Tag Archives: antique mahjong

This post was written by Ray Heaton, and images were added. These four arts often appear in various forms on Mahjong tiles. 

The Four Arts (四藝, siyi), or the Four Arts of the Chinese Scholar, were the four main leisure pursuits of the Chinese scholar gentleman. These are occasionally known as the Four Attainments of Pleasure.

Although the individual parts of the concept (Qin, Qi, Shu, Hua) have very long histories as activities befitting a learned person, the earliest written source putting the four together is Zhang Yanyuan's ''Fashu Yaolu'' or "exemplars of calligraphy", from the Tang Dynasty. The concept of these being "the four arts" is first found in the ''Xianqing ouqi'' or  "on the pleasure of idleness", by Li Yu, sometime around the mid 1600's.

琴, Qin, the Guqin, a seven stringed instrument (rather like a Zither or Lute) and is China's oldest stringed instrument, with a documented history of about 3,000 years. It became part of a tradition cultivated by Chinese scholars and literati since the time of Confucius. Its reputation rests not only on the rich and diverse musical expression it is capable of, but also on the fact that it has been revered as a symbol of Chinese high culture – the essence of Chinese thought and philosophy are integral to the Qin repertoire itself.  The Qin was Banned during the Cultural Revolution as belonging to one of "The Four Old Evils" or "The Four Olds".

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The qin as seen on the Cultural China website

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and on Wikipedia.

棋, Qi, the strategy game of Go or Chinese Chess, this will be either 圍棋 Weiqi the game of Go or 象棋, Xiangqí, Chinese Chess.  According to Patricia Bjaaland Welch in Chinese Art, A Guide to Motifs and Visual Imagery, the game shown is most likely Weiqi.  The Chinese Imperial Court used Weiqi as a gauge to measure the intellectual strength of an imperial scholar, requiring good mental discipline, a deep philosophical attitude and a multi-campaign mentality.

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The image of scholars playing Go is from Wikipedia. Be sure to notice the young children hiding, and the taihu rock on the upper left.

書, Shu, means to write and also means book but is used to refer to Chinese calligraphy, the representative image is often illustrated by books wrapped in silk or paper and tied with a ribbon.  Calligraphy, or the art of writing, was the visual art form prized above all others in traditional China. The elevated status of calligraphy reflecting the importance of the word in China and scholars, whose main currency was the written word, came to assume the dominant positions in government, society, and culture. Associated to this are the Four Treasures of the Scholar's Study, also referred to as "The four jewels of the study" and comprise the Brush, Ink, Paper and Inkstone.

Following are some visuals, versions of which may be seen on Mahjong tiles:

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From free stock photos above is a stack of books, which in Chinese art would be wrapped in fabric,

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an inkstone  above featured on thefullwiki.org,

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and a calligraphy scroll itself, a poem in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum.

And just to make sure there is an understanding of how and why these images can get confusing:

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from ancientpoint.com an inkstone shaped like a stack of books/scrolls! This leads us to:

畫, Hua, Chinese painting. These are often a rolled scroll, sometimes also wrapped with a ribbon.  Scholar-official painters most often worked in ink on paper and chose subjects—bamboo, old trees, rocks—that could be drawn using the same kind of disciplined brush skills required for calligraphy. This immediately distinguished their art from the colourful, illusionistic style of painting preferred by court artists and professionals. Proud of their status as amateurs, they created a new, distinctly personal form of painting in which expressive calligraphic brush lines were the chief means employed to animate their subjects. Another distinguishing feature of what came to be known as scholar-amateur painting is its learned references to the past. The choice of a particular antique style immediately linked a work to the personality and ideals of an earlier painter or calligrapher. Style became a language by which to convey one's beliefs.

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from wikipedia. The scholar seems to be copying a scene from the unrolled scroll, perhaps an attempt by this scholar to link to the earlier work of another.  We see the taihu rock here as well, and the Chinese barrel shaped stool we also saw in the drawing of the scholars playing Go.


Above we have a beautiful black and gold lacquer piece made in 1595, and found on Wikipedia's website.  You can see the delicate paintbrush work, using only the color gold, yet capturing people, sky, mountains, water, boats, and pagodas, with perhaps the moon or sun seen just to the left of the calligraphy. So many of the key aspects of Chinese landscape painting are seen here.

