Saturday, May 3, 2003
M I N D  G A M E S

Chinese God's game
Aditya Rishi

A Tangram puzzle
A Tangram puzzle. Cut out the coloured patterns along the dark lines. The dotted-line grid in the background shows how the shapes are calculated.

THE true history of Tangrams is, paradoxically, shrouded in myth and mystery and the truth of its inventor, origin and etymology is the subject of widespread speculation. The earliest known literary reference to Tangrams is in a Chinese book dated 1813, but the puzzles were already well established in China by that time.

Tang, the dynasty that ruled China from AD 618 to AD 907 (considered to be the golden age of Chinese poetry and art), perhaps, may have lent its name to the Tangram puzzle. Other theories on its origin include the suggestion that it may have evolved from the now obsolete English word Tangram, meaning a puzzle. It may even have acquired its name from the Tank people of southern China and Hong Kong, who might have been the first ones to introduce the puzzle to Europe and North America, where it has gained in popularity since the 19th century after trade routes with China were opened up. It was common at that time to find this puzzle on fine works of Chinese pottery.


Its introduction in the West led to the publication of various books and sales of Tangram puzzles. Among those known to have been enchanted by this puzzles are Napoleon Bonaparte, Lewis Carroll and Edgar Allen Poe.

In 1942, Fu Tsiang Wang and Chuan-Chn Hsiung proved the existence of a finite set of Tangram patterns: a set of 13 convex shapes (a convex shape here is defined as one with no indentations along its outside edges). In 1903, American puzzle-maker Sam Lloyd wrote in 'the Eighth Book of Tan' a spoof history of this Chinese puzzle. He suggested that the puzzle was invented 4,000 years ago by the Chinese God, Tan. This book with some 600 Tangram patterns was a best-seller.

Cut out the puzzle pieces as instructed; jumble these up and tell someone to refit these into the square it was. Try making various figures by rearranging the pieces and tell others to repeat the act. Some patterns can be made in two or more ways, so that, you are left with an extra piece or two each time. (Write at The Tribune or