The Museum of Chinese in America

Founded in 1980, the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) is dedicated to preserving and presenting the history, heritage, culture and diverse experiences of people of Chinese descent in the United States.

An Exhibition for the Eyes, Hands, Mind, and this Holiday Season

This holiday season, the exhibition team is particularly excited to present a tremendously enjoyable and at times challenging exhibition to our visitors. “Chinese Puzzles: Games for the Hands and Mind,” which opened November 6, is the first of its kind on the East Coast and MOCA is proud to host the second-only national viewing of the Yi Zhi Tang Collection. This collection made its public debut in 2008 at the Chinese Cultural Center in San Francisco. In that same year MOCA, then operating at its decade-old site on Mott Street, was first approached about the exhibition and has been working to bring it to New York for the past two years.

Carefully culled by guest curators Wei Zhang and Peter Rasmussen from their Yi Zhi Tang Collection, the over one hundred items on view consist of a wide range of ancient and modern puzzles and puzzle related artifacts found or made in China. It is interesting to note that decades before the first Chinese immigration wave in America (the Gold Rush, 1848-1855), Chinese puzzles had already been brought into this country by China traders from Boston, Philadelphia, and possibly New York. Called “Puzzles for Exports,” these puzzles were made in China with the sole purpose of exporting to the West. For this reason, they can only be found outside of China. Much to their Western patrons’ liking, they are often exquisitely-carved ivory pieces, packaged in lacquer boxes for shipment and storage. In the exhibit at MOCA visitors will find some of the finest examples upon first entering the gallery.

Wei untangling the string of a “ball and cup toy” in the Puzzles for Export case.

So what exactly are Chinese puzzles and how are they different from the puzzles we know in the English-speaking world? For the curators, “[Chinese] Puzzles are usually — but not always — games that are played by oneself, use physical apparatus, and involve arranging, disentangling, putting something together or figuring out a sequence of moves to arrive at a predetermined goal.” While puzzles in the Western hemisphere tend to be associated with science and mathematics and suggest a sense of inevitable difficulty and frustration, the Chinese counterparts allude to more positivity and encouragement. One can arguably find this evident in the Chinese nomenclature of puzzle as a collective category. Technically there is no one term in Chinese that connotes the same layers of definitions and metaphorical significances that the word puzzle does in English. For the tangible object or device whose design presents difficulties to be solved by ingenuity and patient effort, the most commonly used word is yi zhi youxi, literally “enhancing intelligence games”. They are activities of amusement that aim for advancement of one’s brainpower and ingenuity. A connection between the hands and the mind in puzzle playing is accentuated and celebrated, hence the title and design of the exhibition.

Peter and Wei putting together the giant burr puzzle. They are convincing advocates for hands-on experience with puzzles!

As Exhibitions Manager, I have had the great honor and pleasure to handle each piece. The process of installing the show was that of solving the puzzles—literally. On Halloween weekend, while the entire city was cheerfully immersed in the spirit of ghosts and monsters, I sat in the gallery, frowning at many of the antique puzzles, trying to figure out how to piece a Tanagram or a Fifteen-Piece Puzzle together without ready solutions. Made to enlighten but also delight, the select pieces on view manifest outstanding craftsmanship and artistic achievement as much as history, literature, and, in some cases, architecture, and philosophy.

Peter helps solve a tangram puzzle during the installation.

One can and will certainly gasp at their beauty and cultural depth, but the fun is far from complete without an opportunity to try out the puzzles. As Wei says, “puzzles are not puzzles if you don’t play with them.” Taking her advice to heart, we have intentionally orchestrated many interactive displays in the gallery, including a long table featuring sixteen puzzle replicas for hands-on participation which we encourage you to try your hand at. Our curator-trained docents will also be available every weekend to assist visitors with solving the puzzles. Taking too long to solve the puzzle? Check out MOCA store and pick up your favorite puzzles as gifts or for yourself to practice at home! This holiday season, make Chinese-puzzle-solving part of the fun and merriment!

Wei training the docents to solve the puzzles while Peter works in the back on the script of their excellent Curator's Talk on November 6.

Ting-Chi Wang
Exhibitions Manager

*Click here for images of the Member’s Preview of Chinese Puzzles on Peter and Wei’s facebook.

Filed under: Exhibitions, , , , ,

One Response

  1. […] by Wei Zhang and Peter Rasmussen from their Yi Zhi Tang collection. (Previously blogged about here by Ting-Chi Wang and here by Marissa Chen.) Do you have a favorite game or puzzle? It is more […]

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