Tangram (qiqiaoban 七巧板) is China’s most famous puzzle. In the beginning of the 19th century, merchants who arrived in Canton on clipper ships from Europe and America returned home with beautiful ivory versions of the puzzle. And very quickly tangram—then simply known as “The Chinese Puzzle”—became the first international puzzle craze—much like Rubik’s Cube in more recent times.
The tangram puzzle consists of seven flat pieces and a collection of simple outline diagrams or silhouettes. The pieces—which form a dissection of a square—consist of two large triangles, one medium triangle, two small triangles, one square and one parallelogram, and they can be made of wood, ivory, metal or some other material. The diagrams can be pictures of objects, landscapes, animals or even human figures in various positions. The objective of the puzzle is to place all seven pieces on a flat surface (without any pieces overlapping) to form the same shape as one of the diagrams.
Many Chinese scholars believe that tangram’s roots date back to the Northern Song dynasty (960-1127), when Huang Bosi (1079-1118) invented a set of rectangular tables and a collection of diagrams that showed many ways the tables could be arranged to seat guests at banquets. He called the tables banquet tables.
Another more versatile set of tables was described during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) by Ge Shan in his 1617 book, Butterfly Table Diagrams. Butterfly tables got their name from their angular shapes, which resembled the wings of butterflies.
Sometime in the middle of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), a simplified version of the butterfly tables appeared. This was the seven-piece tangram puzzle we know today.
The Earliest Documented Tangram
One of the first carved ivory tangram puzzles brought to America was probably purchased in Canton by an employee of Robert Waln (1765-1836), a prominent Philadelphia importer who had an interest in at least twelve ships trading with Canton between 1796 and 1815. The bottom of this puzzle’s small silk-covered pasteboard box is inscribed, F. Waln April 4th 1802. The puzzle may have been a gift to Francis Waln (1799-1822), the fourth child of Robert and Phebe Waln. This is the earliest documented tangram puzzle of any kind, but it’s safe to assume that if foreign merchants were purchasing fancy ivory tangram sets in Canton in 1802, then simple wood and cardboard versions must have been popular in China even earlier.
Although tangram pieces were already in use by 1802, the earliest diagrams we have are those published in the 1813 book Compilation of Tangram Diagrams by Bi Wu Jushi (“scholar of the green parasol tree”) with diagrams by Sang Xia Ke (“guest under the mulberry tree”). Western merchants doing business in Canton took home copies of early Chinese tangram books, and a tangram craze swept across Europe and America. During 1817 and 1818, tangram books were published in England, France, Switzerland, Italy, the Netherlands, Denmark, Germany and the United States.
In China, the popularity of the work by Bi Wu Jushi and Sang Xia Ke stirred many new tangram enthusiasts and entrepreneurs to follow in their footsteps by creating additional tangram figures and publishing their own collections of diagrams. During the last half of the Qing dynasty, tangram enjoyed great popularity among common people, scholars and the wealthy—including the imperial family. Fancy tangram sets were also produced in the workshops of Canton for sale to foreign merchants eager for curios to take home to their families and friends.
During the mid to late Qing dynasty, sets of tangram-shaped tables were created out of high-quality wood and sometimes embellished with carving or with burlwood or marble tops. While it’s quite certain that the tangram puzzle descended from Huang Bosi’s banquet tables and Ge Shan’s butterfly tables, there’s no evidence that shows whether tangram tables preceded the puzzle or vice versa.
There are two places in China where antique tangram table sets are still on display to the public. Suzhou in Jiangsu Province is well known as an ancient center of art, scholarship and culture. It is also the home of many famous gardens, including Liuyuan (Garden for Lingering). Inside one of Liuyuan’s pavilions is what at first appears to be a pair of square game tables with removable wooden covers. One cover is inscribed with a xiangqi (Chinese chess) board and the other with a weiqi (go) board. But upon removing the two covers one discovers a complete set of tangram tables. Two large triangular tables lie under one cover, and tables in the shapes of the five smaller tangram pieces lie under the other. The tables are made of hongmu (mahogany) in the typical Suzhou style, with inset Dali marble tops and “cracked ice” bases.
Beijing also hosts a collection of tangram tables. These tables are also hidden, but in a very different way, for they are located in a locked building, and one can only see them by peeking in through several different windows. Fortunately, the building, Paiyundian (Hall of Dispersing Clouds), is located in Yiheyuan (Summer Palace) and is accessible to the public. Paiyundian was built in 1750, rebuilt in 1890, and was the location of Empress Dowager Cixi’s birthday celebration each year. The tangram tables are divided into three groups with ten tables arranged to form a large hexagon and four more tables arranged in two pairs. Altogether there are fourteen tables, which comprise two complete sets of tangram tables.
Tangram Dishes, Trays and Cups
During the 19th and early 20th centuries tangram was so popular that sets of condiment or “sweetmeat” dishes were made in the shapes of the seven tangram pieces. The seven dishes were always set into a specially made square box with a lid and were brought out to serve guests during Chinese New Year and on other special occasions.
Civil servant and porcelain collector Chen Liu , described tangram condiment dishes in his 1910 classic reference on porcelain, Tao ya (Notes on Porcelain), as follows:
Rice cakes and condiments, commonly called ‘pastry’ and also known as ‘cold food’, are distributed among porcelain dishes shaped like tangram, and are therefore called divided dishes, popularly known as condiment dishes…. Some are export porcelain pieces colored with flowers and birds, the craftsmanship unsurpassed.
The kilns of Jingdezhen, China’s porcelain capital, produced sets of tangram condiment dishes, paint dishes and cups in a remarkable number of shapes and styles. The dishes could be large or small, deep or shallow, and their sides could be vertical or formed to slope outward. However the most striking indication of the popularity of tangram dishes is the great variety of themes and patterns with which they were decorated. Examples include scenes from stories and operas, butterflies, birds and flowers, landscapes, mythical creatures and calligraphy.
Tangram condiment sets, paint dishes and trays were also made of Yixing clay, lacquer, wood and Canton enamel. While most tangram dish sets consist of seven individual dishes that can be moved around, there are also examples in which the tangram pattern is used to divide a single dish or tray into seven compartments.
Chen Liu. Tao ya (Notes on Porcelain). 1906.
Ge Shan. Dieji pu (Butterfly Table Diagrams). 1617.
Huang Bosi. Yanji tu (Banquet Table Diagrams). 1194.
Jean Gordon Lee. Philadelphians and the China Trade, 1784-1844. Philadelphia, 1984.
Bi Wu Jushi and Sang Xia Ke. Qiqiao tu hebi (Compilation of Tangram Diagrams). 1813.
Jerry Slocum. The Tangram Book. New York, 2003.