mahjong tiles


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.

To see when I am doing author appearances, click here

You can now follow me on Twitter!


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


To order it click here:

or here from Amazon


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.


Screen Shot 2014-05-22 at 8.50.23 AM

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?

Screen Shot 2014-11-05 at 10.53.23 AM

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




Screen Shot 2014-05-02 at 7.15.33 AM

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.


DSC_0832 new

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.


DSC_0671 crane and bam

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.


april 24, 2013 hybrid set 017

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.


phoenix box 2


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.

KH D&P 9

These beautiful lacquer racks belonging to Katherine Hartman showcase some of the wonderful painting you can see on Mahjong accessories. Very talented artists designed and painted racks. The type seen here has  a top shelf that slides back to reveal betting counters stored within. On the above racks, your eye  would have been quickly drawn, by the brightness of the color and the wonderful design, to the dragons and pearl rack, second from the top. We already touched upon this topic, and here we will explore it a bit more in depth in connection with the dragon series, having to do with Mahjong accessories and the dragon and "pearl" pairing.

According to Patricia Bjaaland Welch in Chinese Art  A guide to Visual Motifs and Visual Imagery, the pairing of dragons and pearls (or round disk or jewel) started in the Tang Dynasty (which ran from 618 until 906). She feels Robert D. Mowry offers the right explanation, that the dragon and disk represent elements from two traditions, the dragon from Chinese mythology and the jewel from Buddhism. The "pearl" may not actually be a pearl but a talismanic jewel that symbolizes wisdom. Welch adds the jewel often is seen surrounded by flames, adding to the belief that it represents the sun, but flames are often seen in Buddhist art, symbolizing magical powers.

MET Museum Drag robe

We saw this dragon robe (Qing Dynasty) from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art on an earlier post. You'll note here the dragon is surrounding a flaming object. Here it certainly does not resemble a pearl, but more like a disk, adding credence to the disk or jewel interpretation.



Above is a porcelain bowl from the Lucas Collection. You'll see a round disk, somewhat resembling a sand dollar, right in front of the dragon.



Above is another lacquer rack, quite different in appearance than the first dragon rack we saw. The dragons are hidden in the clouds, represented by the circular swirls. Two dragons surround the flaming disk; this type of two dragon rack is used by three out of the four players at a table.



The original East player has one with just one dragon.


Screen Shot 2014-03-28 at 4.24.11 PM

And another wonderful dragon and "pearl" screen shot. Come visit the site tomorrow for another "photograph screen shot" and the information behind it.

1 Comment

mm coronet dragons

Yesterday we touched upon reasons Mahjong sets become objects of desire. For many collectors, these dragons made by the Coronet Company, are the selling points. Who can resist these smoke blowing creatures?

mm lucite dragons 2

These Dragons above, from an unknown manufacturer, have many of the features we have seen before, including horns and whiskers. Interestingly, the White Dragon is not a Dragon at all but  a snake, one of the five poisonous creatures, often embroidered on children's clothing to ward off venomous dangers! The White Dragon appears a bit like some of the very elongated dragons we have seen before. The two Dragons have four toes, so these dragons were allowed to be used by low ranking officials. (Welch)

MM lucite dragons 1

This Cardinal Company pair above has a red elongated Dragon as the Red, and the more squat Green one, very similar to that of the Royal Depth Control Dragon, seen below.

Screen Shot 2014-03-30 at 6.10.09 PM

But look at these last two Green Dragons, they aren't like any dragons we have seen before! Why? We have yet to see a dragon with wings!! This must have been an attempt to appeal to the Western market, and was a real departure from Chinese dragons.

lucas col dirasianart ints of austra

To refresh what Chinese dragons look like, we have a porcelain from the Lucas Collection ( as far as I can gather Lucas was the Director of the Asian Art Institute in Australia. ) Note the absence of wings on the dragon.

Screen Shot 2014-03-28 at 4.23.48 PM

To end this post, look carefully at this screenshot of a photograph of a Dragon in China. More information and leads will be forthcoming, in a few days.

Mahjong tiles courtesy of Mahjongmahjong.


We have touched upon the importance of the dragon in Chinese mythology and art before on this website, but here we will go into greater detail.

Met Western Jin Dyn 265-316

The dragon has long been important to the Chinese. According to Patricia Bjaaland Welch in Chinese Art A Guide to Motifs and Visual Imagery, the dragon is the highest ranking animal in the animal hierarchy, and it has been loved throughout Chinese history. The dragon in the photograph above, in the collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is an example of an early dragon. It's a vessel with a dragon's head, dating from the Western Jin Dynasty which ran from 265 until 316.

