Ivory, Bone, Bamboo, Bakelite… and Polymer Clay?

One of the great delights that has resulted from the decade or so that I have spent exploring mah-jong has been when friends have shared their own sets with me. Not only do the designs of the tiles show delightful variations, but the materials from which the sets are made also vary.

Although mah-jong evolved from card games, especially in the West, it is universally played with tiles. Those tiles are often two-part: a light-colored facing (usually bone or ivory) and a bamboo backing. This design reflects the combination of practicality and artistry that is intrinsically Chinese. The light-colored faces are the labor/art intensive parts of the tile. The bamboo backing is considered disposable or replaceable, an important thing for a gambling game where the equivalent of a “marked card” would be fatal.

Early mah-jong tile facing was usually made from ivory or bone. However, “usually” does not mean “exclusively.” Shell, jade, ebony, and various woods have been used. There were also tiles made from solid bamboo.

When plastics became commercially available, tiles poured from Bakelite, catalin, and celluloid were made. Many of these were designed to mimic the combination tile, with a darker back and a lighter front. Sometimes plastic fronts were given bamboo backs. Today, any and all of these are available, both as expensive antiques and for routine play.

Don’t be fooled into believing that because a set is bone and bamboo it is automatically an antique. I have a perfectly nice set purchased from a modern catalog that is made from cattle shin bone and bamboo.

When I began to investigate how mah-jong could be used for magic in Thirteen Orphans, I had to address the question of whether every mah-jong set would be magical. I decided not. Ritual magic involves more than doing certain steps in a certain order. It involves an investment of magical energy—call it mana, psychic force, ch’i, ki, or whatever you choose. Therefore, my ritual mages needed to make their tiles.

For this I chose polymer clay (although there are allusions to the members of the older generation having had to make their tiles the hard way, by etching bone).

Polymer clay is a plastic-based modeling medium. It comes in a wide variety of colors. You can “fire” it in a standard kitchen oven or even a toaster oven. That made it perfect for my needs.

I first discovered polymer clay back when I was writing Lord Demon, one of the two novels I completed for the late Roger Zelazny. Kai Wren, the protagonist, is a glass blower and a potter. In an effort to get into his head (something I don’t need to do with my own characters because they and I grow together), I decided to learn something about these arts. I watched glassblowers and potters, read numerous books about these arts, and, finally, decided to do a bit of clay modeling myself. Since I didn’t care to seek out a kiln, I settled on polymer clay.

Even after Lord Demon was completed, I continued with my new hobby. I’ve made beads, doll house furnishings, simple sculptures, jewelry. I’ve rolled, molded, stamped, and used polymer clay as an element in multi-media creations.

Therefore, I knew that my “Orphans” could simplify their tile-making by first making molds to hold the tile in shape. This would enable them to concentrate on the important part of their particular ritual magic—inscribing the various characters and keeping the sequence in mind. When they were done, they would have created something that combined the ancient and the modern, science and mystery.

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