A Chinese Puzzle
UCLA Alumnus Writes Definitive Book on the Tangram
Some of the most fascinating and perplexing mysteries of history have to do with popular culture, especially everyday pleasureful pursuits. When, where, and how, for instance, did the game of leapfrog originate? (Answer: Who knows? Lexicographers say the English word “leapfrog” dates to 1599. And the game can be seen in Pieter Brueghel’s famous painting “Children’s Games,” which dates to 1560.) Questions such as this once did not much interest historians: they were concerned with the “great events” and “great men" (rarely “great women”) of the past. To research what the common people did was beneath their dignity.
But for most of us, to learn that, for instance, some of the same games we played as children were also played by our ancestors, stretching back generation after generation, immediately creates a real, human, and tangible connection with our roots. This means more to us than, for instance, knowing that Count Andreas Peter von Bernstorff signed the exchange treaty with Grand Duke Paul of Holstein-Gottrop on June 1, 1773.
Now we can thank UCLA alumnus Jerry Slocum for five years of painstaking research that has led to a book—The Tangram Book (published this month)—that uncovers and clarifies the history of a Chinese puzzle that spread rapidly around the globe, winning fans — included Napoleon — just about everywhere.
The mechanical puzzle known as qiqiaoban (literally, seven clever pieces), or the tangram as it later became known in English, originated in China between 1796 and 1801. As the name suggests, the game consists of seven pieces — five triangles, one square, and one parallelogram — usually of wood, but also sometimes of ivory, cardboard, plastic, etc. The object of the puzzle is to arrange the pieces to create geometric shapes: human figures in motion, buildings, animals, and so on. The puzzle sets usually also contain booklets or cards with silhouette problem figures: the puzzle for the solver is to figure out how to arrange the pieces to re-create the silhouette figures in the booklet. As Mr. Slocum and his co-author wrote in an earlier publication, “The puzzle's very simplicity proves most maddening: how can seven simple [pieces] create such extraordinary images and puzzling challenges?”
The qiqiaoban became immensely popular in China and then, by early 1817, began to spread to England and elsewhere in Europe and to North America. Napoleon, in his exile, and presumably with plenty of time on this hands, owned a set of ivory tangram pieces and Chinese problem-and-solution books dated 1815. Since St. Helena was a stop for ships on the Europe-China trade route, it is not surprising that a set found its way onto his table. By early 1818, sets of what was called “the Chinese puzzle” were being made in many countries, and modified or decorated in characteristic ways. Mr. Slocum possesses several rare early nineteenth-century European sets, and after he points out the various “national characteristics” of the decorations, it becomes quite easy to distinguish, for instance, a British set from a French set.
For some people, the “Chinese puzzle” was more than an amusement. A certain W. Williams published a little book in 1820 entitled New Mathematical Demonstrations of Euclid that attempted to use a simplified version of the puzzle, which he modified by bisecting the square and parallelogram to create a total of nine triangular pieces, to teach geometry. Mr. Williams hoped that the pieces of his puzzle would “surely serve to stimulate and unfold the sagacity of every youth into whose hands they may hereafter fall.”
Although he probably was not aware of it, Mr. Williams’ thinking was quite Chinese. The Chinese had a concrete, physical appreciation of mathematics. For instance, counting rods were used for reckoning at a very early age, at least as far back as the Warring States period (ca. 475–221 B.C.). Much much later these were replaced by the abacus, a greatly improved device for computation, but still a physical way of manipulating numbers and values. And when the Chinese wished to prove the Pythagorean theorem, they often did so by physically cutting wood into triangular pieces. It is easy to imagine this ingrained cultural approach is somehow linked to the qiqiaoban, but difficult to draw the connection. But here Mr. Slocum appears to have made an important contribution.
