The Game of Ma-Jong1

By Stuart Culin
Brooklyn Museum Quarterly,
Volume XI, October 1924, pages 153-168

Note: For the most part, this is a direct transcription of the paper by Culin. His spelling and sentence structure have been maintained, but some punctuation has been altered. Words in Chinese with diacritical marks are tanscribed from his text, and are presented within the limitations imposed by HTML. The paper was scanned from a photocopy of the printed text, edited in a wordprocesser, then created as a Webpage. The graphics are slightly edited copies from sketches accompanying the original text. Graphics in color are of objects in the Museum and Archive of Games Collection.

Ma Jong Tiles

Playing cards existed in China in or before the twelfth century, were introduced into Europe from China in the thirteenth century and were spread quickly from Europe over the civilized world. Certain Chinese cards which have come down to the present time were imitated from Chinese paper notes which bore pictorial symbols of their value. These pictures furnished the suit marks of the Chinese pack, and, copied again in Europe, without knowledge of their true significance, gave rise to the suits of coins, clubs, swords and cups of the early European game. The Chinese game we call ma-jong is a recent Chinese modification of this Chinese game played with paper cards derived from Chinese paper notes, with copies of which and for which the games were played. In ma-jong we have a reintroduction of a famous old Chinese game which may be numbered with silk, printing type, porcelain, tea and paper money among China's important material contributions to Western civilization. All existing playing cards, whatever their kind, in all countries except China and Korea, and including Japan, Persia and India, were derived through Europe from this Chinese game.

The present game of ma-jong, although in itself new, has a very remarkable ancestry. An admirable game, it will, in my opinion, increase in popularity and become a permanent addition to our amusements. It is my intention to give some account of the origins of the game and to do so it is necessary for me to tell something about Chinese games in general and especially of Chinese dominoes and playing cards. Incidentally I shall give descriptions of other Chinese games played with these implements, games which like ma-jong could be introduced and incorporated among our own. It is many years since my first papers on Chinese [Page 154] games appeared in the reports of the United States National Museum and the information about Chinese playing cards which is here embodied is based upon observations which I made and recorded in 1895.

Chinese Dominoe Set

There is no essential difference between cards and dominoes in China and the Chinese game pieces that are known to us as dominoes, from their superficial resemblance to our dominoes, are used for the most part precisely as we use cards. The same game will appear either in the form of a pack of coarsely printed slips of pasteboard, or as highly finished tablets, "dominoes," in short, of ivory or bone, bamboo or ebony, neatly fitted into a metal or wooden box.2

Ma-jong is not the first reappearance of the Chinese game in Europe. It was introduced by W. H. Wilkinson of H.B.M. Consular Service, and published in card form by Messrs. Goodall of London, prior to 1895, under the name of Khanhoo. This card game does not seem to have made any impression, the success of ma-jong resting in no small part upon the elegance of its mechanism as embodied in the domino-like pieces.

The old Chinese money-derived card game, the immediate source of ma-jong, was and is still played by Cantonese laborers in America with narrow strips of flexible cardboard from three-sixteenths to three-eighths of an inch in breadth. They knew nothing of ma-jong as we understand it. A complete pack (Plate 1) consists of one hundred and twenty cards composed of four identical sets of thirty cards each. Each of these sets is composed of three money-derived suits of nine cards each, and three extra cards. These suits are: First, tsín, Chinese coins of the lowest denomination, called by the slang name of "ping" or "cakes," from one to nine; second, strings of one hundred each of these same Chinese coins, called sok, "strings," from one to nine; and third, of mán or "ten thousands of strings" of one thousand coins, kún, from one to nine, called mán, ten thousands. These three suits are marked respectively with pictures of individual coins, of strings of coins, and with the characters mán kún, ten thousand kún, these marks being the source of the circle, bamboo and "character" suits of the present ma-jong game. The three extra cards, which correspond more or less closely with the joker of our euchre pack, are called hung fá, "red flower," pák fá, "white flower," and lò tsín, "old thousand." These extra cards, which I shall explain later, are distinguished by pictorial figures, seals and inscriptions. Our Chinese colonists were not as a rule familiar with the game with these cards and I have seen them played only at New Year. Foreign cards are in more general use, poker being their favorite game. It should be understood that card playing is not considered respectable in China and shares the disesteem in which all forms of gambling are held. Chess, and wai k'í, played on a board with black and white men, are the only games that have the sanction of the educated classes. Apart from them, the terminology of Chinese games is made up of slang and is highly elusive.

In the year 1893, Mr. W. H. Wilkinson of HRM.'s consular service, then stationed at Chemulpo in Korea, sent to the writer for exhibition at the World's Colombian Exposition at Chicago, specimens of cards and dominoes from different parts of China. This very complete and perfect collection, numbering forty-five examples, furnished the first adequate material for an exhaustive study and classification of Chinese cards.

The cards to which I have referred as being used by the Chinese laborers in America, and which were represented in this collection, were minutely described and catalogued3 by Mr. Wilkinson under the name of kwan p'ái, "stick cards," or má tséuk, "hempen birds," i. e., "sparrows," the last name a transliteration of the Cantonese pronunciation of the name we know as ma-jong.

There are two distinct types of Chinese card games corresponding to types of European games. In one the cards do not take each other but unite to form certain winning combinations as in poker. This is the type published by Mr. Wilkinson as khanhoo (name of game), and known to us as ma-jong (name of cards). In the other type of game the cards do take each other as in our game of euchre. Both kinds are played by the Cantonese who use the same cards for the two types of games. No [Page 156] account of these games having appeared in print I shall describe them in detail.


The usual game, known to the Chinese laborers as kán ú (khanhoo), is played by two or more persons with one complete pack of one hundred and twenty cards. In this game the following triplets are called ngán, "eyes":

  • 1, 2 and 3 of "cakes"
  • Red flower, old thousand and 9 of strings
  • White flower, 9 of ten thousands and 8 of strings
  • 1 of ten thousands, 1 of strings and 9 of "cakes"
  • 2 of ten thousands, 2 of strings and 8 of "cakes"
  • 3 of strings, 2 of ten thousands and 8 of "cakes"
  • 3 of strings, 3 of ten thousands and 7 of "cakes."

A winning hand must contain at least one of these "eyes" and the remaining cards must be disposed in one or more of the following combinations called pát tsz', "boys." These are a sequence of three or more cards of the same suit from one to nine, or three cards of the same denomination belonging to three different suits. The ones or aces of each of the three suits and the red flower, white flower, and old thousand have extraordinary powers and may be added to the "eyes," or to the sequences or triplets called pát tsz', to form a winning hand. In playing the cards are well mixed and the dealer determined by one of the players drawing a card from the pack, and, commencing with himself, counting around the players from right to left up to the number on the card drawn. The one at whom he stops becomes the dealer. The dealer gives himself the first card, and then, one at a time, deals around fourteen cards to each of the other players and to himself fifteen. The players take up their cards and endeavor to arrange the cards in the "eyes" and pát tsz' requisite for a winning hand. Fifteen cards are required for this, and as the dealer alone gets this number, he alone has chance to win on the cards dealt him. If he has not dealt himself a winning hand he discards one card and lays it face up on the centre of the table. The next player on the right may take this card up into his hand, or lay it aside and draw a card from the top of the pack not dealt which has been placed, face down, on the table. If he is unable to form a winning [Page 157] hand he discards one card and the third player may take this card up or draw from the pack, as before. And so on round. The player who first gets a winning hand composed of one or more "eyes" and the sequences or combinations before mentioned lays down his cards face up and wins the game. The winner becomes the next dealer and deals from the pack 1eft on the table for the next round. This game is played for money, each player putting the same sum in a box on the table at the commencement of each game and the winner takes the entire stake except in gambling houses where the house deducts a commission of five per cent.


