Oct 27 2008 2:23pm

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.

1. dwndrgn
I'm loving your discussion about mah-jong tiles - giving us some of the insight into how an author goes about her craft. It doesn't hurt that I've always been fascinated by the game tiles myself either. Anyway, thank you much for sharing with us.
Kevin Maroney
2. womzilla
Although mah-jong evolved from card games, especially in the West, it is universally played with tiles.

Not "universally"--Mah Jong cards are available from a variety of sources--many stationery stores and bookshops in New York's several Chinatowns have them, and I suspect they are easy to find among any sizable Chinese population. A couple of Western game companies have published Mah Jong cards under the brand name Mhing.

That said, Maj Jong is most commonly played with tiles because they're more durable than cards. The huge deck and the tropical and semi-tropical locations in which it is most commonly played mean that Mah Jong cards are fairly short-lived. Far better to buy a cheap ($20 is the cheapest I've found in the US) set of tiles, or even a midline ($60) set, and have it last for years or decades, rather than a $5 set of cards which will last for months.

(This durability issue is a major factor in the relative success of dominoes in the Caribbean instead of playing cards.)

And, as you note, tiles are just plain cool.
Jane Lindskold
3. janelindskold
Womzilla: Thanks for the comment about the availability of mah-jong cards. I have never seen any, and my comment was based on a citation in one of my sources.

You've given me hope of finding something else cool! And one of those sets would be a lot easier to take travelling.

I'm amazed you've found a set of tiles for $20.00. My best was about $60.00, but then again, I don't exactly live in an area with huge Chinese population.

Thanks for the responses to these posts. I'm glad at least a few people share my enthusiasm for the subject. I'd been thinking about posting about the Dragon Suit, but was concerned I'd exhausted people's patience.

Shall I do Dragons?
Andy Leighton
4. andyl
A number of people buy mah-jong cards expressly for travelling. I bought my copy of Mhing from someone on ebay (UK) for a couple of pounds. Of course the supplied rules are different than Mah-jong (it can cope with 2 - 8 players, and there are no kongs) but it is possible to play one of the standardised mah-jong rulesets with the cards.
Kevin Maroney
5. womzilla
I once found the World's Crappiest Go Set for $5 in one of the bookstores in Manhattan's Chinatown.

Probably the easiest source in the US is The American Mah-Jongg League, which has decks of Mah-Jongg Playing Cards for $7 plus $2 shipping.

These days, I mostly play Canasta instead, but I do love Mah Jong.

Go Dragons!

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