image interpretation

Who doesn't love Dragons? In Mahjong Dragons are Honors tiles, sometimes helping to increase point totals (in certain ways of play). On tiles they can be figural images of that creature (the MOST fun!) or Chinese written words (characters), or sometimes the letters C, F, P or B. The term "Dragon" was not the original one for these special tiles, rather these Honors began as references to the game of archery, as described in the link below.

http://www.mahjongg.com/dragons.htm

We all grew up hearing stories about these fantastic creatures, although the tales were different depending on where you grew up. If you lived in the U.S. or Europe, you were sure to hear stories of fierce Dragons burning up the countryside with their breaths of fire,  terrifying the countryfolk. But in Asia, Dragons were kind and benevolent.

 

Below is an image of St George killing a Dragon, clearly one of the European kinds.

St George killing a Dragon by Martorell in 1435 from Wikipedia

 

No one in China would ever kill a Dragon.

The flag of the Qing Dynasty, 1889-1912

Above is the flag of the last Dynasty in China. Chinese Dragons only appear when times are good, so perhaps this Dragon represents a bit of wishful thinking on the part of the government, given what was going on then! (Read Jung Chang's Empress Dowager Cixi, if you have not already done so, to find out the terrible situation that existed in China during those years.)

People in China have always loved Dragons, and they are everywhere. Dragons decorate everything, including Imperial building walls, as seen below.

 

Chinese wall dragons from Wikipedia

 

The great marketers of the Mahjong companies took advantage of the world's fascination with Chinese culture, bringing bits of it into the lives of Americans and Europeans in the 1920s. Some companies went so far as to link the game to Confucius, who marketers claimed invented Mah-Jongg. Trouble was, Confucius had already been dead for over 2,000 years by the time the game came about!  But there actually might be a tie to Confucius, other than the inspired thinking of the Mah-Jongg Sales Company:  the three different colors of the dragon tiles represent the cardinal virtues taught by Confucius:  red is benevolence; green sincerity; and white filial piety.

In the early 1920s, people really got into the game. (Some of us still do!)  When gathered around the MJ table, people dressed in Chinese-themed clothing, and ate Chinese food.

 

Mahjong was everywhere, and MJ themes often appeared on magazine covers. On this copy of Judge, a young lady wearing Chinese-themed garb is sharing the cover with a Dragon, a somewhat subtle reference to MJ. You can see that the Dragon is Chinese, because he's lacking the wings we'd see on a European one. And the young lady doesn't look scared either, adding to the Asian origin of the fabulous creature. (But what's going on with her left foot? )

These next Dragons are from my book: Mah Jongg The Art of the Game. Photos by Michel Arnaud

Waterbury Button Company

Aren't these fun, skinny little Dragons? And look at the dive-bombing crane!! Interestingly, we don't know much about this set. Even the Waterbury Button Company doesn't have any information about it. But given that a button company made a set of mahjong tiles, I'd venture to say that there must have been a reason. The Dots look like buttons. And those Bams: toggles you'd see on coats. Subtle advertising, right?

Below we see a Phoenix on the top row, nothing like our Phoenix either, and a Dragon on the bottom. Chinese Dragons like to fly in the clouds, so you can only see part of this one's body. He's also playing with a pearl, seen in red on tile 3, as Chinese Dragons do,, although the meaning of the pearl is not clear.

Exquisite Phoenix and Dragon, from the mahjongmahjong.com collection

And next is one of my favorite game accessories, a delicately carved ivory wind indicator, about 2" across, in three pieces. The top nub, holding the three pieces together, is the pearl the dragon plays with. BTW: this photograph clearly shows the cross-hatching only seen in ivory.

 

This is a beautifully colored set with wonderful designs, featuring fabulous Dragons:

Chinese Game Company

These Dragons are really different. Want to guess why? The set was made by the Chinese Game Company out of Montreal!! Montreal has emotional and cultural ties to France, so we have European winged dragons here, looking like they are ready to be placed on shields carried  into battle.

