Monthly Archives: February 2016

Scenes from Ruse of the Empty City, from Romance of the Three Kingdoms


Although I have written about this before, I thought you would enjoy seeing the same story on a couple sets of tiles, and the actual opera.There are many scenes on Mahjong tiles that are parts of Chinese operas. For those of you who do not know, Chinese operas are very different from others. Of course there is some singing, but the singing is minimal. Operas have a lot of music, dancing, pantomime, acrobatics, and always fabulous costumes and sometimes facial painting. Both the costumes and make-up help the viewers understand the status and personality of each character.

On today's post you can see scenes from two different sets of tiles, seen above and in the lower row below, all telling the same story.

flower-BB33 flower
Ruse of the Empty City on the bottom row, courtesy of


Chinese operas celebrate stories known to all Chinese, often taken from the 14th Century book Romance of the Three Kingdoms. The above story, Ruse of the Empty City, from that book, is based on Zhuge Liang, the Prime Minister of Shu State who, during wartime, was left in a city far from the battlefield. The only people in the city were old and incapable of fighting or defending the city. It had been thought they were safe, but the enemy general, not knowing the city was basically empty, decided to attack it. Zhuge Liang decided the only way to survive was to act non-plussed, welcoming the enemy, hoping the enemy would feel they were walking into a trap. Zhuge  got up on top of the city wall and played a musical instrument, and had some of the old men sweep the street, as if preparing for the enemy to walk into the city. The enemy, startled by what they perceived to be an invitation into a trap, quickly left, and the city was saved.

I thought you might enjoy seeing a real opera, showing this story-line. You can see how closely the tiles mimic the real opera scenes, costumes, head-pieces, city walls and all. You will see the people sweeping the fans, the headpieces, etc.These scenes start around the 1:08 mark. Just click on the triangle in the middle of video to start it. You might even want to start the video from the beginning to take in all the unusual costumes, masks, and props.



This darling monkey is one of the 12 signs found on a set of charming Mahjong racks made in Asia. The small pieces of bone are inserted into the wood rack and the wood is painted black.



And above are tiles sitting on that rack with the year 2016, led off by a Flower with an image of the Monkey King, Sun Wukong, a beloved character in Chinese stories. He is a major player in the novel Journey to the West. The Monkey King often appears on Chinese Bakelite tiles; this is the only set I have seen (that I can remember, anyway!) with this character on bone and bamboo tiles.

Sun Wukong frequently appears in Chinese operas, as you can see below, in a photo taken from Wikipedia.



I went to a Chinese New Year luncheon the other day, and I was just the lucky winner of Neil Somerville's Your Chinese Horoscope 2016, subtitled: What the Year of the Monkey holds in store for you.

Here is some of what he has to say:

..."throughout the year world leaders will frequently confer and in some cases put past animosities behind them and forge new alliances. ..The United States celebrated the start of its nationhood in 1776, a previous year of the Fire Monkey, and in this one, much attention will be focused on the Presidential election. There will be great debate over the direction of domestic and foreign policy as well as increasing focus on American identity, and the campaign will be passionately fought, with some issues proving divisive and sometimes even causing rifts between party supporters."

Well, I won't do any more excerpts, but he certainly has a lot of this right, at least as far as the current political situation in the States is concerned.

I thought it fun to add this photo of monkeys from the 1920s, I believe, at the mahjong table. I highly doubt they played the game, but they probably enjoyed the tiles. In this Year of the Monkey, let's hope for some good times around the mahjong table, playing a game rich with possibilities, strategy and luck, intersperced with great merriment and camaraderie.


Fox Sunshine Comedies produced a short showing chimpanzees playing the game, with a photo featured in Photoplay magazine.

Thought you might laugh about the background I picked for the "photoshoot." I found something red, a good luck color. And yes, the book was upside down, but doesn't this look like a monkey?


And if any of you want to read about the Monkey King, here is the article in Wikipedia: