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Tangram Puzzle: History, Origins, Legends, Hoax, and Future

Last Updated on January 25, 2024 by Gamesver Team and JC Franco

Have you stumbled through a Tangram puzzle before? These mind-bending puzzles are intriguing. It seems simple on the surface – it’s just seven blocks that you need to arrange in a respective space. But make no mistake, as they can be deceptively complex. They can leave you rotating pieces to the point where you give up and look for the solution. 

The legend surrounding the Tangram puzzle is fascinating. Of course, variations of the story exist, along with a vague history of who invented it and how it came to be. Here’s what we’ll cover in this article.  

  1. The Legend of the Tangram. 
  2. Samuel Loyd made up a hoax about the Tangram’s history.  
  3. Origin of the Tangram puzzle. 
    • In China. 
    • In America. 
    • In England.  
    • In Denmark.  
    • In Germany.
  4. The origin of the word ‘Tangram.’
  5. The future of Tangrams. 

Knowing a bit more about the history of a game can be enjoyable as you learn new information. Anyways, are you familiar with the legend of the Tangram puzzle? It goes something like this: 

1. The Legend of the Tangram.  

Long ago, a sage (a wise person) was on his way to deliver a square glass window. He was taking it to the king who had heard of this perfect square pane. The king desired it for his palace and sent the sage out on a long journey to bring it to him. 

Bringing back the pane was no easy feat. The sage had to cross a mighty mountain range, followed by deserts, rivers, forests, and fields, to get this most exquisite sheet of glass. The pane was wrapped in a silk cloth and canvas and put in the sage’s backpack to take to the king. Very carefully, the sage made his way back to the king in the Far East. 

He once again set out on his arduous journey, crossing the same deserts, plains, and rivers, making his way to the mighty mountain range. 

After climbing to the top, he caught a glimpse of the palace and thought, “here at last.” As he lingered on the mountain, he stumbled and fell. He cringed inside as he heard the glass shattering to what sounded like a thousand pieces. What was he going to tell the king? 

The sage opened his backpack, and to his amazement, the glass was not shattered but perfectly divided into seven geometric pieces. Trying to appease the king with an excuse, the sage thought he’d tell the king about his travels, using these seven pieces of glass to tell his story. 

When the sage arrived, he admitted to the king that he had broken the glass, and he began arranging the seven geometric pieces to depict his journey. He showed the king a camel he rode in the desert, the boat that used to cross the river, and the mountain range where he fell. 

The sage’s story enthralled the king, and his use of the glass pane used to tell it. It delighted the king to carve seven geometric pieces of wood, like that of the sage, and send them throughout the realm. That’s how Tangrams Puzzles came about. 

2. Samuel Loyd made up a hoax about the Tangram’s history.  

People recognize Samuel Loyd as one of America’s famous puzzle writers. However, people also know him for lies and reprobation. In 1908 he published his work, The Eighth Book of Tan

His book featured 700 unique Tangram designs, but the information contained in this book did not include accurate facts. His story is a legend that many people believed. He claimed the puzzle was 4000 years old (when, in fact, it was probably only 200 years old). 

In his book, Loyd stated that Tan, a Chinese man, invented the Tangram. He credited Tan as a god and claimed Tan to be a part of Chinese literature and history. 

In 1910, Sir James Murray addressed a prominent puzzlist – Henry Dudeney. On behalf of several Chinese scholars, he stated that the information in Loyd’s book was baseless and false. There is no man named Tan, who claimed to be the inventor of the Tangram, who is associated with Chinese history or tradition. 

While the game may have its roots in China, none of the facts or historical accounts of the Tangram provided in Loyd’s book should be regarded as reputable. It was clear that his book was a hoax. 

This hoax did not stop the public from purchasing The Eight Book of Tan. On the contrary, it was Loyd’s book that made Tangrams famous at the time. And while Sir James Murray was successful in exposing Loyd’s false Tangram history, Loyd’s hoax is occasionally cited in publications and websites.  

A legend stemming from Samuel Loyd’s hoax goes like this:

Long ago, in China, lived a man called Tan. Tan had a precious tile which was his greatest possession. He wanted to present his tile to the emperor. On his way, he tripped, fell, and broke the tile. 

The tile broke into seven pieces, each in a geometric design – two large triangles, one medium triangle, two small triangles, a square, and a parallelogram. The perfectly formed geometric tiles amazed Tan, and he immediately tried to rearrange the pieces back into their original form. 

