bird and creature Flowers

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

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Recently a friend took a beautiful photo of mahjong tiles "spelling out" 2016, in the NMJL way of play which asks for 2 Flowers, followed by 2 1 and 6 of each suit , allowing the White Dragon to serve as zero. (In The National Mah Jongg League way of play the White Dragon is the zero when "spelling" out the year.) It is a wonderful "hand" showing some of the best tiles in each set.

I thought it would be fun to have readers send in their favorite sets "spelling" this out too. So, if you can, please take photos starting with 2 Flowers, then the Dots, Bams and Craks, and email them in to me.They will be part of the New Year's Mahjong Treasures post. I will not share your identity unless you want me to. If there is a story to the set, I'd love for you to share it with me and I will include it here as well as on the facebook group Mahjong Memories. Please become a member of that group if you like.

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The top set is a lovely Chinese bakelite one, with beautiful unusual Flowers, the One Bam hawk over the globe, and the frame White Dragon. The One Bams resemble both golf tees and flat-head screws.

The bottom set is Lung Chan, known for its lovely suite of bird Flowers, two of which are seen here. The tiles are two-tone with a lovely blue on the bottom.

 

 

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If anyone tells you "Mahjong is for the birds," you might respond "How right you are! Mahjong is and has always been about the birds." The game was named the game of sparrows, because of the noise of the tiles on the table. And, almost from the beginning, designers and carvers knew that beautiful bird One Bams could be the selling point for sets. That is why only the best carvers made the One Bams, and the Flowers. The workshop that produced this bone and bamboo Mahjong set certainly had very skilled carvers. The suits are elaborate, with a somewhat simple flying peacock One Bam.

But oh, these Flowers:

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One of my friends is a serious birder, and she helped with some of the bird identifications, although she said that some liberties had been taken with the renderings. But here are what she thinks the birds are:

top row

#3 parrot

#2 heron, ibis or stork

bottom:

#1 dollar bird or hawk based on flat head and the way it is sitting

Anyone else have any ideas?

There's a new ebook with this title, Mahjong is for the Birds, one that helps people to identify vintage plastic sets and get an understanding about their relative value. You can find it at www.mahjongmahjong.com

 

 

carp from the Japanese Mahjong Museum
carp from the Japanese Mahjong Museum

I thought it might be fun to really get a good look at some of the marvelous treasures that were in the Japanese Mahjong Museum. For those of you who don't know, the Museum was founded in 2002 by a Japanese publisher, Mr. Kyouitirou Noguchi, and its collection was the finest in the world. Soon after Mr Noguchi died, the collection was sold. We all have high hopes it can once more be put on display for everyone to enjoy and study.

In the meantime, there are two wonderful catalogs of the collection. The photographs are extraordinary. The sets run the gamut from those made of  paper to ones made of cloisonné, and silver. The catalogs themselves have become collectibles. The set today is on page 14 of the soft cover catalog.

The game is called "The Officials Promotion Tiles" and it closely resembles some of the variants of the suits we see in Mahjong. Although not technically Mahjong, the set is very similar to what we have been seeing. And it's really pretty to look at!! The color palette is unusual, with the addition of the gold paint, and the blue is a lovely shade.

Carp have great meaning to the Chinese.

From Primaltrek.com

"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". 

and

"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."

Given that this set is all about Officials getting promotions, certainly the second meaning of the image has its appeal.

needle nose fish
needle nose fish

 

These fish were really hard to see as fish at first. But after looking at it for a bit, I was able to make it out. These fish do live in the waters around China. Don't you love the red at the tip of its nose?

needle nose fish
needle nose fish

The next fish is a bit more common on Mahjong tiles: the goldfish. I think this one has a great bit of spirit! He almost looks like he's smiling.

goldfish
goldfish

The goldfish is a symbol for wealth because the way goldfish is pronounced in Chinese. The first syllable is the same as "gold" and the second the same as "jade."

 

fish
fish

I am not sure what this fish is, but I like his looks!

Finally, from another suite of Flower tiles within the same set

turtle
turtle

Imagine getting that much personality on a really small turtle on  small tile! The tortoise, or the turtle in China, is a symbol of longevity. They also symbolize strength and endurance.

You can now follow me on Twitter!

@MahJonggGregg

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:

www.mahjonggtheartof thegame.com

To order it click here:

http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/mah-jongg-ann-israel/1118759459?ean=9784805313237

or here from Amazon

http://www.amazon.com/Mah-Jongg-Collectors-Guide-Tiles/dp/4805313234/ref=sr_1_7?ie=UTF8&qid=1414844427&sr=8-7&keywords=mah+jongg

 

 

 

 

Scroll by Xie Zhiliu from the 1930s, in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Scroll by Xie Zhiliu from the 1930s, in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

This lovely scroll combines many of the themes we have seen before: flowers, rocks and a butterfly. The flower here is a lotus, a flower much loved by the Chinese.

From Primaltrek:

Because the Buddha is often depicted as seated on a lotus, the lotus is considered a sacred Buddhist symbol (one of Eight Auspicious Symbols) representing purity and detachment from worldly cares.

The lotus signifies the seventh month of the lunar calendar.

The Chinese word for lotus is lianhua (莲花) or hehua (荷花).  Lian is also the pronunciation of the word for continuous (连) and he is also the pronunciation for the word harmony (和) so the lotus has the hidden meaning of "continuous harmony".

A lotus stem and lotus pod shown together symbolize marital harmony and sexual union.

Lotus seeds (lianzi 莲 籽) have the hidden meaning of "continuous birth of children" because the lian sounds like "continuous" (连) and the zi has the same pronunciation as the word for son or child (zi 子).

Examples of lotus charms can be seen at Open Work Charms, Pendant Charms, Lock Charms, Marriage Charms, and Boy Charms.

And I thought you'd enjoy this scene of children flying a kite shaped like a butterfly, found on Quan Dong's auction website:

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Certainly butterflies play an important role in Chinese life, in art and in play.

As we mentioned in the last post, butterflies are symbols of long life, joy and warmth (Primaltrek)

These delightful creatures often appear on mahjong tiles, but sometimes you have to look really carefully:

Butterflies appear at the corners of the tile
Butterflies appear at the corners of the tile

In the tile above, the butterflies form the frame around the Crak. Who says Craks have to be boring? I also love the way the number 1 is worked into the side of the "frame" instead of the top where it would interfere with the butterflies.

four split Mahjong flower pots with butterfly
four split Mahjong flower pots with butterfly

These tiles are examples of the split flower pots we often see, each half of the pot being a bit different from one another, with various plants in each. Because the Chinese often liked to have living creatures in their art, a butterfly can be seen on the bottom left set, the right tile. The butterfly is so well hidden it almost fades into the floral arrangement, doesn't it?

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:

www.mahjonggtheartof thegame.com

To order it click here:

http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/mah-jongg-ann-israel/1118759459?ean=9784805313237

or here from Amazon

http://www.amazon.com/Mah-Jongg-Collectors-Guide-Tiles/dp/4805313234/ref=sr_1_7?ie=UTF8&qid=1414844427&sr=8-7&keywords=mah+jongg

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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:

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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:

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:

www.mahjonggtheartof thegame.com

To order it click here:

http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/mah-jongg-ann-israel/1118759459?ean=9784805313237

or here from Amazon

http://www.amazon.com/Mah-Jongg-Collectors-Guide-Tiles/dp/4805313234/ref=sr_1_7?ie=UTF8&qid=1414844427&sr=8-7&keywords=mah+jongg

 

 

 

1 Comment

metfinchesandbamboo1082-1135

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.

 

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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:

www.mahjonggtheartofthegame.com 

to order the book:

http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/mah-jongg-ann-israel/1118759459?ean=9784805313237

or

amazon.com/gp/product/4805313234/ref=s9_newr_gw_d33_g14_i1?pf_rd_m=ATVPDKIKX0DER&pf_rd_s=center-2&pf_rd_r=0VDFGYSYF35F849MH93Q&pf_rd_t=101&pf_rd_p=1688200382&pf_rd_i=507846

The phoenix, which only appears in times of fair and just rulers, is associated with peaceful and happy times. Patricia Bjaaland Welch's book: Chinese Art A Guide to Motifs and Visual Imagery is the source for the art information in this post. She  writes the phoenix is known in China as the king of the birds, but its origins are complex. Today the phoenix is considered to be a combination of several creatures: the head of a pheasant, the body of a duck, the legs of a crane, the tail feathers of a peacock, the mouth of a parrot and the wings of a sparrow.  The female phoenix has a tail with two feathers, and the male has one with five feathers. When a phoenix is paired with another mythological creature,  a dragon, the phoenix automatically becomes the female partner.

Most of you are familiar with this symbol that appears on the early sets made by the Mah-Jongg Sales Company of America,  that was discussed earlier on this blog. It was simply the Chinese Character for the male phoenix.

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Nowadays we call it the Green Dragon, and many of today's players are unaware of this different character that served as the Green at the beginning of the Mahjong craze.

In the earliest days of Chinese art, the phoenix was shown as a striding creature with outstretched wings, up until close to 600 AD, perhaps a bit of a version of this One Bam, though of course this one does not have outstretched wings:

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The jaunty attitude of this bird is enchanting.

The next Chinese Bakelite One Bam features another phoenix, posing with leg raised in a similar way to what we often see with peacock One Bams.

mahjongmahjong

The two feathers reveals it to be a female. (It is from the personal collection of mahjongmahjong.)

Later on in time, during the Tang Dynasty the phoenix was depicted in flight, and by the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1126) it was shown rising in flight with legs tucked up.

met museum song dynasty

On the above lovely hanging dating from the Song Dynasty in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, we see the phoenix  on the left; the two feathers indicate a female. Interestingly, the tail does not have the peacock-like look to them we normally see.

Met museum ming dynasty

A bit later in time we see the above panel dating from the Ming Dynasty in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The phoenix now looks a lot different, and its tail has the more ornate feathers we expect. Look carefully and you will see four phoenixes.

In yesterday's blog we discussed Five Bats which are symbolic of the Five Blessings: old age, wealth, health, love of virtue and a natural death, an image that frequently appears in Chinese art. The rare dish below was auctioned off at Sothebys. Five bats surround a stylized Shou in the center, and although hard to see the "cavetto," the part of the plate surrounding the center flat part, has three phoenixes. Note they only have two tail feathers, and thus are females.

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Below is a version of a flying phoenix on a Mahjong tile

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It is a female, and she looks it, doesn't she?

Below is the accompanying bird from the same set:

DSC_0746 luan

You can see the similarities to the phoenix, but it really is  a pheasant, indicated by the feathers  that don't resemble those of peacocks.

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

www.mahjonggtheartofthegame.com 

to order the book:

http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/mah-jongg-ann-israel/1118759459?ean=9784805313237

or

amazon.com/gp/product/4805313234/ref=s9_newr_gw_d33_g14_i1?pf_rd_m=ATVPDKIKX0DER&pf_rd_s=center-2&pf_rd_r=0VDFGYSYF35F849MH93Q&pf_rd_t=101&pf_rd_p=1688200382&pf_rd_i=507846

folk art Flowers
folk art Flowers

These delightful Mahjong Flowers seem like folk art to me. They are well carved, but the images are very simple. Although it is hard to know exactly what birds and bugs are seen on the tiles, there is a very faintly visible butterfly on the Red 1, more visible on the Red 2. Birds appear on the Blue 1 and 3 and Red 3 and perhaps 4. I must confess, I love the Blue and Red 4s, although I have no idea what insects or creatures they are!