Crafting a Bone and Bamboo Mahjong Set

In the early days of mahjong in the mid-19th Century, bone and bamboo tiles were manufactured by a whole village working together. One household would specialize in sawing the planks of bamboo, another would specialize in painting characters on the tiles, and so on.

When the mahjong craze of the 1920's broke out in America, China quickly ran out of cow bones and the demand for thousands of mahjong sets became too much for small villages to handle. So bones were imported from slaughterhouses in Chicago and mahjong tile production moved to large factories in Shanghai.

These days, while most mahjong tiles are made out of fiberglass and melamine, production of traditional bone and bamboo tiles has shifted back to the villages. As in the past, each household has a specialty, and the production methods are basically unchanged from 150 years ago. In the town, a great number of households are involved in manufacturing mahjong sets. One household will cut the bone and bamboo, another shapes the tiles, another specialized in painting, and so on.