One Bamboo Peacock and One Dot Parrot (Note curled Dragon and pearl inside the Dot)


Many of us are drawn to the game of Mahjong because of the beautiful tiles, racks, and boxes, and the wonderful mental exercise.  And how we treasure the friendships formed around the table! Finally, here is a set that has it all: different birds on each kind of suit tile, all beautifully carved. When people play with this set, they can combine two of the world's most beloved activities: Mahjong, the most popular game in the world, and bird-watching! The set was a bit of difficult to play with, but isn't that supposed to be part of the game, mental challenges? And we got used to it very quickly. (I actually think it is good, if you possibly can, to play with different sets. It really is great fun.)

Here follow the tiles in the three suits, and a listing of all the birds.


The Bams

Notice how the Bams themselves are made of longevity symbols (those symbols slip into so much of Chinese design, and, if you are lucky, on Mahjong tiles.)


The Dots, perhaps based on Chrysanthemums, one the flowers loved by the Chinese)

The bold colors of the Dots make them easy to identify quickly.


The Craks

Don't you love that #4 Crak? I thought it was a mistake, but I guess not, because here follows the listing of the birds:

Related bird (2 Dot?)


Hang upside down bird (Definitely the 4 Crak)

Lovestruck bird (?)

bird in bamboo forest (2 Bam 5 Bam?)

GeGong bird

QiJiLiao Brid

pearl bird

slender eyes bird

Peacock (I have that one: 1 Bam!)

Mynah (?)

ZiGui Bird

cock (4 Bam)

swallow (5 Bam)

mandarin duck (6 Bam)



red-crowned crane (8 Bam)

parrot (One Dot)

wren (9 Crak?)

BaiZiLian Bird




pearly head bird

BaiYu Brid

fortune-telling bird (!)

Fun, and pretty, right?!

Announcing my latest project: Mahjong is For the Birds, an ebook (the book can be ordered in a color copy version" identifying vintage plastic sets and rating them on a desirability scale. Go to



Rev MJCover 5.10.16



Friend and blog reader Cari took this lovely photo the other day of  the National Mah Jongg League's 2015 hand. It calls for 2 Flowers, followed by the year repeated three times in the three suits. In all hands calling for a zero, the White Dragon is used. What is wonderful about this hand is that many of the most special tiles, the Ones, and the Flowers are used, and often the White Dragon is quite lovely too.

So, I thought it would be fun to celebrate 2016 showing the great variety of styles and images on Mahjong sets.  A big thanks to the readers who took photos and sent them in, including Barney, Tracy, Geraldine, Debra, Gail and Cari, as well as the others. We have a delightful array of sets, showing the great variety of ways designers and craftsmen have added beauty to this fabulous game, ranging from paper cards, to wood, to bakelite, Chinese Bakelite, bone and bamboo, and mother-of-pearl. All of these sets are treasured by their owners, and all have brought great happiness to the players around the table. What better way to celebrate the new year than by looking at art that has made people happy?


A mass-produced and highly collectible Chinese Bakelite set with unusual Flowers and Bams
A mass-produced and highly collectible Chinese Bakelite set with unusual Flowers and Bams


a recent set, made in Asia
a recent set, made in Asia


A Lung Chan set, with two tone (blue) backs. Lung Chan features a suite of bird Flowers.
A Lung Chan set, with two tone (blue) backs. Lung Chan features a suite of bird Flowers.


The tiles in the middle feature mother-of-pearl faces set in wood
The tiles in the middle feature mother-of-pearl faces set in wood


Rust colored Ashton & Rietz
Rust colored Ashton & Rietz


Black Bamboo
Black Bamboo


Delightful Bone and Bamboo set with animal Flowers
Delightful Bone and Bamboo set with animal Flowers


from back to front: Waterbury Button Company, Marke Pehafra, rare Chinese Bakelite two-tone pillow-top set
from back to front: Waterbury Button Company, Marke Pehafra, rare Chinese Bakelite two-tone pillow-top set

The following eight contributions belong to one collector:

Contemporary plastic set
Contemporary plastic set
 wood set
wood set
Contemporary plastic
Contemporary plastic
contemporary plastic
contemporary plastic
miniature plastic traveling set
miniature plastic traveling set
children's Royal Depth Control traveling set
children's Royal Depth Control traveling set
TYL two-tone Bakelite set from the 1940s (backs are chocolate-brown)
TYL two-tone Bakelite set from the 1940s (backs are chocolate-brown)
Contemporary set with Day-Glo colors
Contemporary set with Day-Glo colors


