Triangles, a square, and a parallelogram–these simple black shapes in a pile look like someone’s attempt at making geometry fun. Geometry is fun, but that is not the purpose of this little collection of forms. These are homemade tangrams, and are a component of the annual holiday card from Z Studio in Bar Harbor, Maine. (Go straight to end to play)
Tangrams had been on the list of subjects for a card for Z Studio, my design company, for some time. I really wanted to make fruit roll-up tangrams, but we decided that was taking playing with your food a bit too far. Tangrams are offered in many forms. There are pieces, called tans, made of ivory with ornate carvings and gold leaf. There is a set of ceramic dishes to hold snacks that is in the shapes of tans. Finland used tans on their postage stamps in the year 2000, and Jerry Slocum, author of The Tangram Book, has a table that is also a set of tans. Tangrams have an aura of having a long and venerable history, a been-there-forever game such as chess or Go. But is that the case?
Tale of the Tans
Many thousands of years ago, a master glassmaker was commissioned to make the first pane of glass for the royal palace, so the king could watch his enemies approaching. The glassmaker’s creation was a work of art. It was so brilliantly clear and perfectly square, he decided to deliver it to the king in person.
It was carefully wrapped and boxed, and the glassmaker carried it through the streets to the palace. This glassmaker studied butterflies when he was not making glass. A rare and beautiful butterfly flew across the road, and the glassmaker reached out with his cloak to capture it. The movement sent the box tumbling to the stone streets, and he heard the sound of breaking glass.
Despondently, he pried open the box to find the glass square had broken cleanly into seven pieces. There were one square, one parallelogram, and five triangles. He tried to piece it together. As he moved the pieces around, he smiled in pleasure at the many different shapes he could create.
He presented the pieces to the king who became so absorbed in the game that he forgot about his enemies. Soon the puzzle pieces, called tans, were reproduced in wood, shell, and paper. Tangrams became the most popular puzzle in the land. The enemies put down their arms and entered the city so they, too, could play. The pieces brought peace.
The glassmaker went back to his studio and created a tan puzzle in honor of the beautiful butterfly that had caused the glass to break.
The Tan Truth
It seems tangram’s history is not lost in the mists of time, but a mere century or two ago.
Tangrams were popularized in the early 1800s. They are based on a seven-piece puzzle described in a booklet published in 1742. Called The Ingenious Pieces of Sei Shonagon, it claimed the puzzle was the creation of a court lady from the tenth century. In reality, it was a game created for the retail market. Tall tale though our tan tale is we prefer our glassmaker and his butterfly to the more mundane truth.
Thank you Corey and Jill for the illustrations, and MDI websites for the online, addictive version.
Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, Feliz Navidad, Joyful Kwanzaa, Season’s Greetings, and peace on earth and throughout the universe.
To play online: mdiwebsites.com/zstudio2017
Or, get a set of tans and print our puzzle scenes.