Another game played with the same cards is called kím t'ái shap, "to grasp many tens," or k'ap tái chap, "to complete many tens." Two or more men play. The cards are shuffled and laid in a pile on the table. One of the players draws a card and counts around or throws two dice and counts around to determine the dealer as before. In this game the dealer gives each of the other players fifteen cards and himself sixteen. The game consists in one of the players getting a hand of sixteen cards in which there are two cards of the same denomination of the suit of ten thousands which form what is called an "eye" and the remaining fourteen cards so paired that the sum of the value of the cards in each pair is ten. It is not necessary that the cards in each pair shall be of the same suit. The red flower, white flower and old thousand count as ones in forming the pairs. The manner of play is precisely the same as in the preceding game. It is played for money, the stakes being put in a box before the opening of the play. This game was adapted to cards from the dotted domino game, and played, with wooden dominoes under the same name, is the favorite game with dominoes in Chinese gambling houses.4 As many as twenty can play.


A game belonging to the second type in which the cards take each other is known to our Chinese as cha kau tsz', "taking nine tricks." Three play with two packs numbering together sixty [Page 158]cards. The cards are shuffled, placed face down in a pile, and each player draws a card. The one getting the highest card becomes the first player. In this game the suit of "ten thousands" is the highest, the cards ranging from nine down to one. The next suit in rank is strings, and lowest cakes, in the same order. The cards drawn are replaced and each player draws a card in turn from the top of the pack beginning with the first player until he gets fifteen and the others fourteen cards. The first player may now play out a card or cards putting them face up on the table. He may lead one card, or a sequence of three or more cards of the same suit or three cards above the ones of the same denomination of all the three different suits. To these three cards, called "perfect twos," "threes," and so on, any other cards of the same denomination may be added. The red flower, white flower and old thousand rank as ones and with the three ones of the three different suits may form a lead called won- yat, "perfect ones." Players are not required to follow suit, but must play a higher card, or a higher combination of similar components, to win. The player who first takes nine tricks, each card-set forming a trick, wins the game. The first player may not elect to play, in which case he hands a token which he retains to mark his position to the next player .to his right. If the latter accepts and leads he must pay both of the others if he loses, and conversely, both pay him if he wins. If, however, the first player plays and loses he pays only the winner. After a player has won a game his stakes are doubled when he wins again and he must pay double if he loses. The next time he wins the stakes are trebled. This game has its counterpart in the popular game with dotted wooden dominoes - called tá tín kau5 from which I believe it was derived. Another name for this game is p'úng shap ú, p'úng shap being a general name for card playing in Cantonese, while playing cards, chi p'ái, "paper tablets," are also called ú p'ái. This name distinguishes the special kind of cards here referred to which are so called from their being ornamented with pictures from the romance entitled the Shui a chun to be hereafter described.

A final game with cards called tiú ü, "fishing," played by three persons was not explained to me. I infer it to be analogous [Page 159] to the game of tiú ü,6 the name of which means also angling or fishing, played ordinarily with dotted wooden pieces.

The above games may be played more conveniently with the pieces of the ma-jong set than with cards, using the three numbered suits and four of each of any three of the supplementary pieces. Having described the games played by the Cantonese with the money-suit cards I shall give a more detailed account of the money cards (Plate I) themselves.

Plate 1
Set of Money-Derived Cards
called Kwan P'ai - "Stick Cards" or Ma Tskeuk "Sparrows"
from Canton, China.
Chinese Money Cards

The Immediate Predecessors of the Game of Majong

There are four such sets and complete packs in the Brooklyn Museum. The three suits are "cakes" or coins, strings of coins, and myriads or thousands of strings of coins. The three extra cards are red flower. (row A); white flower, (row B); and old thousand (row C).

There are, as I have said, four cards numbered from one to nine in each of the three suits of cakes, strings, and ten thousands. An explanation of there being nine is afforded by the fact that the ten would be the unit of the next higher denomination. The cards of the cake and string suits call for no comment other than that the nine is stamped in red with shau, "longevity," in seal character and hence receives the name of "red nine."

