A gentleman sent me photos of his wonderful treasured ivory Mahjong set, purchased many years ago from a very wealthy Chinese family in old Vietnam. I must admit I gasped when I saw the images. This One Bam is one of the most beautiful peacocks I have ever seen on a Mahjong tile. Note the exquisite peacock tail, with the varied depth of the carving- you almost feel you can touch those feathers. The set was made by master craftsmen in the 1920s, created for the export market given the presence of Western letters and Arabic numbers.


You will note the longevity symbol in the center. *


The White Dragon is especially lovely, with the delicate butterflies at the corners of the tile. These may be the most detailed butterflies ever on a Mahjong tile.


The Craks have the elaborate version of the wan.


Note the care put into every Dot, with the floral centers.


The color palette of the One Bam is very unusual, and highly attractive. It is rare to see such a big beautiful peacock, certainly taking ownership of the tile!


The Winds have our Western letters, but the Green and Red Dragons have Chinese Characters.

Enjoy these exquisite Flowers!!

This image is often seen: a boy playing the flute on the back of the water buffalo. The number of details on the tile is extraordinary, and all the Flower tiles have this level of care.


We certainly see a lot of maidens in Mahjong, but this set has very fine depictions. I feel all the maidens on these tiles are the same person, most likely a goddess. The craftsman has added delightful details: her highly decorated fan, beautiful robe and hair ornaments. The ribbons on her robe (on all the tiles where she appears) are blowing in the breeze, adding a graceful touch. As is almost always the case in Chinese garden scenes, there is a wall. Chinese garden walls harken back to the Great Wall, a source of pride.


Given all the curlicues on the tile (curlicues represent the heavens), we are looking at a goddess. I love the idea that even up in the heavens they drink tea! The ribbons from her robe blend into the clouds. The semi-circular shape here might be a moongate.


This is one of the best carvings of a horse I have seen of one on a Mahjong tile. The scenery the horse and rider are traveling through conjures up all those beautiful and sometimes sacred mountains in China.

The next suite of Flowers show the goddess/maiden with the four plants important to the Chinese: plum blossom, orchid, bamboo, and chrysanthemum.


We often see maidens walking down stairways, as our maiden is doing, here holding plum blossoms in her hand. There's a rock behind her, part of the created landscapes in the gardens of wealthy Chinese.

Even though this maiden is a goddess, it important to note when young ladies appear on Mahjong tiles, they are either at the window looking out, or in a garden. Wealthy young women in China were not allowed out of their home area after they "became women."  Their homes and gardens were their worlds.


Here we see her walking past an urn where orchids are in bloom. The pole she is carrying might be a hoe, used for flower cultivation.


How charming is this image of her, bamboo in hand, playing with a butterfly? It is amazing how detailed the butterfly is, and remember, the whole tile is only over an inch in length.


And finally we have this scene where she is holding that large pot of chrysanthemums. She appears to be floating, although I don't see any evidence of clouds.


As many of you know, ivory  is the only substance with the cross-hatching you see here. You might have to look at several tiles to see it, and it is often on the sides of the tiles, but if you find that cross-hatching, you have ivory. If you see a tile without any backing, such as bamboo or ebony to name a few, you probably have ivory. Look carefully for the cross-hatching, not the squiggly lines you would see on French Ivory. Given that China was very poor in the 1920s, ivory was not in great supply, and thus real ivory sets are very unusual.

Isn't this set fabulous??!! I think I "speak" for all of us that we are very grateful to the set's owner for sharing these images with us.




*Many of you will have noticed another symbol, the gammadion cross or swastika, ringing the center of the One Dot. To the Chinese and others in Asia, this symbol is very important, and it is best to remember that it has positive associations in Asian art, opposite of the horrifying one representing the Nazi party.

From wikipedia:

The Swastika (also known outside the Indian subcontinent as the Hakenkreuz, gammadion cross, cross cramponnée, croix gammée, fylfot, or tetraskelion) (as a character 卐 or 卍) is an ancient religious symbol originating from the Indian subcontinent, that generally takes the form of an equilateral cross with four legs each bent at 90 degrees.[1][2] It is considered to be a sacred and auspicious symbol in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism and dates back at least 11,000 years.[3]

Western literature's older term for the symbol, gammadion cross, derives mainly from its appearance, which is identical to four Greek gamma letters affixed to each other.[4] The name Swastika comes from the Sanskrit (Devanagari: स्वस्तिक), and denotes a "lucky or auspicious object".[4] It has been used as a decorative element in various cultures since at least the Neolithic Age. It is known most widely as an important symbol, long used in Indian religions.




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.


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:


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.



Many people think they have ivory mahjong sets, either because they assume they do or that is what they have been told. Some people do have ivory tiles, but most people don't. But just because tiles are not made of ivory does not mean they are less valuable. In fact, some of the most expensive sets sold recently are bone and bamboo, not ivory and bamboo or pure ivory.

Why is it that some sets made of bone are more expensive than those made of ivory? The answer is simple: it is all about the carving and the designs on the tiles. In the 1920s, the heyday for Mahjong designers and carvers, China was very poor and ivory was in short supply. In fact, bone was scarce too. When China ran out of bone they were able to purchase some from the United States, from the stockyards in Chicago and the cattle ranchers in Nebraska. The best parts of the bone were bought by the best workshops, and they turned out high quality sets. Of course ivory was carved in the best workshops too, but it might have been that the shops were depending more on the ivory material alone to sell the set, and thus were not as inspired to make sets with wonderful designs that would make people want to buy the tiles.

This exquisite bone and bamboo set, seen below, recently sold for almost $10,000. And yes, for bone and bamboo, but look at the carvings and the images. Absolutely beautiful. In fact, each tile is a masterpiece. The Dots come first (peaches, with the One Dot a curled up Dragon often copied as joker tiles on the modern sets), Winds with butterflies in the corners, and Dragons with dragons and phoenixes, Flowers perhaps illustrating a tale of combat, and Craks with special Chinese numbers usually used by banks, surrounded by longevity symbols including endless knots, and Bams made of Bamboo shoots (and look at that divine One Bam bird with the ribbon in its mouth, symbolizing China's military strength).

36060053_4_l 36060053_3_l-1 36060053_5_l36060053_6_l


This next set is solid ivory, and it sold for less than half of the above set. It is easy to see why. Yes, the carving is lovely, but the designs are much more unusual and intricate on the bone and bamboo set.

IMG_3243 (1) IMG_3246 IMG_3245 IMG_3244

You will notice that the surface of the ivory is smooth.

Bone often has small channels in it, the haversian system, as you can see below, even in this very beautifully carved set.

IMG_3593 (1)

note small dots on the side of the bone, remnants of the haversian system
note small dots on the side of the bone, remnants of the haversian system


Below are two photos of ivory, seen from the top and the side.

notice the slightly wavy varied tones in these ivory tiles
notice the slightly wavy varied tones in these ivory tiles
the cross-hatching only found in ivory is noticeable on the sides of these tiles
the cross-hatching only found in ivory is noticeable on the sides of these tiles

Ivory has cross-hatching known as Schreger lines, but sometimes several pieces need to be examined to see it, depending on where on the tusk the pieces came from. For more views of ivory, please click here to see the page devoted to ivory and French Ivory.