Tag Archives: vintage mahjong

This post was written by Ray Heaton, and images were added. These four arts often appear in various forms on Mahjong tiles. 

The Four Arts (四藝, siyi), or the Four Arts of the Chinese Scholar, were the four main leisure pursuits of the Chinese scholar gentleman. These are occasionally known as the Four Attainments of Pleasure.

Although the individual parts of the concept (Qin, Qi, Shu, Hua) have very long histories as activities befitting a learned person, the earliest written source putting the four together is Zhang Yanyuan's ''Fashu Yaolu'' or "exemplars of calligraphy", from the Tang Dynasty. The concept of these being "the four arts" is first found in the ''Xianqing ouqi'' or  "on the pleasure of idleness", by Li Yu, sometime around the mid 1600's.

琴, Qin, the Guqin, a seven stringed instrument (rather like a Zither or Lute) and is China's oldest stringed instrument, with a documented history of about 3,000 years. It became part of a tradition cultivated by Chinese scholars and literati since the time of Confucius. Its reputation rests not only on the rich and diverse musical expression it is capable of, but also on the fact that it has been revered as a symbol of Chinese high culture – the essence of Chinese thought and philosophy are integral to the Qin repertoire itself.  The Qin was Banned during the Cultural Revolution as belonging to one of "The Four Old Evils" or "The Four Olds".

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The qin as seen on the Cultural China website

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and on Wikipedia.

棋, Qi, the strategy game of Go or Chinese Chess, this will be either 圍棋 Weiqi the game of Go or 象棋, Xiangqí, Chinese Chess.  According to Patricia Bjaaland Welch in Chinese Art, A Guide to Motifs and Visual Imagery, the game shown is most likely Weiqi.  The Chinese Imperial Court used Weiqi as a gauge to measure the intellectual strength of an imperial scholar, requiring good mental discipline, a deep philosophical attitude and a multi-campaign mentality.

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The image of scholars playing Go is from Wikipedia. Be sure to notice the young children hiding, and the taihu rock on the upper left.

書, Shu, means to write and also means book but is used to refer to Chinese calligraphy, the representative image is often illustrated by books wrapped in silk or paper and tied with a ribbon.  Calligraphy, or the art of writing, was the visual art form prized above all others in traditional China. The elevated status of calligraphy reflecting the importance of the word in China and scholars, whose main currency was the written word, came to assume the dominant positions in government, society, and culture. Associated to this are the Four Treasures of the Scholar's Study, also referred to as "The four jewels of the study" and comprise the Brush, Ink, Paper and Inkstone.

Following are some visuals, versions of which may be seen on Mahjong tiles:

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From free stock photos above is a stack of books, which in Chinese art would be wrapped in fabric,

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an inkstone  above featured on thefullwiki.org,

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and a calligraphy scroll itself, a poem in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum.

And just to make sure there is an understanding of how and why these images can get confusing:

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from ancientpoint.com an inkstone shaped like a stack of books/scrolls! This leads us to:

畫, Hua, Chinese painting. These are often a rolled scroll, sometimes also wrapped with a ribbon.  Scholar-official painters most often worked in ink on paper and chose subjects—bamboo, old trees, rocks—that could be drawn using the same kind of disciplined brush skills required for calligraphy. This immediately distinguished their art from the colourful, illusionistic style of painting preferred by court artists and professionals. Proud of their status as amateurs, they created a new, distinctly personal form of painting in which expressive calligraphic brush lines were the chief means employed to animate their subjects. Another distinguishing feature of what came to be known as scholar-amateur painting is its learned references to the past. The choice of a particular antique style immediately linked a work to the personality and ideals of an earlier painter or calligrapher. Style became a language by which to convey one's beliefs.

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from wikipedia. The scholar seems to be copying a scene from the unrolled scroll, perhaps an attempt by this scholar to link to the earlier work of another.  We see the taihu rock here as well, and the Chinese barrel shaped stool we also saw in the drawing of the scholars playing Go.

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Above we have the continuation from the earlier post this week.

Images continue to be somewhat cryptic. But these are the Four Professions, the four important jobs in China.

Starting from the left we have

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The scroll, one of the visual indications for a scholar. Following is the scroll seen earlier from the British Library, the oldest known scroll.

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The next tile deals with agriculture.

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You can see the signs of a farmer. The rake

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(photo from WWF)

behind what is probably a hat, which seems to have four strings, two to be tied under the chin and two behind the head, keeping the hat secure. Perhaps the design on the tile is a shorthand version for this type of hat.

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The next tile is also difficult to read, but it represents bundles of wood.

