mahjong tiles


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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coral resembles deer antlers and deer are symbols of longevity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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



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:


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.



"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.)


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.


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




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



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.)





(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!!

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


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.










On this Shanghai Luck set, the Dots are crabs.

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

Hi Gregg,

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

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

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

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

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

from wikipedia
from wikipedia

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


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


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

( see ).

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



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


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

Scenes from Ruse of the Empty City, from Romance of the Three Kingdoms


Although I have written about this before, I thought you would enjoy seeing the same story on a couple sets of tiles, and the actual opera.There are many scenes on Mahjong tiles that are parts of Chinese operas. For those of you who do not know, Chinese operas are very different from others. Of course there is some singing, but the singing is minimal. Operas have a lot of music, dancing, pantomime, acrobatics, and always fabulous costumes and sometimes facial painting. Both the costumes and make-up help the viewers understand the status and personality of each character.

On today's post you can see scenes from two different sets of tiles, seen above and in the lower row below, all telling the same story.

flower-BB33 flower
Ruse of the Empty City on the bottom row, courtesy of


Chinese operas celebrate stories known to all Chinese, often taken from the 14th Century book Romance of the Three Kingdoms. The above story, Ruse of the Empty City, from that book, is based on Zhuge Liang, the Prime Minister of Shu State who, during wartime, was left in a city far from the battlefield. The only people in the city were old and incapable of fighting or defending the city. It had been thought they were safe, but the enemy general, not knowing the city was basically empty, decided to attack it. Zhuge Liang decided the only way to survive was to act non-plussed, welcoming the enemy, hoping the enemy would feel they were walking into a trap. Zhuge  got up on top of the city wall and played a musical instrument, and had some of the old men sweep the street, as if preparing for the enemy to walk into the city. The enemy, startled by what they perceived to be an invitation into a trap, quickly left, and the city was saved.

I thought you might enjoy seeing a real opera, showing this story-line. You can see how closely the tiles mimic the real opera scenes, costumes, head-pieces, city walls and all. You will see the people sweeping the fans, the headpieces, etc.These scenes start around the 1:08 mark. Just click on the triangle in the middle of video to start it. You might even want to start the video from the beginning to take in all the unusual costumes, masks, and props.



The above set was on ebay, and is used as an example of  a set that had tiles added, replaced and stickered by a previous owner.

The other week I was at a bookstore for a talk and signing. There were some mahjong players in the area who came by to meet me, hear the talk, buy the book and get it signed.

Before the talk, the players gave demonstrations to visitors about how to play the game.

Several of the ladies who played are very lucky. They own sets that belonged to beloved family members. The sets were old, predating the introduction of Jokers, and those previous owners had to improvise about how to update their sets to play by NMJL rules. Some added non-matching tiles, others put nail polish on extra Flowers.

I mentioned to the players  I have a few leads  if they want  to get tiles to match the ones in their set, or stickers to use instead of nail polish. I got the same response I got another time, about another set that had belonged to a dear relative: "I want to keep playing the game the way she played it." Their memories of their mothers and other relatives involved the sets looking the way they do, nail polish and non-matching tiles and all, and by keeping the sets that way, they were keeping on that exact tradition of Mahjong. Along the same lines, recently another reader contacted me. She had inherited her grandmother's set and she wanted to learn to play the game according to the same rules and scoring her grandmother used, yet another lovely way to keep connections with beloved relatives. Mahjong sets in and of themselves bring out a lot of emotions when owners think about the wonderful times spent around a Mahjong set with family and friends.

Emotional connections exist in fiction too. There's a lovely play called The Men of Mah Jongg, written about a group of men who used to play poker but switched to Mahjong following the death of the wife of the one of the players. It's the departed wife's love for the game that encouraged these men to connect around the table. Here's a write up in Playbill:

If you get a set and do want to update it, because of missing tiles or other problems, you can look here for resources.

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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. To see more about it:


To order it click here:

or here from Amazon


Qi Baishi, the Chinese artist who lived from 1867-1957, did this lovely scroll in 1950. It shows us five crabs (that number does keep reappearing, doesn't it?). This work is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum.