Dragons have long held a place in our thoughts.  A man in Pennsylvania was intrigued enough by Dragons to make a bellows into this charming piece, recently sold by American Primitive Gallery. Although there are no wings here, the artist, a blacksmith working with fire every day, must have been thinking about Dragons breathing fire right? Clearly this would have been the European version of the creature.

19th Century Dragon made by a blacksmith in Pennsylvania.
Dragon with mouth open

There are theories as to how the idea of Dragons came about, and Smithsonian Magazine covers some:

http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/where-did-dragons-come-from-23969126/

I love the idea that dinosaur fossils were identified as Dragons. "Speaking" of dinosaurs, here's up-to-the-minute news about T-Rex, now an essential part of another game many of us love.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/new-monopoly-token-pieces_us_58cad9a3e4b0ec9d29d9eca0?ncid=inblnkushpmg00000009

 

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Here is a set to love.

A reader contacted me with photos of this incredible set. I must confess I almost fell out of my chair when I first saw the images. Not only is this an elaborately carved set, it has ebony backs! I had only seen photos of one other such set, in the Mahjong Collector Magazine. I wanted to write this one up for Valentine's Day.

A bit of background. The reader was not looking for a set, but happened upon it while trying to find a piece of furniture. Needless to say, the idea of the cabinet went away, and this set, of course without the practicality of the cabinet, took its place!  I certainly can understand that-who needs a cabinet when you can have a treasure!

So let's look closely at the tiles:

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The Winds are charming with squash at the edges. (Squash, with all their seeds, are symbols of the wish for many children.)

 

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The Dragons have the goldfish (symbol of wealth and prosperity) on the Green and Red Dragons. Don't you love those long fishtails? The White Dragons have what I believe to be butterflies.

 

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Longevity symbols made it to the Dots. Five bats are surrounding the longevity symbol on the One Dot (bats symbolize longevity and good fortune; here they can be identified by the orange backs) and the longevity symbol is in the middle of all the other Dots.

 

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The goldfish is the One Bam, and longevity symbols are the other Bams.

 

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Even the Craks are beautiful, with peaches (symbols of longevity) in the corners.

 

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The Eight Immortals make up the Flower tiles. I wonder if this set was made in the same workshop as an orphan tile I have, seen below. When I saw that tile I realized the art on these sets can be terrific, inspiring Mah Jongg The Art of the Game.  I think it is possible some of the high-end workshops might have worked in bone and bamboo as well as bone and ebony. Or if they didn't, maybe it was the same designer who did both sets.

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Ebony sets do not look any different from other sets, except from the side. Here is that smashing side-view:

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You will notice that ebony is much flatter than bamboo, making the building of walls two tiles high much easier.

The box is a treasure as well:

deeply carved front of box
deeply carved front of box

 

back of box
back of box

 

side of box with brass detail
side of box

The sides of the box have brass details.

This set was really loved. The owner (or someone close to the owner) needle-pointed a square that is used in some versions of mahjong. The piece indicates to players which wall will be used first when starting play. I can certainly understand why this set would have been loved, can't you??

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You can see the four orientation points, (West is on the bottom here) and the numbers show which wall be be the first to be used in the deal,  based on the rolls of the two dice. If the player rolled a 3, 7 or 11, the wall in front of West would be the first, and play would go in a clockwise direction from there.

Happy Valentine's Day.

 

lila

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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bodhi_Tree

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

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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.

http://primaltrek.com/gourd.html

 

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

 

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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!

 

 

 

 

 

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French Ivory Phoenix One Bams

Singapore's residents have a long history of being enthusiastic about the game of Mahjong. In fact, Singapore even has its own version of the game, played with delightful "capture" Flower tiles. (Capture tiles are used in games where a player can win extra points by having certain Flower capture tiles. These special sets feature images of a cat and mouse, a rich man and a pot of gold, a rooster and a centipede, a fisherman and a fish, to name some examples.) But during the early days of the Sino-Japanese war, in the 1930s, seeing an increasingly aggressive Japan having invaded and taken over a part of China, Singapore was concerned about being "captured" by the Japanese. Other images began to appear on Mahjong tiles.