Mother of pearl faces on ebony
Mother of pearl faces on ebony
Beautiful Thick Bone and Bamboo tiles, Peach (longevity) Dots with One Dot encircling a coiled Dragon, different longevity symbols on Craks with Bank-style Chinese numbers, Bamboo shoot Bams with hovering hawk symbolizing China's strength
Beautiful Thick Bone and Bamboo tiles, Peach (longevity) Dots with One Dot encircling a coiled Dragon, different longevity symbols on Craks with Bank-style Chinese numbers, Bamboo shoot Bams with hovering hawk symbolizing China's strength


Chinese Game Company with special Dragons
Chinese Game Company with special Dragons


The wonderful variety of mahjong sets, including paper cards, wood, and Portland Billiard Company (the first set behind the front cards)
The wonderful variety of mahjong sets, including paper cards, wood, and Portland Billiard Company (the first set behind the front cards)


beautiful sloping circles, label unknown
beautiful sloping circles, label unknown


Red MJ
highly carved set featuring crane (longevity) Dots, peacock Bams, and Craks with bats (longevity and prosperity) on the sides


Magnificent Bone and Bamboo set with lacquer box
Magnificent Bone and Bamboo set with lacquer box
Shanghai Luck Bone and Bamboo
Shanghai Luck Bone and Bamboo


close up of Craks 2016
close up of Craks 2016

Here's a close-up of the Craks suit from this hand. If you look carefully, you can see peaches on the top and bottom. Peaches are symbols of longevity in China. And on the left and right there are bats, also symbols of longevity, but because of the way the Chinese word for bat  is pronounced, the bat also symbolizes prosperity. Dragonflies, seen on the White Dragon, represent pureness of character according to Confucian ideals.

So let us hope that 2016 is a year of longevity, prosperity, and pureness of character.







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.

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From the Metropolitan Museum of Art we have this lovely work of art showing finches and bamboo. The bamboo is strong, growing right out of a rock cliff, yet it has a graceful elegance to it. Bamboo attracts wildlife, and birds often are seen perching and flying between the bamboo stalks.


folk art Flowers

Above we see some charming hand carved Mahjong Flowers with a bit of a folk art feel to them. Note the top row #3, a bird flying by a stalk of bamboo! You can recognize the triangles facing the left, the Chinese character for bamboo. What is fun about this type of tile is that it is made of bone and bamboo, so bamboo is present twice, front and back.



Bamboo can even appear on a One Bam, complete with its avian friend. Here we see one carved in  Chinese Bakelite.


bird and bamboo

And here again from another bone and bamboo Mahjong set, on tile (you guessed it!) #3.

My book, written with Ann Israel, is coming out! To see about the book: 

to order the book:




We'll begin today's post with a close up of a painting in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. You will quickly see cranes in water, some flying and even swooping down(!), and bamboo, that every present plant that means so much to the Chinese. It is said that in China alone, more than 300 varieties of bamboo grow. Some of you know that Bamboo was probably the first material used to make mahjong tiles. Craftsmen took the images that were on paper cards and carved them into the harder bamboo surface. Bamboo was cheap (perhaps even free?) and abundant. It is no surprise it appears so often on Mahjong tiles, sometimes as itself in a pot, and sometimes worked into the scenes on the tiles and boxes.


DSC_0671 crane and bam

Above we have the crane and the bamboo stalk, both part of the Bamboo suit, as we all now call it. But calling it bamboo, certainly in the early days of the game, was something of a misnomer. Through the years the suit certainly morphed into looking like bamboo stalks, and thus can properly be called that today, but in the early days it was called String of Cash, close to its original money-based suit inspiration. You may want to read Michael Stanwick's website for more information about the development of the suits.

As many of you already know, bamboo is one of the Four Gentlemen, and is one of the plants frequently appearing on Flower tiles.


The Flower in the top row, tile #3 is the Bamboo. It is one of the easiest Chinese characters to read, I think.



The above top row #3 tile is also a bamboo, looking very much like we would expect.

From Wikipedia:

"The Four Gentlemen, also called the Four Noble Ones, in Chinese art refers to four plants: the orchid, the bamboo, the chrysanthemum, and the plum blossom.[1][2] The term compares the four plants toConfucianist junzi, or "gentlemen". They are most typically depicted in traditional ink and wash painting and they belong to the category of bird-and-flower painting in Chinese art.

The Four Gentlemen have been used in Chinese painting since the time of the Chinese Song Dynasty (960–1279) because of their refined beauty, and were later adopted elsewhere in East Asia by artists in Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. As they represent the four different seasons (the orchid for spring, the bamboo for summer, the chrysanthemum for autumn, and the plum blossom for winter), the four are used to depict the unfolding of the seasons through the year."

So, the Bamboo Flower tiles we have just seen show us Bamboo growing out of a pot, and a close-up of it growing in the ground.



Above we see a much more simplified bamboo, but recognizable nevertheless. Once again on #3, the lower row of tiles, with a slightly different rendition of the Chinese character.


april 24, 2013 hybrid set 017

And here it is again, this time just represented in the Chinese character seen on the #3 tile.