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Here is a recent photograph of a Chinese villager carrying a huge bundle of wood.

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And finally, the last calling is the fisherman.

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Once again the tile is cryptic, but if you look carefully you can make out the straight fishing pole and the wavy fishing line. But what is the other object?

I had the good fortune to see a collection of baskets from around the world. Much to my delight I happened upon this one:


A Chinese fishing basket. Now you will be able to recognize the image on other tiles representing the fisherman.


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And these are capture tiles, required by some types of play: The centipede that will get caught by the rooster, and the fish that will be caught by the fisherman. Given the wavy line coming out of the fish's mouth, the fisherman may have already caught his fish. The capture tiles, which are bonus tiles, when paired correctly allow for extra points/money.

One of the most popular posts on this website has been the one written about the hand-carved three layer tiles we call tri-color. Many of us feel these tiles are under-appreciated  (read under-valued) at the moment, and deserve to get better recognition. These sets are particularly fun because there are so many Flower tiles, unlike most sets made in the 1920s and 1930s.

The most common back color seen on these tri-color tiles is green. Of course, the "tri-color" name itself is a misnomer, because the middle layer is clear lucite.



It can be challenging at times to really understand the images seen on the tiles.


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The top row above has the seasons. I find it easiest to recognize the one on the left, with the little teardrops at the bottom. That is the symbol for winter, and if you see that, you probably are looking at the other three tiles being the other seasons.



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The easiest tile for me is the first one on the left, bamboo. Those two characters somewhat relate to each other, and that helps. On that line, the other characters are chrysanthemum, orchid and plum blossom.



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The 3rd row shows "abbreviations" of the four arts of the scholar. We often see these on lucite tiles as other tiles, and because they are so free of details it can be hard to recognize them. But they are:

Painting: many years ago in China painting was done on long scrolls that would be rolled up, looking like tile #4. There can sometimes be two rolls, which represents a scroll half-way rolled up.

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This is the earliest scroll ever found,dating from 868 in China, and it is found in the collection of the British Library, . You can see how it is rolled up, and how the abstract symbol on the tile resembles it.


From Wikipedia:

"The handscroll is a long narrow scroll for displaying a series of scenes in Chinese, Japanese, or Korean painting and calligraphy. The handscroll presents an artwork in the horizontal form and can be exceptionally long, usually measuring up to a few meters in length and around 25–40 cm in height.[2] Handscrolls are generally viewed starting from the right end.[3][4] This kind of scroll is intended to be viewed flat on a table while admiring it section for section during the unrolling as if traveling through a landscape.[4][5] In this way, this format allows for the depiction of a continuous narrative or journey.[6]"

For more on Chinese scrolls, click here


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This next tile was a bit tricky. It had been thought this represents an ink stone, because of the round hole seen on the top that would have been used to grind the ink stick into powder which would then be mixed with water to make ink for calligraphy. Reader Ray Heaton came up with the correct interpretation which was confirmed by a Chinese art Scholar.

From Ray:

"I suggest that the tile from the Four Arts described as showing an Ink stone rather shows a set of books that are wrapped and bound by ribbon (ribbons are used to show the auspicious nature of an object)."

The stack of books represents the learning required if one wanted to become a scholar and have a chance to get a position in government.

And certainly all of these tile images have the ribbons with them, indicating their auspicious nature.


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Go: A Chinese game played with round pieces. This symbol is sometimes also considered to be the game of chess. Both boards have small squares on them. Given we see two round pieces to the side and below the board, this may well be "go." or "weiqi."

From Wikipedia:

"Go (simplified Chinese: 围棋; traditional Chinese: 圍棋; pinyin: wéiqí, Japanese: 囲碁 igo,[nb 2] common meaning: "encircling game", Korean: 바둑 baduk[nb 3]) is a board game for two players that originated in China more than 2,500 years ago. Strategy is significant to the game despite its relatively simple rules.

The two players alternately place black and white playing pieces, called "stones", on the vacant intersections (called "points") of a grid of 19×19 lines (beginners often play on smaller 9×9 and 13×13 boards).[2] The objective of the game is to use one's stones to surround a larger total area of the board than the opponent.[3] Once placed on the board, stones may not be moved, but stones can be removed from the board if captured; this is done by surrounding an opposing stone or group of stones by occupying all orthogonally-adjacent points.[4] Players continue in this fashion until neither player wishes to make another move; the game has no set ending conditions. When a game concludes, the territory is counted along with captured stones and komi to determine the winner.[5] Games may also be won by resignation.

