairs? Those who analyse current affairs well are elites. Crouching Dragon and Young Phoenix are the only ones in this region."[11] Xu Shu later recommended Zhuge Liang to Liu Bei again, and Liu wanted to ask Xu to invite Zhuge to meet him. However, Xu Shu replied, "You must visit this man in person. He cannot be invited to meet you."[12] Liu Bei succeeded in recruiting Zhuge Liang in 207 after paying three personal visits.[13][I] Zhuge Liang presented the Longzhong Plan to Liu Bei and left his residence to follow Liu. Afterwards, Liu Bei became very close to Zhuge Liang and often had discussions with him.Guan Yu and Zhang Fei were not pleased and complained. Liu Bei explained, "Now that I have Kongming (Zhuge Liang's style name), I am like a fish that has found water. I hope you'll stop making unpleasant remarks."[14] Guan Yu and Zhang Fei then stopped complaining."


metwuchangshuo 1844-1927

This work by Wu Changshu (1844-1927) is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Here we see lovely delicate orchids, wisp-like in their appearance.



Mahjong tile carvers often kept to the ethereal appearance of this lovely flower. On this bone and bamboo tile we have just a hint of the blossom.



Here is a tile, from what is thought to be an unusual Rottgames set, showing an orchid  which has the same delicate quality as the bone and bamboo versions.



The plant above is so abstract it is difficult to make out much about it, although it seems to be growing in front of a rock in the pot.



This russet beauty, from a rare Ashton & Rietz set, shows the same feathery treatment of the blooms we saw earlier.

We will end this post with photographs of orchids found at the Inkaterra Hotel near Machu Picchu, Peru. The hotel has one of the biggest collections of orchids (372 varieties!) in the world. Some orchids are so tiny you can only really see them with a magnifying glass. The ones seen here are bigger than that though.


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With all the variety seen in this plant , it is easy to understand why the Chinese were so entranced by it.


metpart screenshot Ma Shouzhenming

In China the orchid is traditionally associated with spring. The polar vortex has left our area, after what seemed to most of us to be a very long stay, so it is time to celebrate. And how better than to look at orchids, some created by nature and others brought to us by artists. We will look at Mahjong tiles with this pairing, and a photograph of some real beauties on display in the Bronx.

The above ink work is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and was painted by Ma Shouzhen during the Ming Dynasty. Here is an orchid; a few of the delicate blooms have fallen to the ground, but some remain intact. As we have seen in some other posts, the artist has chosen to position the plant next to a rock, a very common theme in Chinese art.

In China the orchid represents  delicacy and elegance.  Patricia Bjaaland Welch, in her book Chinese Art   A Guide to Motifs and Visual Imagery

"They are specifically associated with women, love beauty and fertility; and secondly with virtue, moral elegance" and the refinement of a superior man who stands out in a crowd because of being a learned gentleman.

Rocks were often prized as objects of beauty, and we know they are objects of permanence. And so the rock with the orchid might be a play upon visual beauty, some of which is short lived and some permanent throughout time.


4 Flower Pots copy steve

Above we have a version of paired Mahjong flowers. The hand carved bone and bamboo tile flower on the left is the orchid, with a rock  just below the edge of the pot. Of course a rock appears in the other half of the diptych as well.



Above a vase, holding a hand carved Mahjong tile orchid, has a rock right next to it. Again, it seems like some of the blossoms may have fallen, thus alluding to the impermanence of some kinds of beauty.


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Although not hand carved, these tiles by Imperial feature a vase of orchids and the rock beside them.



Above is a photo from a set by Selfridge's, with a paper face showing the orchid in a vase with a rock in a pot right behind. Clearly the pairing of the two was important enough to feature on all tiles of Mahjong tiles.



And we'll end with a photo of some other stars of the orchid show at the Bronx Botanical Garden, these exquisite pink orchids. There is no indication of nearby rocks, but, then again, this show is not Chinese art, but rather a celebration of the beauty of orchids. Given that the show ends today, it is another indication of the need to appreciate etherial beauty when we have a chance.



Met Ma Lin circa 1200

It is finally feeling like spring in the Northern Hemisphere, and thoughts do turn to beautiful flowers; few are more lovely than orchids. The Chinese love orchids, and consider them to be among the four most important plants, the others being bamboo, chrysanthemum and plum blossom. And in China, the orchid is the plant associated with spring.

The ink drawing above is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It is believed to have been done by Ma Lin around 1200. It is not so very different in design from those Mahjong Flower tiles that feature orchids. Today's post will be just a short introduction, with more next week.


These wood tiles are thought to be French-made, although the words on them are in English. They are very similar to some made by the Galleries Lafayette.  You can see a very stylized orchid in the 3rd row, the third tile from the left.



Above we see a beautiful purple orchid on tile #2, top row.



We end with this beautiful orchid, one of the stars of the orchid show at the New York Botanical Garden.

We thank mahjongmahjong for allowing us the use of the photograph of the lovely Flowers just above this photograph.

freersacklersunkehong1532-1610This ink drawing of bamboo growing in a pot, done by Sun Kehong who lived from 1532 until 1610, is in the Freer Sackler Collection.  People in China often had bamboo growing in pots in their homes.


DSC_0697 redone

On the hand carved Chinese Bakelite set we see above, you'll find bamboo in a pot on tile #4  (see, it is not always 3!) on the top row of Flowers.



And above on these hand carved  bone and bamboo tiles, it's back on tile #3.  You will notice a longevity stone next to each pot, a common pairing .



The somewhat genteel pot with bamboo growing can even be seen on these Imperial tiles which were made in France and have a rubber-like backing and plastic tile face. It is felt that red image to the left is probably a stone.


4 Flower Pots copy

And here, on the left, the hand-carved bone and bamboo tiles feature bamboo with a longevity stone yet again.


From the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art we have this beautiful scroll entitled Poetry Cottage, done in 1914. The setting for the house is quite lovely, nestled into the mountainside, surrounded by bamboo. You can almost hear the rustle of the plants as they move with the wind. The spot looks like a perfect place to inspire any artist.

In Chinese art there are many scenes of bamboo and other plants and trees near a house or a window, and those images are seen on our Mahjong tiles too, but might be easily overlooked.



Above we have some hand carved Chinese Bakelite tiles. The lower row has images of ladies, and outside the windows there are plants growing. Look at tile #3. We see bamboo, and we have the corresponding Chinese character right above it.



Above is another set of Chinese Bakelite tiles, this time showing eight ladies, some of whom may be dancing or at least the bottom row looks that way. Look at the top row: one lady is looking out her window, and what does she see? A bamboo stalk! Once again it is tile #3, but this is not always the case.



But it is still the case here!

So you can see how these artists worked in the bamboo theme into the scenes on the tiles, so that the four plants representing the four seasons (plum blossom, orchid, bamboo and chrysanthemum, as seen above in that order ) could be featured on the tiles.