bone and bamboo

This is what I would call a pretty nondescript box. Years ago I would not have bothered to open it, thinking there would not have been anything of interest in it. But wrong!! I have learned that there is not necessarily a relationship between the ornate nature of the box and the quality of the set: often great sets come in simple boxes, and wonderful boxes can house simple sets.

I found these images while looking at sets up for auction on ebay. The set itself is incomplete, but the tiles that are left are stunning. It is interesting to note that many sets can have  all the tiles (Suits, and Winds and Dragons) "fully carved" but not all do. Here we have a mix of fully carved and (somewhat) plain although beautiful.

The Bams are lovely. I love the slightly rounded edges of the stalks. The One Bam is the Phoenix, the King of the Birds, holding a peony, King of the flowers. Notice the finely carved details on the bamboo stalks.


The Dots certainly have lovely details, especially the One Dot with the floral center. Obviously six tiles are missing, and replacements will have to be found or blanks located and carved.


But look at the normally drab Winds. Here butterflies surround the Wind characters. These tiles are somewhat similar to the White Dragons we saw on the ebony set. When sets are incomplete and tiles have to be located and subbed in or carved, my dear friend Katherine Hartman designs beautiful White Dragons to be carved instead of the plain white tiles often seen in old bone and bamboo sets. Given that tiles are missing, this embellishing does not interfere with the integrity of the set.


Stylized frames surround the Craks.


The colors are lovely. You have to look carefully, but the Green and Red Dragons have bats at the corners, with longevity symbols on each edge. The Red # flowers probably were all children at play. I have seen that #2 one before, and I never can quite figure out what that child is doing- perhaps he is a contortionist??!! (If you click on the photo you can see it enlarged, to take in all the lovely details.) There are enough blanks to have the missing four Flowers carved, and these are groupings of Flowers that are seen from time to time, so the right Flowers could be carved to add to the set.

So, worth taking a peek , right?

BTW: The set sold for over $3,000. Let's all remember to open any boxes that might contain a  MJ set!!





I have the good fortune to know Allan and Lila Weitz, two wonderful Mahjong collectors from Canada. They send out a card every year. This is the card I got this year. Of course it is always fun to see the two of them, and the lovely boxes and set really caught my eye. Needless to say, although hard to see clearly in the photograph, I knew the set was a beauty. Allan kindly sent me photographs, and the story of the acquisition is at then end of the post.



The box is one of the most deeply carved boxes I have ever seen, with a Foo dog handle and two doors. Already the piece is a stand-out.



This is a very unusual One Bam crane. The other Bams are Bodhi leaves, from the Bodhi tree, important to Buddha. On rare occasions these leaves appear on Bam tiles in Mahjong.

Here is the One Dot-how delightful is this?!



1-law_0009_bThe other Dots are pumpkins, a gourd important to the Chinese. Each pumpkin has a lot of seeds, thus its associated with the wish for many children.



The Craks are surrounded by garlands, with chrysanthemums at the top and bottom. Many of you eagle-eyed readers may also notice the Chinese numbers are different. This number system is the way numbers were written in the Chinese banking world, because the numbers could not be altered on checks and other banking forms.



The Flowers are beautiful and delicately carved. The ones on the right are those plants associated with the seasons, chrysanthemum, bamboo, orchid and plum blossom. And look how thick the bone is! The creature on the Green Dragon looks to be a leopard.


The Red Dragon features a fabulous hawk. If you look closely, the bird is holding a ribbon which surrounds Chung, a symbol for Center, representing China. Many of you know that a hawk  on a globe means Chinese military strength, and I think that is what this means here too.



The winds have plants. The East looks to be a carrot or parsnip, West is a lotus root, North a Bamboo shoot and South a gourd.


Here is the story, written by Allan, about how the set got to the Allan and Lila Weitz collection.

Here is a brief history of set #1

The hallmark of a true collector is patience and knowledge.  For the last 19 years, I have been acquiring mahjong knowledge and am still learning facts every day. Patience was willed to me by my father. He was a perfectionist and in his retirement, built violins by hand from scratch. I observed him working on a front or back for weeks and if he was not satisfied, onto the scrap pile went the piece and he would start again.

