Chinese Puzzles for the Hands and Mind

There is an exciting new exhibit featured at the Museum of Chinese in America in New York City. For those who are unfamiliar with the museum, it is a cultural museum “…dedicated to preserving and presenting the history, heritage, culture and diverse experiences of people of Chinese descent in the United States.” The museum was started in 1980 but has expanded to its current location at 215 Centre Street, which was designed by Maya Lin. For more information about MOCA, please visit their website.

Chinese Puzzles: Games for the Hands and Mind is currently featured at the Museum of Chinese in America. The show is curated by Wei Zhang and Peter Rasmussen, who have collected and own the puzzles in the exhibit. There are various types of puzzles, which have been enjoyed by people of all ages from various parts of the world. To prove this fact, upon entering the gallery for the Chinese Puzzles exhibit, the puzzles for export is the first set of puzzles you see. These puzzles were created specifically for export to America and Europe, and they contained various puzzles organized in a decorative wooden box. 


As you move through the exhibition, you will see other puzzles like the popular tangram puzzles. The tangram puzzle consists of 7 geometric shapes, which are then used to create silhouettes that reflect objects, animals, and people. The tangram puzzles may be accompanied with a manual or sheet depicting these silhouettes to be recreated. 

Tangram manuals

**the left manual shows the outline of the silhouette for gamers to recreate with the tangram pieces while the manual on the right shows the solutions of how to create the silhouette.**


The concept of the tangram puzzles were used to create tables and trays and dishes such as the following examples from the exhibit.

Tangram table

Tangram trays


The sliding block puzzle, or Huarong Pass puzzle is a popular puzzle in China and is featured in the exhibit. This puzzle was developed based on the tales of  Cao Cao‘s escape from his captors. Cao Cao was a famous warlord and military strategist. The game pieces are set up in a tray with Cao Cao being the top center square piece surrounded by nine captors preventing his escape. At the bottom of the tray is a slot for Cao Cao to escape through. You have to slide the pieces around to get the big square out. This puzzle requires strategy and the challenge is to try to solve the puzzle with as few moves as possible. Currently, you can solve this puzzle in 81 moves!

Huarong Pass puzzle


One of the most intriguing puzzles featured in the Chinese Puzzles exhibit are the vessel puzzles. It’s not in the same sense of the other puzzles where you “play” but it is puzzling how it works! The vessels are a teapot and a cup called “fairness cup”. The teapot has no lid and is filled from the bottom. Yes, the teapot is filled from the bottom.

Vessel puzzles


In the photo above, one of the teapots in the display case shows a hole at the bottom with a mirror. Similarly, the fairness cup also has a hole at the bottom, and you can see this in another photo with the hole reflected in a mirror. However, this hole has a different purpose. When you fill the cup half way, the liquid remains in the cup. If you fill too much, all the liquid will empty out through the hole. This puzzle was meant to teach fairness, and not to be greedy otherwise, you’ll lose everything. Below is a video demonstrating how the both vessel puzzles work. There is also a diagram of a section through the teapot that illuminates what keeps the liquid from leaking from the bottom, here.


Another fun puzzle is the burr puzzle. These puzzles are interlocking pieces that are assembled to create interesting geometric structures. It’s a fun puzzle that requires some 3-dimensional problem solving skills. And because the interlocking shapes are so intricate in the way the puzzle pieces are assembled, you can not help but admire the joinery used to create these puzzles.

Burr puzzles Burr puzzles


The ingenious ring puzzles are simple in appearance but challenging to solve. The ingenious ring puzzles are bent wire with rings “trapped” in the structure of the bent wire. The goal is to get the ring(s) out of the bent wire structure. However if you think that’s it; you are mistaken. Just because you figured out how to get the ring(s) out; you’ve got to put it back on again. Unlike many puzzles, solving it isn’t just the solution. These puzzles come in many different configurations but all share the same goal; take the ring(s) off and then put it back on.

Ingenious ring fruit shapes


The following puzzle looks complicated and solving it may look daunting but it isn’t. It is definitely a challenging puzzle that requires patience, good memory, and attention to detail. Like the ingenious ring puzzles, all the rings must be removed from the handle and then placed back on. The solution to solving this puzzle is to understand the sequence of taking the rings on and off. There is a video that demonstrates how to remove the rings from a 7 linked ring puzzle at the exhibit.

Linked ring puzzlesJade linked ring puzzle


Chinese Puzzles exhibit also offers visitors the opportunity to play and solve some of the puzzles featured in the gallery. Sample puzzles are set up in the gallery, and are for all to enjoy. There are large tangram puzzles for young children to play, which are set up on the floor of the exhibit.

Play tangram


There’s also a table friendly version of the tangram puzzles. The ingenious rings are very popular with the visitors. Many who sat in front of the ingenious rings did not leave until they solved the puzzle(s). There are also examples of the burr puzzles which many tried and succeeded. Many watched the video demonstrating the linked ring puzzle and attempted to solve it. Few were successful. Others left flustered and the puzzles in disarray.Ingenious ring

I was able to solve some of the sample puzzles, which were tricky at first. I could not help but feel a sense of victory when I solved some of the puzzles! And I don’t mean, overcome the obstacle but understand how I was able to arrive at the solution. The puzzles were an exciting challenge that required analysis, strategy, and dexterity. One of my favorite puzzles that I enjoyed solving was the linked ring puzzles because of the puzzles I solved, I found this one stimulating as I tried to solve it and its textural quality as I handled the rings and handle. And because I enjoyed this puzzle so much, I am offering one set of the 9 linked ring puzzle to one lucky reader. If you are interested in how you may win this, read below for more information.

This exhibit is a must visit for everyone and especially for architects and designers. We are in the profession of finding creative solutions to challeges that are presented to us. As creative professionals we would appreciate the quality and craftsmanship of these puzzles, and the thoughtful process that went into creating these intellectual challenges. And besides, how can any creative problem solver turn down an opportunity to solve at least three of the intelligence games?

The museum is open to the public from Thursday to Monday. General admission is $7 (adults) and $4 (seniors and students w/ valid ID). Admission is free on Thursdays only; compliments from Target. For more information about visiting MOCA, please click here

For more pictures from the Chinese Puzzles exhibit, please visit my flickr set for “Chinese Puzzles“.

9 linked ring puzzle


One lucky reader will win one set of the 9 linked ring puzzle (see photo above for reference). To participate, please leave a comment on this post and your name will be entered into a lottery. Don’t forget to leave a legitimate email where I may contact you (should you be the winner). Emails will not be published. I will draw one name out of a proverbial hat. If you would like to increase your chance for this lovely puzzle, please tweet the following message between quotes. I will ship this prize to any country:

“A post by @lafemmearchitct about Chinese Puzzles exhibit, which is currently at the @mocamuseum in NYC”

The winner will be announced Thursday February 3, 2011.

Full disclosure: This puzzle was not donated to me by the musuem or the curators of the exhibit. I alone purchased this puzzle and am offering it as a gift to one lucky winner who has read and/or tweeted this post. Shipping and handling costs will be covered by me.




3 thoughts on “Chinese Puzzles for the Hands and Mind

  1. We face challenges and puzzles every day – but rarely as beautiful as the ones in this exhibit. I’d be honored to display the nine-linked ring puzzle for it’s sculptural quality alone. Who knows, I may even be able to ‘solve’ it.

  2. When I was a very small girl, my father made me one of the Nine Ring puzzles. My tiny hands would fly putting on and taking off the metal rings. For hours my hands would smell the metal. Every time I smell that metallic odor even 50 years later, this little puzzle for an only child is fondly and lovingly remembered. Thanks for the memories!

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