Expert unlocks ancient artistic secrets of Mah Jongg

Guests bonded over their love of an ancient Chinese game at a book talk and luncheon hosted by the Education Foundation of Indian River County last Tuesday at the Orchid Island Beach Club that featured Gregg Swain, author of “Mah Jongg – The Art of the Game.”

Swain spoke about the artistry of Mah Jongg sets, relating that she first became intrigued by the game during walks along the streets of New York City.

“Before anyone had air conditioning, a lot of the ladies would sit on the sidewalk, in the shade, playing this mysterious tile game. They’d say words like ‘Dragons!’ and ‘Bam!’ and ‘Crack!’ and then there would be a lot of laughter,” said Swain, noting that she didn’t actually learn how to play until age 60.

“Mah Jongg changed my life for the better and hopefully, by the end of the talk today, you’ll understand how lovely, on so many levels, this game can be,” said Swain, adding with a warning, “It’s a bit on the addictive side.”

Admitting that she dreamed of making an art discovery while studying ancient art at Smith College, Swain said, “I didn’t discover an Egyptian tomb, but I did discover a type of art that had been overlooked for way too many years, Mah Jongg art.”

According to Swain, during China’s Cultural Revolution, records and Mah Jongg sets were systematically destroyed, leaving much of the game’s history and culture to speculation. Swain walked the interested listeners through a visual presentation of vintage, hand-painted, hand-carved sets in intricately designed cases, explaining the symbolism behind the characters that adorn the tiles.

In addition to the beauty of the pieces, Swain stressed that playing the game can be beneficial.

“Being with others, socializing and giving our brains a workout are keys to good aging. While you’re at the table, you forget about all the other things you’re worried about.”

As they departed, guests all received a copy of her book courtesy of Indian River Home Care.

Proceeds from the event support the goal of the Education Foundation to assist local schools and achieve excellence for students and educators by developing, evaluating and securing funding for innovative projects.

For information, visit edfoundationirc.org.

Photos by: Stephanie LaBaff
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