Mr. Solcum has identified a Chinese text dated 1194 that contains illustrations of some interesting modular furniture: a set of tables that could be placed togehther to form one table, or separated to form more than one. This would have been around the time the Chinese completed their nearly one-millennium-long transition from sitting on the floor and using very low tables or stands, to sitting in chairs and using tables of "regular" height. Another text, dated 1617, shows even more complicated modular tables, arranged in a wide array of clever ways, with each arrangement named. Finally, by the nineteenth century, tables were being made in shapes to replicate the qiqiaoban. Mr. Slocum has such an antique set (pictured here), a magnificent example of the art of carpentry. Trying to connect these bits of evidence of modular furniture with a physical appreciation of mathematics and a board game is rather like playing qiqiaoban itself: The evidence can be arranged in a multiplicity of ways. But no matter how it is arranged, it is tantalizing.
There remains one small mystery that Mr. Slocum’s research has also clarified, if not entirely dispelled. What is the origin of the word “tangram”? Merriam-Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary (1986), says of the etymology: ca. 1864, perhaps from the Chinese (Peking dialect) tang (meaning “Chinese”) + English –gram. Tang was often used to mean what is translated as “Chinese,” as in Tangren jie, the conventional Chinese term for “Chinatown.” Mr. Slocum has in fact located a Webster’s dictionary published in 1864 that defines the word “tangram” (it mentions, “now often used in primary schools as a means of instruction,” but, alas, offers no etymology). Over the years, a number of other etymologies have been suggested, but none seems very convincing. Not at all convincing is the account in a book entitled The Eighth Book of Tan, published in 1903 by the American puzzle inventor Sam Loyd. Loyd claimed the tangram puzzle had a 4,000-year-old history and was named after the “God Tan.” An interesting story, but pure hokum.
A Puzzling Life
Jerry Slocum (M.S. in engineering, 1957) turned to puzzles early in his life. His father, who traveled frequently, brought back to his son not the usual trinkets and gewgaws but puzzles and games. The first was a “Rings O’ Seven,” an adaptation of a well-known Chinese puzzle. Mr. Slocum recalls that as he as struggled to solve the puzzle, and then hit upon the solution, he was elated and intrigued. From that point, he began to acquire games and puzzles, and went on acquiring, and acquiring, and acquiring until he amassed what has been described as the best and most significant collection of puzzles in the world.
In the backyard of his home in Beverly Hills, Mr. Slocum has built a museum to house his collection. The museum, which rivals his home in size, is a puzzle itself: to find the doors and figure out how to open them is a challenge. But once inside, the visitor finds a large and superbly organized office, where Mr. Slocum coordinates and writes up his research. This is also the home of the Slocum Puzzle Foundation, established in 1993 for the purpose of educating the public about puzzles, their history, development, and use in various cultures of the world. The foundation also actively supports the use of puzzles for education. It has sponsored, for instance, exhibitions of mechanical puzzles at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry and at the Lilly Library at Indiana University. The website of the latter describes Mr. Slocum as “Without question the world’s foremost collector and scholar of puzzles of all kinds.” Evidence of his scholarship is abundant: he has written or co-authored six books, among them Puzzles Old and New (University of Washington Press, 1987) and Book of Ingenious & Diabolical Puzzles (Random House, 1994).
The heart of Mr. Slocum’s museum lies upstairs, in what can only be described as a treasurehouse: a collection of some 30,000 mechanical puzzles (and documentation) from all over the world. Many of the items are rare, or unique, and undoubtedly of considerably monetary value. Take a so-called Sunday puzzle box from mid-nineteenth-century New England for instance. Within a wooden box of roughly the size and shape of an attaché case are a number of puzzles from China, each in its own niche, which probably would have been brought over by a China clipper. The various puzzles apparently were brought together by whoever made the box. Why was it called a Sunday puzzle box? The blue laws of New England forbade the playing of cards and other common games on the Sabbath. But something new, such as Chinese puzzles, was of course not contemplated by these rules. Thus, on Sundays, one could bring out the box of Chinese puzzles, and play contentedly and free of guilt. This little story illustrates the greater value of Mr. Slocum’s puzzles—the value beyond their monetary worth. I am referring to their historical value: These puzzles are concrete remainders, and reminders, of the pastimes that brought happiness and relaxation to our forebears.
An on-line version of the trangram, which you can play on your browser, is available at http://www.curiouser.co.uk/tangram/tangram.html
Published: Tuesday, May 27, 2003