The third and fifth images are from the collection of mahjongmahjong

We end the post by looking at an ink painting of bamboo


dating from the Ming dynasty, in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. You can easily see the nodes on the stalks, and the simple leaves of the plant, very much like what we see on Mahjong tiles.

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

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Bats are well loved by the Chinese, and frequently appear in art. This exquisite porcelain, up for auction at Christies, NY, is expected to bring in over $800,000. You can see bats soaring every which way, including toward the viewer.

Here is a screen shot of the vase:

Screen Shot 2014-03-21 at 9.05.23 AM

If you would like to hear an audio description of this vase, click here

In Mahjong, sometimes bats are quite easy to see, as we saw yesterday. But sometimes, as in life, the viewer needs to work a bit harder to find them.

They can be found on White Dragons.

The following are from the Mahjongmahjong collection. All of these are Chinese Bakelite, but they might be found on bakelite White Dragons too.

Screen Shot 2014-03-21 at 6.44.04 AM

Look at the eyes on the top and bottom of the tile above

Screen Shot 2014-03-21 at 6.34.25 AM

You can see two here pretty easily

Screen Shot 2014-03-21 at 6.36.25 AM

and here too

Screen Shot 2014-03-21 at 6.35.18 AM

The above tile may well be a bat.


april 24, 2013 hybrid set 017

We don't know, but these shapes at the corner of this hybrid bamboo set might be bats, or coins as Michael Stanwick speculated, or perhaps even both!

The next two bone and bamboo tiles are from Katherine Hartman's collection. This time they are on One Dots.

feb 12, 2014 bat set 2a 006-1


You can see the bats, with their pointy ears and triangular faces, at the top and bottom of the tile,  spreading out their wings. They surround two peaches and a Lu symbol. According to Ray Heaton, who translated and interpreted the characters and their meanings

"This tile shows three things, the Bats, Fu, the Peach for longevity, Shou, and the Chinese character 祿, Lu, for Prosperity. So this one tile has all it needs to provide the interpretation of Fu Lu Shou.

Blessings, prosperity, and longevity"

And for another One Dot tile Ray has helped again:

feb 12, 2014 bat set 2a 005-1
"The bats (fu) surround two peaches and a fu symbol. The sound Fu means prosperity, so we have double prosperity and longevity symbols."
Please email us if you have any bats on mahjong tiles in your collection



Oftentimes black bamboo sets have more unusual designs than found on other tiles. This one is no exception. Given the very great challenge of carving such a hard surface as bamboo, the carver did a wonderful job. To make black bamboo mahjong tiles, the bamboo is first dyed, then carved and painted. The black background makes the colors pop.

DSC_0733 one dot

The One Dot makes it a stand-out, with its very delicately carved flower center, with other Dots the circles within circles. The bird is referred to as a darting sparrow by Michael Stanwick. The other Bams are simple rods, and the Craks the simple Wan. Artists working on these black sets handle the colors of the numbers and the suits differently, as can be seen on Stanwick's site as well. The colors here, orange, blue, red and white and the Bam shapes are different from the Black Bamboo set discussed in January. To see that set click here

Stanwick has a few sets with similar One Bams on his website: 

DSC_0889 winds


The Winds, Dragons and Flowers are delightful too. The White Dragon is a blank black tile, the  Green is White, and the Red is red. The Flowers on the right are plum blossom, orchid, bamboo and chrysanthemum, the four gentlemen.

To read more about the Four Gentlemen in wikipedia, click here.

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april 24, 2013 hybrid set 006One of our readers sent along these photographs of a very early and interesting bamboo set. As you know, the first Mahjong tiles were probably carved on bamboo. This set has many markings of early sets, although the presence of Arabic numbers indicates it was probably made for the export market. You can see the similarity of the Flower tiles to this one on Michael Stanwick's website:

It is set # 54

According to the owner of this set seen here:

"This is a hybrid set from the early 1920s, the design of the characters were transforming from the earliest sets. You can see this in the style of the winds, one bam, and flower tiles."

You can see the more rectangular shape of the West, for example. Early sets had Flowers somewhat "framed" by borders.

april 24, 2013 hybrid set 014This swooping crane One Bam


april 24, 2013 hybrid set 017A close up of four of the Flowers.

Ray Heaton has written this very interesting piece about these Flowers and their meanings:

"the green Chinese characters show the names of "flowers" referred to as the "Four Gentlemen" or as as the "Four Noble Ones" though my personal preference is to keep the Chinese terminology, Si Junzi, 四君子 (The Four Junzi).

(Tile #1) 梅, Mei, Plum a Winter flowering shrub, symbolises courage and hope, standing firm in conviction because it blossoms first and bravely stands against the dangers of Winter. The plum blossom is also symbolic of endurance as it often flowers when the snow is still on the ground. The flowers, which may be pink or white, appear before the leaves and this is how they are depicted in paintings. There's a Chinese saying "...bitter cold adds keen fragrance to plum blossoms..."