To set up the place Singapore occupied in history, in the 1930s it was a British colony with a large Chinese population. Beginning in 1906, some of the Chinese opponents of the Qing Dynasty in China took up residence there. According to Wikipedia:

"In 1906, the Tongmenghui, a revolutionary Chinese organisation dedicated to the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty and led by Sun Yat-sen, founded its Nanyang branch in Singapore, which served as the organisation's headquarters in Southeast Asia."

The Qing Dynasty was overthrown in 1912, and the Republic of China was established. After World War I, the British, who were in charge of the city, spent a lot of money in Singapore, building a naval base to protect British interests against the increasingly aggressive Japanese. When completed the base boasted the largest dry dock in the world, and the third largest floating dock. But there was one problem: there was no fleet of ships to dock there. The British thought they could get their fleet to Singapore in time to protect the port, but when WW2 actually broke out, the fleet was in Europe. Singapore was thus at the mercy of the Japanese. Singapore was right be be concerned. It was conquered by the Japanese in 1942 and subsequently occupied by them until 1945 when the city reverted to British control.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Singapore

In addition to the sets we commonly associate with Singapore, it seems Singapore was also involved with anti-Japanese propaganda in the 1930s. As a British outpost, with many Chinese inhabitants, it was sending out messages about wartime aggression too.

The tiles we will look at today came in this case:

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Some of the characters translate to mean Singapore and Shanghai. Possibly this Mahjong business had branches in both cities. I had thought only the craftsmen in Hong Kong were involved in the anti-Japan Mahjong Business. It turns out that the craftsmen in Singapore were just as intent on getting the word out about the Japanese threat as those men working in China. (Caveat: I am assuming that this set was made in Singapore and not imported there. Given that there is a rich history of Mahjong in Singapore, it seems a likely premise.)

The suits and honors are not unusual, although that wonderful One Bam (seen above in the first photograph) does rank among the great One Bams.  But it is the Flowers that cause us to sit up and take notice. There are 16 of them, and 12 of them refer directly to the war against Japan. With the exceptions of the 1 on the Bams and the numbers on the Flower tiles, there are no Arabic numbers or Western letters on the tiles. The set was not meant for export, but perhaps it was intended to fill the people with hope that they could defeat the enemy.

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Above we see images of war: a soldier with a sword about to use it on an enemy, another about to throw grenades, an airplane and a bomb heading toward a Japanese man. We have seen many similar images before on other sets. (Search for War in the search box on this website.)

Row #1: fight against the enemy

Row # 2 to follow

Row #3: Open a New Territory (maybe take land back that had been taken over by the Japanese, such as Manchuria?)

Row #4: The tiles with the airplane have the well-known phrase from Dr Sun Yat Sen: Aviation Saves the Nation

 

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According to friend Richard Y., these Flowers translate as team work, or working together. We see a merchant, scholar, farmer with sickle and soldier instead of the normally seen farmer, wood-cutter, fisherman and scholar. Perhaps these tiles can be interpreted to mean that by working together, they might be able to resist the enemy.

You will enjoy the bit of subtle advertising found on the One Dots, the tiles where messages are often hidden. Despite all the political propaganda, there was a bit of company/manufacturer propaganda:

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Although not in the right order, they translate to mean:

"The color won't fade" !!

A big thanks to Richard and his friends for helping with the translations.

 

 

 

 

 

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!

from culturalchina.com
from culturalchina.com

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".

https://ninedragonspot.com/2013/02/05/exit-the-dragon/

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!

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

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"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 ClearWisdom.net, 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.

from culturalchina.com
from culturalchina.com

 

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.

