Chinese origin of playing cards

Chinese origin of playing cards

Chinese Origin of Playing Cards is an article on the origin of playing cards written by H.B.M General-Consul in China and Korea Sir William Henry Wilkinson, and published in the American Anthropologist magazine by the American Anthropological Association under the auspices of the American Anthropological Society of Washington in 1895. It is still considered one of the most important contributions on the study of playing cards by some of the most authoritative researchers in the field, like David Parlett, John McLeod and Michael Dummett.[citation needed]


The article

The article focuses on the proposition that once paper money was invented, the symbols and numeric values were put together to form a primitive ancestor to modern cards, and were blindly copied by travelers who understood little or absolutely nothing of the complete significance of the symbols. The principal evidence for this is that the money and sword suits resemble those of European cards.[1]

Ancient Chinese "money cards" have three and four "suits": coins, strings of coins, myriads of strings, and tens of myriads. These were represented by ideograms, with numerals of 2-9 in the first three suits and numerals 1-9 in the "tens of myriads".[2] Wilkinson suggests in his article that the first cards may have been actual paper currency which were both the tools of gaming and the stakes that they were played for. The designs on modern Mahjong tiles, and dominoes alike, most probably evolved from those earliest playing cards. Even today some of the packs used in China have suits of coins and strings of coins - which Mahjong players know as circles and bamboos - for the Chinese word p'ai is used to describe both paper cards and gaming tiles, although references to cards under the name of p'ai are rare in the encyclopedias.

Now, in the kun p'ai game, of which "Khanhoo" is a faithful copy, the suits are coordinate to one another; no one suit is superior to any other. There is, indeed, no reason why any suit should be superior or any card as the game is now played, for the cards do not take one another, but serve, as in poker or commerce, to form certain combinations.

Chinese packs

Of all the Chinese varieties of playing card packs, no one is so uniformly distributed or so universally popular as that described by William Andrew Chatto under the style of Tseen-wan che-pae.[3] Perfect specimens, obtained from Peking, Tientsin, Chungking, Kiukiang, Shansi, Honan, Wenchow, Canton, and other parts of China, appeared as Nos. 1 to 17 in a collection of Chinese cards which Stewart Culin exhibited at the World's Fair in 1894. Of the descriptions heretofore given of this class of cards, that by Chatto is the most accurate.[4]

European similarities

Playing cards first appeared in Europe in the 1370s, probably in Italy or Spain and certainly as imports or possessions of merchants from the Islamic Mamlūk dynasty centred in Egypt. Like their originals, the first European cards were hand-painted, making them luxury goods for the rich. The coincidences between the first European packs and the Chinese kun p'ai are too numerous to be accidental. The earliest suit-marks in Europe, those of Italy and Spain, were spade (espadas), "swords"; coppe (copas), "cups"; denari (oros), "money"; and bastone (bastos), "clubs". Spanish packs had no 10-spot. The first court cards were the King, Cavalier, and Servant - rey, caballo, sota.

Early European packs contained emblematic cards.[5] In the first games known, the cards were used much as in Commerce or Poker now - to form flushes, sequences, or triplets, so that when we turn to the kun p'ai pack we find that the leading principle of the games played with them is the same as that in the old Italian Frusso or Primero,[6] while at the same time, like the Tarocchi, the kun p'ai packs usually include a number of emblematic cards curiously suggestive of the naitis.


The earliest reference to playing cards or dominoes — in China there is no clear-cut dividing line between cards and dominoes because the same word designates both — occurs in Chinese literature of the 10th century, but with no indication of their markings or the games which they were created for.

The Chinese dictionary "Ching-tsze-tung", compiled by Eul Koung and first published AD 1678, declares that the cards known as Teen tsze pae were invented in the reign of S'eun-ho in 1120,[7] and that they began to be common in the reign of Kaou-Tsung, who ascended the throne in 1130.[8] According to tradition, they were devised for the amusement of S'eun-ho's numerous concubines.

See also


  1. ^ The American Hoyle: or, Gentleman's hand-book of games, William Brisbane Dick, p. 296 - London, 1885
  2. ^ Harvard alumni bulletin, p. 187, Harvard Alumni Association, Associated Harvard Clubs - 1927
  3. ^ Geschichte des Schachspiel, ii, pp. 381
  4. ^ Brooklyn Museum quarterly, p. 162, Brooklyn Museum - 1924
  5. ^ Art and archaeology, Archaeological Institute of America, pg. 108 - Archaeological Society of Washington - 1921
  6. ^ Korean games with notes on the corresponding games of China and Japan, Stewart Culin, p. 135 - 1895 ISBN 9781104137205
  7. ^ The American Anthropologist, p. 65, Anthropological Society of Washington (Washington, D.C.), American Ethnological Society - 1895
  8. ^ Facts and Speculations on the Origin and History of Playing Cards - pg. 55


  • The Genius of China: 3,000 Years of Science, Discovery and Invention, Robert Temple - Prion 1998 ISBN 1853752924
  • Playing cards, Roger Tilley - Littlehampton Book Services Ltd. 1973 ISBN 0706400496
  • Playing cards and their story, George Beal - David & Charles PLC. 1975 ISBN 978-0715368763
  • The game of Tarot: from Ferrara to Salt Lake City, Michael Dummett - U.S. Games Systems, Inc. 1980 ISBN 978-0715610145

External links

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