Chinese Puzzles Exhibition Review 益智遊戲展評論

from Arts of Asia, Vol. 38, No. 6
by Norman L. Sandfield

I recently had the pleasure to attend an exhibition in San Francisco titled "Chinese Puzzles: Games for the Hands and Mind." While most of its visitors saw the artifacts as a wonderful and diverse collection of old Chinese puzzles, collectors of fine Chinese antiques also recognized them for the rare Chinese porcelains, books, and wood furniture that were present.

This exhibit, at the Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco, runs from July 22 through October 11, 2008. But if you miss it there, do not worry. The collectors who have amassed this amazing collection of 1200 antique Chinese puzzles, only a small part of which is on display, have hopes that the show will travel. It will also live on in the catalog to the show, Chinese Puzzles: Games for the Hands and Mind, soon to be available from Paragon Book Gallery in Chicago, and a much larger book on Chinese puzzles that they are still at work on.

In only a dozen years, Chinese-born collector Wei Zhang and her husband Peter Rasmussen have quietly acquired a large, diverse and well-documented collection of Chinese puzzles, only a few of which are familiar to western collectors.

There are more than 150 puzzles on display in the show, with the oldest items on exhibit being from the Ming dynasty: a blanc de chine "fairness cup" (gong dao bei) and a brass paperweight made in the form of four boys sharing two heads. The largest puzzle is a specially commissioned six-piece wood burr puzzle measuring 33" x 33" x 33" that was made in China and was modeled after an antique Chinese burr puzzle also on display. Tangram sets, puzzle locks, puzzling images of the "four-happiness" boys, puzzle vessels, wire puzzles, and more, are shown along with artistic images of them in old Chinese prints, books and photographs.

The museum quality show is accompanied in the galleries by related "hands-on" puzzles for children of all ages to play with. And stay and play they do! On the day that I visited the gallery, dozens of people had come to a special Puzzle Party, where hundreds of modern puzzles were out on the tables for all to try. Even more special was the unexpected Chinese visitor who had come to the show, then gone home to get some pliers, wire cutters, and some wire. He came back to make his own copies of the nine linked rings and related "ingenious rings" puzzles for his own pleasure later. He had never done this before, but his interest was like other Chinese visitors to the show who remembered when the nine linked rings was a favorite puzzle in their childhoods in China.
nine linked rings
One of the accompanying videos demonstrates how some of the ceramic puzzle vessels work, and a beautiful half-hour-long video documents the past and present state of puzzles in China and the role that Wei and Peter have played in their resurgence. This exhibit demonstrates their love and passion for this interesting, but relatively unknown, art form.

Norman L. Sandfield is a well-known antique dealer, puzzle collector and expert on Chinese ceramic puzzle vessels. His website is www.internetsuke.com.


Puzzle Vessels Video 益智酒具

We made this short video clip for our San Francisco Chinese Puzzles exhibition.
It ran on a monitor next to the displays of antique puzzle vessels 益智酒具.
The video shows how a bottom-filling pot and a fairness cup work.