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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.

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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?

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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, http://english.visitbeijing.com.cn/culture/n215174241.html.  (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:

Mahjong Solitaire Redstone (iOS): https://itunes.apple.com/app/apple-store/id880605393?pt=48597800&ct=GreggPress&mt=8

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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

 

 

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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!!

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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:

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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.

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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.

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According to Dee, her great-uncle

...is 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!

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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

 

 

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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.

 

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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.)

 

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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.

 

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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?)

Starling

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)

Eigret

magpie

red-crowned crane (8 Bam)

parrot (One Dot)

wren (9 Crak?)

BaiZiLian Bird

budgerigar

halcyon

wagtail

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 mahjongmahjong.com

 

 

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I have given around 100 talks about mahjong art in the last year and a half, and I always mention the craftsmen who designed,  carved and painted those tiles we all love. The other day I was asked about some of my favorite sets, and my thoughts immediately went to a wonderful one designed by Dee Gallo, a craftswoman! So here is a celebration of Dee and the beautiful sets she has designed. I am lucky enough to own one, featured today, but please visit her website to see some of the others.

Some of you know that when mahjong was ruled illegal in China, during the Cultural Revolution, all mahjong sets were ordered destroyed, as were all company records. Craftsmen were no longer allowed to practice the techniques that had been handed down for generations. Methods of carving, restoring, and painting Mahjong tiles were lost forever. Thank goodness Dee Gallo was determined to figure out how to bring tiles back to life, and I know many of us are indebted to her for her help restoring or replacing our lost tiles. But while learning how to go about restoring old tiles and carving replacement tiles, Dee was able to start thinking about creating new designs for sets. And this is her latest limited edition enrobed (!) set:

 

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Dee Gallo's Limited Edition Money Set. Be sure to note the often unique Bam placement and Bamboo stalk design.

 

Dee's deep rooted knowledge of Chinese culture and history is evident in every new series she creates. Here you can see The Money Set, released in 2014. This is Dee's 8th set, dedicated to her parents. It pays homage to her grandfather and his two brothers who worked at the Bank of Shanghai. All three were sent to different parts of China to open bank branches, and they met their wives while working for the bank. Eventually they all decided to move to the United States and open their own banking business and fur import business. The banking world in China inspired Dee's latest set. (More about that later.)  I know we all could not be more delighted that Dee is free to work on her creative designs on our shores.

I am going to use Dee's own words (in green) to describe what the images represent. But please visit Dee's site to really get to see the beauty of the tiles. My photos were taken with my cell phone, and don't begin to show the wonderful work she has done.

We'll start with the suits.

 

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This is the 22nd set she made in this edition.

 

Dots:

"Each of the Dots in this set is a coin, with the #1 Dot sporting a signature and an edition number. The Chinese character for Lee, which is my family name, is rotated four times around the square hole, representing the four Cardinal points (E,S,W,N). Inside the square is the number representing its place in the series. Chinese cash is a symbol of prosperity, both as an amulet and an ornament. In 11th Century China, the name "round coin" was applied to copper coins (hence "Red Coin") (Ed, the name of Dee's business) described as "square within and round without." This represents the internal integrity of the government issuing the coin, and their external attitude of cooperation (no sharp corners to annoy anyone.) I hope to promote these qualities. Because this set celebrates the Chinese cash (coin) I have used copper as a color for the first time on many of the designs. (Ed: my husband Woody, an art director and font aficionado, noted that the typeface that Dee uses is Copper Plate, a lovely tie-in.)

 

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Dee uses banking numbers instead of the normally seen Chinese numbers.

 

The Wan or Crak Suit

This is a unique suit designed with the special characters (ED: look at the Chinese numbers, very different from what we are used to seeing on our tiles) used in China and Taiwan for writing checks. The usual characters are too easy to alter so these characters were developed to make checks more secure. You can see the "normal" characters hidden in most of these special characters. These unusual characters are perfect for this Money Set, don't you think?

