Monthly Archives: May 2014

1 Comment

Screen Shot 2014-05-28 at 3.14.02 PM Screen Shot 2014-05-28 at 3.13.05 PMThese are screen grabs taken of a work in the Metropolitan Museum. They are two parts of a lovely ink scroll by Zhou Dongqing who lived during the Qing Dynasty. The work is dated 1291, and entitled The Pleasure of Fishes. You can see there are at least two types of fish, with a possible carp somewhat hidden in the upper section near some of the red stamps.

As mentioned in previous posts, the fish is associated with abundance and affluence because in Chinese these words are pronounced the same as fish. C.A. S. Williams notes that fish also frequently appear on Chinese porcelain, as we saw in earlier fish posts both here and here, and such as this wine jar below dating from the 14th Century.


screen grab Brooklyn Museum


So too we find fish on Mahjong tiles and cards.


This Flower tile seems to have been made by a carver who took a great deal of liberty with his subject, as it looks as if he gave the fish eyelashes!


Screen Shot 2014-05-27 at 10.19.35 AM

Above is a charming paper version of mahjong designs for the Craks. Notice the joyful way the artist has designed the different cards with the varied species of fish, most of which have fabulous and beautiful tails. Given that the Craks suit represents 10,000 or lots of money, perhaps the combination of the fish and the wan symbol really are hopeful signs for great abundance!

Am I the only one, or does the bone and bamboo tile just above the paper version look like a face with eyes and nose?!



Scan 3

The beautiful dish seen above dates from the middle of the Ming Dynasty and is in the collection of the Netherlands National Museum of Ceramics. You can clearly see the four different varieties of fish, with the carp on the middle upper right, at 1:00 o'clock, recognizable by his barbels. The Chinese word for carp is bai, interestingly also translated into English as one hundred, so the word itself connotates success. The other fish are qing, a fresh water mullet, a lian, a kind of bream, and a gui, a mandarin fish with a large mouth, seen at the 4 o'clock position.

C.A. S. Williams writes

"Fish forms an important part in the domestic economy of the Chinese. Together with rice it constitutes the principal staple of their daily food, and fishing has for this very reason formed a prominent occupation of the people from the most ancient times.... the fish is symbolically employed as the emblem of wealth or abundance, on account of the similarity in the pronounciation of the words yū, fish, and yū  superfluity, and also because fish are extremely plentiful in Chinese waters...."


While doing research for these posts, it seems that  scenes appear on some forms of art more often than on others. There seems to be a big overlap with scenes on Chinese porcelains and Mahjong tiles. The design style principles seem to be the same, but the subject matter, and ways of showing the subjects are  similar with porcelain and Mahjong.


Screen Shot 2014-05-22 at 8.50.23 AM

These are two more  Flower tiles belonging to reader Bill, from the same set as the carp we saw the other day. You can see how both fish are different, one from the other. Their heads, bodies and tails are distinct, and probably can be easily recognized by people who know their fish. It is not clear what the object is on tile #1, but the crab is easy to make out on tile 2. The beautiful deep blue water on these tiles is another visual treat.

Studying tile #2 a bit more, I noticed the fish's tail is breaking the surface of the water. I wonder if it might be a sturgeon, a type of fish treasured by the Chinese, which is unusual in that it lives in both fresh and salt water, although on this tile you can see the artist clearly intended this to be salt water, given the presence of the crab.

From Wikipedia:

Most sturgeon are anadromous meaning they spawn in fresh water and migrate to salt water to mature.

The Chinese sturgeon can be considered a large fresh water fish, although it spends part of its life-cycle in seawater, like the salmon,[4] however; Chinese sturgeon spawn multiple times throughout their life.

The Chinese sturgeon has a habit of upstream migration: they dwell along the coasts of China's eastern areas and migrate back up rivers for propagation upon reaching sexual maturity. It has the longest migration of any sturgeon in the world and once migrated more than 3,200 km (2,000 mi) up the Yangtze.[5] The sturgeon's reproductive capacity is poor: it may breed three or four times during its life-cycle, and a female sturgeon can carry in excess of a million eggs in one pregnancy, which are released for external fertilisation when mature. The survival rate to hatching is however estimated to be less than 1 percent.[4]





1 Comment


This beautiful rare jar was on display at Sotheby's during Asia Week 2014. It dates from the Jiajing Dynasty.