Here's what the catalog has to say about his work featuring crabs:

"Crabs became an important subject in Qi Baishi's painting after he moved into a new studio in 1913 and crabs frequented his backyard. He once observed, "When a crab moves, its legs rise and fall in strict order despite their great number. This is something crab painters in the world do not know." This work represents his mature style, when naturalism and abstraction found a new balance. The subtle gradation of the ink suggests the undulation of the shell's surface. The eyes have become two short slanting lines. The claws, as circular splotches of ink with two simple converging lines, are reduced to geometric abstraction. During the last forty years of his life Qi lived in Beijing and befriended people of radically different persuasions. His passive tolerance of things of which he might not approve shows in his sarcastic inscription to this painting, which reads: "I just fold my arms and watch you gentlemen go." The Chinese term for the sideways movement of crabs, hengxing, is also a metaphor for impudent behavior. Qi often humorously compared crabs to presumptuous people. Here, he states that he will simply stand aside and let these creatures have their way."

Of course the crab is symbolic in Chinese art. And once again it has to do with the way the Chinese word is pronounced.

From Primaltrek:

The Chinese word for crab (蟹) and the Chinese word for harmony (协) are both pronounced xie.  The crab symbol is sometimes used on charms which express a desire for peace such as the large tian xia tai ping (天 下太平) charm shown at Peace Coins and Charms.

The crab is also used to symbolize success in the imperial examination system.  This is because the Chinese word for the crab's shell (jia 甲) has the additional meaning of "first" as in achieving the highest score in the examination to become a government official.

Certainly we have seen many symbols wishing for success on exams, as these crabs might be doing. Doing well on Scholar's exams opened up the door for success to people outside the noble classes. Great grades could allow the student an important job in government, whereas failure would prevent any kind of government job.

Wonderful crabs appear on Mahjong tiles too.


These crabs are  Dots in a Shanghai Luck Mahjong set
These crabs are Dots in a Shanghai Luck Mahjong set

These three tiles are the One, Two and Three Dot tiles from a Shanghai Luck Set, called that because of the presence of sea creatures. I love the way the crabs are shown, legs going in a few different directions, the eyes popping out, and the great attention paid to the claws on the One Dot. Can't you just see them skittering across the mahjong table?  Maybe when one plays with one of these sets is can be the Game of Skittering Crabs in stead of The Game of Sparrows!!


DSC_0116 crab

Here is another crab from a different set of Flower tiles. You'll notice he too has the mark on the top of his shell, just like the ones on the One and Two Dot tiles above.


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Reader Bill provided us with these wonderful Flower tiles some of you remember from before. The crab certainly is quite recognizable, on the right tile, but what is the left creature?

Perhaps it is some kind of jelly fish?

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There is a Asian fascination with jelly fish, and they frequently  appear in aquarium tanks, and anyone who has had the delightful experience of seeing these creatures from afar can certainly enjoy their great beauty.

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




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This magnificent fan in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art was painted by Ren Xun who lived in China from 1835-1893. You can clearly see the bird, perched on a rock resembling what probably could be called a scholar's rock. We can see those wonderful holes, created by the movement of water over thousands of years, going through the rock.



On this lovely porcelain featured on Live Auctioneers, we have another bird, this time standing on one leg, as we often see on Mahjong tiles. The following interpretation was applied by Terese Bartholomew Tse about an eagle standing on one leg, it might be also true that "any bird standing on one leg shows independence of spirit."

We have a lot of birds seen on rocks in Mahjong.


This One Bam is from a miniature ladies' set, a fairly typical scene of a peacock standing on one leg on a rock.



It is not so different from this One Bam above, from a more recently carved set, probably from the late 1960s or early 1970s.



This One Bam is perched on a rock too, one foot raised in a bit of a balancing act.



And this recently carved One Bam from a tri-color lucite tile continues the same tradition.

We thank Mahjongmahjong for the use of some tiles seen here from their collection.


metpart screenshot Ma Shouzhenming

In China the orchid is traditionally associated with spring. The polar vortex has left our area, after what seemed to most of us to be a very long stay, so it is time to celebrate. And how better than to look at orchids, some created by nature and others brought to us by artists. We will look at Mahjong tiles with this pairing, and a photograph of some real beauties on display in the Bronx.

The above ink work is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and was painted by Ma Shouzhen during the Ming Dynasty. Here is an orchid; a few of the delicate blooms have fallen to the ground, but some remain intact. As we have seen in some other posts, the artist has chosen to position the plant next to a rock, a very common theme in Chinese art.

In China the orchid represents  delicacy and elegance.  Patricia Bjaaland Welch, in her book Chinese Art   A Guide to Motifs and Visual Imagery

"They are specifically associated with women, love beauty and fertility; and secondly with virtue, moral elegance" and the refinement of a superior man who stands out in a crowd because of being a learned gentleman.

Rocks were often prized as objects of beauty, and we know they are objects of permanence. And so the rock with the orchid might be a play upon visual beauty, some of which is short lived and some permanent throughout time.


