One of our readers sent along these photographs of a very early and interesting bamboo set. As you know, the first Mahjong tiles were probably carved on bamboo. This set has many markings of early sets, although the presence of Arabic numbers indicates it was probably made for the export market. You can see the similarity of the Flower tiles to this one on Michael Stanwick's website:
It is set # 54
According to the owner of this set seen here:
"This is a hybrid set from the early 1920s, the design of the characters were transforming from the earliest sets. You can see this in the style of the winds, one bam, and flower tiles."
You can see the more rectangular shape of the West, for example. Early sets had Flowers somewhat "framed" by borders.
Ray Heaton has written this very interesting piece about these Flowers and their meanings:
"the green Chinese characters show the names of "flowers" referred to as the "Four Gentlemen" or as as the "Four Noble Ones" though my personal preference is to keep the Chinese terminology, Si Junzi, 四君子 (The Four Junzi).
(Tile #1) 梅, Mei, Plum a Winter flowering shrub, symbolises courage and hope, standing firm in conviction because it blossoms first and bravely stands against the dangers of Winter. The plum blossom is also symbolic of endurance as it often flowers when the snow is still on the ground. The flowers, which may be pink or white, appear before the leaves and this is how they are depicted in paintings. There's a Chinese saying "...bitter cold adds keen fragrance to plum blossoms..."
(Tile #2) 蘭, Lan, Orchid, an indicator of the Spring and stands for humility, modesty, beauty and refinement. It is the delicate wild orchids that are referred to as they tend to grow in inaccessible areas such as crevices in rocks overlooking rivers or streams, and you could easily walk past without noticing them.
(Tile #3) 竹, Zhu, Bamboo, a Summer flower. Perceived as upright, strong and resilient while still being gentle, graceful and refined. The bamboo is symbolic of both physical and mental strength as it will bend and sway in the severest of gales but does not break.
(Tile #4) 菊, Ju, Chrysanthemum, blooms late in Autumn and in facing the coming Winter symbolizes people who maintain their virtue despite adversity and temptation. The chrysanthemum is thought of as a loner, as it prefers the Autumn, which is less crowded with flowers than the profusion in Spring.
So why do I prefer the Four Junzi, well...
Junzi is the term used in the Analects of Confucius, and although can be translated as "Gentlemen" I think this only correct if and when "Gentlemen" is used in a rather loose way to encompass a wide range of moralistic behaviours.
The Analects are the collection of sayings attributed to Confucius who placed at the foundation of human life both the study of books and of human relationships followed by the repeated practice of what one has studied. Becoming a Junzi is the goal of all who practice such self-cultivation and who truly love learning—regardless of their birth, their social status, or gender. You can see how the definitions of each of the "flowers" reflect on the moralistic behaviour of the Junzi.
According to the Encyclopaedia Brittanica, until the late-20th century, many Western scholars and Chinese scholars writing in Western languages translated the term Junzi as “superior man” or “superior person.” From the mid-20th century, however, it was increasingly common to use such translations as “exemplary person,” “gentleman,” or “gentleperson,” which highlight Confucius’s point that the Junzi is not a commander of or ruler over inferior subjects but rather a moral person who leads by his character and conduct."
Thank you, Ray!
And here is some speculation involving the abstract symbols in the corners of the Flower tiles seen above. The question was : can they be abstract bats? Michael Stanwick weighed in:
"I see what you mean. If this set is in the line of sets that I think it might be, then frames should appear on the flowers and Seasons. Your idea is a good one. I have looked through the rendition of bats in the books on Chinese art and symbolism but I cannot find any with the type of body as shown on the tiles.
I have sets with these 'frames' so My initial thought was to place them in the context of my interpretation of what this type of set represents - that is, the style of engravings and the presence of frames etc places it in the same type as the 1901 Laufer set and the 1875 Glover sets. Initially, only the Seasons were framed, as far as the surviving sets tell us, and then the frames started to appear around the enlarged sinograms for the four flowers as well.
If the lines are in fact the developmental remnants of the lines for the frames then what do the little circles represent? My thought is that they might be coins. Their rendition is identical to the circles found in this type of set where the circles are actually represented by a single circle with a dot in the middle. This rendition is found in the earliest set we know of.
So we have two explanations of what they might represent.
You know, Bats and coins are a potent combination. Just a thought."
And more from Michael:
"I should stress that it is easy to fall into confirmation bias. That is why I have tried to fall back on to referring to the old sets and comparing the newer ones with them. Then we can draw some observations from that and then formulate explanations. So my last comment was just a thought. I don’t have any evidence that bats were made out of a combo of wings and coins.
And the box. You will often see a box with this design either in wood or in metal.