Above is another view of the same jar.  A carp is depicted, a fish with great symbolism to the Chinese. You can recognize a carp because of his whiskers, considered to be an indication of its supernatural powers.

From Chinese Charms, Hidden Meanings of Symbols on Primaltrek

The carp fish is a commonly seen visual pun because the Chinese character for carp (li 鲤) is pronounced the same as both the character (li 利) for "profit" and the character (li 力) for "strength" or "power".

The carp is also a symbol for an abundance of children because it produces many eggs.

A pair of carp symbolizes a harmonious marriage.

A frequently seen image is of a carp swimming and leaping against the current of a river to reach the spawning grounds.  This refers to the legend (liyutiaolongmen 鲤鱼跳龙门) that a carp which is able to leap over the mythical "Dragon Gate" will become a dragon.  This is an allegory for the persistent effort needed to overcome obstacles.


Above we see a detail of an Imperial robe in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum. You can make out the two carp, one on either side of the front sides of the robe. The two carp symbolize a happy marriage, probably one with many children given two of the image's meanings.



Above we have a close up of a plate from the Ralph M. Chait Gallery. The carp is located right in the middle.



kr set


Above is a One Bam from a fabulous and unusual set of tiles. You can see the carp, clearly recognizable by his whiskers. Perhaps he is poised to swim upstream, ready to face obstacles to achieve success. And don't you love his red eye?!

The Mahjong tiles are a set from reader Kathy's collection. Thank you.

Please send photos or ideas for posts to


1 Comment

This post was written for us by Tony Watson. He has tackled one of the big questions in Mahjong: How did the One Bam develop? How did it change over the years from its earliest shape to the ones we are familiar with today? Most of you readers are aware that we probably will never really know what happened because records just don't exist, but this certainly gives us all a general guide as to what well may been the case.


#1 Bamboo Evolution



This magnificent horse is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum. It was done in pen and ink sometime around 750.

From the Metropolitan Museum website

"This portrait of Night-Shining White, a favorite charger of Emperor Xuanzong (r. 712–56), may be the best-known horse painting in Chinese art. The fiery-tempered animal epitomizes Chinese myths about imported "celestial steeds" that "sweated blood" and were really dragons in disguise. The painting has been attributed to Han Gan, who was known for portraying not only the physical likeness of a horse but also its spirit. Although Han is said to have preferred visits to the stables over the study of earlier paintings of horses, the profile image and the abstraction of the animal's anatomy clearly derive from ancient prototypes."

It is amazing that such an old work, on paper, still survives. What is also interesting is the presence of all the red and sometimes black square, round and oval characters surrounding the piece. These are all seals representing ownership, and they trace the history of who owned the painting through the years. The first one, located just to the left of the calligraphy on the right, dates from the Southern Tang Emperor Li Yu, who reigned from 961-975.

We have traces of history on Mahjong sets as well.  Who hasn't been happy when opening up a set and finding bits of ephemera left by previous owners?  Who knew how close this was to actual traces of ownership we see above?

Sometimes we find typed up instructions:


Sometimes we find traces of where the set might have been, in this case on the Blue Funnel Line:


Or what happened to the set along its journey our way:


and this valiant attempt to recreate a lost One Bam

DSC_0697 bird

or this round dark 8 Dot substituted for a lost blue floral one

DSC_0696 8

And indications of who found the set for friends:


and who owned it


For the Chinese and the antiquities market, provenance is very important. Many treasures were lost through the years for many different reasons, and forgeries exist, including, as some of us think, in the area of Mahjong. So being able to trace ownership is very important.

For those of you who have not clicked on this article about a Chinese vase, which was first posted in March, here is another chance. It just goes to show that ownership papers, even dating from the 1960s, can be very important. 