Following are the sides and front of a black lacquer Mahjong box. The artist has decorated the box with a landscape, featuring temples, trees, mountains, and people, all treated in an almost abstract manner. It seems pretty clear that the artist who painted this Mahjong box clearly knew about the lacquer techniques seen above.





A question might come to mind: How does a box this old survive in such wonderful shape? The answer is in the was it was stored. Although we don't know how old the lacquer box is, it seems to be quite old given the appearance of the box it was stored in, a wooden box with a sliding lid:



The inside of the box was lined with linen, covering some kind of padding:



The Mahjong box could be carefully pulled up out of the outside box, and  lowered back into it for storage.

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The paktong handles and decorative trim echo the silver in the landscape; handles rest on small bat-shaped decor. The red used on the pagodas in the background brings to mind the magic of nighttime with candles and lanterns flickering, with moonlight reflecting off the mountains, creating a magical setting.

The lacquer continues inside:


You can see the mirror-like drawer exteriors and the red drawer lining.

The box was made by Shen Shaoan, a lacquerware maker with a rightly deserved stellar reputation.


From the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art we have this incredible wood screen, entitled Summer Palace. Made by Feng Langgong, it is painted and lacquered with gilt, and dates from 1690. As you can read in this excerpt from Wikipedia, the Chinese artists have worked in lacquer for over three thousand years.

From Wikipedia:

"During the Shang Dynasty (ca. 1600–1046 BC) of China, the sophisticated techniques used in the lacquer process were first developed and it became a highly artistic craft,[1] although various prehistoric lacquerwares have been unearthed in China dating back to the Neolithic period and objects with lacquer coating found in Japan dating to the late Jōmon period.[1] The earliest extant lacquer object, a red wooden bowl, was unearthed at a Hemudu culture (ca. 5th millennium BC) site in Zhejiang, China.[2][3][4] During the Eastern Zhou period (771–256 BC), lacquerware began appearing in large numbers, thus this was the earliest era from which notable quantities of lacquerware have survived.[5]

By the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD), special administrations were established to organize and divide labor for the expanding lacquer production in China.[6] Elaborate incised decorations were known to be used in a number of Chinese lacquerware during the Han Dynasty.[7]

In the Tang Dynasty (618–907), Chinese lacquerware saw a new style marked by the use of sheets of gold or silver made in various shapes, such as birds, animals, and flowers.[6] The cut-outs were affixed onto the surface of the lacquerware, after which new layers of lacquer were applied, dried, and then ground away, so the surface could be polished to reveal the golden or silvery patterns beneath.[6] This was done by a technique known as pingtuo.[8] Such techniques were time-consuming and costly, but these lacquerware were considered highly refined.[6] It was also the period when the earliest practice of carving lacquerware began.[9]

To see the screen in full, click here


In Mahjong, lacquer was used on several accoutrememnts. Of course, lacquer could never be used on tiles, but it appears on racks and boxes.



This black lacquer rack is in pristine condition, which is an exception for this very delicate type of material. Here we see a bucolic scene with a person looking out to the palace on the mountain afar. The gold used for the trees helps them stand out against the beautiful Chinese mountains, thus the beauty of the natural world can be appreciated along with the lovely architecture of the palace.

This type of rack serves several purposes:


to line up tiles for the player, as seen above


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and to store counters inside and display completed exposed groups.

Lacquer could be carved, or inlaid with other materials such as mother-of-pearl. Here follows a box with mother-of-pearl onlays.

The following Mahjong box has been shown before on this website, but it certainly is worth looking at it again. The box itself is lacquered, and then a thin mother-of-pearl layer was applied. The result is a mix of dark and light reflections, and worthy of housing a beautiful Mahjong set. Most of you know, many boxes did not start out being designed to hold Mahjong tiles. Many boxes were made for other purposes, and then adapted for Mahjong storage. Certainly a box as ornate as this one could well be in that category. The two phoenixes are fabulous, aren't they?!

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The Brooklyn Museum, which featured a lacquer show in the 1980s, writes this in their catalog:

"The art of lacquering dates back to the Shang Dynasty (1500-1027 B.C.) in China when it was used chiefly to enhance the durability of utilitarian objects. It is characterized by a hard, smooth, highly polished finish it gives to numerous materials, even such impermanent ones as vegetable fiber, textiles and paper. Lacquer workshops with master craftsmen were a part of the artistic culture of ancient China, Japan and South to Southeast Asia and Persia, with each region developing its own technique of lacquering. Over the centuries contact between cultures brought a cross-fertilization of techniques as well as methods of manufacture."