 I source my sets from many areas. One area in particular is appealing. There are dozens of small auction houses with websites not associated with platforms such as Invaluable, or eBay. They do not send reminders on key words. Months of patient regular checking can go by without a hit. In November, 2015, a mahjong set poorly described and photographed popped up from a small company in Canada.  My knowledge told me that this was a special set.  If I was  correct, I witnessed two similar sets sell for $8000US and $12000US. I telephoned in my bid the day before and waited. Two days later, my phone rang and I was informed that I had won the set. My heart stopped and I asked the hammer price.   $650Can + 20% . I quickly paid by credit card and instructed the local UPS store to mail the package to me. I had previously done business with this store and they were very efficient. The same day, UPS sent out the box with tracking.  I was able to follow to follow the progress of the package and delivery was scheduled for two days before Christmas Eve. I stayed home all day waiting for the driver and at 5.00pm, the tracking site flashed "Package Delivered" I rushed to the front door and found........nothing. Patience went out the window. What was my next move? I decided to go and search for the box.  It was dark and freezing cold,  The plan was to search in concentric circles from my house. I live on a crescent with about thirty homes. I walked along the middle of the road and checked front doors from left to right. About six homes up I spied a large box in the shadows of the front door. I quickly scaled the stairs to the door and there was a large box. Before touching the box, I rang the front door bell-no answer, I rang a second time- nothing.  I picked up the box and read the address label. Allan Weitz  12.... from UPS.  As I walked down the stairs, I looked at the address of the house posted on a narrow column. It was number 21, But because there was little room on the plaque, the 2 was on top and underneath was the 1. The UPS driver was probably super tired and read the address wrong. I floated home and placed the box on the kitchen counter. Slowly I unpacked the set and my heart stopped again.  The set is magnificent and is listed in my top ten sets.  This is an example of what collecting is all about. 

So, this holiday season, in addition to the really important wishes and prayers we have for family, friends, our country and the world, maybe we can be hopeful something wonderful like this set can show up in our lives too!






Those of you who read this earlier post will remember Mei Lanfang, the Chinese opera star who excelled at performing female roles. Not only did he act, sing and dance, he wrote operas too. Quite the man, he had two wives at the same time, fathering two children with one wife and nine with the other. Not to let any opportunity pass him by, he took on a mistress at the same time, and they lived together for five years!


Mei in his professional life is seen above

from Wikipedia
from Wikipedia

and as he really looked.


In his professional life he was quite revered, and he traveled the world showing his unique style of performing. He had great love for China, and he was a staunch National. Following the Marco Polo Bridge incident during the Sino-Japanese War, the Japanese took over Beijing. The commander of the Japanese army appointed Mei to a high position. (Mei's talent was also appreciated by the Japanese.) Mei was ordered to perform for the Japanese, but he refused to do so. FB friend Richard told me that Mei grew a mustache during the Japanese occupation so that he would not have to perform any operas, especially effective as he excelled in female roles. Mei lived in poverty until the end of the war, at which point he resumed his professional career.

While enjoying stardom he ordered a special mahjong set. I have scanned the photos from the catalog published by the (sadly) defunct Japanese Mahjong Museum. (We do not know where the collection is, but many of us certainly hope that we get to see its treasures sometime soon.)

mei lanfang 2

This is the lovely box his set came in. You can see that it is inlaid with mother-of-pearl. The front and side panels have the often seen flowers in vases, and a teapot (in b). and what looks to be a pomegranate in the bowl on side c. This is somewhat amusing because pomegranates are symbols for hopes of many children, and we know that Mei certainly accomplished this!! The top of the box is inlaid with five bats (five being the lucky number that symbolizes long life, good health, a natural death, good moral  character and prosperity.) And we also have two longevity symbols on either side of the handle hinges.

Thanks to Ray Heaton, we have translations for the beautiful tiles seen below. It is interesting how strong the strokes are in the characters in the upper left, and how delicate the carving is on the Flowers. Perhaps this alludes to Mei's manliness in real life yet his delicacy on the stage. Some of the Flower images are familiar to us, the rolled up painting, the book, the flower, and the Chinese Cauldron. Other images are more difficult to interpret-ideas anyone?

mei lanfang

Ed: I have to assume the Winds have been replaced by the characters in blue, functioning in much the same way in the Chinese form of the game as it would be with Winds, and those characters in red, and green (the plain white being the White Dragon.) are substituting for the Dragons. There are 6 of these characters, all needed for the following translation.

