Tag Archives: hand carved Chinese Bakelite

freersacklersunkehong1532-1610This ink drawing of bamboo growing in a pot, done by Sun Kehong who lived from 1532 until 1610, is in the Freer Sackler Collection.  People in China often had bamboo growing in pots in their homes.


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On the hand carved Chinese Bakelite set we see above, you'll find bamboo in a pot on tile #4  (see, it is not always 3!) on the top row of Flowers.



And above on these hand carved  bone and bamboo tiles, it's back on tile #3.  You will notice a longevity stone next to each pot, a common pairing .



The somewhat genteel pot with bamboo growing can even be seen on these Imperial tiles which were made in France and have a rubber-like backing and plastic tile face. It is felt that red image to the left is probably a stone.


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And here, on the left, the hand-carved bone and bamboo tiles feature bamboo with a longevity stone yet again.



I think many of us will have to agree this is one of the most delightful dragon Mahjong boxes we have ever seen. * Instead of having just a deeply carved dragon on the lid, or a beautiful handle, the beautiful handle has become a three dimensional dragon, a piece of sculpture posed on top of the box. Look at the attention paid to him, the mouth with its teeth (tho not too big to be intimidating!), his nose and whiskers, his backward facing horns, his "chops" along the side of his face, five toed detailed claws, and curled tail encircling the back of his body. How fabulous is he? Surrounding him, on the border of the box, are flower petals and bats.

Interestingly on this Mahjong box, it really is all about dragons, unlike some of the other carved boxes we have seen where they simply put in an appearance and go away.


Here's the inside of the box where we see two dragons. If the dragon on the lid looks somewhat friendly, these guys are almost smiling! They are surrounding a circle (the sun?), and the shou symbol, right below it,  representing longevity. In Patricia Bjaaland Welch's book Chinese Art A Guide to Visual Motifs and Visual Imagery, the round version of the shou that we see above may mean a wish that a person live his full life span and die a natural death. We also see the four bats above and below the disk, and an endless knot, a Buddhist symbol, just behind each dragon's tail. Each knot represents a long life, uninterrupted by set-backs. (Wolfram Eberhard A Dictionary of Chinese Symbols)



On the above photograph of the box and its Mahjong tiles, if you look carefully you can see there are dragons along the side of the box. The box is the home of a much-sought after Chinese Bakelite set. The tiles have green wafer backs which you can see in the photo.  What is so exciting about this particular set, especially in terms of this post, is the One Bam and the One Dot.


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This is no ordinary Mahjong One Dot. Instead of being a version of  flower or circles, we have a dragon! You can clearly see the dragon's head, his nostrils and backward facing horns. Other parts of his body are seen in the top of the tile, where they resemble mountains, and right below where it resembles a wave, and  the rest of his body is hidden either by clouds or water.

And here is the One Bam:

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A phoenix! How divine is that! We have a real, fully dragon box housing a Mahjong set with both dragon and phoenix tiles! And the pairing of these two creatures is what we will be covering soon.

We thank Bill Price for sending these photos of his fabulous set to us, allowing us all to enjoy it.

* As many of you know, oftentimes boxes were not made for mahjong sets; rather boxes were appropriated from those often used for jewelry (some of the five drawer versions, or ones with two large opening doors) or in this case a small fully carved box.

The book I wrote with Ann Israel is being published by Tuttle. To see more about it:

www.mahjonggtheartof thegame.com

To order it click here:


or here from Amazon




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These Flowers are from the hand carved Chinese Bakelite Mahjong set we saw yesterday. The top Flowers show a female musician and three other ladies, perhaps dancers with long sleeves. The Chinese symbols are those of the seasons: Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter.  A wall background is carved behind these ladies, as we often see on these type of Flowers, though the author misplaced those four tiles which should read 4321 to have the wall work! The lower set are the Singapore capture tiles, the Rich Man and the Pot of Gold, and the Cat and the Mouse.

The color silver, seen above, is rare on Mahjong tiles.

Many scholars, including C.A.S. Williams and Wolfram Eberhard, acknowledge that owls were not looked upon favorably in China in the 1900s, and rather were harbingers of ill fortune and death, unlike the phoenix which is associated with good fortune. Clearly, though, the Western market did not have those thoughts about owls.

And for a bit more about the owl in early Chinese history, Ray Heaton provided us with a link to a Sotheby's article.



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Here is an excerpt I thought was interesting:

"The myth of the origin of the Shang people is found in The Book of Songs (“Heaven bade the dark bird”) . Of course, this song cannot be regarded as an original record of the Shang dynasty.  It is more likely that it was transmitted orally through the Shang into the Zhou period, with slight variations over time. In Shang and Zhou lexicography, the word xuan (black) can also be understood as “mysterious” or “divine”8,  and in Shang oracle bone inscriptions, we find a pictograph depicting a beaked owl with round eyes and plump torso, which is the name of a star, or it can be rendered as the character standing for the owl itself (Heji: 522, 11497, 11498, 11499, 11500).  In other cases, it is used together with the ancestral names Fu Gui and Fu, and  can be interpreted as “Father Gui of the Owl clan” (fig. 11) and “Lady of the Black Owl clan” (fig. 12). Thus, the evidence from Shang archaeology and historical literature render it quite possible that the Shang people believed in some mythical relationship with the owl. Liu Dunyuan has argued that the Shang people perceived the owl as the god of night and dreams, as well as the messenger between the human and the spirit world – on account of its silent flight and hunting in darkness9.  If so, this would explain why the owl is employed repeatedly in Shang ritual art and is found in a burial context, as we have seen in the examples previously discussed.

The conventional explanation is that the black bird is a swallow (yanzi). This was the view of scholars of the Han dynasty, and Han paintings and murals did indeed present the swallow as the black bird (or sun-bird, taiyangniao) and the owl as the bird of the underworld. For example, the silk funerary banner from the Mawangdui Han tomb (no. 1) depicts a black bird (swallow-like) in the sun, and an owl-like bird near the entrance of the heaven, and moreover, on left and right sides of the earth platform are two owl-on-turtle images.  Their meaning, according to Eugene Wang, is to signify “the sun setting at dusk in the west and re-emerging from the east at dawn.”10  Han ideology favored the association of the swallow with filial piety (xiao) – after all, the swallow faithfully returns every year – and the owl was conversely portrayed as an evil bird that ate its mother11.  We however do not find such opposition in the earlier period, and in Shang archaeology, while there are a few references to the swallow, the owl is clearly more prominent."



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Who (WHO? WHO?)  can resist an owl, especially a horned one? Certainly the owl on this hand carved rare Chinese bakelite Mahjong set was one of the key reasons the set was bought, both recently and when it was first carved.

The Dots go from being the flower within a flower on the One, to being a flower center in the others. The Bams are the simple rounded Bams usually seen in Chinese Bakelite, and the Craks are the elaborate Wan.

One of the charms of these hand carved sets is the little differences in each tile.




The Flowers will be discussed tomorrow.


At first this set resembles most cb sets we have seen, but there is a small difference which adds to its charm.  As you can see on the Bam suit, the bamboos are very close together, made possible by the placement of the numbers beside the bamboo, instead of between the stalks. The One Dot is an abstract meander around a floral interior, and the other Dots have floral interiors. The Craks are the elaborate wan.


You can see the difference between the look of the small set versus the bigger one.