Monthly Archives: January 2015


These Mahjong tiles represent propaganda images made by Chinese craftsmen. The 2nd Sino-Japanese War, which lasted from July 7, 1937 to September 9th, 1945, was very difficult for the Chinese. The problems began when the Japanese invaded Manchuria in 1931, and many localized battles followed that invasion. But by 1937, the Marco Polo Bridge incident  started an all-out war between the two countries, and it became the largest Asian War in the 20th Century.

Although we can't know what was going on in the minds of the Mahjong craftsmen, it seems that China wanted soldiers to defend China from the invaders.  And interestingly, as we saw earlier in the Mysterious Case of E. A. R. Fowles, Mahjong tiles sometimes provided the medium for the message. Craftsmen wanted to let the world know how the Chinese felt about the war and that they were going to fight back against the invaders, with perhaps a hope that others would help them too.

Once again, Ray Heaton has translated these tiles for us:

"The tiles say 奮勇殺敵, fenyong shadi, "to summon up courage to fight the enemy" or simply "to fight the enemy bravely".

And 航空救國, hangkong jiuguo, aviation saves the nation."

The top tiles show two Chinese soldiers on the right,  with their Chinese style caps, and two Japanese ones on the left (Rising Sun on their hats)

"Aviation saves the nation" is a saying coined by Dr. Sun Yat Sen, the founder of the Republic of China, right after World War I, in the hopes of developing the aviation industry. He also wanted to train pilots who could serve their country and defeat the Chinese warlords wreaking havoc. The saying continued to be used to rally people to fight to save the nation, and it certainly seems to have been used in that way with these tiles. The Chinese star-like emblem can be seen on the plane's wings.

It is possible the Chinese carvers were inspired by some of these posters, taken from this website:



Hand-To-Hand Fighting

Notice that swords were being used in battle.

The United States government and its citizens helped China during its war with Japan. Many citizen groups raised money for the Chinese people.

I found a very interesting website if any of you are interested in learning more about these war years: One of the articles features propaganda posters that appeared at this time.

One of the articles features some recent aviation paintings by a very talented artist Roy Grinnell.

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To learn more about Mah Jongg, you might want to take a look at this book that I wrote with Ann Israel, published by Tuttle. To see more about it:


To order it click here:

or here from Amazon


Many people have written in asking how to tell if their Mahjong set is hand-carved.

It is a bit more complicated than you might think. But for purposes of this website we will consider hand-carved Mahjong anything that was not manufactured in bulk and has some human control over the images of the tiles.

Dee Gallo is an artist who has been able to figure out  many of the lost techniques of the old Mahjong craftsmen. She designs and creates her own mahjong sets in addition to being able to copy or create tiles that are missing from other vintage sets. She writes in our book Mah Jongg The Art of the Game that once the game became really popular in the 1920s, craftsmen were not able to keep up with the demand and they had to shortcut their carving process. Bone tiles had images transferred to them with branding irons, perhaps making the tiles easier to carve. But I think people had to carve where it was branded, clean it up a bit, and painters always painted the tiles. If all of your tiles look exactly alike, you don't have a hand-carved set.

I would imagine a pantograph could be used on softer materials such as French Ivory and Chinese Bakelite, probably when the tiles were still soft:

From wikipedia:

"A pantograph (Greek roots παντ- "all, every" and γραφ- "to write", from their original use for copying writing) is a mechanical linkage connected in a manner based on parallelograms so that the movement of one pen, in tracing an image, produces identical movements in a second pen. If a line drawing is traced by the first point, an identical, enlarged, or miniaturized copy will be drawn by a pen fixed to the other. Using the same principle, different kinds of pantographs are used for other forms of duplication in areas such as sculpture, minting, engraving and milling."

From the Worlds of David Darling website:


You can see how following the lines of the bigger image can create lines on  the smaller sized mahjong tile.


These are lovely French Ivory tiles made by Piroxloid. Although the color is off (sorry!) you can see that each tile is exactly the same. The C on the Red Dragon is perfect.


You can see a bit of shakiness to the lines. This tile would have been carved with a pantograph, especially given that this material is flammable!

DSC_0116 5 dots

These 5 Dots are obviously not done with a branding iron, at least not one that has all the Dots in the same place. You can see the spacing is different, but it is believed an iron would have been used for each Dot. I think the 5s were hand-carved given that there is variation.

DSC_0118 9Crak

From the same set, it looks like the Crak character was done with a branding machine as were the Chinese number 9s. The Arabic numbers look hand-carved because there are tiny differences.

DSC_0112 west

These are from another set. The tiles look very similar to me, so perhaps a branding iron with all the information on it was used, including the numbers.

DSC_0112 craks

It is clear this set was hand-carved, at least the Craks were. The Wans are different shapes and sizes.

