Chinese Bakelite


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.







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.


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.




1930-41b-1000x1320 1 and 2

We are featuring another war set on this website, representing the war between the Japanese and the Chinese during the 1930s. This particular set has 16 Flowers, and thus a lot of information, all of which deserves study. I am dividing this set into two posts, each looking at eight different tiles.

For many years, resource poor Japan had their eyes on China, their neighbor to the West. This desire for China's resources, among other reasons having to do with a united Asia under Japanese rule, led to the Second Sino-Japanese War which effectively started in 1931. These mahjong tiles seem to deal with events from those years. The carvers possibly were hoping to rally people to combat the more major take-over of China which began in 1937. Remember, Mahjong is a game, something that was played to get away from the troubles of the day, and yet for the Chinese, there was no escape from war time troubles. Given the presence of Arabic numbers on these tiles, this set was meant for export.

Ray Heaton and Michael Stanwick have translated the tiles.

The left column of tiles contains the term: Aviation to Save the Nation, a term we have seen before, coined by Dr Sun Yat-Sen, who had great hopes that the Chinese would be able to develop a strong aviation presence. According to Peter Harmsen, in his very well-researched book Shanghai 1937 Stalingrad on the Yangtze, during the 1930s, there were actually two flight schools. One was overseen by the Italians, who were sent to China by Mussolini. Il Duce wanted to ensure that Italy would have a good part of China's aviation business. That school was very poorly run, so much so the planes that had crashed were counted as being ready for flight!  And equally sad, the training program graduated everyone, even people who were totally unfit pilots. Luckily another flight school, out of Hangzhou, was doing a better job. In other words, the Chinese were no match for the skilled and very well prepared and outfitted Japanese.

Of course if you are familiar with the E.A. R. Fowles set, you will have already seen a tile similar to the 2nd tile in the first column. We see hopes that the Chinese will be able to become strong enough in the air to be able to drop bombs on their Japanese enemies.

The 2nd column is very interesting: the Characters at the tops of the tiles translate to move troops to recover territory, something that we have seen on other sets of tiles. A few of the gates may represent towns, such as Tile #2, Ji Lin, which is in Manchuria. Tile #3 translates as Yan Jiang, or Flood Yangtze River. 1931 is the year the Japanese invaded and took over Manchuria, "prompted by" the Mukden incident (and you can read about that in the Wikipedia article linked below). It was right after the terrible flooding of the Yangtze River in July and August, which was responsible for the deaths of between 145,000 and 4,000,000 people. I don't know if there is cause and effect here, but maybe the government of China was coping with this flood, and the Japanese took advantage. Or perhaps the wall merely marks the timing of the take over of Manchuria.

The railroad sabotage on the Japanese line which ran through China, which was blamed on the Chinese although it had been carried out by the Japanese, was termed the Mukden Incident. Please pay attention to the amount of "destruction" done to the tracks

From Wikipedia:


Japanese experts inspect the scene of the 'railway sabotage' on South Manchurian Railway

Colonel Seishirō Itagaki, Lieutenant Colonel Kanji Ishiwara, Colonel Kenji Doihara, and Major Takayoshi Tanaka had laid complete plans for the incident by May 31, 1931.[8]


A section of the Liǔtiáo railway. The caption reads "railway fragment".

The plan was executed when 1st Lieutenant Suemori Komoto of the Independent Garrison Unit (独立守備隊) of the 29th Infantry Regiment, which guarded the South Manchuria Railway, placed explosives near the tracks, but far enough away to do no real damage. At around 10:20 PM (22:20), September 18, the explosives were detonated. However, the explosion was minor and only a 1.5-meter section on one side of the rail was damaged. In fact, a train from Changchun passed by the site on this damaged track without difficulty and arrived at Shenyang at 10:30 PM (22:30).[9]

This incident ultimately led to the Japanese take-over of Manchuria, a loss that was crushing to many Chinese people, who felt they had lost part of their country. Perhaps this was the "lost territory" the mahjong carvers hoped to inspire the Chinese people to recapture.

Mao Zedong was well aware of the power of propaganda. He was the head of the Propaganda Department. Zhang states:

The CCP leader Mao Zedong commented in 1937:

"Our party should strictly obey the following guidelines: [we will] spend one cent [of effort on] fighting against the Japanese [directly on the battlefield]; two cents on marginal expenses; seven cents on recruiting [new Party members]; ten cents in propaganda."[77]

To read more about the precursors of the war, you might want to look at Wikipedia:

For those of you who don't yet know, there is a wonderful magazine, The Mahjong Collector. I am eagerly awaiting my copy.