"Here's a link to a description of the opera described in those large characters, 遊龍戲鳳(演劇), you long xi feng yan ju, "The Wandering Dragon toys with the Phoenix".  (I've put the last two in brackets as they mean "to act in an opera" rather than relate to the title of the play, but if we assume all six are to be read together, would, I suppose, read "to perform in the opera the Wandering Dragon toys with the Phoenix".

The flowers, 名伶表演, 古今趣史. Ming ling biao yan, gu jin qu shi. Literally, "the famous actor performs ancient and modern interesting history", I guess should translate more properly to something like "a record of famous performances in operas ancient and modern". Don't you love how the tiles refer to the famous actor performing, or a record of a famous performance?

The banner on one of the tiles says 文明自由, wen ming zi you, Civilization (and) Freedom." (right column, 2nd from the top)  

The symbols in the One Dots are the name of the company that made the tiles!

mei lanfang 1

Mei was a great national, as mentioned before. Many of you will see another indicator of his national pride: the hawk on the globe. This image symbolizes China's military strength, perhaps in this case, wishes for victory in the Sino-Japanese war. The symbol on the Craks is another way of writing the word wan. The unusual symbol on the Craks tiles is pin, the symbol for rank. *

Here follows more Mei Lanfang ephemera, truly an international star. I love the cover of this program! Remember, Mei is on the right!



Hoping you can read these absolutely rave reviews of his NY performances.


It is so interesting to see all the places mahjong can take us, isn't it?

*FB friend Richard pointed out how similar the rank symbol is to the Chinese character for the word "sing." Even if just a coincidence, I love it!


This thick bone and bamboo set has a lot going for it, with its One Bams, and deeply carved One Dots. I also love sets with green Chinese numbers on them;they always seem a bit more special to me than than those with the more frequently seen blue. The Flowers are quite lovely, with stories to tell, and we'll be looking closely at them.



You will immediately notice the delightful perching peacock, sitting on what is clearly a bamboo stalk, seen below. These perching peacocks are among my favorite One Bams on bone and bamboo sets. And given the thickness of the bone you can see that this set sold for a lot of money, and only the most talented of carvers made the tiles.

IMG_4697 (1)

Bamboo stalks feature those nodes, (you can see two on this stalk) and there are bamboo leaves in the background. The One Dot is deeply carved, with the flower within flower center.


IMG_4699 (1)

This grouping of Flowers is the story of  Chang'e.

Ray Heaton translated and interpreted the tiles for us.

"Chang'e Ben Yue," Chang'e flies to the moon. Chang'e stole the herb of immortality and fled to the moon. She became immortal, but sadly, she was cloistered on the moon for eternity. Her moon palace is featured on #4." The palace is placed right in front of the round moon background, and the Chinese character for moon is there on the tile.

Whenever you see those curlycues under something or someone, as can be seen on tile #4, that image represents heaven, thus here her heavenly palace. If they are under a "person's" feet, that person is associated with heaven or is a god. To read more about Chang'e, click here for the Wikipedia write-up)


From Wikipedia, by Ren Suai Ying
From Wikipedia, by Ren Suai Ying

Above is another visual interpretation of her, taken from Wikipedia.


The next set features a story of another maiden, The Heavenly (sometimes called Celestial) Maiden.

IMG_4698 (1)

"Tian Nu San Hua" translates to mean the Heavenly Maiden Scattering Flowers. This maiden is said to be Buddhist in inspiration: Sakyamuni, the buddhist Deity, sent the heavenly maiden to scatter blossoms over the Earth. He told her the petals would not cling to the sleeves of those who had conquered their desires."

from, by a practitioner of Fulan Gang
from Clear Wisdom, by a practitioner of Fulan Gang


Both of these stories were beloved by the Chinese and are operas or operatic plays. The great Mei Lanfang, seen below, wrote an opera about Chang'e. Mei performed her role, and in the photograph you can see the character is holding the stick just like she is on the mahjong tile. Sadly all the videos I could find on line of Mei's performances were of such poor quality that it is not worth linking them to this post, but click here for a write up of Mei. He was quite an incredible man.



Flower tiles tell us wonderful bits of information about Chinese culture and history, and if we follow up on the clues we get on the tiles there is always something fun to learn. From now on, when I look at the moon I'll be thinking about Chang'e. I wonder if she got together with the Man in the Moon-hope so!

We can all be grateful that these sets made for export got out of China before the Cultural Revolution when Mao ordered all Mahjong sets destroyed. At least these bits of Chinese history and culture have been preserved for us to enjoy and play with.


NEWS: This is the first real bone and bamboo set ever to be part of a mahjong solitaire game! Redstone Games has introduced this tile set to their other already existing selections.  How exciting is this!! The download info is at the end of this post.

I found this set in Salem, New York at McCartee's Barn. I have a habit of walking into stores and opening every box that could possibly hold mahjong tiles; I finally got lucky! The carving and the colors are just divine. The tiles are in fabulous shape too, and look how thick the bone is. This must have been the work of a very skilled carver, because only the best craftsmen were allowed to work on sets with the thickest bone, which sold for a lot of money. This set has Arabic numbers and Western letters, so we know it was made for the export market.

The Crane One Bam is lovely, as are the other round end Bams. The Dots are delightful, certainly starting with that delicate Two Dot with plum blossom center, a theme continued through the 9 Dots. The presence of those little details on each flower petal adds to the charm, as do those orange outlines.

The Craks, Winds and Dragons are what we are used to seeing with these old Bone and Bamboo sets. But, once again, we have stunning and unusual Flowers.


These tiles are a fabulous visual interpretation of the four noble callings that existed in Chinese society for hundreds of years. Each man is caught in a moment of activity, of motion, almost like a snapshot. #1 is the fisherman, lucky with his rather large catch. He's sporting a mustache and goatee, and he's wearing a wrap-around shirt, shorts and some kind of soft shoe, like two of the other men. He's carrying his fishing pole over his shoulder. #2 shows us the wood-gatherer, walking instead of sitting and smoking as we often see him. #3 is the farmer, with his hoe over the shoulder. I love that his face is turned away from us, adding to the idea that the carver has captured a brief moment in time. And #4 is the scholar, wearing a robe, a different type of hat, and what are probably wooden shoes. Amazing, right, how many details can be fit into such tiny surfaces?


There are some familiar images on the tiles. The three men, on tiles 1,3 and 4, are all wearing robes and sporting the mustache and goatee look we saw on the other set; only the boy, on #2 does not. #1 shows us a man holding a ruyi scepter, a talisman which symbolizes power and good fortune. This idea of good fortune ties in with some of the messages of these tiles, as you will see. #2 is Liu Hai and the three legged toad, a story that we often see on mahjong tiles. Normally we see him with a rope with coins, but here he has a flower. From Primal Trek:

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.

#3 shows the Chinese character (word) we often see: Fa, the Green Dragon on many sets, meaning prosperity. In the photo with all the tiles, at the top, you can see the set's Green Dragon directly above #3. Tile #4 shows a man about to place a piece of coral in a treasure pot. For the Chinese, coral had a special significance: From Primaltrek:

Coral (shanhu 珊瑚) is included as one of the Eight Treasures and symbolizes longevity and official promotion.

As a symbol of longevity, the Chinese have traditionally believed that coral represents an "iron tree" (tieshu 铁树) that grew under the sea and blossomed only once every hundred years.

Red coral is considered particularly auspicious because the Chinese believe the color red signifies good luck, good fortune, and happiness.

Coral resembles deer antlers and deer are symbols of longevity.

Coral is also a symbol of official promotion because a coral button on the hat identified one of the nine grades of government officials.

Once again, thanks to Ray Heaton, we have a translation for these tiles:

The phrase is 四喜發財, and isn't that easy to translate.  In pinyin it is Si Xi Fa Cai.  Fa Cai is easy enough, "Get Rich" (and it's the Fa character seen frequently, 發, as the Green Dragon), but the first two are more challenging, not helped by how the full phrase is used today.  Nowadays it appears that the most common meaning relates to food, used as the name for a dish of four meatballs!  If we split the phrase up into two pairs then we find them used in mahjong...Si Xi, is used in Hong Kong Mahjong rules in the scoring hands "Four Small Blessings" and "Four Large Blessings" and of course we have, Fa Cai, in Hong Kong rules this means a meld of three Green Dragons.