Majong-1-gregg's 4 parrots set

A wonderful Chinese Bakelite set that may have been hand-carved, possibly using a template of some sort. Certainly the claws of the bird are different in each, as are the chest feathers. The leaves are different too. And because of the hand carving each bird has a different expression. Be sure to notice the meanders around the outside ring of the One Dot and the abstract bats at the top and bottom of the White Dragon.

Majong-1-4 cb phoenix

These phoenix may have also been hand-carved using a template. There are minor differences, giving each tile a unique look. The #1s were added by a later owner who needed to know these were the One Bams.

To see some of Dee Gallo's work, click here

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To learn more about Mah Jongg, you might want to take a look at this book that I wrote with Ann Israel, published by Tuttle. To see more about it:


To order it click here:

or here from Amazon


The above image is from the Harvard Museum.

There's a Chinese legend about Liu Hai and the three legged toad.

From Primal Trek:

"Liu Hai and the Three-Legged Toad

Liu Hai (刘海) is one of the most popular members of the Chinese pantheon of charm figures and represents prosperity and wealth.  There are a couple of versions of the story which have come down through history.

Liu Hai was a Minister of State during the 10th century in China.  He was also a Taoist practitioner.  One version of the story says that he became good friends with a three-legged toad who had the fabulous ability to whisk its owner to any destination.¹  This particular toad had a love not only for water but also for gold.  If the toad happened to escape down a well, Liu Hai could make him come out by means of a line baited with gold coins.

The second version of the story is that the toad actually lived in a deep pool and exuded a poisonous vapor which harmed the people.  Liu Hai is said to have hooked this ugly and venous creature with gold coins and then destroyed it.

The story of Liu Hai is frequently told as "Liu Hai playing with the Golden Toad".  There is a hidden meaning here.  The Chinese word for "toad" is chanchu (蟾蜍).  Sometimes, Chinese will only say the first character chan (蟾).  In some Chinese dialects, the character chan has a pronunciation very similar to qian () which means "coin".  Therefore, a storyteller reciting "Liu Hai playing with the Golden Toad" could be heard by listeners as "Liu Hai playing with the gold coins".

There are many plays on words in the Chinese language and thus in representations in art.




I love this old woodblock print, of Liu Hai and the toad. It is easy to see Liu Hai enticing the toad to give up his coin . It clearly shows us the string of coins that were the inspiration for the bamboo suit, with a string through that hollow center of the coin.




You can read more about that ancient way of carrying coins in this post

We often see Liu Hai on Mahjong tiles too, with his three legged toad and string of coins. On this delightful pair of tiles you can see the toad with a coin above his head, and Liu Hai with his string of coins, perhaps having just lured the toad out of the well.

DSC_0116 newer

Knots and thus tassels were important forms of art to the Chinese, and appear over and over, including as in the abbreviated form seen above with Liu Hai's string of coins, and on other Mahjong tiles as well.

Here's a photo I took to celebrate 2015:


You can see the tassels at the end of the endless knots in the Wind tiles. (Those of you who have been following this blog will also recognize the presence of two fish, representing marital harmony, and peaches and bats surrounding the Craks, symbols of longevity. The shrimp are symbols of flexibility. Dragonflies represent summer, but I just learned that when associated with White, as we see for the White Dragon, they represent pureness of character, one of the five happinesses: long life, good health, wealth, good moral character, and a natural death.)

More on tassels and knots can be found here:


You can now follow me on Twitter!


To learn more about Mah Jongg, you might want to take a look at this book that I wrote with Ann Israel, published by Tuttle. To see more about it:


To order it click here:

or here from Amazon




There are times that some people just get lucky. 

Here's a photo of one lucky find.  To begin with, it certainly is an unusual box, with the very tall brass handle and big brass fittings. The inside is just as wonderful, but you will have to wait to see it!

02082011 979

I recently received this email from a reader:

"Thank you, I have no prior knowledge of these so your help is invaluable. It was posted on a vintage facebook group I am in and I was drawn to it for some reason..  I had to have it, I just loved it.  I purchased it needing some tlc for $50 aud.

The lady found it in her bathroom 10 years ago when she purchased her home in Fremantle, Perth (Australia). I bought it 3 days ago in the same condition she found it. The only piece of paper that came with it is written in Dutch 

On some tiles the brass had separated from the timber base, I have glued both them and drawers back together. One drawer is missing the back piece, (I have not replaced the piece, not sure what to do about that) everything else is intact. I have not cleaned the tiles, I am reluctant to until I know more about it. The history is important to me and I would be devastated if I ruined the story.

Most of the set is glued together, no pins on the tiles just some type of adhesive. The drawers and handles are glued, however the runners are brass, these have screws. The screws are small and with the angle its hard to see if they are machine made. I could see circles on one though so I suspect handmade but cant be sure.

