Those of us who play the game love the activity itself. But some of us like to set the scene by having a beautiful table. And, you know, it does make a difference: playing on a lovely table adds to the enjoyment of the game.
Some tables are antiques, and skillfully carved. The drawer you see in the middle can hold the player's winnings.
Some tables have carving and incredible inlay, such as this one. Notice the different colors used for the inlay. Although this is called a mahjong table, I doubt it was designed for playing the game. It lacks some of the drawers one often sees on special MJ tables.
Here's the top of the table. I don't know about you, but I would have a hard time concentrating on my tiles if I were playing on this beauty!
Some people have taken their affection for the game and inserted their beloved tiles into a tabletop. It certainly would be impossible to play on this table! I'd guess this is used as a side table or coffee table.
There are other fun tables, such as this one on etsy:
Isn't this adorable?
And then we have a table that is a work of art, beautifully painted, and that's practical for learning how to play:
Look carefully at this beauty. (If you click the photo you will get a better close up.) You will see a rack to lean the tiles against, just above those oval shaped indentations intended for the long bone counters used in the early days for keeping score. I guess those round indentations are to hold the dice. Scoring the game, which was quite complicated back in the days, became a lot easier with all the scoring information around the outside edges. Flower tiles, used as bonus tiles, could be placed in little squares on the sides (see lower right.) Your exposures: Chows, Pungs and Kongs, go in the little boxes further to the right. (BTW: in some versions of the game, a run of tiles is called a Chow.)
The center dragon is fabulous. This table was made for Chinese play, or at least for the variation of game that only needs 18 tiles per wall. Notice how the rectangles around the edges of the center of the table tell players where to place their tiles.
Lucky owner Rod Limke has this beauty where it can be admired:
It will not come as a surprise to any of you that I love many different types of sets. I have a special place in my heart for one-of-a-kind ones, perhaps made for children to enjoy. I came upon this special little set, briefly on ebay, and I had to share it with you. These tiles are hand-painted, not carved, and the set must have been loved.
How adorable are these Dragons? They might have even been painted by a child. Each one is different. They each have their own distinct looks: some look like caterpillars, others like dogs, and even T-Rexes.
The Wind characters have been painted with élan and enthusiasm. I like that the Western letters are on the top and bottom of the tiles so that they can be read both right-side up and upside down. I suspect that someone older must have worked on these tiles, if I am right about the Dragons.
These Craks are delightful, and the energy on the Chinese numbers and Wans radiates out from the tiles. Once again, the designs are much more sophisticated than those of the Dragons.
The Bams have their own unique designs, so likely done by someone with great creativity (unless they were copying some other set I have yet to find and identify).
The Dots have their own special style as well.
The more I think about it, the more I feel this set was made by several people, working together to make a set to be played with and enjoyed. I imagine a scene around a table, with perhaps a parent or two, and a child, collaborating on a game which would be a wonderful way to pass the time together as a family.
Certainly these tiles brought a smile to your face, as they did to mine.
A set does not have to be a masterpiece to be a treasure.
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.
No one in China would ever kill a Dragon.
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.
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? )
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.
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:
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.
There are theories as to how the idea of Dragons came about, and Smithsonian Magazine covers some:
This is what I would call a pretty nondescript box. Years ago I would not have bothered to open it, thinking there would not have been anything of interest in it. But wrong!! I have learned that there is not necessarily a relationship between the ornate nature of the box and the quality of the set: often great sets come in simple boxes, and wonderful boxes can house simple sets.
I found these images while looking at sets up for auction on ebay. The set itself is incomplete, but the tiles that are left are stunning. It is interesting to note that many sets can have all the tiles (Suits, and Winds and Dragons) "fully carved" but not all do. Here we have a mix of fully carved and (somewhat) plain although beautiful.
The Bams are lovely. I love the slightly rounded edges of the stalks. The One Bam is the Phoenix, the King of the Birds, holding a peony, King of the flowers. Notice the finely carved details on the bamboo stalks.
The Dots certainly have lovely details, especially the One Dot with the floral center. Obviously six tiles are missing, and replacements will have to be found or blanks located and carved.
But look at the normally drab Winds. Here butterflies surround the Wind characters. These tiles are somewhat similar to the White Dragons we saw on the ebony set. When sets are incomplete and tiles have to be located and subbed in or carved, my dear friend Katherine Hartman designs beautiful White Dragons to be carved instead of the plain white tiles often seen in old bone and bamboo sets. Given that tiles are missing, this embellishing does not interfere with the integrity of the set.
Stylized frames surround the Craks.