Go originated in ancient China. Archaeological evidence shows that the early game was played on a board with a 17×17 grid, but by the time the game had spread to Korea and Japan, in about the 5th and 7th centuries AD respectively, boards with a 19×19 grid had become standard.[6]"


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The above work is from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum, and the scroll shows scholars playing the game.

For more on "weiqi" click here



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Qin or lute: music. Every scholar knew how to play this instrument. The lute was often carried in a soft silk pouch.

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The remaining two rows will be discussed in the next post.

Our thanks to Tony for providing the Mahjong photographs.

***Reader Ray has suggested this might be a stack of books, tied with a ribbon. If anyone knows, please send me a comment. I will continue to try to find the answer.

Screen Shot 2014-06-08 at 1.52.52 PMAbove we have a full set of Royal Depth Control Bakelite tiles. I would guess this set was made in the 1950s, and it has many of the details we expect to see in RDC sets.



Just above is a hand-carved three layer (tri-color) version of the set, made in the 1960s or 1970s, in Lucite. You will see there are interesting differences.


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We'll start with the Bams. You will notice the perching pheasant, which resembles other perching birds to the untrained eye. (Look at the 13 orphans website to learn what to look for in differentiating sets.) You can note the trademark Bam shape, with the notch between each section really dividing each section from the one before.



And here is the hand-carved version. There's very little resemblance to the Bakelite cousin. These Bams have a thin, rounded shape, and the cute small pheasant is perching on a more horizontal branch.


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The Bakelite Dots have the floral interiors whereas the Lucite ones



don't look even remotely similar, with their circular interiors.


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The Craks with their elaborate wans

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do look like the hand-carved version, but the numbers on these Lucite ones have a lot of personality, as do the Wans.




The hand-carving does add flair to the Winds.





The green Lucite Dragon is now facing another direction, but he still has wings, unlike the others. It really seems the White Dragon may well be a snake, don't you think?

And the real giveaway that it's a Royal Depth Control set, for most of us anyway:

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and the Lucite one:



Interesting that on the Bakelite sets it is a Royal Joker, and on the Lucite it's a Big Joker (perhaps inspired by the name given by the National Mah Jongg League?). But no matter the name, we love them the same.


The Flowers from the Lucite sets will be explained in a future post coming soon.

We thank Mahjongmahjong for their photographs of the Bakelite set.



Above we have a beautiful black and gold lacquer piece made in 1595, and found on Wikipedia's website.  You can see the delicate paintbrush work, using only the color gold, yet capturing people, sky, mountains, water, boats, and pagodas, with perhaps the moon or sun seen just to the left of the calligraphy. So many of the key aspects of Chinese landscape painting are seen here.

Following are the sides and front of a black lacquer Mahjong box. The artist has decorated the box with a landscape, featuring temples, trees, mountains, and people, all treated in an almost abstract manner. It seems pretty clear that the artist who painted this Mahjong box clearly knew about the lacquer techniques seen above.





A question might come to mind: How does a box this old survive in such wonderful shape? The answer is in the was it was stored. Although we don't know how old the lacquer box is, it seems to be quite old given the appearance of the box it was stored in, a wooden box with a sliding lid:



The inside of the box was lined with linen, covering some kind of padding:



The Mahjong box could be carefully pulled up out of the outside box, and  lowered back into it for storage.

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The paktong handles and decorative trim echo the silver in the landscape; handles rest on small bat-shaped decor. The red used on the pagodas in the background brings to mind the magic of nighttime with candles and lanterns flickering, with moonlight reflecting off the mountains, creating a magical setting.

The lacquer continues inside:


You can see the mirror-like drawer exteriors and the red drawer lining.

The box was made by Shen Shaoan, a lacquerware maker with a rightly deserved stellar reputation.


From the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art we have this incredible wood screen, entitled Summer Palace. Made by Feng Langgong, it is painted and lacquered with gilt, and dates from 1690. As you can read in this excerpt from Wikipedia, the Chinese artists have worked in lacquer for over three thousand years.

From Wikipedia:

"During the Shang Dynasty (ca. 1600–1046 BC) of China, the sophisticated techniques used in the lacquer process were first developed and it became a highly artistic craft,[1] although various prehistoric lacquerwares have been unearthed in China dating back to the Neolithic period and objects with lacquer coating found in Japan dating to the late Jōmon period.[1] The earliest extant lacquer object, a red wooden bowl, was unearthed at a Hemudu culture (ca. 5th millennium BC) site in Zhejiang, China.[2][3][4] During the Eastern Zhou period (771–256 BC), lacquerware began appearing in large numbers, thus this was the earliest era from which notable quantities of lacquerware have survived.[5]

