Tag Archives: Mahjong box

IMG_0706A reader sent this photograph of this exquisite red lacquer box. As you can see, a dragon is depicted, playing with a pearl, and frolicking in the clouds which are hiding parts of him.

Helmut Nickel, the Curator Emeritus from the Arms and Armor Department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote in his paper in 1991 that in China dragons are not fearsome creatures. They are often seen playing with a pearl in the clouds, bringing life-sustaining rain to the world. Oftentimes the pearl has flamelike swirls surrounding it, indicating some type of luminescence. Because of that, people in the West often think the pearl is either the sun or the moon; the dragon plays with it, trying to swallow the pearl to cause a solar or lunar eclipse. But in Chinese art, it seems that the dragon merely plays with the pearl and the pearl enriches his life. The image of dragon with a pearl started in the T'ang period (618-907), and the motif might have originated in Central Asia.

Wikipedia indicates the pearl is associated with wealth, good luck and prosperity.


Here is a panel from the front of another box


You can see the dragon partially obscured by the clouds here too.

And now a view of a piece of furniture offered for sale by Philip Colleck, Ltd., on display at the Winter Antiques Show in New York City:

Chinese export lacquer etagere middle

This magnificent dragon is the middle level of a Chinese export lacquered three tiered etagere.

For more about Philip Colleck, Ltd., click here


and the Winter Antiques show, click here:



I am ending the year on a very wishful note. This delightful ebonized box with mother-of-pearl inlay has five stylized bats on the front panel, and another five on the top of the box. According to Wolfram Eberhard's A Dictionary of Chinese Symbols, a bat is a symbol of good luck and happiness and this might be because the Chinese word for "bat" is very similar to the  word for "good fortune." Five bats together signify the five blessings: long life, riches, good health, a life of virtue, and a natural death. The five bats here on the panel surround a symbol for longevity, so this really is a wish for wonderful luck.


This is the top of the box which also is a wish for longevity and good fortune. You see the five inlaid mother-of-pearl bats surrounding a metal butterfly. In Chinese a butterfly is a symbol for longevity, because the second syllable in "hudie," the word for butterfly in Chinese, is pronounced the same as "die,"the word for 70 or 80 years of age. *

This is a good online resource for symbolism in Chinese art.

* http://primaltrek.com/impliedmeaning.html

And here is how you can tell if a box is real ebony or ebonized: real ebony has very few visible grains in it. Most often boxes were painted black to give them a more dramatic look, and certainly a black box offsets lovely mother-of-pearl inlay.

DSC_0546You can see the grain hidden below the black paint here.