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The Bamboo suit

The #1 Bamboo is my Rooster, perched on a pile of copper coins and crowing his joy at a prosperous day beginning. The Rooster has special meaning for me, as my father and sister were born in the Year of the Rooster and my husband's surname, Gallo, means rooster in Italian. So it is in their honor that I drew the Rooster as the #1 Bam, a distinctive tile in all Mah Jong sets. In addition, most of the rural villages in China had living bamboo fences surrounding the compound of houses, and plenty of chickens and roosters...these served as a security and early warning system against pirates and thieves.

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(Ed: Be sure to look at the arrangement of the other Bams on this photo: some unique approaches to the designs!)

 

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The Dragons

Coins decorate the Dragon suit as well. The Red (Jung) (Ed: sometimes written Chung) means "center" as in Jung Guo (China: central country). The Green (Fa) is half of the phrase "Fa Tsai,"  meaning (I hope you) become rich. The Blue character (Bai) means "white" or blank.

Ed: Don't you love the coin in each of the Dragons?

The Winds

Money bags represent the winds, with the neck of the bag facing in the direction of the tile. Each money bag is sitting on a pile of copper coins, representing abundant wealth and prosperity.

Ed: The money bags almost have personalities, don't they? They remind me of the first short made by Pixar: Luxo Jr. (If you are not familiar with this short, you will have to go to youtube to see that delightful film: search for Luxo Jr. I was not allowed to post the link here.)

The Flowers

 

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One set of Flowers sports a large coin and as flower representing the season. The large coins are indicative of the traditional shapes used for coins in early dynasties. The characters tell you the name of the plant, 1 Plum, 2 Orchid, 3 Mom (Ed: chrysanthemum) 4 Bamboo. th other set of Flowers depicts children playing with coins in each season (1 Spring, 2 Summer, 3 Autumn, 4 Winter), representing a wish for prosperity and luck.

Ed: In the top row I believe Dee is paying homage to 100 children, a theme often seen in Chinese art, where children are seen being children in paintings. Children are also seen on mahjong tiles and boxes

 

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Direction Coins

(Ed: Dee made these specifically for this set. As many of you know, we often find mings with direction coins in our old boxes, or sometimes a bakelite wheel indicating directions on it. Dee designed her own, also seen on the top row of the Flower tiles.)

 

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Jokers

(Ed: sadly I only have eight Jokers, but I will tell you about all of them, and you just will have to go to Dee's website to see them all)

Each joker shows a design which will bring you luck and prosperity!

2 Facing Bats and coin: Blessings before your eyes

3 Coins tied together: the Trinity of luck-Heaven, Earth and Mankind

Double Fish & Stone Chime: May you have a superabundance of auspicious happiness

Ruyi: Wish-granting Wand, Ruyi means "As you wish"

Ingot: Yuanbao is a large ingot of gold representing the phrase "all will be as you wish" in addition to prosperity

3 legged Toad: Belongs to Liu Hai, God of Wealth & always finds gold

Shou Medallion: the longevity symbol, when used in a circular shape mens fulfillment or completion. Mah Jong!

Lozenge and Endless Knot: may you have everlasting victory for 10 Thousand generations

I am missing ( 🙁  )

Yin-Yang: Remember there is a balance in life, you win some, you lose some! This symbol is actually called Tai-ji, meaning The Original One, from which the duality of Yin (dark)/Yang (light) developed.

5 Ears of Grain on One Stalk: may you enjoy a bumper harvest and reap a big reward!

Now, wasn't this a wonderful treat? Here's to Dee!!

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Dee at work on the Money Set, hand-painting each tile.

 

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The Dragon Set, designed by Dee Gallo and Crisloid.

You have a chance to buy one of Dee's other sets, designed by Dee and the people at Crisloid. (Click here.)The Dragon Set takes many of Crisloid's unique designs and combines them with Dee's images.