Tag Archives: hand carved mahjong

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Scan 5

These three photographs are beautiful sides of a Mahjong box that was in the collection of the Japanese Mahjong Museum, and scanned from their catalog. (If you ever can get one of the catalogs of their collection, do so. The sets are magnificent, as are the photographs.)

The children are enjoying their time together, with the groupings beautifully framed by the outside vines winding their way around the sides of the box. The children and vines are made of mother-of-pearl, inlaid into the box, and you can clearly see how the box was carved out for the inlays in the above photograph, which has a few pieces missing. You might notice the one boy with a firecracker in his hand, in the lower left box. The details on the children's faces are just delightful-it's amazing how the smallest etch in the mother-of-pearl could bring these little faces to life.

In Chinese art children were treated as beings who, just by being themselves, could bring great joy to the viewer. And their images carried with them the hopes that the viewers would have many children.


Scan 3


Several of you noticed in the earlier post that the Chinese artists portrayed children the way they actually were, as opposed to the way in which European and American artists handled the subject. The following work was painted in 1760, and is in the Colonial Williamsburg collection. Interesting how serious the children look, even when holding a pet squirrel.




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Above is the Sleigh Ride by James Goodwyn Clonney done about 1845, from the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston. At least here there is a bit of  smile on the faces of both children.


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And from the Metropolitan Museum we have The Golden Age by Jean-Baptiste Joseph Pater (French, Valenciennes 1695–1736 Paris). Although children were portrayed in a bit more realistic way by this French artist, they lack the rambunctiousness of the Chinese ones. It is almost as if the Chinese artists delighted in the naughtiness of children!

We started this post with the beautiful almost one hundred year old mother-of-pearl mahjong box from the Japanese Mahjong Museum, and we will end the post with a very new set, carved by one of the few people who is carrying on the tradition of designing and creating Mahjong sets, Dee Gallo from Red Coin Mahjong. Dee's newest set's theme is based on money, a reference to the original basis for the three suits of the game: coins, (dots) strings of coins (bams) , and lots of coins (craks). On one bouquet of Flowers she features children, very much like the ones we saw on the box, holding oversized coins. You can see the details she included: each child is an individual, with unique clothing and expressions. The coin on tile 2 shows bats flying around the center of the coin. The font of the numbers she uses on the tiles add to the theme of the set: copper plate. Her artistic talent and creativity harken back to the days of old, when master craftsmen created mahjong works of art on tiny tiles, with sets referencing different aspects of Chinese lore and culture.


To see more of Dee's work, click here

metpart screenshot Ma Shouzhenming

In China the orchid is traditionally associated with spring. The polar vortex has left our area, after what seemed to most of us to be a very long stay, so it is time to celebrate. And how better than to look at orchids, some created by nature and others brought to us by artists. We will look at Mahjong tiles with this pairing, and a photograph of some real beauties on display in the Bronx.

The above ink work is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and was painted by Ma Shouzhen during the Ming Dynasty. Here is an orchid; a few of the delicate blooms have fallen to the ground, but some remain intact. As we have seen in some other posts, the artist has chosen to position the plant next to a rock, a very common theme in Chinese art.

In China the orchid represents  delicacy and elegance.  Patricia Bjaaland Welch, in her book Chinese Art   A Guide to Motifs and Visual Imagery

"They are specifically associated with women, love beauty and fertility; and secondly with virtue, moral elegance" and the refinement of a superior man who stands out in a crowd because of being a learned gentleman.

Rocks were often prized as objects of beauty, and we know they are objects of permanence. And so the rock with the orchid might be a play upon visual beauty, some of which is short lived and some permanent throughout time.


4 Flower Pots copy steve

Above we have a version of paired Mahjong flowers. The hand carved bone and bamboo tile flower on the left is the orchid, with a rock  just below the edge of the pot. Of course a rock appears in the other half of the diptych as well.



Above a vase, holding a hand carved Mahjong tile orchid, has a rock right next to it. Again, it seems like some of the blossoms may have fallen, thus alluding to the impermanence of some kinds of beauty.


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Although not hand carved, these tiles by Imperial feature a vase of orchids and the rock beside them.



Above is a photo from a set by Selfridge's, with a paper face showing the orchid in a vase with a rock in a pot right behind. Clearly the pairing of the two was important enough to feature on all tiles of Mahjong tiles.



And we'll end with a photo of some other stars of the orchid show at the Bronx Botanical Garden, these exquisite pink orchids. There is no indication of nearby rocks, but, then again, this show is not Chinese art, but rather a celebration of the beauty of orchids. Given that the show ends today, it is another indication of the need to appreciate etherial beauty when we have a chance.


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DSC_0720 dragons

This post features the hand carved Dragons and Flowers for the laminate mahjong set discussed on March 9 and 10.

The unusual writing style we noted on the Winds continues here on the Green Dragon which is deeply carved. The color palette continues with the gray Green Dragon and the pink Red Dragon.

DSC_0716 flowers

You can easily see the varied depth of the carving, most apparent on the tiles on the top row with gold paint, especially on tile 2. These images are also highly stylized. The top row features the Arts of the Scholar, and the bottom flowers.

