ID171-The Evolutions of Dragons

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ID171-The Evolutions of Dragons

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Not All Dragons Look Alike

Please keep in mind that there isn’t a rich history of Mahjong, so much of it has to be interpreted.

In certain Mah Jongg sets, the green and red Dragon tiles may not always depict traditional dragons. Instead, they might feature Chinese symbols. Legend has it that these symbols hold deep cultural significance dating back to the Ming Dynasty. The red dragon (chun), which resembles a sword, represents the middle or animal order, which includes humans. On the other hand, the green Dragon (fa) symbolizes the lower or plant order of life. Meanwhile, the white dragon (pai pan – white tile) embodies the higher or spiritual order of beings.

The Chinese characters (a term we use for Chinese writing) commonly used on tiles are ‘Chung’ (middle, also meaning China) and ‘Fa,’ which means fortune and looks like a pine tree. The MJ Sales Company used the character for Dragon as the Red, and the Phoenix for the Green. Interestingly, these tiles didn’t start off as dragons in the early days of the game. It was American marketers who believed that a game from China had to include dragons, as these creatures were strongly associated with Chinese culture. They introduced the word ‘Dragon,’ altering the symbolism of the tiles from what the characters originally referred to!

The Pung Chow Company, a New York-based firm in existence from 1923 to 1926, featured figural Dragons on their tiles. They even advertised as ‘the set with real dragons.’ However, most other companies didn’t follow their lead, at least not at that time.

In the early days of bone and bamboo tiles, there was no need to put a character on the White Dragon; players recognized it as the only undecorated tile. When plastic started to be used in manufacturing, beginning in the late 1920s, leaving a blank face on a tile was no longer possible. Players would repeatedly turn over tiles trying to find ‘the tile face.’ Some companies had already added letters or characters to their White Dragon tiles, and all manufacturers eventually had to include something to indicate which side was the tile’s face. Sometimes, the letter ‘P’ or ‘B’ might appear, or the Chinese symbol for ‘Bai,’ which translates to white and pure.

Both the National Mah Jongg League, established in 1937, and Wright-Patterson, established in 1940, redesigned and influenced manufacturers to use figural Dragons instead of Chinese Characters. This change aimed at making the game more accessible and easier for people to learn. The Chinese characters were seen as a barrier for players, and for some, this is still the case today. Players quickly embraced the new Dragon designs. In fact, some Dragon designs have become the reason some players are eager to buy those sets.

Sources:  Tiles Guide, Gregg Swain, Author, The Art of the Game

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