And from Wikipedia:

"In Ming China processes included up to a hundred layers. Each layer requires drying and polishing. When all layers are applied the artist polishes different parts of the painting until the preferred colours show. Fine sandpaper and a mix of charcoal powder and human hair is used to carefully reach the correct layer of each specific colour. Consequently "lacquer painting" is in part a misnomer, since the bringing out of the colours is not done in the preparatory painting but in the burnishing of the lacquer layers to reveal the desired image beneath."

Clearly lacquer artists were incredibly skilled and patient. We often see lacquer on Mahjong racks such as these:



The dragon, his body greatly hidden by clouds, and the flaming "pearl" are seen above. This rack was probably made in the 1920s. Now that we know it might have taken 100 layers to create, we can truly admire the skill of the artist who made it. The black compartments were used to store counters.



Another one of the racks from this set, this time with two dragons surrounding the flaming "pearl." It is possible the lacquer here might have had real gold in it.


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And here is the front panel of a red lacquer box, with another red dragon and flaming "pearl."




This snuff bottle is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It dates from 1920 and was made by Ye Zhongsan (1875-1945). You can clearly see the goldfish and their wonderful flowing tails. Patricia Bjaaland Welch explains why goldfish appear so frequently in Chinese art:

"goldfish, which are domestic variants of wild carp, are equally popular symbols in Chinese art as their name is a homophone for the two symbolic components of material success in Chinese life: "gold" (jin, the same jin in "goldfish") and "jade" (yù) Furthermore, another yù with the same sound and tone as "jade" (yù) means "surplus" (yú). Hence, when combined with other components, the variety of good wishes and felicitations in paintings of goldfish is almost endless.."

Goldfish appear frequently in Mahjong as well.



This lovely goldfish is part of the Flower set sent to us by Bill, which we looked at in an earlier post. The starlike images in the water (bursting bubbles, sea anemones?) mirror the shape in the goldfish tail. He has something resembling whiskers, making him look  bit more like a carp, but the shape of his body and his fabulous tail make him much more likely to be in the goldfish category!

We also saw goldfish in the paper set from the other day:

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most obvious on the "tile" in the middle. Welch adds:

"a pond teeming with goldfish (jïnyú) is a visual representation of jīnyú or "gold" (jīn) in surplus (yú)."


Goldfish appear on Mahjong boxes as well.


This delightful box shows the central goldfish. It is very unclear as to where the scene is taking place, because we have a goldfish and another fish just under the goldfish's eyes set among other objects and plants with a bird overhead! Perhaps another flight of fancy?! Or possibly a reference to the old Chinese belief that some fish can turn into birds?  We just won't ever know.

More about this box was included on a previous post.



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Screen Shot 2014-05-28 at 3.14.02 PM Screen Shot 2014-05-28 at 3.13.05 PMThese are screen grabs taken of a work in the Metropolitan Museum. They are two parts of a lovely ink scroll by Zhou Dongqing who lived during the Qing Dynasty. The work is dated 1291, and entitled The Pleasure of Fishes. You can see there are at least two types of fish, with a possible carp somewhat hidden in the upper section near some of the red stamps.

As mentioned in previous posts, the fish is associated with abundance and affluence because in Chinese these words are pronounced the same as fish. C.A. S. Williams notes that fish also frequently appear on Chinese porcelain, as we saw in earlier fish posts both here and here, and such as this wine jar below dating from the 14th Century.


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So too we find fish on Mahjong tiles and cards.


This Flower tile seems to have been made by a carver who took a great deal of liberty with his subject, as it looks as if he gave the fish eyelashes!


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Above is a charming paper version of mahjong designs for the Craks. Notice the joyful way the artist has designed the different cards with the varied species of fish, most of which have fabulous and beautiful tails. Given that the Craks suit represents 10,000 or lots of money, perhaps the combination of the fish and the wan symbol really are hopeful signs for great abundance!

Am I the only one, or does the bone and bamboo tile just above the paper version look like a face with eyes and nose?!