Ray Heaton has once again provided the translations. The characters on these tiles are stylized as well, making for a translation challenge.

"We need to use a bit of knowledge of the likely characters helped by two or three which are reasonably straight forward.

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The top row are the arts of the scholar, and are versions of the simplified characters, 棋琴书画.
Qi Qin Shu Hua; chess, qin (the zither), calligraphy and painting.

The last two characters are the give away for me and are close enough to 书画 to allow all four characters to reveal themselves.

Although first two are "educated guesses", you can just about see the first character as 棋, (especially the second element of this character, 其, excluding the radical).

DSC_0716 flowers 2

Bottom row are 梅兰竹菊, Mei Lan Zhu Ju; plum, orchid, bamboo, chrysanthemum.  The second tile uses a character close to the simplified character for orchid, 兰.  I don't see what else tile three could be other than 竹, and tile four is reasonably close to the expected look of the character."

For those of you who have an ipad, ipod, iphone or android device there is an app which can be helpful with the straightforward translations of Chinese characters. It is Pleco, and it allows you to write on the screen the symbol you see, and it will translate it for you. It often seems easier, though, to guess at the word on the tile and get the Chinese character for it, and see if that character bears any resemblance to what appears on the tile.

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We are all familiar with these hand carved Mahjong leisure sets. The Flowers represent what the Chinese craftsmen thought people did in their free time.

In this set it makes a difference in terms of how the tiles are arranged. They had to be laid out 4321, or else one misses the linked scenes.

These tiles show adults in the top row. The left features two ladies playing tennis, at the net; note the short socks and sneakers. And the ladies at the pool have on those long-legged swimsuits that appeared in the 1930s. Don't you love the woman caught mid-dive?

To see more of swimsuit fashion at that time, click below


The lower row shows children at play. The ballerina, the boys playing with a sword and running with a balloon, and the little girl has a dog nipping at her dress.

Ray Heaton has translated the tiles, and feels they may be Japanese in origin.

"The bottom row has the characters 逍遙快楽.  The last of these (tile #4) is a Japanese equivalent to the Chinese character 樂, hence my linking the Japanese origin.
The tiles say Xiaoyao Kuaile, "Free and Unfettered, happy and joyful", I'd translate this to "unrestrained joy", (or a bit more strained to "free, unfettered and full of joy").
The top row are 美麗健康, Mei Li Jian Kang:  Mei Li translates to "Beautiful" and Jian Kang translates as "Healthy", so we'd maybe say "Health and Beauty"."


DSC_0680 others


This Chinese bakelite set is backed with a black wafer. The One Bams are the peacock with two feet planted, and the other Bams are rounded. The One Dot has meanders inside, and the other Dots are floral. And the Craks have the elaborate Wan. The Dragons have the symbols for Prosperity (Green) and Center symbolizing China (Red).



This continues the discussion of Bill's lovely tile set seen yesterday. The Green, Red, and White Dragons are the types that we normally see on Bone and Bamboo tiles. The use of red paint on the Winds letters is somewhat unusual.

The Flowers are really special. You will note that the flowers being held by the people on the top row are the same we saw in the center of the One Dots. (Click here) Thanks to Ray Heaton, we have an understanding of the tiles.

Starting with the bottom row of Flowers:

"The four noble professions, (green Chinese characters, simplified characters), 渔樵耕读, Yu, Qiao, Geng, Dou.  (The way the characters have been written simplifies them further.)

Tile #1,  渔 (traditional character is 漁), Yu, Fisherman
#2, 樵, Qiao, to Gather Wood, an abbreviated way of saying Woodcutter
#3, 耕, Geng, to Plow (Farmer)
#4, 读,  (traditional character is 讀), Dou, to Read or to Study (Scholar)

So these represent Fisherman, Woodcutter, Farmer and Scholar


The four seasons, (red Chinese characters), 春夏秋冬, Chun, Xia, Qiu, Dong

Tile #1, 春, Chun, spring
#2, 夏, Xia, summer
#3, 秋, Qiu, autumn
#4, 冬, Dong, winter. 

I guess (again) the flowers are Peony, Lotus, Chrysanthemum and Plum Blossom.  The 1 dots show the same flowers (in a different order in the photo), though the Lotus has the seed pod and leaf too (an auspicious symbol of fertility)."

You can see how the objects normally associated with the four noble professions have been very much simplified in the lower set of Flowers.

flower-BB33 flower


These Flowers are from the set discussed yesterday. The color palette is somewhat muted, with softer greens. Interestingly there is a 4th color which we often see on these thick bone sets, a burgundy perhaps made by mixing the blue and the red.  

Ray Heaton has once again translated and interpreted the tiles

"They are two stories from the book The Romance of The Three Kingdoms.

Bottom set are 琴退司馬, Qin, Tui, Si, Ma.  The first character looks more like 琹, which is the same as (a variant of) the first one I have shown.

 Qin, the Guqin, a musical instrument often called the zither or lute.

Tui, to retreat

Si, to take charge of, or the surname Si

Ma, horse, or the surname Ma.