The Dragon is typically shown in profile, but as we saw on some photographs which appeared on this website, it often is facing the viewer. This is especially the case on Imperial robes; given that this creature was long associated with the Imperial family, it is no surprise its image appears on many objects associated with the life of the royal family.

MET Museum Drag robe

The above robe is from the Metropolitan Museum's collection. It dates from the Qing Dynasty which lasted from 1644 until 1911.


DSC_0740 inside

Does this look familiar? Here the Imperial Dragon is the inside of a Mah Jongg box.



And here it is the rule book for the set.


Another dragon, auctioned off by Sothebys, this time is the top of a container. Its body is wrapped around the neck. He bears a certain resemblance to the bone and bamboo tile which follows it.

photo-41 sothebys head of dragon vase


This wonderful mahjong dragon is almost facing us. You can only see some of its body because the rest is obscured by clouds.

KH D&P 1

Don't you love the claws sticking out of the clouds?

But more often we see the dragon in profile, or in a partial side view. Following are two such dragons.

KH D&P 5

These White Dragons were carved by Dee Gallo. You can notice the whiskers, and long body; the red feet are the best!

According to Welch, the traditional Chinese dragon has body parts from nine different animals "the head of a camel, horns of a deer, eyes of a rabbit, ears of a cow, neck of a snake, belly of a frog, scales of a carp, claws of a hawk, and palm of a tiger." It may be hard to see all of those aspects of the dragon's body, especially on small Mahjong tiles, but it is easy to see the camel head, the horns of a deer, and the scales of a carp on the tiles above.

And of course you remember these wonderful dragons, from an earlier post:




These dragons are showing four toes, which is significant in Chinese art. (Of course every detail is significant in Chinese art!)

The bone and bamboo tiles are from the Katherine Hartman collection.

The phoenix, which only appears in times of fair and just rulers, is associated with peaceful and happy times. Patricia Bjaaland Welch's book: Chinese Art A Guide to Motifs and Visual Imagery is the source for the art information in this post. She  writes the phoenix is known in China as the king of the birds, but its origins are complex. Today the phoenix is considered to be a combination of several creatures: the head of a pheasant, the body of a duck, the legs of a crane, the tail feathers of a peacock, the mouth of a parrot and the wings of a sparrow.  The female phoenix has a tail with two feathers, and the male has one with five feathers. When a phoenix is paired with another mythological creature,  a dragon, the phoenix automatically becomes the female partner.

Most of you are familiar with this symbol that appears on the early sets made by the Mah-Jongg Sales Company of America,  that was discussed earlier on this blog. It was simply the Chinese Character for the male phoenix.


Nowadays we call it the Green Dragon, and many of today's players are unaware of this different character that served as the Green at the beginning of the Mahjong craze.

In the earliest days of Chinese art, the phoenix was shown as a striding creature with outstretched wings, up until close to 600 AD, perhaps a bit of a version of this One Bam, though of course this one does not have outstretched wings:

DSC_0633 phoenix

The jaunty attitude of this bird is enchanting.

The next Chinese Bakelite One Bam features another phoenix, posing with leg raised in a similar way to what we often see with peacock One Bams.


The two feathers reveals it to be a female. (It is from the personal collection of mahjongmahjong.)

Later on in time, during the Tang Dynasty the phoenix was depicted in flight, and by the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1126) it was shown rising in flight with legs tucked up.

met museum song dynasty

On the above lovely hanging dating from the Song Dynasty in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, we see the phoenix  on the left; the two feathers indicate a female. Interestingly, the tail does not have the peacock-like look to them we normally see.

Met museum ming dynasty

A bit later in time we see the above panel dating from the Ming Dynasty in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The phoenix now looks a lot different, and its tail has the more ornate feathers we expect. Look carefully and you will see four phoenixes.

In yesterday's blog we discussed Five Bats which are symbolic of the Five Blessings: old age, wealth, health, love of virtue and a natural death, an image that frequently appears in Chinese art. The rare dish below was auctioned off at Sothebys. Five bats surround a stylized Shou in the center, and although hard to see the "cavetto," the part of the plate surrounding the center flat part, has three phoenixes. Note they only have two tail feathers, and thus are females.


Below is a version of a flying phoenix on a Mahjong tile

DSC_0746 phoenix

It is a female, and she looks it, doesn't she?

Below is the accompanying bird from the same set:

DSC_0746 luan

You can see the similarities to the phoenix, but it really is  a pheasant, indicated by the feathers  that don't resemble those of peacocks.

My book, written with Ann Israel, is coming out! To see about the book: 

to order the book: