Mahjong-set De Haar Castle
Author: Jan Keevel
Photos: Jan Keevel
Video: Jelte Rep

Author: Jan Keevel / Photos: Jan Keevel / Video: Jelte Rep

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Hidden treasure at Castle de Haar


The wealthy castle De Haar, the former country house of the barons Van Zuylen van Nijevelt van de Haar is rich in stories, but it also houses many art treasures.

Hidden treasure

In the collection of art at Castle de Haar there is a small “hidden treasure”:
In the Great Hall, unnoted on a side-table with bottles of liquor, there is a special mahjongchest.

This chest draw my attention immediately. After some urging, I was allowed to do research.

This web page contains a summary of the research report.

In close up the box immediately looks interesting:

The image on the front most likely comes from "The Story of the Western Wing", one of the most famous Chinese dramas written by playwright Wang Shifu.
The story is about the secret love affair between Zhang Sheng, a young student, and Cui Yingying, the daughter of a chief minister of the Tang court. Since the publication of this piece in the thirteenth century, it has been unrivaled in popularity.

"China's most popular love comedy" was regarded by moralists as an indecent, immoral and dissolute work, so it was placed high on the list of forbidden books.


Behind the sliding lid we find five drawers.

There are four Chinese characters on each of the five drawers. These inscriptions are groups of 4 words, these originate in old writings and traditions. This also applies to the images on the so-called lucky stones. There are several traditional series of word groups, including the series on these drawers and these lucky stones.

They are so-called traditional characters (i.e. not "simplified"); these are read from right to left. The text is also written in a very old style.

From top to bottom these drawers read:
  1. Four skills: making music, playing chess, calligraphy, painting.
    The four artistic skills a scholar should have.
  2. Four flowers: plum blossom, orchid, bamboo, chrysanthemum.
    The four noble flowers in the mah-jong game, these flowers represent spring, summer, autumn, winter.
    Sometimes a different order is used: winter, spring, summer, autumn - applications of both sequences may be found. This shift in seasons is related to the enormous surface area of China causing different a plant flowering at different periods throughout China.
    A.k.a Four noble gentlemen.
    In ancient China a man of great virtue was called a noble, gentle man. In China plum blossom, orchid, bamboo and chrysanthemum are known as “the four noble flowers”, as their natural character have qualities in common with human virtues. These flowers are also know as “the four noble gentlemen”, and represent human behavioural rules; when one lives by these behavioural rules one becomes a “noble gentleman”.
    These four flowers may be found to express loftiness, righteousness, modesty and purity in ancient paintings and poems by Chinese literators.
  3. Four directions: east, south, west, north.
    The four winds in the mah-jong game, also the names for the four players in any game of mah-jong.
  4. Four professions: fisherman, woodcutter, farmer, scholar.
    Traditionally the four respectable professions (in ancient China), these professions are also used quite often on flower tiles.
  5. This set is made in a traditional way with traditional skills.

The tiles are engraved by hand; the engravings are beautiful and of very good quality.
Bamboo tile with serif together with perfect circles on the Circle tiles make this seta high quality set.

As usual the Bamboo-1 is the Holy Bird Pe-ling. In this case a special and beautiful picture; not everyday, possibly exceptional.


This particular combination of animals and trees is rare. Birds in the pictures of the trees is also exceptional.
Yín bào shī xiàng 1 tiger, 2 leopard, 3 lion, 4 elephant
tiger strength, courage and bravery
leopard bravery (but also marital ferocity)
lion protection, strength, courage
elephant strength and astuteness

This group stand for strength, bravery, protection, astuteness.

Images of these animals on chance tiles are very rare. However, these animals are known in the board game Dòushòuqí.
There is also a mountain range east of Taipei with the names of these animals

Sōng bǎi tóng chūn 1 pine, 2 cypress, 3 parasol tree, 4 Chinese toon
pine long life
cypress long live, abundance
Sometimes an image is used as it is a homonym for another word; in this case it sounds like the word for 100 (bai). The cypress is also used to symbolise abundance.
parasol tree often called princess or empress tree
Chinese toon vaderschap, paternity, also called heaven tree

Sōng bǎi tóng chūn is a congratulatory wish for a birth or a birthday: “a long life like pine and cypress”.