You can find out more by emailing them at this address:


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


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The above image is from the Harvard Museum.

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

From Primal Trek:

"Liu Hai and the Three-Legged Toad

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

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

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

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

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




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




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

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

DSC_0116 newer

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

Here's a photo I took to celebrate 2015:


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

More on tassels and knots can be found here:


You can now follow me on Twitter!


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


To order it click here:

or here from Amazon




Written by guest writer WS


In his  semi-autobiographical novel EMPIRE OF THE SUN, G. J. Ballard describes what befell British citizenry in Shanghai China during the Japanese Occupation of the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945). It depicts events immediately following December 7, 1941, when Imperial Japan, having attacked Pearl Harbor, took over and occupied the long-established American and British settlements of the city. British and American civilians were rounded up by Japanese soldiers, and many were marched to their deaths in brutal Japanese internment camps. Ballard was lucky; his parents survived the death squads and he was reunited with them after the war. 

Others weren’t so fortunate.
A small leather beat-up Mah Jong case tells another tale about another family who might have escaped the horrible chaos of 1941 Shanghai. 
Sometime before the Autumn of 1939, a certain Mr. E A. R. Fowles, for reasons currently unknown to us, booked first-class Stateroom No. 205 on the Japanese N.Y.K. liner M.S.Terukuni Maru scheduled from Shanghai to London. We know all this because his name is on the luggage sticker affixed to the Mah Jong case. 
What is missing on the sticker is a date of embarkation. Also unknown is who he traveled with. Moreover, until I can find a deck plan of this liner, I don’t know if this was a suite or a single room.
We are not exactly sure who this man was, but according to immigration records, there was a Mr. E.A.R. Fowles residing in Shanghai who went there with his wife and three children in 1925 on the P&O Liner Morea. We don’t know Fowles’ occupation, but most likely he worked in the British finance world along the Bund in Shanghai and lived quite elegantly with Chinese servants in the British Settlement District.
Here’s what else we know about our Mr. Fowles; he was a prominent “rate-paying” resident on Shanghai’s Municipal Council, present at its Annual meeting on April 14, 1937 and accorded “two votes” out of a total of 251.
Screen Shot 2014-09-07 at 8.17.21 AM
At any rate, the total number of that august Shanghai Council, with a list composed mostly Anglican surnames, numbered just 334.  Since there were 60,000 business people—not including Chinese— living in Shanghai since the early 1930’s, the Fowles family was on quite an exclusive list. 
E.A.R. Fowles’s name doesn’t appear anywhere again on the 468 page report.
Fowles, along with the Council was charged with maintaining a standard of living for the Brits in the long-established “International Sector” extant since the 1800’s— from The Library and Orchestra Committees, to the drinking water, medical services and the police force. It also charged its ex-pat community to coexist with the Chinese, their Chinese servants and the increasingly hostile Japanese military. The 1937 minutes for The Council state what must have become a fast developing ad-hoc mission:
" The duty of the Council during these abnormal times is to adopt every means in its power to ensure the safety of life and property within the area under its control, and to preserve the peace, order and good government of the International Settlement…All persons are urged,… to bear cheerfully any inconvenience to which they may be subjected and to assist generally in preserving calm, peace and good order.”

Looking back, their society was a powder keg about to be lit. Indeed, the “Emergency Branch” report of the Council continues:
[The Ambulance Service] was constantly in demand and handled no less than 901 casualties suffering from bomb, shell, shrapnel…from hundreds of injured at the aerial bombing at the Bund and Nanking Road,…and the striking, by an unidentified projectile,…on August 23, at which calls the casualties were so numerous and the conditions so appalling that no record of the number of patients actually conveyed in ambulances …could be kept.

