unusual design

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

 

You will note the longevity symbol in the center. *

 

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

 

The Craks have the elaborate version of the wan.

 

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

 

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

 

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

Enjoy these exquisite Flowers!!

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

 

 

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

From wikipedia:

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

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

 

 

 

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!!

 

 

 

Happy 4715, the Year of the Fire Rooster.

 

Dee Gallo's Limited Edition Money set, with tiles arranged for this year in Chinese history.
Dee Gallo's Limited Edition Money set, with tiles arranged for this year in Chinese history.

 

The year of the Fire Rooster in Chinese years, on a Shanghai Luck set.
The year of the Fire Rooster in Chinese years, seen on a Shanghai Luck 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.

 

2017, the 100 year anniversary of the "discovery' of Mahjong by Joseph P Babcock, on a Shanghai Luck set. Symbols of longevity aboud: the peaches at the top and bottom os the Crak tiles represent longevity, as do the Bats on either side.
2017, the 100 year anniversary of the "discovery' of Mahjong by Joseph P Babcock, on a Shanghai Luck set. Symbols of longevity abound: the peaches at the top and bottom of the Crak tiles represent longevity, as do the Bats on either side.

 

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.

The original Little Red Book, pre-dating Chairman Mao's by 20 + years. Mao outlawed mahjong during his rule.
The original Little Red Book, pre-dating Chairman Mao's by 20 + years. Mao outlawed mahjong during his rule.

 

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?

Lucky cat, lantern, rooster charm, chocolate coins, red envelope, new year symbol, peanuts, spaghetti (long noodles) tangerine, ginger chews
Lucky cat, lantern, rooster charm, chocolate coins, red envelope, new year symbol, peanuts (nuts are good luck), spaghetti (long noodles) tangerine, ginger chews

 

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.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maneki-neko

Here's hoping this will be a good year.

For some fun extra reading, you can see Time magazine online, complete with videos

http://time.com/4648981/chinese-lunar-new-year-rooster/

 

And a sweet blog:

Dee Gallo's work can be seen at Redcoinmahjong.com. The One Bam Rooster on the Money set is perfect for this Chinese year.

More about Babcock can be read on Michael Stanwick's website themahjongtileset.co.uk in the China to the West section.

 

 

 

 

 

 

lila

I have the good fortune to know Allan and Lila Weitz, two wonderful Mahjong collectors from Canada. They send out a card every year. This is the card I got this year. Of course it is always fun to see the two of them, and the lovely boxes and set really caught my eye. Needless to say, although hard to see clearly in the photograph, I knew the set was a beauty. Allan kindly sent me photographs, and the story of the acquisition is at then end of the post.

 

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The box is one of the most deeply carved boxes I have ever seen, with a Foo dog handle and two doors. Already the piece is a stand-out.

 

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This is a very unusual One Bam crane. The other Bams are Bodhi leaves, from the Bodhi tree, important to Buddha. On rare occasions these leaves appear on Bam tiles in Mahjong.

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

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

dscn00031

 

1-law_0009_bThe other Dots are pumpkins, a gourd important to the Chinese. Each pumpkin has a lot of seeds, thus its associated with the wish for many children.

http://primaltrek.com/gourd.html

 

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The Craks are surrounded by garlands, with chrysanthemums at the top and bottom. Many of you eagle-eyed readers may also notice the Chinese numbers are different. This number system is the way numbers were written in the Chinese banking world, because the numbers could not be altered on checks and other banking forms.

 

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The Flowers are beautiful and delicately carved. The ones on the right are those plants associated with the seasons, chrysanthemum, bamboo, orchid and plum blossom. And look how thick the bone is! The creature on the Green Dragon looks to be a leopard.

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The Red Dragon features a fabulous hawk. If you look closely, the bird is holding a ribbon which surrounds Chung, a symbol for Center, representing China. Many of you know that a hawk  on a globe means Chinese military strength, and I think that is what this means here too.

 

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The winds have plants. The East looks to be a carrot or parsnip, West is a lotus root, North a Bamboo shoot and South a gourd.

 

Here is the story, written by Allan, about how the set got to the Allan and Lila Weitz collection.

Here is a brief history of set #1

The hallmark of a true collector is patience and knowledge.  For the last 19 years, I have been acquiring mahjong knowledge and am still learning facts every day. Patience was willed to me by my father. He was a perfectionist and in his retirement, built violins by hand from scratch. I observed him working on a front or back for weeks and if he was not satisfied, onto the scrap pile went the piece and he would start again.

