Author Topic: Joseph Babcock's trademark ideograms for the red and green mahjong tiles.  (Read 3291 times)

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I've been consternating over the red and green ideograms Joseph Babcock used in his famous 1920 red book "Rules for Mah-Jongg". In all my reading on mahjong and even on Babcock, I've never come across the unusual ideograms explained before, so here it is to share with you:

They are not the expected ideograms for the red  中  (zhōng, center) or for the green  發 (fā, shooting).

Where'd those come from?

So I've been doing some ideogram research, and identified the ideograms as the Chinese word for 'dragon' and 'phoenix' respectively.

Well that's odd, because it's often said the Chinese don't call their three color tiles 'dragons', only Westerners do, so why do the sets Babcock imported from China use the actual ideogram for the word 'dragon'?

Babcock, as we know, imported mahjong into the West, and trademarked the name "Mah-Jongg". Well, I've since learned, he also trademarked the Chinese ideograms 龍 and 鳳 (Dragon and Phoenix, respectively). He used these ideograms in lieu of the usual red and green symbols in all of the sets he imported for sale... which, while still made in China, were obviously custom designed (along with the addition of roman numerals and arabic characters) for his purposes.

And since his sets had these 'trademarked symbols' on its tiles, of course his rule books also used those same symbols to explain them.

So, not only did Babcock coin the use of the word 'dragon' to refer to the three color tiles, he also used the actual 'dragon' ideogram on the tiles he imported as well.

EDIT: Been doing some more research on this topic. There are a few other early references to the dragon and phoenix ideograms, but they are just that; references. No such tiles with dragon and phoenix ideograms are known to exist that predate Babcock's designs. One such reference is a publication called "Dai Yu’an, Gu shui jiu" from 1934 which claims to describes a custom made set owned by Sheng Xuanhuai, a Chinese official and scholar of Confucian doctrine. Since this official died in 1916, and the description of his set wasn't published until 18 years after his death, it's speculated that if his set actually existed as described, it would predate Babcock's designs. Another such reference is Ke Xu's "Qing bai leichao" from 1917, which also anecdotally describes tiles with the dragon and phoenix ideograms, but it doesn't say where the designs were observed, and so it's entirely possible they are describing the source of Babcock's designs. Since no dragon-phoenix ideogram-adorned tiles exist that are indigenous to China prior to the 1920's, especially given the vast amount of embellishment and exaggeration surrounding all other aspects of the history and origins of mahjong, it's difficult to refute that the designs are not entirely Babcock's alone.

This is a work in progress, and I'll update this post if I discover anything new on the topic.

« Last Edit: April 13, 2013, 09:25:32 pm by SDMiller »