Bone and Bamboo were by far the most common materials used during the height of Mahjong manufacture in China in the early 1920s. But even before the export boom, bone and bamboo were used for tile sets as early as the 1870s.
These early sets can be seen in Gallery 1.0.
Bone and bamboo tile manufacture in China was the result of a chain of separate industries and these were utilised when the manufacturing upsurge began with the increase in the export market. Where these industries were collated under one roof during this surge in manufacture, they were still nevertheless strictly segregated.
The bone in early tile sets used by Chinese players, either in domestic surroundings or in brothels, was sourced locally from small cow populations since most land was used for agriculture, rather than given over to pasture.
Thus, as the export demand of bone and bamboo tile sets increased, the demand for cow bone outstripped the local supply and so cow bone sourced from the United States replaced local Chinese sources.
In terms of the quantity and use of the raw material, a ton of back leg bones yielded enough material for 225 tile sets whereas, in contrast, a ton of front leg bones yielded enough material for 180 tile sets. The front leg bones also provided the thickest material and, as a consequence, of the 180 tile sets made from a ton of raw front leg bone, only 10 sported bone and bamboo tiles with a maximum thickness of bone.
With the export demand came strict specifications – only cow shin bone was required, and only of a certain weight and no more than a certain minimal fat content. Thus the imported shin bone was sold in ton lots by the importers to ‘jobbers’, who in turn sold it on in picul (133.33 lbs) lots to the first stage manufacturers. The bone was cut up into as many thicknesses as it was possible to obtain from the raw material, the ‘male’ dovetail added, and the pieces boiled and treated to extract the fat until the required minimal content was acquired.
Once drying was completed they were graded and then joined to cut and shaped bamboo pieces with a ‘female’ dovetail.
Bamboo was a material sourced locally. Since the principal locale of manufacture was centred in and around Shanghai, most of the bamboo was gathered from the nearby “Yangtze belt”, mainly from the areas of Ningbo and Hangzhou.
The selection of bamboo was carried out by expert judges working for the ‘bamboo harvester’. The experts classified the harvested pieces by selecting out those pieces that might warp or shrink or develop insect larvae infestation. The latter was an ongoing problem that bamboo harvesters’ experts judges faced and the detection of wood-boring beetle larvae infestation proved extremely difficult. This problem was usually overcome by selectively cutting and harvesting bamboo only outside a certain season when these insects laid their eggs. Once selected, the bamboo was dried and seasoned for over a year before being sold to the ‘first stage’ manufacturers who cut the bamboo into the required size and shape with the added ‘female’ dovetail.
Once the production of the rough, graded tiles had finished, they were then sold to the ‘second stage’ manufacturers. At this point the rough tiles were further shaped and then polished, firstly with the use of sandpaper, then fish skin and finally with a piece of rush.
Once this preparation was finished, the tiles were engraved and the various colours added to the engravings, after which the tiles were sent to have the bone faces scraped of surplus paint using a chisel and then finally repolished.
The finished tile set was added to a cabinet, acquired from another factory, with the addition of bone discs and counters or scoring sticks.
When ready for export the tile sets were arranged in units of 50 sets that were packed in 10 tin cartons with 5 tile sets per tin carton. The cabinets and accessories were packed separately in 2 similar cartons. It is probably at this stage that the potential for cross transfer could have occurred in some sets, such that tiles from one set were mixed with another set.
“… Most of the sets are made from shin-bone — only the shinbones in the forelegs of cattle being used. Most of this material comes from the slaughter houses in Chicago. Some bone is obtained in China, but as they don’t know the secret process for bleaching it properly, the native bone is used only in cheaper sets.
This shin bone is cut up into pieces that go into the MJ tiles, sawn, filed down to form the dovetail and polish all by hand. The bamboo that forms the back is also entirely cut out by hand. This work is entirely a household industry, one family of workers being able to turn out perhaps only one set in a day. The blanks are then purchased by the manufacturers, who carve the faces, and the shops in which this carving is done, usually average not over a hundred sets per month. So when it comes to filling orders from America for hundreds of sets, it is quite a job to purchase them.”
This page features Culin-patterned (Category 2.0) bone and bamboo tile sets housed in wooden cabinets or chests.
These were in general made from either pine, mahogany, rosewood or padouk. They had some form of front opening and contained usually two or five tile trays with either brass, bone, wood or alloy handles.
Their exterior decorations also included brass panels and handles; heavily carved panels and painted lacquer or ceramic panels and panels featuring the most intricate bone or wooden marquetry.