Pine and cypress trees (Sōng, Bǎi) are traditional symbols for "long life" due to their evergreen nature. The names for the last two everlasting trees (Tóng, Chūn) are homonyms of the words for exuberance and power, thus emphasizing the wish.


Research results
The experts agree that this mah-jong set dates from the period of the first western mah-jong hype, i.e. the mid-1920s.
It is a high-quality set, a showpiece but obviously it has also been played with.

The flowers are special; the four animals and the birds in the trees are certainly not everyday.

The Bamboo tiles are special, the bird Pe-ling is particularly beautiful.
The set was already special when made by the combination of
  • the good engravings;
  • the traditional texts on the drawers;
  • the special combination of the flowers.

The whole combination of all these parts makes the set pretty special.
In addition, the set has been preserved very well.

Conclusion
Unfortunately there is no evidence whatsoever, so we have to live with the rough estimate that this outstanding mah-jong set was made in the mid-1920s

There are some hypotheses about the origin and the age of this set.
Most appealing to the imagination is the hypothesis that the set obtained by barons Marguerite who was a keen Gin Rummy player (almost addicted). Unfortunately there is no evidence for this allegation.
It fits the world of mah-jong to have a myth like this.




Hidden treasure, the movie ...

The research has been carried out in july 2018 by:
  • Jan Keevel (The Netherlands)
    Mah-jong teacher, founder of mah-jong society Pe-ling, guide castle de Haar, former researcher/analyst/consultant/ manager (information management/IT)
Several experts, both in the Netherlands and abroad, have been consulted about this mah-jong set. The persons below all have shared their knowledge and provided information completely free of charge. (in alphabetical order of surname)
  • Shi Hua Chen (Denmark)
    Freelance interpreter
  • Ray Heaton (Wales, UK)
    Expert in the field of mah-jong games especially translating & interpreting flowers, Associate Director for The Mahjong Collector Magazine
  • Johni Levene (California, USA)
    Collector and trader in mah-jong games (with approximately 2000 games), owner of Mah Jongg Marketplace, owner of Mah Jongg Sales and Restoration, moderator for Mah Jongg, That's It ! and The Mah Jongg Collector’s Association
  • Bill Price (England, UK)
    Collector and dealer of mah-jong games, member of the Mah Jongg Collectors's Association, founder of The Mahjong Collector Magazine
  • Jelte Rep (The Netherlands)
    Spiritual father of the Dutch Tournament Rules, founder of mah-jong society De Groene Draak, mah-jong teacher, owner of www.mahjongmuseum.nl, writer of The Great Mahjong Book, Het Groot Mahjongboek, Het Nieuw Mahjong Boek, documentary maker and writer.
  • Yusuke Tamari (Japan)
    Freelance journalist, writer.
  • Tony Watson (England, UK)
    Collector of mah-jong games (with 400+ games), member of the Mah Jongg Collectors's Association, Mahjong restorer and tile engraver, Associate Director of The Mahjong Collector Magazine.
Special thanks to:
  • Nicole Haasbroek, editor-in-chief MahjongNews.com
  • Pim van Hest, employee castle de Haar
  • Kimberly Letter, collection manager castle de Haar
  • Katrien Timmers, curator castle de Haar
Photos: Jan Keevel
Video: Jelte Rep


This webpage contains a short version of the research report.

The research is recorded - both in Dutch and English - in the following documents:
  • Verborgen schat, onderzoek mahjong-kistje Kasteel de Haar
  • Verborgen schat, onderzoek mahjong-kistje Kasteel de Haar bijlage
  • Verborgen schat, onderzoek mahjong-kistje Kasteel de Haar samenvatting (dit document resp. deze webpagina)
  • Hidden treasure, research mah-jong chest castle de Haar
  • Hidden treasure, research mah-jong chest castle de Haar appendix
  • Hidden treasure, research mah-jong chest castle de Haar resume (this document / this webpage)
Author: Jan Keevel

Photos: Jan Keevel
Video: Jelte Rep