Antique Chinese Puzzles at MOCA

wooden sliding block puzzle, 1930s - photo by Niana Liu

An interesting new exhibit at the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA), featured through May 2, is Chinese Puzzles: Games for the Hands and Mind. The collection is borrowed from over 1300 antique Chinese puzzles, books, and graphic materials that date back from the Song dynasty to the mid-20th century. This exhibit is curated by Wei Zhang and Peter Rasmussen, who have been collecting and documenting the histories of Chinese puzzles since 1997.

According to a MOCA press release: “Puzzles like these are called ‘intelligence games’ in Chinese, and they are valued as tools for training the mind in creative, logical, and spatial thinking,” explained Wei Zhang. Peter Rasmussen added, “They are also obviously a source of great entertainment. Children enjoy these games just as easily engineers, logicians, and expert puzzlers. Chinese Puzzles is at once a serious exhibition of antique decorative art and a game room.”

According to the MOCA website:

China’s rich tradition of puzzles and fascination with puzzling objects is thoroughly embedded in its arts and culture, and has been a popular cultural export to America since the 19th century. The puzzles exhibit the highest level of workmanship, including beautifully crafted porcelains, carved ivory, and mother-of-pearl.

The museum’s director, Alice Mong, said in the press release: “Part of MOCA’s mission is to explore how Chinese culture is lived, experienced, and passed along through generations here in the United States—and with Chinese Puzzles, that exploration can be literally played out with the hands.”

Visitors can play with modern reproductions of some of the following classic puzzles:

Tangram (七巧板) – China’s most famous puzzle, the tangram consists of seven flat geometric pieces—traditionally made from wood, ivory, or metal—that can be arranged to create any number of challenging shapes. The modern form of the puzzle made its way to the United States in the early 19th century, when merchants who arrived on clipper ships from Europe and America took the puzzle home with them after doing business in Canton.

Sliding Block Puzzle (華容道) – The Chinese sliding block puzzle consists of a board and 10 rectangular and square pieces, which must be shifted in one of several complex sequences in order to remove the key block. Closely related to other sliding block puzzles, the Chinese version references ancient Chinese military history.

Puzzle Vessels (益智容器) – As long as one thousand years ago, Chinese artisans have designed ceramic vessels that function in surprising and confounding ways—a wine pot that must be filled upside down, or a cup that leaks from the bottom if filled too close to the brim.

Nine Linked Rings (九連環) – Perhaps China’s greatest mechanical puzzle, this game consists of a looped handle that is interlocked with nine rings. The object is to remove all nine rings from the loop. Legend holds that the rings were invented as far back as the second century, and the puzzle has appeared repeatedly in Chinese legends, literature, songs, and painting.

burr puzzle, 19th C. - photo by Niana Liu

Burr Puzzles (魯班鎖) – These puzzles consist of interlocking pieces that are assembled to form three-dimensional structures. Called “Lu Ban locks” in Chinese, these puzzles are named in honor of the original master of wood joinery, Lu Ban (魯班, 770-476 BCE), who is also credited with inventing the saw, the carpenter’s plane, and the chalk line. The puzzles operate on the same principles as traditional Chinese furniture, which used intricately interlocking wood pieces to create joints without nails or glue.

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