Tag Archives: Mah Jong



This detail is of a sutra cover in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Dating from the Ming Dynasty, it shows flowers, the round shapes, and lingzhi, the one toward the lower right.

As many of you know, lingzhi is a fungus, considered to be the Plant of Immortality. (C.A. S. Williams) It is so revered by the Chinese that often it was preserved and stored in temples, or copies of it might be made and placed there.

The heads of scepters were based on lingzhi. These scepters are called ruyi.



You can see how the head of the scepter has a very organic look to it. The ruyi became associated with power, and good luck and blessings. (Wiki)  Ruyi appears in Mahjong too, on tiles and on boxes. Often it is hard to see because it is so stylized, but if you look hard enough, you can see it.

Ruyi can come in the shape of clouds:



On this side of a Mahjong box we looked at before, we see this magnificent dragon. His leonine head is in the center of the design, and his body surrounds it.  But what is in the background? Ruyi shaped clouds! Those clouds take up most of the space around him.



On the back of this same box you can see the dragon, once again surrounded by clouds shaped like ruyi! ( I still love that fish involved with his inhale or exhale. Perhaps fish and dragons can be another post some day!)



These are two sets of Flowers from a Chinese Bakelite set that has 16 Flowers. Above we see above some gods on ruyi shaped clouds.




We also have some gods here. The two men in the middle are the He-Hes, the heavenly twins. The two tiles at either end of the row also have a bit of extra meaning. The one on the right is the magic bowl, often seen containing the lotus (left) and the herb of immortality, which here is represented by the clouds! The bowl, lotus and lingzhi mean "concord as your hear desires" according to Wolfram Eberhard. The He Hes are associated with marital harmony, so these Flowers bode well for happiness within the home.

(After writing this, I used the app Pleco, available for ipad, and got the translation which worked with the visual interpretations of the bottom tiles, from left to right:  harmony, combine, two, celestials!)


A book by this author and Ann Israel is entitled Mah Jongg The Art of the Game.

You can read reviews on the book's website and find author appearances:


You can order it by clicking here


or 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.


DSC_0832 new

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.


Five Bats are considered to be very lucky in Chinese art. They symbolize the five blessings: health, wealth, longevity, virtue, and dying a natural death.

The five bats theme occurs over and over in Chinese art, on some beautiful vases and porcelains, on royal robes, screens, and, of course, mahjong sets!

Here are images of some fivesomes.

This work of art was auctioned off during Asia Week in NYC at Sotheby's.


The center of the above dish is a design with three stylized lotus blooms surrounding a central lotus, encircled by five bats and scrolls.



Above is a snuff bottle recently seen at Asia Week. Notice the five bats encircling the neck of the bottle.

The dish below was also auctioned off at Sothebys. It is very rare, with five bats surrounding  the stylized Shou in the center. Although hard to see on the "cavetto"   (the part of the plate surrounding the center flat part)  has three phoenixes.



These five bats also appear on mahjong sets. Following is a closeup of one of the drawer pulls, and a photograph of all the drawers. Are the facts that there are five drawers with five bats a coincidence? I think not! The five bats symbolize five blessings for the owner.

DSC_0744 bat

Above is a close-up of one bat pull, and below the five pulls on the box:


Below is a blurry photo of a simpler type of bat pull, also on five drawers.

photo-3 bat



The top of the above ebonized box has five stylized bats surrounding the top piece, what may be another bat.


And here they surround the central Shou on the front panel of the box.

This is a story of some very lucky and oblivious owners of a bat vase; although it is not about five bats, it is worth a read.




This wood box holds a deep bone set that will be discussed tomorrow. The front panel has the signs for Fa (prosperity) and Chung (center, often symbolizing China). Pushing in the top button releases the panel which drops down to reveal the drawers. The two scenes on the box are different from the ones normally carved, and appear to be interactions with family members or servants, scenes of everyday life.

Ray Heaton noted the box is similar to a box Michael Stanwick describes on his site:


"Another more prominent term, 中 發  zhong fa, is found on a box of precursor ma que tiles collected by Sir Henry Wilkinson in 1889 (see Mah Jong(g) Before Mah Jong(g) Part 2). This box and its contents were finally donated to the British Museum as part of the Schreiber Collection. It seems that in the context of the other characters on the box, which describe the physical characteristics of the tiles (materials, construction, thickness and quality of engraving), the zhong and fa characters are different in that they are selectively mentioned as features of the composition of the tile designs or patterns. This selectivity may suggest these two characters are special features of the tile set pattern."