By the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD), special administrations were established to organize and divide labor for the expanding lacquer production in China.[6] Elaborate incised decorations were known to be used in a number of Chinese lacquerware during the Han Dynasty.[7]

In the Tang Dynasty (618–907), Chinese lacquerware saw a new style marked by the use of sheets of gold or silver made in various shapes, such as birds, animals, and flowers.[6] The cut-outs were affixed onto the surface of the lacquerware, after which new layers of lacquer were applied, dried, and then ground away, so the surface could be polished to reveal the golden or silvery patterns beneath.[6] This was done by a technique known as pingtuo.[8] Such techniques were time-consuming and costly, but these lacquerware were considered highly refined.[6] It was also the period when the earliest practice of carving lacquerware began.[9]

To see the screen in full, click here


In Mahjong, lacquer was used on several accoutrememnts. Of course, lacquer could never be used on tiles, but it appears on racks and boxes.



This black lacquer rack is in pristine condition, which is an exception for this very delicate type of material. Here we see a bucolic scene with a person looking out to the palace on the mountain afar. The gold used for the trees helps them stand out against the beautiful Chinese mountains, thus the beauty of the natural world can be appreciated along with the lovely architecture of the palace.

This type of rack serves several purposes:


to line up tiles for the player, as seen above


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and to store counters inside and display completed exposed groups.

Lacquer could be carved, or inlaid with other materials such as mother-of-pearl. Here follows a box with mother-of-pearl onlays.

The following Mahjong box has been shown before on this website, but it certainly is worth looking at it again. The box itself is lacquered, and then a thin mother-of-pearl layer was applied. The result is a mix of dark and light reflections, and worthy of housing a beautiful Mahjong set. Most of you know, many boxes did not start out being designed to hold Mahjong tiles. Many boxes were made for other purposes, and then adapted for Mahjong storage. Certainly a box as ornate as this one could well be in that category. The two phoenixes are fabulous, aren't they?!

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The Brooklyn Museum, which featured a lacquer show in the 1980s, writes this in their catalog:

"The art of lacquering dates back to the Shang Dynasty (1500-1027 B.C.) in China when it was used chiefly to enhance the durability of utilitarian objects. It is characterized by a hard, smooth, highly polished finish it gives to numerous materials, even such impermanent ones as vegetable fiber, textiles and paper. Lacquer workshops with master craftsmen were a part of the artistic culture of ancient China, Japan and South to Southeast Asia and Persia, with each region developing its own technique of lacquering. Over the centuries contact between cultures brought a cross-fertilization of techniques as well as methods of manufacture."

And from Wikipedia:

"In Ming China processes included up to a hundred layers. Each layer requires drying and polishing. When all layers are applied the artist polishes different parts of the painting until the preferred colours show. Fine sandpaper and a mix of charcoal powder and human hair is used to carefully reach the correct layer of each specific colour. Consequently "lacquer painting" is in part a misnomer, since the bringing out of the colours is not done in the preparatory painting but in the burnishing of the lacquer layers to reveal the desired image beneath."

Clearly lacquer artists were incredibly skilled and patient. We often see lacquer on Mahjong racks such as these:



The dragon, his body greatly hidden by clouds, and the flaming "pearl" are seen above. This rack was probably made in the 1920s. Now that we know it might have taken 100 layers to create, we can truly admire the skill of the artist who made it. The black compartments were used to store counters.



Another one of the racks from this set, this time with two dragons surrounding the flaming "pearl." It is possible the lacquer here might have had real gold in it.


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And here is the front panel of a red lacquer box, with another red dragon and flaming "pearl."




This snuff bottle is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It dates from 1920 and was made by Ye Zhongsan (1875-1945). You can clearly see the goldfish and their wonderful flowing tails. Patricia Bjaaland Welch explains why goldfish appear so frequently in Chinese art:

"goldfish, which are domestic variants of wild carp, are equally popular symbols in Chinese art as their name is a homophone for the two symbolic components of material success in Chinese life: "gold" (jin, the same jin in "goldfish") and "jade" (yù) Furthermore, another yù with the same sound and tone as "jade" (yù) means "surplus" (yú). Hence, when combined with other components, the variety of good wishes and felicitations in paintings of goldfish is almost endless.."

Goldfish appear frequently in Mahjong as well.



This lovely goldfish is part of the Flower set sent to us by Bill, which we looked at in an earlier post. The starlike images in the water (bursting bubbles, sea anemones?) mirror the shape in the goldfish tail. He has something resembling whiskers, making him look  bit more like a carp, but the shape of his body and his fabulous tail make him much more likely to be in the goldfish category!

We also saw goldfish in the paper set from the other day:

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most obvious on the "tile" in the middle. Welch adds:

"a pond teeming with goldfish (jïnyú) is a visual representation of jīnyú or "gold" (jīn) in surplus (yú)."


Goldfish appear on Mahjong boxes as well.


This delightful box shows the central goldfish. It is very unclear as to where the scene is taking place, because we have a goldfish and another fish just under the goldfish's eyes set among other objects and plants with a bird overhead! Perhaps another flight of fancy?! Or possibly a reference to the old Chinese belief that some fish can turn into birds?  We just won't ever know.

More about this box was included on a previous post.



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Screen Shot 2014-05-28 at 3.14.02 PM Screen Shot 2014-05-28 at 3.13.05 PMThese are screen grabs taken of a work in the Metropolitan Museum. They are two parts of a lovely ink scroll by Zhou Dongqing who lived during the Qing Dynasty. The work is dated 1291, and entitled The Pleasure of Fishes. You can see there are at least two types of fish, with a possible carp somewhat hidden in the upper section near some of the red stamps.

As mentioned in previous posts, the fish is associated with abundance and affluence because in Chinese these words are pronounced the same as fish. C.A. S. Williams notes that fish also frequently appear on Chinese porcelain, as we saw in earlier fish posts both here and here, and such as this wine jar below dating from the 14th Century.


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So too we find fish on Mahjong tiles and cards.


This Flower tile seems to have been made by a carver who took a great deal of liberty with his subject, as it looks as if he gave the fish eyelashes!


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Above is a charming paper version of mahjong designs for the Craks. Notice the joyful way the artist has designed the different cards with the varied species of fish, most of which have fabulous and beautiful tails. Given that the Craks suit represents 10,000 or lots of money, perhaps the combination of the fish and the wan symbol really are hopeful signs for great abundance!

Am I the only one, or does the bone and bamboo tile just above the paper version look like a face with eyes and nose?!



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The beautiful dish seen above dates from the middle of the Ming Dynasty and is in the collection of the Netherlands National Museum of Ceramics. You can clearly see the four different varieties of fish, with the carp on the middle upper right, at 1:00 o'clock, recognizable by his barbels. The Chinese word for carp is bai, interestingly also translated into English as one hundred, so the word itself connotates success. The other fish are qing, a fresh water mullet, a lian, a kind of bream, and a gui, a mandarin fish with a large mouth, seen at the 4 o'clock position.

C.A. S. Williams writes

"Fish forms an important part in the domestic economy of the Chinese. Together with rice it constitutes the principal staple of their daily food, and fishing has for this very reason formed a prominent occupation of the people from the most ancient times.... the fish is symbolically employed as the emblem of wealth or abundance, on account of the similarity in the pronounciation of the words yū, fish, and yū  superfluity, and also because fish are extremely plentiful in Chinese waters...."


While doing research for these posts, it seems that  scenes appear on some forms of art more often than on others. There seems to be a big overlap with scenes on Chinese porcelains and Mahjong tiles. The design style principles seem to be the same, but the subject matter, and ways of showing the subjects are  similar with porcelain and Mahjong.


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These are two more  Flower tiles belonging to reader Bill, from the same set as the carp we saw the other day. You can see how both fish are different, one from the other. Their heads, bodies and tails are distinct, and probably can be easily recognized by people who know their fish. It is not clear what the object is on tile #1, but the crab is easy to make out on tile 2. The beautiful deep blue water on these tiles is another visual treat.

Studying tile #2 a bit more, I noticed the fish's tail is breaking the surface of the water. I wonder if it might be a sturgeon, a type of fish treasured by the Chinese, which is unusual in that it lives in both fresh and salt water, although on this tile you can see the artist clearly intended this to be salt water, given the presence of the crab.

From Wikipedia:

Most sturgeon are anadromous meaning they spawn in fresh water and migrate to salt water to mature.

The Chinese sturgeon can be considered a large fresh water fish, although it spends part of its life-cycle in seawater, like the salmon,[4] however; Chinese sturgeon spawn multiple times throughout their life.

The Chinese sturgeon has a habit of upstream migration: they dwell along the coasts of China's eastern areas and migrate back up rivers for propagation upon reaching sexual maturity. It has the longest migration of any sturgeon in the world and once migrated more than 3,200 km (2,000 mi) up the Yangtze.[5] The sturgeon's reproductive capacity is poor: it may breed three or four times during its life-cycle, and a female sturgeon can carry in excess of a million eggs in one pregnancy, which are released for external fertilisation when mature. The survival rate to hatching is however estimated to be less than 1 percent.[4]