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The beautiful dish seen above dates from the middle of the Ming Dynasty and is in the collection of the Netherlands National Museum of Ceramics. You can clearly see the four different varieties of fish, with the carp on the middle upper right, at 1:00 o'clock, recognizable by his barbels. The Chinese word for carp is bai, interestingly also translated into English as one hundred, so the word itself connotates success. The other fish are qing, a fresh water mullet, a lian, a kind of bream, and a gui, a mandarin fish with a large mouth, seen at the 4 o'clock position.

C.A. S. Williams writes

"Fish forms an important part in the domestic economy of the Chinese. Together with rice it constitutes the principal staple of their daily food, and fishing has for this very reason formed a prominent occupation of the people from the most ancient times.... the fish is symbolically employed as the emblem of wealth or abundance, on account of the similarity in the pronounciation of the words yū, fish, and yū  superfluity, and also because fish are extremely plentiful in Chinese waters...."


While doing research for these posts, it seems that  scenes appear on some forms of art more often than on others. There seems to be a big overlap with scenes on Chinese porcelains and Mahjong tiles. The design style principles seem to be the same, but the subject matter, and ways of showing the subjects are  similar with porcelain and Mahjong.


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These are two more  Flower tiles belonging to reader Bill, from the same set as the carp we saw the other day. You can see how both fish are different, one from the other. Their heads, bodies and tails are distinct, and probably can be easily recognized by people who know their fish. It is not clear what the object is on tile #1, but the crab is easy to make out on tile 2. The beautiful deep blue water on these tiles is another visual treat.

Studying tile #2 a bit more, I noticed the fish's tail is breaking the surface of the water. I wonder if it might be a sturgeon, a type of fish treasured by the Chinese, which is unusual in that it lives in both fresh and salt water, although on this tile you can see the artist clearly intended this to be salt water, given the presence of the crab.

From Wikipedia:

Most sturgeon are anadromous meaning they spawn in fresh water and migrate to salt water to mature.

The Chinese sturgeon can be considered a large fresh water fish, although it spends part of its life-cycle in seawater, like the salmon,[4] however; Chinese sturgeon spawn multiple times throughout their life.

The Chinese sturgeon has a habit of upstream migration: they dwell along the coasts of China's eastern areas and migrate back up rivers for propagation upon reaching sexual maturity. It has the longest migration of any sturgeon in the world and once migrated more than 3,200 km (2,000 mi) up the Yangtze.[5] The sturgeon's reproductive capacity is poor: it may breed three or four times during its life-cycle, and a female sturgeon can carry in excess of a million eggs in one pregnancy, which are released for external fertilisation when mature. The survival rate to hatching is however estimated to be less than 1 percent.[4]





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This beautiful rare jar was on display at Sotheby's during Asia Week 2014. It dates from the Jiajing Dynasty.



Above is another view of the same jar.  A carp is depicted, a fish with great symbolism to the Chinese. You can recognize a carp because of his whiskers, considered to be an indication of its supernatural powers.

From Chinese Charms, Hidden Meanings of Symbols on Primaltrek

The carp fish is a commonly seen visual pun because the Chinese character for carp (li 鲤) is pronounced the same as both the character (li 利) for "profit" and the character (li 力) for "strength" or "power".

The carp is also a symbol for an abundance of children because it produces many eggs.

A pair of carp symbolizes a harmonious marriage.

A frequently seen image is of a carp swimming and leaping against the current of a river to reach the spawning grounds.  This refers to the legend (liyutiaolongmen 鲤鱼跳龙门) that a carp which is able to leap over the mythical "Dragon Gate" will become a dragon.  This is an allegory for the persistent effort needed to overcome obstacles.


Above we see a detail of an Imperial robe in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum. You can make out the two carp, one on either side of the front sides of the robe. The two carp symbolize a happy marriage, probably one with many children given two of the image's meanings.



Above we have a close up of a plate from the Ralph M. Chait Gallery. The carp is located right in the middle.



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Above is a One Bam from a fabulous and unusual set of tiles. You can see the carp, clearly recognizable by his whiskers. Perhaps he is poised to swim upstream, ready to face obstacles to achieve success. And don't you love his red eye?!

The Mahjong tiles are a set from reader Kathy's collection. Thank you.

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