To better understand why the designs of mahjong tiles vary so much, it is necessary to go back to how and where mahjong developed. China has a long history of games, and with particular interest to a student of mahjong, card games. Chinese playing cards were originally woodblock prints on sheets of Chinese paper which were then cut up, producing cards roughly half the width of a Western playing card. Most of the designs were based on money, with 3 or 4 suits of single coins, strings of cash, myriads of cash and also, literally Characters (Craks).
Mahjong tiles made of coins and strings
Below we first see a Ma Diao set with realistic Coins and Strings of Cash on the bottom two rows.  Below that image, with a light blue background, the top suit has been dropped. Notice that the wansinogram in the Character suit is and 萬...both meaning "myriads". Note also the Fish for the #1 of Coins- it seems that the carvers had already noticed the resemblance to the Bag of Cash and used artistic license to morph it into a fish; it doesn’t take a leap of imagination to see that it can also transform into a Bird -thus leading to the amazing variety of #1 Bamboo images. 
Mahjong Set Ma Diao
Mahjong Set Top Suit Dropped
Below, this later set has morphed even more into the style of mahjong images that we are familiar with, even possibly heralding the use of Dragons with the red-stamped honours cards.
Mahjong tile set with dragons
The String of Cash, often called a ‘Mayfly’, is believed to be the earliest rendition of the #1 tile in the suit that came to be called Bamboo. Without numbers on the tiles, as in the normal Chinese manner, the figure could be in either rotation:-so you can see that the rotated figure could easily be interpreted as a swooping crane.
Mahjong suit mayfly one bamboo
Now we can see how the artist might visualise a Bamboo Sprout in the body of the Crane, thus associating it with the bamboo suit.
Mahjong tile suit bamboo mayfly
Notice the continuation of the 'feathers' on the top of the sprout, the cross-hatch on the base and the angle of the root matching the Crane's neck. Having established a Sprout as a valid image, it could then be rendered as simply necessary, without reference to the original. In the same way, the Crane could be transformed into a Peacock and thence into other kinds of bird. 
Mahjong tile suit bamboo bird peacock
A similar transformation from Bamboo Sprout back to bird might have occurred, with the root now acting as a branch for a bird to perch on... Notice the squat shape of the birds and the red tuft on the head.
Mahjong tile suit bamboo bird on branch
There is a bit of a conundrum with the swooping Sparrow seen so often on early sets... This could be another evolution of the String of Cash -the retention of stripes on the body, the wings emulating the 'strings' and the red beak for the toggle on the String? 
mahjong tile suit bamboo bird red beak
Having established that there has been a lot of historical creativity with the basic designs of the ancestors of our modern Mahjong tiles, it might be appropriate to look at just one tile -the 8 of Bamboo -and see the variation in design, from the very basic chisel marks of the earliest sets, to the highly detailed and inventive carvings of the sets from the 1920s.
an array of eight bamboo mahjong tile designs
As can be seen, there are many interpretations, so imagine what can happen with a more inspiring image, like the #1 Bamboo -the possibilities are endless! The creators of sets, particularly during the boom time of the 1920s, did not hang back, giving full rein to their artistic license, particularly in Austria and France, although Germany and USA had some interesting designs too. Here we see an Austrian Kaspi set from the 1920s with artwork based on Japanese Ukiyo-e woodblock prints, designed by Kurt Brieger, these sets are vanishingly rare.  Below is another example from the Japanese Mah Jong Museum before it got sold and dispersed in China.
mahjong set featuring kaspi mahjong tiles
Below is a vernacular set from Germany, pre-1920 by Winckelman.
mahjong set featuring mahjong tiles designed by Winckelman
And a reconstruction of a rare US Pah Lukk set; notice how there are different Bambirds, Dragons and Craks.
mahjong set by US Pay Lukk featuring mahjong suit bam tiles
mahjong set by US Pay Lukk featuring mahjong tile circle or dot suits
mahjong set by US Pay Lukk featuring mahjong tiles in crak suits
mahjong set by Pah Lukk featuring flower mahjong tiles
My friend Alex Chang’s firm produced a couple of  ‘themed’ designs, one based on Golf.
mahjong set designed by Alex Chang. Mahjong Tile with golf theme.
Another below based on Christmas.
mahjong set designed by Alex Chang. Mahjong Tiles christmas themed.

There are many other less adventurous designs but still with that quirky design aspect that makes them stand out from the normal -that is what makes the sets collectable. Here are a few samples of European Sets, this first one by Sala using images from German-style playing cards.
European mahjong set designed by Sala featuring mahjong tiles in German style playing cards
Another German set by Hein in Formica (Resopal)
German mahjong set designed by Hein.
A French set by Arkmel using reptiles and birds.  
French mahjong set designed by Arkmel featuring birds and reptile mahjong tiles


We can see that throughout history, there has been constant change, whether due to regional requirements, artistic license, promotional needs or simply to be different -let’s face it, what would be the point of collecting if all sets were exactly the same?

-Tony Watson

With over 500 tile sets in his collection, Tony Watson is an avid mahjong tile collector and restorer and mahjong historian.  To see images of his collection visit Tony Watson Galleries

Leave a comment below with your thoughts on the evolution of the tile designs...and if you are a collector, what is your favorite set?

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When I run into a mah jong question, Tony has the answer. When I hit a restoration snag, I ask myself “What would Tony Do?” Most of all, I am proud to say that Tony and I are friends. a rare statement in today’s World.

Allan Weitz on Dec 13, 2021

Tony, your wealth of knowledge is amazing and I love that you so freely share your expertise! Thank you!
Donna Eschen

Donna on Mar 10, 2021
A well researched study of the variety of styles found in Mahjong sets.
william price on Mar 06, 2021

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