Perhaps it was a family emergency abroad, or perhaps Fowles sensed the forthcoming onslaught. We don’t know if he even picked up the ship in Shanghai. Whatever happened, his proper British world was unraveling, and people were fleeing Shanghai — just as many were fleeing Nazi Germany. He must have decided it was now the time to leave. (Ironically many Jewish people fled east by ship to Shanghai during this period, and the story of the Shanghai Ghetto is a miraculous one. The Japanese, as cruel as they were during those years, were not anti-Semitic. While there were indeed wartime hardships in Shanghai for Jewish people, the Japanese would not tolerate their persecution).
At any rate, Fowles’s itinerary from China to England called for a fortnight transit across the Indian Ocean into the Suez, the Mediterranean, and up into the Thames to London with numerous ports in between. How could Japanese ships be allowed to sail into European waters in the late 1930’s when England was at war with Germany? From 1937 until 1940,  Japan was still regarded as a “neutral” country by England. Basically even though Imperial Japan’s atrocities in Mainland China— in their quest for oil and resources—resulted in such appalling massacres as in Nanking and Manchuria, diplomatic relations between the countries held and trade continued. It was only after the Japanese signed the Tripartite Act with the Nazi Germany Axis in 1940 that Japanese ships were targets for British warships.
Screen Shot 2014-09-07 at 8.19.40 AM
from Wiki
The vessel Mr. Fowles booked passage on was 505’ long, built in 1929, and thoroughly air conditioned throughout for her southern route which took two weeks. While not as grand or luxurious as an Atlantic Greyhound, Terukuni Maru could carry 121 First-Class passengers, 68 Second Class with a Japanese crew of 177. I think his trip happened sometime after 1937, which I’ll explain below.
Most likely, Fowles’ splendid Chinese Bakelite Mah Jong set remained in his stateroom. 
I certainly don’t think it ever made out of his room and into the ship’s more public First Class Salon depicted below.
Screen Shot 2014-09-07 at 8.21.11 AM
Picture of lounge from Antique Postcards
Why? Because the tiles have Chinese propaganda vilifying his Japanese hosts. Japan marched into Shanghai on July 7, 1937, and took it over. It is highly doubtful a set such as this one could have been made in Mainland China after that date. This is why I think the set must have been manufactured, most probably in Hong Kong in 1938, soon after Japanese hostilities began with China and why I place him on the this ship at about this time.
This item could be considered contraband. It’s subject matter was taboo to the Japanese and certainly to the crew. How did it get onboard through customs? Was Mr. Fowles so important his luggage was never checked? Was he a diplomat?  Again we can only guess.
The message on the tiles takes no guesswork, however.
Look closely at this Flower Tile of what can only be a kimono and clog-clad Japanese man running from a house with a bomb aiming right at him.
Other Flower tiles are equally anti-Japanese:
The tiles depict Chinese troops defending their country. The top row reads: "Aviation to save the country." This expression was also used on War Bonds in 1941 to help the war effort against the Japanese. The bottom row calls for "a move of the troops to save territory."
The top row shows a portable canon launching artillery and an aerial bomber over a mountain range. Below is a close-up of that tile.
The phoenix and dragon are also beautiful and an interesting addition to the set. Remember the Emperor was associated with the Dragon, seen in the One Dot, and the Empress with the phoenix, seen as the One Bam. Interesting—since the monarchy had been gone for years, but perhaps a subtle reminder of old days?
Certainly this set was important to Mr. Fowles; his name was embossed in gold leaf on the back of the  set’s leather case.  
Maybe this Mah Jong set expressed his personal hopes for a free and independent China. If this is the Mr. Fowles we think it might have been, he’d lived there and raised a family for 13 years and most likely was devastated as to what was happening to his adopted city. I’d like to think that perhaps Fowles played the game in his stateroom with his family or like-minded refugees from Shanghai shouting “Mah Jong” while their room steward, a Japanese spy, listened with an ear to the door totally clueless as to what was really being thought, and what tiles were being played with.
Again, this is all vivid conjecture—we just don’t know.
We have no record of a E.A.R. Fowles debarking in London, or whatever happened to him and his family, or if he ever returned to China. We do know no Fowles were on Terukuni's May 1939 voyage as this name doesn’t appear on that passenger list. And, unless any of you have any further information on Mr. Fowles, our story ends there.
Or does it? 
Remember I said that Fowles had to have left Shanghai before Terukuni Maru’s fall sailing on September 29 1939. That was to be her final voyage; for it was 62 days later on Nov 21at 12:39 am, following inspection by Royal Navy Minesweepers off the coast of England (remember, in 1939 she was still considered neutral), she hit a floating magnetic mine, and blew up. Terukuni Maru rolled over, twin screws in the air and was gone within 45 minutes.
There was not a single life lost among the 28 passengers or 177 crew, which my friend and ocean liner expert John Maxtone-Graham told me was “quite remarkable.” Four of the eight lifeboats could not be launched as she heeled onto her starboard side.  Her sinking has been described as Japan's only  World War II casualty outside East Asia before the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.
I don’t think Fowles was aboard her final voyage. His surviving Mah Jong case proves it. He had 45 minutes to get off the ship. Would he go back for his beloved Mah Jong game and take it into the lifeboat? I don’t think so, for two reasons: First, the liner sank too quickly — although one passenger described a steward having the time to run quickly back to a rapidly-filling cabin to get her life vest. Second, and more importantly, if he was traveling with his family, he would first want to make sure his daughters, wife and son were put into the lifeboats. That would be his priority. While there was no panic and the Japanese crew reportedly behaved in the best traditions of the sea, certainly the scene on the boat decks was one of grave urgency.  At any rate, we have currently have no record of who the survivors were and Fowles doesn’t appear in any photos or newsreels of the disaster.
On the other hand, if the set was as dear to him as I think it was, maybe he did grab it. After all, it’s not large — only 9” x 14” and could easily fit onto his lap.
The wonders of the internet may reveal the final chapter about the real Mah Jong Treasure of a certain mysterious E. A. R. Fowles.
Our thanks to Ray Heaton for providing translations and images, and to Michael Stanwick for his research.
 The book written by Gregg Swain and Ann Israel can be found on Barnes and Noble:
and Amazon
The website for the book includes reviews of the book, and author signings and other appearances.