Ray adds: "Michael uses the Pinyin for 中, "Zhong", whereas you have used the Wade Giles system of pronunciation with "Chung".  Fa is the same in both."



One side of the box features an older man touching a young woman with what looks like a wand or a flute. The woman holds a fan in one hand, and points to her face with the other. The tree is most probably a pine. A vase holding a plant can be seen in the background, through an open window. Note the beautiful brass corners with the butterfly pattern.  The carving patterns around are window are diaper patterns, often seen on box trim.


This appears to depict two young ladies, one of whom (the one of the right) is pouring out water, perhaps to help the other wash her hair. Once again we see a pine tree and a window, but this time the window is the curvilinear kind we often see on Flower tiles. Each lady is wearing a kimono, and the long sleeves are clearly seen on the one on the left.




The set continues to delight, as often some of these paper and wood or simple wood sets do. Note the unusual design of the Bams and Dots. Some numbers on the Craks have a little twist too, as seen on the 7. The Red and Green Dragons also have a bit of flair.

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Sometimes a set stands out because of the lovely and unusual color combinations of the material and the paint colors. This is one such set.



Of course Bams cannot be green here, they would never be seen! So we have white Bams on the green background. The pink adds a bit of snap to it.



The pink Crak wans are lovely when paired with the blue Chinese numbers.


The Flowers are the beauties often seen. The Green Dragons are White, the Red are the pink, and the White are an elaborate white frame. The Winds are the lovely blue color.




The One Dot has a meander as one of the outside rings, with a flower petal center. The other Dots are the flower heads inside a circle.




This post was sent to us by our friend Katherine. It often is very hard to determine who made old vintage sets.

"One can read in CHarli's, "The Preface", to her book that she believes there were few manufacturers in the 1920s and 1930s, but many different labels. I am hoping to help illustrate this with a few images. Link to CHarli's site:



The tiles with the three very distinct colors are all most likely from the same manufacturer,
from sometime during the 1920-30s. While they all have some similarities, they are all
different labels. Top row, most likely, Rottgames. Middle row, Macys. Bottom row, Ivorycraft.
Seen in the lone image of the Rottgames tiles... These tiles are all thought to be from the
same label, Rottgames. We know the top row and bottom row are for certain, they are in the
1940s Rottgames catalog. The middle row (from the 1920-30s) because of the similarities in
the dot tiles to later Rottgames sets is likely a Rottgames set. Top row, "round" Peacock
(Turkey) Set.
Middle row, Sparrow Set. Bottom row, Crane (Chicken) Set."
Thank you Katherine!


So, do you think this set is a Rottgames too? Many do. The Flowers are the same, the White Dragon is like the one above, and the Green and Red Dragons are similar too.

Note the stylized lions on the front of this beautiful wood box with brass trimming
Note the stylized lions on the front of this beautiful antique wood box with brass trimming.

Lions are loved by the Chinese, but of course are not native to that country. According to Wolfram Eberhard, the first lions were probably brought there by emissaries from foreign countries, and these animals were kept in Imperial zoos. They feature prominently in Chinese folklore. When they are depicted in art, they rarely resemble real lions, perhaps because the artist had never seen a real one.

In art, when a pair of lions is seen, usually one is male and the other female; the male lion has an ornamental ball under his paw, and the female a lion cub. Here on this Mahjong box we may be seeing two male lions, with one ornamental ball between them. Lion-Guardians have appeared in art since the 3rd Century. In some representations of a lion with a ball, a lion cub is said to be in the embroidered ball, but others say the ball is actually a large pearl being played with by the lion. Here, because there is one ball and two creatures, the viewer can be reminded of the two dragons who often have a pearl between them, frequently seen in Chinese art.

This front panel lifts up to reveal the drawers behind. The brass is especially well detailed; other boxes have brass trim but usually it is plain or with few embellishments. This box was meant to have a prominent place in the home.

The side of this beautiful box has what resembles a flower pot (an image often seen on Mah Jong tiles and boxes)
The side of this beautiful box has what resembles a flower pot but is actually three halberds in a vase, symbolizing a hope for luck in life or on important exams.

This beautiful set was sold at auction in the summer of 2013.

To see more images from this set, click here.