The colors are lovely. You have to look carefully, but the Green and Red Dragons have bats at the corners, with longevity symbols on each edge. The Red # flowers probably were all children at play. I have seen that #2 one before, and I never can quite figure out what that child is doing- perhaps he is a contortionist??!! (If you click on the photo you can see it enlarged, to take in all the lovely details.) There are enough blanks to have the missing four Flowers carved, and these are groupings of Flowers that are seen from time to time, so the right Flowers could be carved to add to the set.
So, worth taking a peek , right?
BTW: The set sold for over $3,000. Let's all remember to open any boxes that might contain a MJ set!!
In China there are 12 signs of the zodiac, and five elements can modulate each sign. The elements are metal, water, wood, fire, and earth. This year we have the Fire Rooster. People born this year are said to be strong-willed, leaders, and organized. They get things done, but they are not always considerate of the feelings of others.
In our calendar, 2017 is an important year. One hundred years ago, in 1917, according to legend, Joseph P. Babcock saw Mahjong being played. Babcock was working for Standard Oil and living in Soochow. As the story goes, he was on a ship on the Yangze River when he heard a lot of noise and laughter. He went to investigate, and found crewmen playing a mysterious game with tiles. Babcock spoke fluent Chinese, and he quickly learned how to play the game. He is credited with being the first person to realize the game might be a hit with the foreign market. He joined with others to form the Mah-Jongg Sales Company. Babcock added Arabic numbers and Western letters to the tile sets, so that Americans and Europeans could understand which tile was which. He also may have been the one to come up with the concept of "dumbing down" : thinking the Chinese rules and scoring were way too complicated for the non-Chinese market, he simplified everything. His version was printed in a little red soft-cover book which was enclosed in every set exported from China. A hard cover one was available for purchase.
Babcock was at least partly responsible for helping to save a struggling Chinese economy. China had a very difficult time in the beginning of the 1900s, which allowed for the overthrow of the last Emperor of China, and the establishment of The Republic of China in 1912. The new republic continued to have a "challenging" economy, but Mahjong helped to save the day in the 1920s.
Reader Paul J. sent me a wonderful article from a monthly newsletter published in 1924, and some of that information appears here. Mahjong is credited for helping Chinese employment numbers, and exports. In 1921, China exported 6,305 HK Dollars worth of goods. In 1922, all exports totaled 198,000 HK Dollars. By 1924 it was predicted that mahjong exports alone from China would account for, drum roll please, 3,000,000 HK Dollars!!!
Much of the credit for this world-wide craze was the brilliant marketing of the game. China in the 1920s was exotic and mysterious, and the admen took advantage of this. People at the Mah-Jongg Sales Company created wonderful lore, and wrote it in flowery phrases, pre-dating the J. Peterman catalog by 50 or more years. The MJSC catalog read:
What is it? This is the universal question found on the lips of everyone who has not yet been initiated in this fascinating game of the hour.
Mah-Jongg is our registered Trade Marked name of a game, an ancient Chinese game, and about it clings all the lure of the Orient. A game as fascinating to the Occident as are the rich silken and embroidered garments of the ancient courts of China.
Since the days of the great teacher Confucius, this ANCIENT HONORABLE AND ROYAL GAME has been handed down from generation to generation.
At the time when Babylon the Great was mistress of the Western World, long before the days of the Roman Empire, this marvelous game fascinated the cultured Chinese with the click of its ivory tiles and its “Pung” and “Chow.”
What better way to celebrate this Chinese New Year than to ring it in with symbols of good luck?
I was lucky enough to buy an Inaugural Friendship box from Pearl River Mart (pearlriver.com). The box includes:
Rooster charms to help people tap into traits associated with the sign
Red Envelopes used to gift hard cash (or maybe chocolate coins)
Lanterns, the end of the 15 day celebration: the full moon. The moon symbolizes the return of spring and the reunion of family.
Lucky snacks: ginger for longevity, and sweets for a sweet new year. Not included: tangerines (because the Chinese word sounds like the word for luck), peanuts and long noodles symbols of a long life.
The lucky cat with a beckoning paw is thought to bring good luck-the left paw attracts customers to a shop, and the right invites good fortune and money.
Many of you are familiar with the delightful Crisloid set, with its peacock wearing a crown. Just looking at the color of the tiles, and the cheery images can cheer up a dreary day. No wonder this set is a fan favorite.
One of the most talented designers and craftswomen in the Mahjong business today, Dee Gallo of Red Coin, worked with Crisloid to create a new set for them, putting her touches on some of Crisloid's beloved images, and adding new wonderful designs for the Dragon Set, released in 2015. What a great result.
I thought I would show you some of the original tiles, and the ones that Dee tweaked to fit in with her vision for the new set. The plastic used for each kind of set is very different which probably leads to some design choices as well.
