Monthly Archives: July 2014

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Scan 5

These three photographs are beautiful sides of a Mahjong box that was in the collection of the Japanese Mahjong Museum, and scanned from their catalog. (If you ever can get one of the catalogs of their collection, do so. The sets are magnificent, as are the photographs.)

The children are enjoying their time together, with the groupings beautifully framed by the outside vines winding their way around the sides of the box. The children and vines are made of mother-of-pearl, inlaid into the box, and you can clearly see how the box was carved out for the inlays in the above photograph, which has a few pieces missing. You might notice the one boy with a firecracker in his hand, in the lower left box. The details on the children's faces are just delightful-it's amazing how the smallest etch in the mother-of-pearl could bring these little faces to life.

In Chinese art children were treated as beings who, just by being themselves, could bring great joy to the viewer. And their images carried with them the hopes that the viewers would have many children.


Scan 3


Several of you noticed in the earlier post that the Chinese artists portrayed children the way they actually were, as opposed to the way in which European and American artists handled the subject. The following work was painted in 1760, and is in the Colonial Williamsburg collection. Interesting how serious the children look, even when holding a pet squirrel.




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Above is the Sleigh Ride by James Goodwyn Clonney done about 1845, from the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston. At least here there is a bit of  smile on the faces of both children.


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And from the Metropolitan Museum we have The Golden Age by Jean-Baptiste Joseph Pater (French, Valenciennes 1695–1736 Paris). Although children were portrayed in a bit more realistic way by this French artist, they lack the rambunctiousness of the Chinese ones. It is almost as if the Chinese artists delighted in the naughtiness of children!

We started this post with the beautiful almost one hundred year old mother-of-pearl mahjong box from the Japanese Mahjong Museum, and we will end the post with a very new set, carved by one of the few people who is carrying on the tradition of designing and creating Mahjong sets, Dee Gallo from Red Coin Mahjong. Dee's newest set's theme is based on money, a reference to the original basis for the three suits of the game: coins, (dots) strings of coins (bams) , and lots of coins (craks). On one bouquet of Flowers she features children, very much like the ones we saw on the box, holding oversized coins. You can see the details she included: each child is an individual, with unique clothing and expressions. The coin on tile 2 shows bats flying around the center of the coin. The font of the numbers she uses on the tiles add to the theme of the set: copper plate. Her artistic talent and creativity harken back to the days of old, when master craftsmen created mahjong works of art on tiny tiles, with sets referencing different aspects of Chinese lore and culture.


To see more of Dee's work, click here

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This beautiful ink and color scroll on silk is from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum. Dating from the 13th century, it was done by an unknown artist. You can clearly see children everywhere, chasing each other, riding pretend horses, sliding down slides (who knew these things existed back then?)

Children are one of the most popular themes in Chinese art, and frequently can be seen playing in a garden, as above. According to Ann Barrow Wicks and Ellen B. Avril, in Children in Chinese Art, children have had a prominent place in art since the Song period which lasted from 960 until 1279. Images of children meant a lot to people all over China, to people of all classes.


noble callings on Mahjong tiles, children
noble callings on Mahjong tiles, children


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These unusual hand-carved bone and bamboo Mahjong Flower tiles are from a lovely set of tiles.

Ray Heaton has translated the characters on these tiles for us:
"This set uses some fairly common words/phrases, but the images on the tiles are great aren't they!

Did you know there are two types of Chinese characters, Simplified and Traditional? The Simplified characters were "introduced" in the late 1950s and 1960s to help literacy in mainland China, although simple forms had been used for a long time before then, sometimes with local variation.  I tend to use Traditional characters so sometimes the characters I use may look a little different to those on the tiles if I forget to note a difference!  Much of this character simplification exercise from the 50s and 60s used the previously simplified forms or forms that were used in various handwritten scripts.  Hong Kong and Taiwan still use traditional characters.

So, taking the green Chinese characters first (the right hand set)...

The tiles are The Four Arts or the Four Arts of the Chinese Scholar, and were the four main accomplishments required of the Chinese scholar gentleman.
They are;
qin (the guqin, a stringed instrument. Tile #1,琴),
qi (the strategy game of Go or Chinese Chess, ,Xiangqi', Tile#2, 棋),
shu ( Chinese calligraphy tile#3,書) and
hua (Chinese painting tile#4,畫).

The last two can be particularly difficult to work out as the Chinese characters are often simplified in rather novel ways, a kind of short hand, and they get transposed with each other too.

And the other four, the red Chinese character set, shows the Four Noble Professions:

Tile #1, 漁, Yu, Fisherman
#2, 樵, Qiao, to Gather Wood, an abbreviated way of saying Woodcutter
#3, 耕, Geng, to Plow
#4, 讀, Dou, to Read or to Study

So these represent Fisherman, Woodcutter, Farmer and Scholar.

(You may also see the Four Noble Professions described as scholar, farmer, artisans and merchants.)

You may notice some real differences in the Chinese characters I used here (traditional) with those on the tiles (simplified). For example, tile #1, Fisherman, shows a character closer to 渔, which is the simplified version of 漁.

The tiles again reflect the desire for sons to maintain the family line and to perform ancestral duties; during the Ming period this extended to the hope for Guizi, or Noble Sons, who would excel in their studies and take top honours in the civil service examinations, and so bring wealth and high honour to their families.  So in the Ming period, boys began to be shown not just at play, but also showing 'clues' or symbolic references to wealth, fertility and distinguished success in officialdom.  I think your tiles are, then, referring back to such desires."

The images of the scholars and the noble callings have been given more visual and emotional interest by the artist by using children to showcase these symbols. The Scholar tiles ring as true today as they must have years ago. Don't they sum up to us how parents everywhere want good things to happen for their children?

To learn more about Mahjong's art, you might like to consider this purchase:

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