The base of the cabinet has some residue adhesive on it, and you can see some brass pins, as the front of doors also overhang the base, I suspect there is a missing base plate. The cabinet is very heavy for its size. Someone has suggested it may be palm wood. The back corners of the cabinet are dovetailed, to my eye these are handmade by someone very skilled. There are slight irregularities which indicates to me a machine was not used (keep in mind though I can only compare from what I know about antique furniture, I have never looked into something so small before)

The pieces (tiles) measure 32mm long x 21mm wide x 16mm deep. There are irregularities in the engraving so this also tells me handmade. The two dice have a blank side for the one and the four is painted red. 

There are no markings that I can see on anything at all. 

Under the handle there is a small rectangular mark, I wonder if something had of been glued there at one stage."

So now for the big reveal:

A five drawer chest

02082011 986

You will notice the tops of the tiles are brass, glued onto the wood backing.   Everything about this set is unusual. The Wind indicators are octagonal painted brass pieces, that fit into the large piece with the four big screws. The dice and the counters are also metal. I love the brass counters with the red trim on some of them. That blue color of paint is rare.

02082011 994

Looking at the set like this, I get a nautical feeling about it. Certainly those big rounded screws around the wind indicators bear a resemblance to portholes on ships, such as this one from the mid 20th century. Brass was often used for ship fittings.

Screen Shot 2014-12-30 at 7.59.38 AM

Many portholes have three screws to hold the window in place, but not all as you can see above.

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The carvings are highly unusual, with great style.

02082011 987 1-3

The Crak characters look like European versions of the design, as do the renderings of the Chinese numbers which are also highly stylized. I love the way these three numbers almost build to a triangle. The Arabic numbers are very clearly carved, with elaborate versions of the numbers.

02082011 987 5-9

Look at the way the Chinese 7 is carved. It really looks like Neptune's trident to me:


Here's Neptune in a statue in Virginia Beach, VA, with his trident which is quite similar to the Chinese 7, right?

The One and Two Dots have stars inside

02082011 994 close up

The One and Two Dots which are more elaborate than the other Dots which are circles within circles. To me these are very similar to the Nautical compass, or Rose Compass, with the two outside circles surrounding the eight pointed star:


This image is from:


The 7 Dots has a different design too, although we have seen this before on some other sets:

02082011 987 7


The Bams are unusual too:

02082011 987 1and2

It almost looks as if  the Two Bams are tied with a ribbon.


The Flowers, and there are only four as is common in many types of play:

02082011 987 floers

You will see the plants associated with these designs:

plum blossom, orchid, bamboo and chrysanthemum, but all lacking the Chinese characters we often see. I don't know the reason behind the "pip" on the top of the tiles, unless they are there to readily and quickly identify the tile by touch as a lucky or bonus tile.

Here is the translation of the piece of paper found with the set:

"Environmental pollution the Chinese way.

The government of the British Crown colony Hong Kong has, in the context of their environmental defensive, started to combat the Chinese passion: the game of Mahjong.

According to the government, the noise of the mahjong tiles on the gaming tables, disturbs the evening calm of the highly populated areas of Hong Kong, in a irresponsible way.

The government however does think twice before forbidding mahjong. Instead it suggests to cover the tables with cloth to hush the echo."

Many of us know how futile it would be to ban the playing of Mahjong; table covers are a much better way of dealing with the noise problem!


Some closeups of the box, so that you can see the wood used and the brass runners for the drawers:



Reader Tony Watson has weighed in with some thoughts about the wood used:

"I've had a really good look at the wood on these tiles; it's definitely NOT palm, the nearest thing I can associate it with is Laburnum, looking at the side grain. But the end grain is so straight, the tree diameter would need to be massive not to show any curvature so I don't think the wood is 'natural'.
I think this is plywood, but not your ordinary stuff; I think it's a load of veneers glued together - thats the only way I can see to get the grain looking the same on the end and the side; most evident on the edges of the top panel of the box. Down the side at the dovetails, you can see that the sanding has revealed the layers of the veneers (I think?) Don't know what the wood is, but it has flecks like beech, but so does iroko, so this might be a better candidate? "


Given that Fremantle is a major port in Australia, I would hazard a guess that the set was made for someone in the shipping business, perhaps a ship's captain who spent time in Europe, hence the piece of paper with the notice about noisy mahjong players translated at the beginning of the piece.

The sharp edges of the tiles indicate that the set was not made in China since the Chinese don't like sharp edges. The set's carvings somewhat resemble the mother-of-pearl one we saw earlier this year.

What a wonderful, probably one of a kind, find.


You can now follow me on Twitter!


To learn more about Mah Jongg, you might want to take a look at this book that I wrote with Ann Israel, published by Tuttle. To see more about it:


To order it click here:

or here from Amazon