 I source my sets from many areas. One area in particular is appealing. There are dozens of small auction houses with websites not associated with platforms such as Invaluable, or eBay. They do not send reminders on key words. Months of patient regular checking can go by without a hit. In November, 2015, a mahjong set poorly described and photographed popped up from a small company in Canada.  My knowledge told me that this was a special set.  If I was  correct, I witnessed two similar sets sell for $8000US and $12000US. I telephoned in my bid the day before and waited. Two days later, my phone rang and I was informed that I had won the set. My heart stopped and I asked the hammer price.   $650Can + 20% . I quickly paid by credit card and instructed the local UPS store to mail the package to me. I had previously done business with this store and they were very efficient. The same day, UPS sent out the box with tracking.  I was able to follow to follow the progress of the package and delivery was scheduled for two days before Christmas Eve. I stayed home all day waiting for the driver and at 5.00pm, the tracking site flashed "Package Delivered" I rushed to the front door and found........nothing. Patience went out the window. What was my next move? I decided to go and search for the box.  It was dark and freezing cold,  The plan was to search in concentric circles from my house. I live on a crescent with about thirty homes. I walked along the middle of the road and checked front doors from left to right. About six homes up I spied a large box in the shadows of the front door. I quickly scaled the stairs to the door and there was a large box. Before touching the box, I rang the front door bell-no answer, I rang a second time- nothing.  I picked up the box and read the address label. Allan Weitz  12.... from UPS.  As I walked down the stairs, I looked at the address of the house posted on a narrow column. It was number 21, But because there was little room on the plaque, the 2 was on top and underneath was the 1. The UPS driver was probably super tired and read the address wrong. I floated home and placed the box on the kitchen counter. Slowly I unpacked the set and my heart stopped again.  The set is magnificent and is listed in my top ten sets.  This is an example of what collecting is all about. 

So, this holiday season, in addition to the really important wishes and prayers we have for family, friends, our country and the world, maybe we can be hopeful something wonderful like this set can show up in our lives too!

 

 

 

 

 

 

img_9536-1Many 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.

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

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But what would be a Crisloid set without their darling dragons? See how Dee has finessed them to fit in with the new set.

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What wonderful inspirations, and great teamwork!

Given that the holidays are just around the corner....   🙂

 

 

Those of you who read this earlier post will remember Mei Lanfang, the Chinese opera star who excelled at performing female roles. Not only did he act, sing and dance, he wrote operas too. Quite the man, he had two wives at the same time, fathering two children with one wife and nine with the other. Not to let any opportunity pass him by, he took on a mistress at the same time, and they lived together for five years!

from culturalchina.com
from culturalchina.com

Mei in his professional life is seen above

from Wikipedia
from Wikipedia

and as he really looked.

 

In his professional life he was quite revered, and he traveled the world showing his unique style of performing. He had great love for China, and he was a staunch National. Following the Marco Polo Bridge incident during the Sino-Japanese War, the Japanese took over Beijing. The commander of the Japanese army appointed Mei to a high position. (Mei's talent was also appreciated by the Japanese.) Mei was ordered to perform for the Japanese, but he refused to do so. FB friend Richard told me that Mei grew a mustache during the Japanese occupation so that he would not have to perform any operas, especially effective as he excelled in female roles. Mei lived in poverty until the end of the war, at which point he resumed his professional career.

While enjoying stardom he ordered a special mahjong set. I have scanned the photos from the catalog published by the (sadly) defunct Japanese Mahjong Museum. (We do not know where the collection is, but many of us certainly hope that we get to see its treasures sometime soon.)

mei lanfang 2

This is the lovely box his set came in. You can see that it is inlaid with mother-of-pearl. The front and side panels have the often seen flowers in vases, and a teapot (in b). and what looks to be a pomegranate in the bowl on side c. This is somewhat amusing because pomegranates are symbols for hopes of many children, and we know that Mei certainly accomplished this!! The top of the box is inlaid with five bats (five being the lucky number that symbolizes long life, good health, a natural death, good moral  character and prosperity.) And we also have two longevity symbols on either side of the handle hinges.

Thanks to Ray Heaton, we have translations for the beautiful tiles seen below. It is interesting how strong the strokes are in the characters in the upper left, and how delicate the carving is on the Flowers. Perhaps this alludes to Mei's manliness in real life yet his delicacy on the stage. Some of the Flower images are familiar to us, the rolled up painting, the book, the flower, and the Chinese Cauldron. Other images are more difficult to interpret-ideas anyone?

mei lanfang

Ed: I have to assume the Winds have been replaced by the characters in blue, functioning in much the same way in the Chinese form of the game as it would be with Winds, and those characters in red, and green (the plain white being the White Dragon.) are substituting for the Dragons. There are 6 of these characters, all needed for the following translation.

"Here's a link to a description of the opera described in those large characters, 遊龍戲鳳(演劇), you long xi feng yan ju, "The Wandering Dragon toys with the Phoenix".  (I've put the last two in brackets as they mean "to act in an opera" rather than relate to the title of the play, but if we assume all six are to be read together, would, I suppose, read "to perform in the opera the Wandering Dragon toys with the Phoenix".