(Tile #2) 蘭, Lan, Orchid, an indicator of the Spring and stands for humility, modesty, beauty and refinement. It is the delicate wild orchids that are referred to as they tend to grow in inaccessible areas such as crevices in rocks overlooking rivers or streams, and you could easily walk past without noticing them.

(Tile #3) 竹, Zhu, Bamboo, a Summer flower. Perceived as upright, strong and resilient while still being gentle, graceful and refined. The bamboo is symbolic of both physical and mental strength as it will bend and sway in the severest of gales but does not break.

(Tile #4) 菊, Ju, Chrysanthemum, blooms late in Autumn and in facing the coming Winter symbolizes people who maintain their virtue despite adversity and temptation. The chrysanthemum is thought of as a loner, as it prefers the Autumn, which is less crowded with flowers than the profusion in Spring.

So why do I prefer the Four Junzi, well...

Junzi is the term used in the Analects of Confucius, and although can be translated as "Gentlemen" I think this only correct if and when "Gentlemen" is used in a rather loose way to encompass a wide range of moralistic behaviours.

The Analects are the collection of sayings attributed to Confucius who placed at the foundation of human life both the study of books and of human relationships followed by the repeated practice of what one has studied. Becoming a Junzi is the goal of all who practice such self-cultivation and who truly love learning—regardless of their birth, their social status, or gender. You can see how the definitions of each of the "flowers" reflect on the moralistic behaviour of the Junzi.

According to the Encyclopaedia Brittanica, until the late-20th century, many Western scholars and Chinese scholars writing in Western languages translated the term Junzi as “superior man” or “superior person.” From the mid-20th century, however, it was increasingly common to use such translations as “exemplary person,” “gentleman,” or “gentleperson,” which highlight Confucius’s point that the Junzi is not a commander of or ruler over inferior subjects but rather a moral person who leads by his character and conduct."

Thank you, Ray!

And here is some speculation involving the abstract symbols in the corners of the Flower tiles seen above. The question was : can they be abstract bats? Michael Stanwick weighed in:

"I see what you mean. If this set is in the line of sets that I think it might be, then frames should appear on the flowers and Seasons. Your idea is a good one. I have looked through the rendition of bats in the books on Chinese art and symbolism but I cannot find any with the type of body as shown on the tiles.

I have sets with these 'frames' so My initial thought was to place them in the context of my interpretation of what this type of set represents - that is, the style of engravings and the presence of frames etc places it in the same type as the 1901 Laufer set and the 1875 Glover sets. Initially, only the Seasons were framed, as far as the surviving sets tell us, and then the frames started to appear around the enlarged sinograms for the four flowers as well.

If the lines are in fact the developmental remnants of the lines for the frames then what do the little circles represent? My thought is that they might be coins. Their rendition is identical to the circles found in this type of set where the circles are actually represented by a single circle with a dot in the middle. This rendition is found in the earliest set we know of.

So we have two explanations of what they might represent.

You know, Bats and coins are a potent combination. Just a thought."

And more from Michael:

"I should stress that it is easy to fall into confirmation bias. That is why I have tried to fall back on to referring to the old sets and comparing the newer ones with them. Then we can draw some observations from that and then formulate explanations. So my last comment was just a thought. I don’t have any evidence that bats were made out of a combo of wings and coins.

Oh, and of course the frames could just be decorative, without any symbolic meaning. A bit difficult when considering that the Chinese used symbolic representations in just about everything.
IF the frame corners are coins, then I don’t know what rebus they would form in the four seasons combo. The same question too, if the corners are bats."
So, still a mystery but some fun things to ponder!


april 24, 2013 hybrid set 005

And the box. You will often see  a box with this design either in wood or in metal.

april 30, 2012 my collection 004 (1)

This is a lovely example of hand-carved black bamboo tiles. Bamboo was one of the most used materials in the early days of Mahjong, because it was available and very inexpensive. Some think it was the first material ever used for the game of Mahjong in the late 1800s, in the first days when money-based suits were carved onto tiles. The real challenge of bamboo lies with its hard nature; it is very difficult to carve. The bamboo seen here was dyed black and then carved by skilled craftsmen. The black background added real "pop" to the designs. The soaring bird One Bam is charming, and the other Bams are based on the "string of cash" and have pointed tips. The Dots go from the flower One Dot to rings of circles on the other tiles, and the Craks are the simple wan.

The order and appearance of the Flowers is interesting if I am interpreting it correctly. The flowers are plum blossom, orchid, bamboo, and chrysanthemum, the Four Gentlemen, but the plum blossom seems to be missing an outside petal. Also, Chinese seasons tend to begin in spring, which here is tile #2 (orchid).