This detail is of a sutra cover in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Dating from the Ming Dynasty, it shows flowers, the round shapes, and lingzhi, the one toward the lower right.

As many of you know, lingzhi is a fungus, considered to be the Plant of Immortality. (C.A. S. Williams) It is so revered by the Chinese that often it was preserved and stored in temples, or copies of it might be made and placed there.

The heads of scepters were based on lingzhi. These scepters are called ruyi.



You can see how the head of the scepter has a very organic look to it. The ruyi became associated with power, and good luck and blessings. (Wiki)  Ruyi appears in Mahjong too, on tiles and on boxes. Often it is hard to see because it is so stylized, but if you look hard enough, you can see it.

Ruyi can come in the shape of clouds:



On this side of a Mahjong box we looked at before, we see this magnificent dragon. His leonine head is in the center of the design, and his body surrounds it.  But what is in the background? Ruyi shaped clouds! Those clouds take up most of the space around him.



On the back of this same box you can see the dragon, once again surrounded by clouds shaped like ruyi! ( I still love that fish involved with his inhale or exhale. Perhaps fish and dragons can be another post some day!)



These are two sets of Flowers from a Chinese Bakelite set that has 16 Flowers. Above we see above some gods on ruyi shaped clouds.




We also have some gods here. The two men in the middle are the He-Hes, the heavenly twins. The two tiles at either end of the row also have a bit of extra meaning. The one on the right is the magic bowl, often seen containing the lotus (left) and the herb of immortality, which here is represented by the clouds! The bowl, lotus and lingzhi mean "concord as your hear desires" according to Wolfram Eberhard. The He Hes are associated with marital harmony, so these Flowers bode well for happiness within the home.

(After writing this, I used the app Pleco, available for ipad, and got the translation which worked with the visual interpretations of the bottom tiles, from left to right:  harmony, combine, two, celestials!)


A book by this author and Ann Israel is entitled Mah Jongg The Art of the Game.

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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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This is a spectacular lacquer Mahjong box. Notice the fabulous dragon on the right, with his open mouth trying to get the flaming "pearl." The phoenix is on the left, with her head just below her feet, facing toward the dragon. This Mahjong box has been beautifully and elaborately painted, using mostly gold and silver paint, with delicate brushstrokes and great detail.


Frank Marshall LLPScreen Shot 2014-03-26 at 7.16.47 AM

This photo of a porcelain at Frank Marshall shows the dragon and phoenix together too.  The dragon is guarding the top of the vessel, and the rounded forms below him show he is in the clouds. The phoenix is on the lower half, with her beautiful flowing tail, and she's seen flying over the water and the waves (the triangular shapes.) Once again we see the flames, those bright orange squiggles.


michaans Auctions Republic period

These porcelain tiles above, offered by Michaan's, have our beloved pairing again. This time two different dragons are seen with the phoenix, although the phoenix has not changed much. The flaming "pearl" is in the central position again, and stylized clouds surround our couple. Once again,  triangular waves are seen at the bottom of the tiles.