He tried and rearranged the elements, and then he noticed all the other shapes and patterns looked like animals and objects. Tan’s friends joined him, trying to recreate the designs he had invented. It took Tan a whole lifetime to figure out how to put the tile back into its original shape.

Tan’s puzzles, which were now known as Tangrams, were recreated from stone, wood, and other earthen objects. They were passed down through generations and across many countries. 

3. Origin of the Tangram puzzle. 

In China

The truth is that no one really knows who invented Tangram puzzles. Evidence indicates that these puzzles originated in imperial China in the 18th century. The Chinese call the game “Chin-Chiao Pan,” which means “intriguing seven-piece puzzle.” 

A book, Ch’i chi’iao t’u, seems to introduce the Tangram. The book’s author, New Figures of the Tangram, Shan-Chiao, alludes to the loss of Ch’i chi’iao t’u in 1815. However, other evidence indicates that tangrams were in use 20 years before this. 

For example, there are banquet tables arranged as Tangrams in the Song Dynasty. There were many books dedicated to setting these banquet tables at the time.  

In America

It was in 1815 when Captain M. Donaldson brought the puzzles to America. Someone had given him two of Sang-Hsia-koi books, one Tangram puzzle, and one solution book on the subject of Tangrams. 

He brought these books with him on board his ship, named Trader. The books Donaldson brought led to the first Tangram book published in America. 

In England

When the puzzle reached England, it quickly spread to other European countries, making Tangrams popular. China began exporting Tangrams extensively during this time. The materials used to make these puzzles ranged from glass to wood to tortoise shells! 

Many people believe the widespread Tangram puzzles in the European sector had to do with the Catholic Church not placing restrictions on Tangrams. Since the Catholic Church forbade many forms of recreation on the Sabbath, they influenced peoples’ choices. The Church, however, set no restrictions regarding Tangrams which led to the popularity of this game. 

In Denmark

The exquisite Tangram puzzles soon made their way to Denmark. Interest in these puzzles skyrocketed when a student wrote a non-fictional book about the history and popularity of the Chinese game. Another book, ‘The New Chinese Game‘ containing 339 Tangrams from the Eighth Book of Tan, also helped popularize Tangrams in Denmark. 

In Germany

In Germany, the craze started for the Tangram puzzle a little later. In 1981, an industrialist, Friedrich Adolf Richter, introduced the Tangram puzzles to the German population. Richter marketed it as “The Anchor Puzzle.” People made these sets of Tangrams from stone and earthenware. 

4. The origin of the word ‘Tangram.’ 

We can find the first known use of the word “Tangram” in English in the book Geometrical Puzzle for the Young. The book was published in 1848 by Mathematician Tomas Hill, who became a Harvard University president. 

Hill advocated the use of Tangrams in education, making them world-famous through numerous articles. ‘Tangram’ received recognition in the English language when it went down in Noah Webster’s dictionary in 1864.

5. The future of Tangrams. 

Tangrams are one of the oldest surviving puzzles today, serving a purpose in art, entertainment, and education. 

Tangram puzzles allow children to build their knowledge of geometric terms. Since these puzzles are great at helping kids develop an appreciation of arithmetic, spatial relation, and problem-solving, many teachers favor the use of Tangram puzzles over other games.

In addition, both children and adults often enjoy creating their shapes by organizing the pieces of a Tangram. As a result, these dissection puzzles are widely accepted by many around the world. Now available on websites and app stores, Tangrams continue to survive until today. 

Last Word

From the inception of Tangrams to its continuity today, they are still a fan-favorite dissection puzzle. Though people have exaggerated the puzzle’s history and whereabouts, it has not prohibited the popularity of this game. 

We hope you found the legends of the Tangram puzzle enjoyable. Pick up some Tangrams and get cracking. Happy playing!

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This article was co-authored by our team of in-house and freelance writers, and reviewed by our editors, who enjoy sharing their knowledge about their favorite games with others!

JC Franco
Editor | + posts

JC Franco serves as a New York-based editor for Gamesver. His interest for board games centers around chess, a pursuit he began in elementary school at the age of 9. Holding a Bachelor’s degree in Business from Mercyhurst University, JC brings a blend of business acumen and creative insight to his role. Beyond his editorial endeavors, he is a certified USPTA professional, imparting his knowledge in tennis to enthusiasts across the New York City Metropolitan area.