Tag Archives: black lacquer mahjong


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: subscriptions@mahjongcollector.com






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.

DSC_0877 top

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.