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

The flowers, 名伶表演, 古今趣史. Ming ling biao yan, gu jin qu shi. Literally, "the famous actor performs ancient and modern interesting history", I guess should translate more properly to something like "a record of famous performances in operas ancient and modern". Don't you love how the tiles refer to the famous actor performing, or a record of a famous performance?

The banner on one of the tiles says 文明自由, wen ming zi you, Civilization (and) Freedom." (right column, 2nd from the top)  

The symbols in the One Dots are the name of the company that made the tiles!

mei lanfang 1

Mei was a great national, as mentioned before. Many of you will see another indicator of his national pride: the hawk on the globe. This image symbolizes China's military strength, perhaps in this case, wishes for victory in the Sino-Japanese war. The symbol on the Craks is another way of writing the word wan. The unusual symbol on the Craks tiles is pin, the symbol for rank. *

Here follows more Mei Lanfang ephemera, truly an international star. I love the cover of this program! Remember, Mei is on the right!

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Hoping you can read these absolutely rave reviews of his NY performances.

 

It is so interesting to see all the places mahjong can take us, isn't it?

*FB friend Richard pointed out how similar the rank symbol is to the Chinese character for the word "sing." Even if just a coincidence, I love it!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coral resembles deer antlers and deer are symbols of longevity.

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

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

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

Si Xi is also used to describe the folk art model "the four happinesses baby figurine"; also called Si Xi Wa Wa, see here, http://english.visitbeijing.com.cn/culture/n215174241.html.  (If you click on that link you will recognize this figure.)

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

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

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

Click below to download the Mahjong solitaire app:

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

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I just co-wrote a book with Susan West. It's the first book ever to identify vintage mahjong sets and allow the reader to determine the set's relative value: Mahjong is For the Birds. To see more about this, click here

 

 

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The set is wonderful, with tiles of great thick bone (75% the thickness of the tile is bone. In the 1920s, the heyday of hand-carved sets coming from China, the best bone and bamboo sets had the thickest bone, and only the most skilled carvers were involved with carving those sets.) You can see how fabulous the One dot is, with its brilliant blue slightly squared off interior. The center is the plum blossom, that five petaled flower beloved by the Chinese. The other Dots are flowers, but not plum blossoms. The Bams have the One Bam peacock, frequently seen in Bone and Bamboo sets, and the other Bams have  column-like shapes. (On some of these sets I often think the 8 Bams look  a lot like legs, don't you?)

The Craks are not unusual, nor are the Winds or the Dragons.

Ah, but then the Flowers!!

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When you look at all these different occupations seen on the tiles, you can see why Cari K. dubbed it "What's My Line?" after that great old tv show in the 1950s, a time when families used to gather around the black and white television set in the living room and watch game shows together.

But there is something more important going on with these images, and this is what we will look at now.

Ray Heaton has translated the Chinese characters on the tiles:

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Top row are 榮華富貴, rónghuá-fùguì, glory, splendor, wealth and rank (a Chinese idiom meaning high position and great wealth).

Looking at the men depicted, it is easy to see that the man on the left is in the military, and the next man is holding a fan (not a glass of champagne as many of us first thought!) We are not quite sure about the next man who seems to be holding a heart, and pointing at it. The furthest right man seems to be a banker.

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I haven't come across the bottom row before.

I think they are 紳商學界, shēn shāng xué jiè, meaning something like "the gentry, merchants and scholar society".  I'll need to look this up as I'm sure it must refer to some specific classification of the educated classes.

The far left man looks to be in business, the next man could be a merchant holding an abacus, then comes a student and a man in a religious order.

But Ray does not just stop at translating, he puts things into context, because so much of what we see on Mahjong tiles needs to be understood based on greater knowledge. So here is what he came up with:

Still a bit of a puzzle, so I took a different approach to finding the meaning and how it relates to the tiles.
I think it means, "The Officials Gentry and Business Circles"; the term is used in the following extract from a document (in Chinese) by Gao Pengcheng...
"At the end of the Qing Dynasty, there was unusually active awareness of political participation by a
variety of social organizations (including The Red Swastika) and the general public. One particular event was the campaign of repaying national debt. In 1909, Tianjin Chamber of Commerce called on to form repaying debt association to make advance payment and prevent outsiders from supervising China's finance, which was well received by the officials, gentry, business and literary circles. Although the Campaign was an important social event in the late Qing Dynasty, for lack of systematic historic records, scholars have rarely discussed it in detail"
The term is also used in describing the Red Swastika society, and it's this that I suspect is the association to the tiles. 
The swastika symbol had a very benign beginning.

According to Wikipedia

"It is considered to be a sacred and auspicious symbol in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism and dates back to before the 2nd century BCE."