4 Flower Pots copy steve

Above we have a version of paired Mahjong flowers. The hand carved bone and bamboo tile flower on the left is the orchid, with a rock  just below the edge of the pot. Of course a rock appears in the other half of the diptych as well.



Above a vase, holding a hand carved Mahjong tile orchid, has a rock right next to it. Again, it seems like some of the blossoms may have fallen, thus alluding to the impermanence of some kinds of beauty.


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Although not hand carved, these tiles by Imperial feature a vase of orchids and the rock beside them.



Above is a photo from a set by Selfridge's, with a paper face showing the orchid in a vase with a rock in a pot right behind. Clearly the pairing of the two was important enough to feature on all tiles of Mahjong tiles.



And we'll end with a photo of some other stars of the orchid show at the Bronx Botanical Garden, these exquisite pink orchids. There is no indication of nearby rocks, but, then again, this show is not Chinese art, but rather a celebration of the beauty of orchids. Given that the show ends today, it is another indication of the need to appreciate etherial beauty when we have a chance.




We'll begin today's post with a close up of a painting in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. You will quickly see cranes in water, some flying and even swooping down(!), and bamboo, that every present plant that means so much to the Chinese. It is said that in China alone, more than 300 varieties of bamboo grow. Some of you know that Bamboo was probably the first material used to make mahjong tiles. Craftsmen took the images that were on paper cards and carved them into the harder bamboo surface. Bamboo was cheap (perhaps even free?) and abundant. It is no surprise it appears so often on Mahjong tiles, sometimes as itself in a pot, and sometimes worked into the scenes on the tiles and boxes.


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Above we have the crane and the bamboo stalk, both part of the Bamboo suit, as we all now call it. But calling it bamboo, certainly in the early days of the game, was something of a misnomer. Through the years the suit certainly morphed into looking like bamboo stalks, and thus can properly be called that today, but in the early days it was called String of Cash, close to its original money-based suit inspiration. You may want to read Michael Stanwick's website for more information about the development of the suits.

As many of you already know, bamboo is one of the Four Gentlemen, and is one of the plants frequently appearing on Flower tiles.


The Flower in the top row, tile #3 is the Bamboo. It is one of the easiest Chinese characters to read, I think.



The above top row #3 tile is also a bamboo, looking very much like we would expect.

From Wikipedia:

"The Four Gentlemen, also called the Four Noble Ones, in Chinese art refers to four plants: the orchid, the bamboo, the chrysanthemum, and the plum blossom.[1][2] The term compares the four plants toConfucianist junzi, or "gentlemen". They are most typically depicted in traditional ink and wash painting and they belong to the category of bird-and-flower painting in Chinese art.

The Four Gentlemen have been used in Chinese painting since the time of the Chinese Song Dynasty (960–1279) because of their refined beauty, and were later adopted elsewhere in East Asia by artists in Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. As they represent the four different seasons (the orchid for spring, the bamboo for summer, the chrysanthemum for autumn, and the plum blossom for winter), the four are used to depict the unfolding of the seasons through the year."

So, the Bamboo Flower tiles we have just seen show us Bamboo growing out of a pot, and a close-up of it growing in the ground.



Above we see a much more simplified bamboo, but recognizable nevertheless. Once again on #3, the lower row of tiles, with a slightly different rendition of the Chinese character.


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And here it is again, this time just represented in the Chinese character seen on the #3 tile.

The third and fifth images are from the collection of mahjongmahjong

We end the post by looking at an ink painting of bamboo


dating from the Ming dynasty, in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. You can easily see the nodes on the stalks, and the simple leaves of the plant, very much like what we see on Mahjong tiles.

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

la clars republic pd phoenix and peony This lovely porcelain (from Clars Auction House dating from the Republic period) ) shows us a phoenix (actually there are a couple you can see, one is hidden on the far right) standing near a peony, a common theme on porcelains.



Another standing phoenix with peony, this time from Christies.

But here we have a lovely French Ivory standing phoenix, with peony, sent to us by reader Laurie!

auction site

It's a lot of detail to fit on one small tile.


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This fabulous Mahjong box is inlaid with mother-of-pearl. Isn't it magnificent? You will notice the two phoenixes up at the top, surrounding an irregular round shaped object. I would venture to guess that the brass is a stylized peony. Peony brass hardware similar to that is still made today, so it may not be as wild a guess as it would seem! On top of the brass, of course, is a bat. The bat also appears on the bottom of the cabinet, probably between two plum blossoms. Plum blossoms can be recognized by their five petals.