The lighter tiles will always be the original Crisloid set. Here are some of the suit tiles. The new One dot has the R representing Red Coin and the C representing Crisloid. The 7 Bam on the new set looks inspired by the designs of the 7 Dots we often see. The One Bam peacock is a bit more detailed, with the coins on his wings really resembling the Red Coin/Crisloid One Dots.
The original Crisloid Flowers look sunny, with what looks like a Swedish design influence in their simplicity and bold colors.There are two groups of Flowers on the new set : actual flowers (the eight ones on the left), and those that can be used in the Singapore Capture style of play (on the right.) The rooster gets the centipede, the rich man the pot of gold, the fisherman the fish, and the cat the rat.
The Crisloid Big Joker has a wonderful bold and simple look to it. The new sets give the buyer a choice of Jokers. This one is the Ma-Ma Hu-Hu, half horse and half Tiger.
I must admit, I never thought I would have Winds as my favorite part of the set, but on this set they are. A Winds hand, seen below, is just beautiful. But when you see how Dee has directed the fans to the four compass directions, you will understand why the tiles are so beautiful.
But what would be a Crisloid set without their darling dragons? See how Dee has finessed them to fit in with the new set.
What wonderful inspirations, and great teamwork!
Given that the holidays are just around the corner.... 🙂
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.
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:
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.
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
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:
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!
Mei in his professional life is seen above
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.)
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?
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".
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 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!
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!
From time to time I get to see beautiful and special boxes that house Mahjong sets. I want to share this one with you, and on this last day of May it seems especially fitting.
A reader sent me photos of this lacquer box, featuring the Mayfly, although at first I thought an artist took a lot of liberties with a butterfly. The Mayfly has special meaning to the Chinese and can symbolize (from primaltrek.com) strength, peace, harmony, purity, good luck, prosperity, childhood, living for the moment, joy and transparency. Quite a lot for one little insect! Mayflies actually have a very interesting life cycle, and you can read more about them by visiting a website I have linked at the end of the blog.
This is the side of the box, with a charming bird looking at a cicada from the branch of a plum tree. From Primaltrek: The cicada is a symbol of rebirth and immortality because after surviving underground for a long period of time it emerges and flies into the sky. Note the five blossoms on the flower, the give-away for a plum blossom in Chinese art. The plum blossom is also one of the four plants associated with the seasons. What is fascinating about Chinese art is that everything has to be put into context. Although the plum blossom is usually associated with winter, because of its pairing with the cicada it is associated with spring, and rebirth.
The box of the box features a crane (symbol of longevity) standing under a pine tree (yes, another symbol of longevity!) And that darling cicada is making himself known again.
Even the top of the box is decorated in the theme, with bees buzzing. The bird is perched in bamboo. Bamboo is a symbol of strength as well as ideals of the Confucian scholar, because both are upright, strong, and resilient (primaltrek.com). Bamboo is also the plant associated with summer. Even the handles of the box are embellished with what looks like bamboo leaves, and they may be made from a semi-precious metal known as Paktung.
What a Mahjong Treasure!
It is my feeling that some of the greatest artists in China in the 1920s, the time when Mahjong was the 6th biggest export from China, went to work in the Mahjong business. This box certainly would be a big argument for that being true.
There is a long history of the Mayfly being part of Mahjong, starring as One Bams. You can click here to see reader Tony Watson's write-up for this blog.
Katherine Hartman sent us some lovely photos of Mayfly One Bams:
Michael Stanwick's website also features other examples of Mayfly One Bams.
For more information about the Mayfly you can go here:
Just found out there will be an article about the mayfly in the next Mahjong Collector Magazine. If you are not already a subscriber and you want to be, here's the email address you need: email@example.com
I recently came across images of a rare set, and I want to share them with you. Brad LaPratt took these wonderful mahjong photos, and he is the owner of this set.
We all know of one color tiles (those we most often see) two-tone ones (often even more desirable) and those delightful three layer lucite sets. Here is one with even more layers!
This set comes with fun history: a clarification by the previous owner who used tiny labels so that players could tell which tile was which. I was just asking about how to "update" tiles the other day, so that players unfamiliar with Chinese words and numbers could know what tile was what.
Here are the Bams, but you do get a sneak peak at the layers from the Craks if you look closely.
The Craks are complete with stickers done by the previous owner to "explain" what the tiles represent
The Dots are simple concentric circles, with an ornate One Dot.
16 (!) Flowers
Here's a close-up of the One Dot, the White Dragon, and the delicate One Bam peacock.
And finally the big reveal from the side:
These tiles look like regular Chinese bakelite tiles just looking at their faces, but aren't they fabulous from the side? Maybe players need to build walls balancing these tiles on their sides, instead of front to back! To me they look like they would be very soft, but Brad says they are hard like bakelite.
And don't they remind you of a wonderful multi-layered dessert?