Have any of you been delighted when you found traces of previous owners? I have a set I refer to as Jeanne's, because she was the previous owner, and I am happy that I am taking good care of it for her. Of course we also have very strong emotional connections with sets that belonged to our relatives, and playing with them gives us a feeling of connection with them.

Do any of you have similar feelings about sets, either from your own family's collection or from that of a stranger?  BTW, I was going to have the One Bam singing bird recarved, but I am going to keep it just the way it is. It is part of the set's history, and I have decided it's charming.

1 Comment

The Museum of Fine Arts Boston has wonderful scholars rocks that were collected by Richard Rosenblum, a sculptor, which he and his wife Nancy donated to the museum. Here is an excerpt from the catalog introduction to the Exhibit:

"For more than a millennium, the integral relationship between nature and art has been a highly revered belief in Chinese culture, particularly among the literati (scholar-gentlemen). These men had great respect for nature’s ability to create its own "works of art." They avidly collected intriguing specimens, ranging from large eroded and calcified rocks that they positioned in their urban gardens to smaller "scholar objects" of wood or stone that they placed in their studios for aesthetic enjoyment."

Here are two rocks from that collection.

This one was found in the Qing  Dynasty, and mounted on this stand. If you look carefully at the stand, you will see it looks quite organic, and ruyi cloud shapes have been added.



And here is another from that same museum with a similar type of stand, with a stand that looks more like those taihu rocks we looked at the other day.


This one also dates from the Qing Dynasty.


Many of you probably remember the following tiles from previous posts, but there is a reason we are looking at them again.


This unusual tile is from a set we've seen before. It represents a fisherman, one of the four important occupations, the others being farmer, wood cutter and scholar. You can see the umbrella the fisherman could use to shield himself from the sun, the basket for fish, and the fishing pole and line. There's also a smooth rock, at the bottom left, about the same size as the basket; given that its size is the same as one of the main objects in the work, the rock obviously has a great deal of importance.



Again we see the need to feature beautiful mostly smooth rocks with flowers.

The other night we happened to come across some fabulous new takes on the classic interest in rocks in Chinese art. The very talented Li Hongbo has produced his own version of beautiful stones, and they are seen here in front of a flower pot, half cut off in this photo because I was not paying attention to the pairing of stones and flower pots!


These really look like beautiful smooth stones, don't they?

But there is something else going on:



They are actually made of paper!

Christina showed us the inside of the "rocks", made by a process based on Chinese paper lanterns


Li Hongbo is truly amazing, and the process he goes through to make these creations is incredible. For a visual treat, please do click on these links:

Li Hongbo's work can be seen at the Klein Sun Gallery.




met qingdynqilin

Often we see creatures and we have a hard time identifying them; they just don't seem to be any type of animal we are familiar with. One such creature is seen above, a qilin on an official's badge from the Qing Dynasty in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum. Because it is horned, it is sometimes referred to as a unicorn.

Welch writes

"The Chinese mythical animal known in Chinese as the qilin is sometimes erroneously referred to as the "Chinese unicorn" or even a chimera (although this is a specific Greek mythological animal with a lion's head, goat's body and serpent's tail) The qilin is not a unicorn as it has two horns and can be identified by its green (or blue) scaled deer's body (which has become more horse-shaped over time) dragon's head, horn and hooves...(and) bushy tail."

We can certainly see the scales, and the hooves on the creature above, as well as the prominent horns. The background shows some ruyi shaped clouds, waves and flames.

According to Welch

"Mythical animals usually have flames surrounding or emanating from their legs to emphasize their powerful and supernatural nature."

The qilin is a benevolent creature, and represents many positive attributes. And qilin sightings are rare, as can be seen by this post.

Qilin appear in Mahjong as well but they might be hidden.  We don't have any records or write-ups by the craftsmen who made these works of art, so we really won't know for sure what they are. Sometimes we just have to guess. We'll start with the biggest stretch as to what creature we are seeing.



Above we have a detail of two creatures made of inlaid bone on a Mahjong box. We don't know if they are qilin, but they might be. Behind their ears you can make out another protrusion which may well be a horn. They each have a very bushy tail, just like the one we see on the qilin. If they are a qilin, they certainly are very benevolent.



Above is a detail of a leather embossed Mahjong box. At first I thought that if you looked carefully, you would be able to make out two qilin, on either side of a globe, with flames surrounding them, a scene not unlike the one we just saw on the inlaid box. But a sharp-eyed reader told me these probably are lions, because he was able to see the five toes on their feet! So no qilin here.

But we do have a qilin on another set, actually called the Qilin Mahjong set:

Screen Shot 2014-05-10 at 7.00.54 AM

Many of you have probably seen this advertised. You can see the qilin proudly strutting, his bushy tail up and his hooves. I won't make that mistake again! He is surrounded by  round ruyi shaped clouds.


Here follows a real treat: an ivory Mahjong tile qilin:


Isn't he fabulous? It is interesting how the crosshatching of the ivory works well with the scales on the qilin.

Our thanks to mahjongmahjong for the use of their tile.

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




Screen Shot 2014-05-08 at 7.13.53 AM

A guest submission compiled by Katherine Hartman about a fabulous set in her collection, with very unusual One and 7 Dots and One Bam tiles. This set always makes me smile.

Katherine makes every effort to learn as much as possible about every set that comes her way. 

Meet WILSON! I saw this set about a month ago on Ebay and had to have it. My son named the set, Wilson after Tom Hank's friend, Wilson the volleyball, in the movie, "Castaway". See the one dot, those of you have seen the movie will understand.


Screen Shot 2014-05-08 at 7.13.46 AM

Michael Stanwick and Ray Heaton have had a very long look at the set. There was a very long discussion regarding the one flower that has the coin markings between the two of them. For all of you who are familiar with Michael's research, he has classified this set as a 1.1. Here are some of his thoughts:

"If you look at the way the 'West' and 'North' character are solidly engraved, and the position of all the cuts/strokes, you will see that they are identical to those seen in the 1875 Glover sets, the 1901 Laufer set and the 1909 Culin set. Compare these two characters to those found in the 1889 Wilkinson set and you will see they are different. Indeed, most sets have the N and S tile engravings that do not look like these old sets but look more like those in the Wilkinson set. (If you haven't got copies of The Playing-card journal you can see these sets on my web site.) Most of the sets in my collection that are in this 'old style' have these types of engravings and they tend to go hand in hand with the so-called pointed leaf shaped bamboos and with a String of Cash on the 1 bamboo. But what happened later was that these sets began to show hybridisation and so began morphing into unusual combinations of engravings - but still with these tell-tale N and S tiles AND the Seasons. Look at the Seasons in these pics. The engraving is bold and the characters are pretty large and in the middle vertical line of the tile. These are all indicators that this set was engraved by an engraver/manufacturer of the old style tradition or someone using the old style to engrave the set. My opinion is closer to the former... If you look at the red sinograms for the  four seasons, you can see that they are fairly large with bold strokes (heavy strokes but with gusto! as opposed to the more restrained type of strokes seen in many other 1920's sets). In the Glover type sets you usually get the four seasons sinograms bang in the middle of the tile and with a frame of sorts around each one. In your case, we have pictures of plants sharing each tile but the sinograms are still on the centre vertical axis but not on the centre horizontal axis (since the picture has forced the sinogram up to the top. So there is still an acknowledgement that these sinograms should be in the centre of each tile and they made an effort to do so."

Ray THANK YOU for these translations of the flowers! From Ray:


These are Yi Tong Shan He, or (word for word) One, Unite, Mountains and Rivers. Mountains and Rivers together is a way to refer to "the whole country", and so this phrase translates to "To unify the whole country" or a little more simply as "A united country". The other four show 春夏秋冬. These are Chun Xia Qiu Dong, Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter (I suspect you recognized those!) And on the 1 Tile, reading top, bottom, right, left 民元 Min Guo Yuan Boa, Republic of China Silver Ingot. Such characters appear on coinage from the ROC period, but I don't see why this relates to the tiles.

1 Comment

Today's post is about a rare French Ivory set that was owned by Katherine Hartman. Many of you know Katherine has been studying Mahjong and its history for quite a few years, and she has a lovely collection of sets and ephemera. This is a set she sold several years ago.

French Ivory is made by layering two slightly different colors of plastic on top of each other to mimic real ivory. If you look carefully at these tiles you can see these lovely striations on the tile faces. The Flowers are unusual in that there are as many as 16, and they feature somewhat quiet looking vignettes of ladies having tea with much more active and wild scenes of combat, as seen on the bottom tiles. The carving on all the tiles in this set is especially lovely and delicate.

Following this photograph are the translations and related research for the Flower tiles, provided by Ray Heaton. You will notice the tiles read from right to left.

Screen Shot 2014-05-06 at 2.18.46 PM

The first row are 蓮花公主, Lian Hua Gong Zhu meaning "Lotus flower princess". I don't know who this is referring to, but I came across a Chinese play with Princess Lotus Flower as the title. In the early 1900s Chinese theatre developed "Chained-sequence plays", or Luanhuanxi, which was a programme of alternate live theatrical performances and film screenings, with 5 or 6 transitions. The requirement of having the same actors on stage and on film was logistically complex and too expensive and so they went out of fashion. Princess Lotus Flower was one such chained-sequence play from 1925 and is mentioned in the book Chinese National Cinema by Yingjin Zhang.

Second row are 文明世界 Wen Ming Shi Jie meaning "A Civilised World", and seems to be a fairly common phrase on various MJ sets.

Third row are 春風得意, Chun Feng De Yi, (May You Rise High with the Spring Wind).

This can be translated along the following lines; "to be pleased with oneself", "be flushed with success" or "be proud of success" and is a phrase that may be used when referring to the passing of exams, for instance.

The fourth row are I think, 深山鬥法, Shen Shan Dou Fa. A rather challenging set of words for me to understand when placed together! The first two mean "remote mountains" or "deep in the mountains". The second two have two distinct meanings, either "the exercise of magic powers against each other" or "to use stratagems"! So if we use the images on the tiles to help, maybe this is about practising military strategy or martial arts deep in the mountains. I haven't found other references to this phrase anywhere else.

HI, the 深山斗法 mean someone challenge in mountains

Make sure to note the ladies are smoking cigarettes! You can see this row 2 tile #1, and Row 3, tile #3!  Many collectors have to deal with cigarette damage on tiles, but here the tiles themselves have smoking scenes, probably to make the ladies seem more elegant and cosmopolitan, as they thought at that time. Interior design elements abound, including tablecloths and fabric patterns on the chairs.

A completely different kind of location is shown on Tile 1, Row 1: a lady is standing on round circles. These circles refer to clouds, meaning the scene is taking place in the Heavens.

Screen Shot 2014-05-06 at 2.37.41 PM

These are typical of the remaining tiles from the set. You must have immediately noticed the beautiful White Dragon, seen here as four butterflies.

metrenYiQingbirdon tree2

This lovely work of art was done by Ren Yi who lived from 1840 until 1896, and it is part of the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.You can see a bird with a crest on its head, perched on a tree branch. It is believed this is a kingfisher, also known as ribbon-tailed bird, prized for its beauty.



This scroll, also in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum, was painted by the Chinese artist Shen Nanpin who taught art in Japan during the Qing Dynasty. You can see the long tail feathers which give the bird its name.

On One Bams we usually see standing birds, or swooping birds, usually pheasants, peacocks, cranes and swallows. The following are more unusual birds.



Above is a rare One Bam. We see a bird with a crest on a branch. It is not so dissimilar to the one above, and it is believed to be a kingfisher although the tail is not as long as we would expect.


DSC_0659 bird

This one above is also believed to be a kingfisher, sitting on a thin bending branch.



This one is too, also sitting on a stylized stalk of bamboo. A kingfisher on bamboo may mean birthday wishes: bamboo is a  pun for "congratulate." (Bartholomew)



Although this one obviously is not a bird, but a bamboo sprout, it too is seen "perched" on a bamboo stalk.

Our thanks to Mahjongmahjong for some of these images.