The last two make the name Sima, this is Sima Yi from the Three Kingdoms

This is better known as the Empty City Ruse and is where Zhuge Liang (great military strategist persuaded to join the cause of the three sworn brothers to return the Empire to its rightful dynastic rule) fools Sima Yi into believing the apparently empty city is a trap.

 Sima Yi is the military strategist of one of the opposing armies.

Following the Shu defeat at the Battle of Jieting, Zhuge Liang retreated with a small garrison force to Xicheng but was exposed to being attacked by the much larger overwhelming forces of the Wei army led by Sima Yi.  In the face of disaster, Zhuge Liang came up with a ploy to hold off the approaching enemy.

 Zhuge Liang ordered all the gates to be opened and instructed soldiers disguised as civilians to sweep the roads while he sat calmly above the city gate playing his guqin. When the Wei army led by Sima Yi arrived, Sima was surprised by the scene before him and he ordered a retreat after suspecting that there was an ambush inside the city. "

If you see Flowers with people holding brooms, and a man on the wall, it is almost certain they refer to this beloved story from Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

"The top set say 智取四川, Zhi Qu Si Chuan

The first two mean "to take by strategy" and the second two are Sichuan (a southern province in China).  I'm taking this to mean in part that the capital city of the Shu empire, Chengdu (which is now the capital city of Sichuan province) was captured through the strategic advice of Zhuge Liang rather than by force.  You can equate Sichuan with the Shu Kingdom.  The "strategy" here probably refers to the Longzhong Plan, and so the tiles may well be referring to the establishment of the Shu kingdom, rather than specifically to its capital.

Sichuan province was called the Yi Province and is referred to in the Three Kingdoms as here...


 ...the Longzhong Plan was developed by Zhuge Liang to establish the Shu Kingdom under Liu Bei (the Shu, Wei and Wu are the three Kingdoms within the story) as a precursor to the reunification of China under the Han dynasty. (A plan that eventually failed in the longer term, as the Han was not restored).

 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Longzhong_Plan "

The Romance of the Three Kingdoms was written in the 14th Century, and is a historical novel with more than 1,000 different characters and 800,000 words. For more information about the book, please click



The Winds seem to have a certain flair, and the green and blue colors are lively. The Dragons are the traditional Chinese Characters.

Our thanks to the people at Mahjongmahjong for providing these photographs. To see more treasures from their collection, click here

To see another version of Ruse of the Empty City previously discussed on this site, click here




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This set lives in the box shown February 9th.


The tiles are very thick bone, and were created by Master Carvers.

The Craks are the elaborate Wan, the Bams have the swooping crane One Bam with the rounded other Bams, and the Dots are floral.  The green numbers on the Craks are somewhat unusual.

DSC_0855 dots

All the Dots are plum blossoms, seen by the five petals. The 2 Dot is especially lovely.


Often when sets are purchased there is a bit of history included in them. Here we have a small piece of paper that was hidden among the bone counters, indicating some meaning about the set, and who found it for the last lucky owner. These bits of set provenance and history are valued by collectors. Note the lovely well shaped bone counters, also indicating the high quality of the set.

The Flowers will be discussed tomorrow.



There is something just lovely about this set. The 1 Bam swooping crane and the other rounded Bams, the simple wans, and the One Dot flower within a flower pattern that becomes a simple flower inset on the other Dots, along with the patina, make it quite delightful. The top Flower tiles are translated: Plum, Orchid, Bamboo, Chrysanthemum And the bottom ones are: Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter. Those characters were carved with a bit of flair, making translations challenging for me. Thanks again Ray. A peach is the bottom #3, a symbol of longevity according to Patricia Bjaaland Welch. She goes on to further explain that peaches are often seen with the God of Immortality, Lao Shouxing, who carries a peach and is easily recognized because of his large forehead, big ears, and protruding stomach covered by a robe. In addition the Daoist goddess Xi Wangmu has a garden where peaches of immortality grow. Each year she distributes the fruit to her heavenly guests on her birthday. Here is a statue of Lao Shouxing taken from Wikipedia


You will note he has a peach in his hand, and another printed on his robe. He often appears on Flowers.


This thick bone and bamboo set recently sold at Addison's Auctioneers in the UK. Please forgive the quality of the photos taken from their website, but the Flowers are certainly worth the look. The people are much bigger here than we are used to seeing, and the images almost resemble portraits. The other tiles are lovely, with simple slightly rounded  Bams, elaborate Craks, and flower petal Dots.

Here is the same photo turned around


And here is another


And the last one of the Flowers in the set.


$_57-2This pristine set was recently auctioned on ebay. The One Bam is the familiar peacock, but all the bright red accents make it unusual. The other Bams are in the barbed style.

The Craks have the elaborate Wan, and the unusual green Arabic numbers.

$_57-1The green and red color palette seen here is quite lovely.


The Craks have the elaborate Wan, and the unusual green Arabic numbers.


$_57-3But the Flowers are what makes the set. Here a train and ship are captured while moving, as is evident of the smoke coming out of the smokestacks. Passengers are seen on both carriers. It is not really known what specifically these tiles were made to celebrate; some feel it is the opening of a commerce line linked by rail and sea.