The Red Swastika Society (世界红卍字会simplified Chinese: 世界红卍字会; traditional Chinese: 世界紅卍字會; pinyin: shìjiè hóngwànzìhuì) is a voluntary association founded in China in 1922 by Qian Nengxun (錢能訓), Du Bingyin (杜秉寅) and Li Jiabai (李佳白). Together with the organization's president Li JianChiu (李建秋), they set up their establishment of the federation in Beijing...  The swastika (卍 wàn; "infinity", "all") in Chinese and other cultures is a symbol of the manifestation of God or its creation...

Generally, its mission was a broad based effort of philanthropy and moral education. It ran  poorhouses and soup kitchens, as well as modern hospitals and other relief works. It had an explicit internationalist focus, extending relief efforts to Tokyo after earthquakes and also in response to natural disasters in the Soviet Union. In addition, it had offices in ParisLondon, and Tokyo and professors of Esperanto within its membership.[2]

And perhaps the Red Swastika Society solves the mystery of why the man seems to have a heart on his chest on tile #3 top line: he really is holding a symbolic heart and his organization was founded to help those in need. Adding to the good work of this charity, one should not overlook the attempts of the wealthy to pay back some of the Chinese debt, an unfair burden that China was carrying based on very poor treaty negotiations by inept and frightened politicians. Anyone who has read Empress Dowager CiXi is very familiar with these issues.

I thought you all, would like to see what a Chinese banker dressed like, not very different from what we see on these tiles. Dee Gallo, whom I celebrated in this post, helped out.

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According to Dee, her great-uncle

...is the one of the right side of this pic, wearing the Chinese clothing. His name is Zung Pei-Con, he was a banker with the Bank of Shanghai (still in business in the same building on the Bund). He was also the Russian connection for the brothers' fur and Oriental rug import business to their store in NYC. He married a White Russian lady named Olga and they lived in the International Concession in Shanghai, which was mostly Russians and Germans. My Aunt (his daughter) grew up speaking Chinese, Russian and went to a German speaking school (where she learned English so she always spoke with a German accent!). Shanghai was truly the Paris of the East back in the 30's!

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Mahjong really can teach us so much about the world and its different cultures. Thank you Ray for adding this to our knowledge about China.

A lot of learning came from one small set of Mahjong tiles, didn't it?

And if you want to see a bit of What's My Line, click here

 

 

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One Bamboo Peacock and One Dot Parrot (Note curled Dragon and pearl inside the Dot)

 

Many of us are drawn to the game of Mahjong because of the beautiful tiles, racks, and boxes, and the wonderful mental exercise.  And how we treasure the friendships formed around the table! Finally, here is a set that has it all: different birds on each kind of suit tile, all beautifully carved. When people play with this set, they can combine two of the world's most beloved activities: Mahjong, the most popular game in the world, and bird-watching! The set was a bit of difficult to play with, but isn't that supposed to be part of the game, mental challenges? And we got used to it very quickly. (I actually think it is good, if you possibly can, to play with different sets. It really is great fun.)

Here follow the tiles in the three suits, and a listing of all the birds.

 

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The Bams

Notice how the Bams themselves are made of longevity symbols (those symbols slip into so much of Chinese design, and, if you are lucky, on Mahjong tiles.)

 

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The Dots, perhaps based on Chrysanthemums, one the flowers loved by the Chinese)

The bold colors of the Dots make them easy to identify quickly.

 

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The Craks

Don't you love that #4 Crak? I thought it was a mistake, but I guess not, because here follows the listing of the birds:

Related bird (2 Dot?)

Starling

Hang upside down bird (Definitely the 4 Crak)

Lovestruck bird (?)

bird in bamboo forest (2 Bam 5 Bam?)

GeGong bird

QiJiLiao Brid

pearl bird

slender eyes bird

Peacock (I have that one: 1 Bam!)

Mynah (?)

ZiGui Bird

cock (4 Bam)

swallow (5 Bam)

mandarin duck (6 Bam)

Eigret

magpie

red-crowned crane (8 Bam)

parrot (One Dot)

wren (9 Crak?)

BaiZiLian Bird

budgerigar

halcyon

wagtail

pearly head bird

BaiYu Brid

fortune-telling bird (!)

Fun, and pretty, right?!

Announcing my latest project: Mahjong is For the Birds, an ebook (the book can be ordered in a color copy version" identifying vintage plastic sets and rating them on a desirability scale. Go to mahjongmahjong.com

 

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

We'll start with the suits.

 

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

 

Dots:

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

 

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

 

The Wan or Crak Suit

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

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The Bamboo suit

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

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

 

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The Dragons

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

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

The Winds

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

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

The Flowers

 

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

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

 

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Direction Coins

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

 

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Jokers

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

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

2 Facing Bats and coin: Blessings before your eyes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am missing ( 🙁  )

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

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

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

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

 

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The Dragon Set, designed by Dee Gallo and Crisloid.

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