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Above is another delightful dragon One Dot and Phoenix One Bam, different yet from the ones the other day. You have to look really carefully to see the dragon's head, on the circle's lower right side, his mouth open to catch the flaming "pearl." The phoenix has a wonderful perky look, with her one leg raised as is often seen on Mahjong One Bams.


kh D&P2

We end this post with these two beautiful tiles from a set that was broken up years ago. You can see the phoenix on the left, representing the Green Dragon, looking quite the lovely female. The dragon, her leonine husband, is the Red Dragon, soaring in the sky near the flaming "pearl," partly hidden by those rounded clouds similar to what we have been seeing on the other forms of art.

The above tiles and the lacquer box are in Katherine Hartman's collection. The Chinese Bakelite tiles are from the collection of Michael Stanwick:

As always, if you have photographs or write-ups about Mahjong you would like to share, please email me at


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





I think many of us will have to agree this is one of the most delightful dragon Mahjong boxes we have ever seen. * Instead of having just a deeply carved dragon on the lid, or a beautiful handle, the beautiful handle has become a three dimensional dragon, a piece of sculpture posed on top of the box. Look at the attention paid to him, the mouth with its teeth (tho not too big to be intimidating!), his nose and whiskers, his backward facing horns, his "chops" along the side of his face, five toed detailed claws, and curled tail encircling the back of his body. How fabulous is he? Surrounding him, on the border of the box, are flower petals and bats.

Interestingly on this Mahjong box, it really is all about dragons, unlike some of the other carved boxes we have seen where they simply put in an appearance and go away.


Here's the inside of the box where we see two dragons. If the dragon on the lid looks somewhat friendly, these guys are almost smiling! They are surrounding a circle (the sun?), and the shou symbol, right below it,  representing longevity. In Patricia Bjaaland Welch's book Chinese Art A Guide to Visual Motifs and Visual Imagery, the round version of the shou that we see above may mean a wish that a person live his full life span and die a natural death. We also see the four bats above and below the disk, and an endless knot, a Buddhist symbol, just behind each dragon's tail. Each knot represents a long life, uninterrupted by set-backs. (Wolfram Eberhard A Dictionary of Chinese Symbols)



On the above photograph of the box and its Mahjong tiles, if you look carefully you can see there are dragons along the side of the box. The box is the home of a much-sought after Chinese Bakelite set. The tiles have green wafer backs which you can see in the photo.  What is so exciting about this particular set, especially in terms of this post, is the One Bam and the One Dot.


IMG_1427 dragon

This is no ordinary Mahjong One Dot. Instead of being a version of  flower or circles, we have a dragon! You can clearly see the dragon's head, his nostrils and backward facing horns. Other parts of his body are seen in the top of the tile, where they resemble mountains, and right below where it resembles a wave, and  the rest of his body is hidden either by clouds or water.

And here is the One Bam:

IMG_1429 redone

A phoenix! How divine is that! We have a real, fully dragon box housing a Mahjong set with both dragon and phoenix tiles! And the pairing of these two creatures is what we will be covering soon.

We thank Bill Price for sending these photos of his fabulous set to us, allowing us all to enjoy it.

* As many of you know, oftentimes boxes were not made for mahjong sets; rather boxes were appropriated from those often used for jewelry (some of the five drawer versions, or ones with two large opening doors) or in this case a small fully carved box.

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In Chinese art there is no requirement that an object be seen in its entirety, and this idea has existed for hundreds of  years. In landscapes, water scenes with boats, mountains and rock outcroppings with trees often appear, sometimes in simplified form.

DSC_0696 boat

These two tiles are from a Chinese Bakelite set. You can see the boat continues from one tile to the next, but still not seen in its entirety. Notice how a tree trunk is captured on the right tile.

photo-18 boat 2

This special ink and color scroll was painted by Zhang Daqian (Chang Dai-chien) who lived from 1899 until 1963. It is entitled The Bridge to Eternity. You can see a lone fisherman in his boat at the water's edge, with the boat somewhat hidden behind a small projection of the landscape. But objects don't have to be hidden to be simplified:


DSC_0645 ms boat

(This tile is not half of a two tile set)

There is no need to show the whole object if people can figure out what it is.

jan 1, 2014 002 (800x565)

Looking at these tiles again you can note how here too boats are somewhat hidden by land outcropping, with trees along the rocky shoreline and mountains. You will see a partial bridge on the lower left tile,  a structure also seen on the Zhang Daqian scroll above.