Si Xi is also used to describe the folk art model "the four happinesses baby figurine"; also called Si Xi Wa Wa, see here,  (If you click on that link you will recognize this figure.)

But looking back, using a dictionary that covers historical uses of phrases, we find Si Xi referring to those things that will cause one joy (and so its use in Hong Kong mahjong rules fits well - four blessings).  These are explained too in the description of the four happinesses baby; “The four great happy moments in life are to enjoy one’s wedding night, to succeed in an imperial exam, to have a welcome rain after a long drought, and to come across an old friend in a distant land."

I expect the phrase was used as a new year expression, wishing you wealth and happiness throughout the year (pretty much as 恭喜發財 is now, which differs in only its first character..."may you have a happy and prosperous new year", Gong Xi Fa Cai).  

It is always so interesting to see how the images do not necessarily correlate with the Characters on the tiles, giving us all a lot to see and think about.

Click below to download the Mahjong solitaire app:

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I just co-wrote a book with Susan West. It's the first book ever to identify vintage mahjong sets and allow the reader to determine the set's relative value: Mahjong is For the Birds. To see more about this, click here





The set is wonderful, with tiles of great thick bone (75% the thickness of the tile is bone. In the 1920s, the heyday of hand-carved sets coming from China, the best bone and bamboo sets had the thickest bone, and only the most skilled carvers were involved with carving those sets.) You can see how fabulous the One dot is, with its brilliant blue slightly squared off interior. The center is the plum blossom, that five petaled flower beloved by the Chinese. The other Dots are flowers, but not plum blossoms. The Bams have the One Bam peacock, frequently seen in Bone and Bamboo sets, and the other Bams have  column-like shapes. (On some of these sets I often think the 8 Bams look  a lot like legs, don't you?)

The Craks are not unusual, nor are the Winds or the Dragons.

Ah, but then the Flowers!!



When you look at all these different occupations seen on the tiles, you can see why Cari K. dubbed it "What's My Line?" after that great old tv show in the 1950s, a time when families used to gather around the black and white television set in the living room and watch game shows together.

But there is something more important going on with these images, and this is what we will look at now.

Ray Heaton has translated the Chinese characters on the tiles:


Top row are 榮華富貴, rónghuá-fùguì, glory, splendor, wealth and rank (a Chinese idiom meaning high position and great wealth).

Looking at the men depicted, it is easy to see that the man on the left is in the military, and the next man is holding a fan (not a glass of champagne as many of us first thought!) We are not quite sure about the next man who seems to be holding a heart, and pointing at it. The furthest right man seems to be a banker.


I haven't come across the bottom row before.

I think they are 紳商學界, shēn shāng xué jiè, meaning something like "the gentry, merchants and scholar society".  I'll need to look this up as I'm sure it must refer to some specific classification of the educated classes.

The far left man looks to be in business, the next man could be a merchant holding an abacus, then comes a student and a man in a religious order.

But Ray does not just stop at translating, he puts things into context, because so much of what we see on Mahjong tiles needs to be understood based on greater knowledge. So here is what he came up with:

Still a bit of a puzzle, so I took a different approach to finding the meaning and how it relates to the tiles.
I think it means, "The Officials Gentry and Business Circles"; the term is used in the following extract from a document (in Chinese) by Gao Pengcheng...
"At the end of the Qing Dynasty, there was unusually active awareness of political participation by a
variety of social organizations (including The Red Swastika) and the general public. One particular event was the campaign of repaying national debt. In 1909, Tianjin Chamber of Commerce called on to form repaying debt association to make advance payment and prevent outsiders from supervising China's finance, which was well received by the officials, gentry, business and literary circles. Although the Campaign was an important social event in the late Qing Dynasty, for lack of systematic historic records, scholars have rarely discussed it in detail"
The term is also used in describing the Red Swastika society, and it's this that I suspect is the association to the tiles. 
The swastika symbol had a very benign beginning.

According to Wikipedia

"It is considered to be a sacred and auspicious symbol in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism and dates back to before the 2nd century BCE."

The Red Swastika Society (世界红卍字会simplified Chinese: 世界红卍字会; traditional Chinese: 世界紅卍字會; pinyin: shìjiè hóngwànzìhuì) is a voluntary association founded in China in 1922 by Qian Nengxun (錢能訓), Du Bingyin (杜秉寅) and Li Jiabai (李佳白). Together with the organization's president Li JianChiu (李建秋), they set up their establishment of the federation in Beijing...  The swastika (卍 wàn; "infinity", "all") in Chinese and other cultures is a symbol of the manifestation of God or its creation...

Generally, its mission was a broad based effort of philanthropy and moral education. It ran  poorhouses and soup kitchens, as well as modern hospitals and other relief works. It had an explicit internationalist focus, extending relief efforts to Tokyo after earthquakes and also in response to natural disasters in the Soviet Union. In addition, it had offices in ParisLondon, and Tokyo and professors of Esperanto within its membership.[2]

And perhaps the Red Swastika Society solves the mystery of why the man seems to have a heart on his chest on tile #3 top line: he really is holding a symbolic heart and his organization was founded to help those in need. Adding to the good work of this charity, one should not overlook the attempts of the wealthy to pay back some of the Chinese debt, an unfair burden that China was carrying based on very poor treaty negotiations by inept and frightened politicians. Anyone who has read Empress Dowager CiXi is very familiar with these issues.

I thought you all, would like to see what a Chinese banker dressed like, not very different from what we see on these tiles. Dee Gallo, whom I celebrated in this post, helped out.


According to Dee, her great-uncle the one of the right side of this pic, wearing the Chinese clothing. His name is Zung Pei-Con, he was a banker with the Bank of Shanghai (still in business in the same building on the Bund). He was also the Russian connection for the brothers' fur and Oriental rug import business to their store in NYC. He married a White Russian lady named Olga and they lived in the International Concession in Shanghai, which was mostly Russians and Germans. My Aunt (his daughter) grew up speaking Chinese, Russian and went to a German speaking school (where she learned English so she always spoke with a German accent!). Shanghai was truly the Paris of the East back in the 30's!


Mahjong really can teach us so much about the world and its different cultures. Thank you Ray for adding this to our knowledge about China.

A lot of learning came from one small set of Mahjong tiles, didn't it?

And if you want to see a bit of What's My Line, click here



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



On this Shanghai Luck set, the Dots are crabs.

Today we are very lucky to have guest contributor Dr. Arjan Gittenberger. Arjan is a Marine Biologist, based in the Netherlands, and he is a mahjong enthusiast. Given his interest in marine life, he was perusing some of the posts on this website featuring Flower tiles with sea creatures. He wrote me this fascinating email, which he kindly agreed to have turned into a post. I think you will be amazed both by the descriptions of the marine life and the skill of the carvers.

Hi Gregg,

We run a company focusing specifically on questions where species identification in the marine environment is of the uttermost importance (mostly marine invasive species related projects). Although I have never been diving or working in Chinese seas I’ve worked for quite some years in the NW Pacific in the waters surrounding Indonesia, Japan, Thailand, Malaysia, etc…

Evidentially I find  the Mah-jong tiles showing sea-creatures very interesting and I’m actually amazed about the details that are visible on the drawings. Looking at your posts about sea creatures on tiles I noticed some details that you may find interesting (and may already know), but which you don’t mention in these posts:

* First the “Shanghai Luck set”:… I assume that it doesn’t simply show sea-creatures. It in fact illustrates the Shanghai cuisine, the youngest among the ten major cuisines in China with a history of more than 400 years, becoming especially popular when Shanghai became a major domestic and international trading port in the later part of the 19th century. The most famous dishes of the Shanghai cuisine concern the Chinese mitten crab (hairy crab) and a dish with “shrimp with colorful vegetables”. See

* Looking at the crabs illustrated on the tiles  of the “Shanghai Luck set” and in other sets illustrated in your posts on crabs on tiles, you can in fact notice several morphological characters that are diagnostic for the Chinese mitten crab (Eriocheir sinensis):

First, on many of the tiles I found illustrated on the internet the brown/reddish fur-like hairs on the claws, and the white “claw tips”, are clearly visible. There are only a few species of crabs worldwide that have such claws with hairs and white claw tips. A second morphological character that is used for identifying crabs  concerns the pattern on its back. These patterns are very crab species specific. As can for example be seen on this Wikipedia picture of the Chinese mitten crab

from wikipedia
from wikipedia

( ) , this crab species has “H” pattern on its back (not present in other crab species), which in fact looks like a square if you look at it from a bit more of a distance from a different angle. In the drawings of crabs on mah-jong tiles you had already noticed that this “H”-like pattern is often engraved on the back of these crabs. A final detail that is only visible on the One Dot crab illustrated on your website (“Shanghai Luck set”), is the number of “spines” in between the eyes of the crab. This number is again very species specific. There are crab species with “in between the eyes” no spines, three spines, five spines, etc…. The Chinese mitten crab (Eriocheir sinensis) has four spines between the eyes, which is also the exact number of spines between the eyes visible on the One Dot.  The carver of this tile in fact appears to be aware of all of the above mentioned diagnostic characters, i.e. the illustrated crab has white claw tips, followed by a zone of brownish hairs on the claws, four spines between the eyes, and a H-like pattern on its back.


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Concerning the habitat of the Chinese mitten crab… On your post about a tile with a fish and a crab on it (The Fish in Chinese Art and Mahjong Part 2), you indicate that the fish is probably “a sturgeon, a type of fish treasured by the Chinese, which is unusual in that it lives in both fresh and salt water, although on this tile you can see the artist clearly intended this to be salt water, given the presence of the crab.”….
I agree with you that the fish is probably a sturgeon. The crab does not indicate that the artist intended this to be salt water however… The red claws of the crab probably indicate that this crab again concerns the Chinese mitten crab. Just like the sturgeon, the Chinese mitten crab is unusual, as one of the only crab species worldwide that does this,  in that it lives in both fresh and salt water. Most of it life Chinese mitten crabs live in fresh water many miles land inwards, but for their reproduction (when the crab is ~2-3 years old) they travel back to the sea. This often happens once per year during which up to thousands of 10-20 cm large hairy crabs may start their trip together at the same time over many miles towards back the sea to reproduce (after which most die and the young swim stream upwards into the fresh water again). To reach the sea they sometimes come out of the rivers/streams and even continue their way over land ( sometimes causing traffic jams, panic, etc. ). In conclusion it is probably not a coincidence that this crab is illustrated together with a sturgeon on the same tile, as they both have the unusual freshwater/marine lifecycle.


In your first post about sea creatures (December 24) you also illustrate a beautiful tile with “a crab on it next to rocks and grasses growing at the bottom of the sea”. The hairy claws and the H on its back in fact illustrate that this again should be considered a Chinese mitten crab. This crab is clearly shown in its fresh water habitat as the grasses on the tile probably concern a freshwater cane species, possibly “ Miscanthus sinensis

( see ).

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Finally concerning the tile with a fish and to the left of it a strange creature.  You indicate that this may be some kind of jelly fish. I agree. As you probably noticed the strange thing about this picture is that, if it is a jellyfish, it is drawn upside down… To my believe it is in fact the “upside down jellyfish”,  Cassiopea andromeda. This is a well-known common species in China/the NW Pacific as it occurs in mashes and mangroves where also most of the crab and shrimp fisheries took/take place. This unique species lies upside down on the bottom with its tentacles sticking up, mimicking sea-grass.  When mangrove fishes get scared away by a predator, they tend to flee into the sea-grass to hide… When they make the mistake of fleeing into the tentacles of this upside-down jellyfish they get stung, die and get eaten. Possibly this behaviour is what is being illustrated on the mah-jong tile. 
Although I haven’t found any specific references about Cassiopea andromeda, this species belongs to the jellyfish Order Rhizostomae from which many species are prepared in various dishes (e.g. within the Shanghai cuisine). As this jellyfish lies in shallow water on the bottom in mangroves, I can imagine that it is relatively easy to collect, and crab/shrimp fishermen would take them along



A picture I took myself in Indonesia of the upside down jellyfish illustrating how the tentacles mimic sea-grass. The young/smaller individuals of this species, look more like the picture on the Mahjong tile, including the stripes/dots pattern.


Here's Gregg again: Isn't it remarkable how much can be learned about the world by looking at mahjong tiles? Not only does playing the game keep us mentally sharp and flexible, and provide opportunities to develop friendships, but it can help us gain more knowledge about different cultures, art and design, and now marine life! Thank you, Arjan for this extra bit of appreciation for our beloved Mahjong tiles.

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: