Mystery. Money. Money. Mystery.

Mah-jong. Mahjong. Mah jongg. Mah-jiang. Hyphen. No hyphen. One word. Two words. Fascinating cryptic symbols etched on tiles on bone and bamboo, bakelite and bamboo, plastic and bamboo, the whole losing none of its appeal even when the set was cast as squares of very ordinary plastic.

From the very first time I played mah-jong, I was certain there were mysteries and wonders hidden within the symbols on those solid rectangular tiles, mysteries and wonders I could place at the heart of a novel.

After all, a standard deck of cards holds within its four suits remnants of the Tarot Deck. Look what Tim Powers did with those in his wonderful novel, Last Call. Surely the exotic mah-jong tiles encoded the mysteries of the Orient, mysteries containing the seeds of a rich and elaborate tale.

I set out to learn what these mysteries might be, starting my investigation with the three basic suits: arrays of circles, arrays of rods, arrays of Chinese writing.

The first challenge was what these suits should actually be called. Circles or Dots? Bamboo or Bams? Characters or Cracks? Bam and Crack seemed vulgar to me, not befitting the dignity of such an elegant game. Still, various encyclopedias gave these as the “official” names of the suits. Later, I confirmed my first impression. “Bam” and “Crack” were American slang terms popularized in the Roaring Twenties, since fallen out of fashion.

Something else puzzled me. Bamboo was repeated twice in the set: once as a suit, once as one of the “flower and season” tiles. Actually, sometimes it was repeated three times: suit, fourth flower, and winter tile.

Things were getting more, not less, complex the more I learned.
Then luck came my way in the form of a inch squib on the Wall Street Journal’s art page. This mentioned a show at the National Gallery featuring Asian Games and their history. There was no way I could get to D.C. in time to see the show, but the catalog was available. I bought one. When it arrived, I realized I’d both struck gold and was going to have to give up a bunch of my illusions.

First of all, even by the most generous assessment of its heritage, mah-jong was a much younger game than I had imagined. It had evolved from card games played in the nineteenth or at best late eighteenth century. So vanished my imagined comparison with the ancient Tarot deck devolving over time into our standard deck of playing cards.

Secondly, it turned out that those exotic Dots, Bamboo, and Characters were nothing more than what the scholars call “money suits.” The Dots or Circles represent individual coins. This is why they are almost always depicted as either concentric circles or as circles with a dot in the center. Chinese coins have holes in the middle…

… The better to put them on a string for ease of carrying. This turned out to be what was depicted in the suit that had come to be called “Bamboo.” Strings of cash, usually spoken of as hundreds.

And those mysterious Characters? Nothing more than the numbers one through nine, followed by the character “wan.” Wan can be translated as “ten thousand,” but it is also often translated as “myriads,” the way English speakers say “billions” and mean “a whole lot,” not a precise number.

I was crushed. There went my wonder and mystery. There went my novel! Just money. Just a gambling game.

But those tiles came to my rescue once more. Sorting through them to put them back in their box, I came across an anomoly. Looking at it, I realized that somewhere along the line, within the culture that had invented the game, money had become transformed into mystery.

The answer was in the tile depicting “one bamboo.”

Not in all old sets, but in many, “one bamboo” is depicted not by a single cane or string of coins (although this does happen), but as a bird. The type of bird varies: sometimes a crane, sometimes a swallow, sometimes a fat sparrow.

My heart rose.

Someone had seen not strings of coins, but a bamboo forest. They had put a bird in it, and that bird had taken flight until it belonged as much to the set as did the original motifs… With that realization, hope returned that I would find my novel amid those tangled bamboo and their associates.

I returned to my quest, seeking the path to my novel, a novel that some years later would come to be called Thirteen Orphans.


[Image by Flickr user SideLong, licensed under Creative Commons.]

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