The mán or ten thousand kún suit has its denominations expressed in Chinese characters at the top, and, in the middle spaces below, highly conventionalized pictures of men, some of whom may be identified by their names. The red flower has the figure of a man at full length with the characters hung tong in a seal obliquely over his head. The card is also stamped with two "longevity" seals in red. The white flower, which is also called chi fá, has a symbolic picture of a mountain emerging from waves. The "old thousand" has a picture of a man and above his head the legend ts'ín mán, "one thousand ten thousand," suggesting that this card was a survival from a suit of high denomination in an earlier pack. These particular cards are known to the Chinese in America as tséung kwan p'ái, that is "general" or "commander cards." They speak of them also as the Sám shap luk t'ín tséung ts'at shap i tí shat, or the "Thirty-six celestial generals and the seventy-two earthly malignants" and again as the Yat pák líng pát or the "One hundred and eight." They regard them as a powerful charm and as such place them upon coffins when they transport the dead from place to place.

The explanation of the magical attributes of these cards and their popular designation is to be found in the name, attached to the pictures of men on the ten thousands suit. These names identify the pictures as portraits of different personage who figure [Page 160] in the romance entitled the Shwuy woo chuen (Shui ú chün), "The Story of the River's Banks." It would appear that the use of these pictures to adorn the cards was more or less accidental and casual,7 but these cards are now identified closely with the story.8 This celebrated work, next to the San kwo chi, "The Story of the Contending States", is the best known and most popular among Chinese storybooks. Unlike the San kwo chi, in connection with which it is printed frequently, it is almost entirely a work of invention and relates the adventures and intrigues of a band of robbers who lived in a mountain called Lung Hu Shan (The Mountain of Dragons and Tigers) during the Sung dynasty (AD 970-1127). A copy in the writer's possession, a Canton imprint of the year 1883, is contained in ten duodecimo volumes of which the first is illustrated, as is customary in such books, with rude wood-cut pictures of the principal characters in the story. According to M. Bazin,9 who published a translation of some of the prefatory chapters, it was written by Chi-nai-ngan and first appeared under the reign of the Mongols. It was reprinted about 1650 with a perpetual commentary by Kin-ching-than, a writer of the greatest merit, and the author of a version of the San kwo chi. From the prologue to this story the origin of the popular names and associations of these cards becomes apparent.

In the spring of 1058, during the reign of Jen Tsoung, a terrible plague ravaged the empire. All efforts to stop its course proved unavailing until at last it was determined to seek the aid of the Emperor himself. He was advised to appeal for the succor of the people to the grand master of the sect of Tao and make propitiatory sacrifices to all the spirits of heaven. An emissary, in the person of Hon-sin, the Tai-ouei, or governor of the palace, was dispatched accordingly to Kiangsi where the grand master lived in a palace called Supreme Purity on the mountain of Dragons and Tigers. After a series of adventures he succeeded in delivering his message and was preparing to return when his attention was attracted by a building somewhat apart from the [Page 161] temples and palaces through which he had been conducted. Its walls were red and its doors closed with many seals. The imperial messenger was informed that in this palace were confined the demons which the masters of the doctrine had subjugated during the preceding years. Overcoming the fears and protestations of the ruler of the sect, Hong-sin compelled him to have the doors of the palace opened. Within was disclosed a stone monument resting upon a tortoise under which the demons were imprisoned. With the destruction of this monument by Hon-sin's orders he was overwhelmed by a blast of black vapor which rushed from the abyss towards heaven, while sparks like stars and jets of fire illuminated the horizon. When the Tai-ouei had recovered his senses, he learned from the master that within the temple where shut up the genii who presided over the one hundred and eight stars of evil omen. These spirits, thus released to torment mankind, become the hundred and eight personages of the novel.

The names which identify the pictures on the ten thousands suit are as follows:

  • The three, Tai-tó
  • The four, Chai Tsun
  • The five, Kwai
  • The seven, Tsau Ming
  • The nine, Liu Wang
Plate 2
Chinese Playing Card
from the Staatliches Museum
fur Vo1kerkunde, Berlin
Plate 2

Found in 1905 by Dr. A. von Le Coq with fragments of manuscripts of the Uigur period in the glen of Sangim near Turfan, Chinese Turkestan. This card, which corresponds with the red flower of the present Chinese pack (Plate 1), presumably is not later than the 11th century AD, and probably is the oldest known playing card.

The seal over the man's head contains a denomination of money, three fan, and the characters at the top and bottom give the maker's name.

The form and general appearance of these cards suggests a high antiquity. A presumably old card (Plate 2)10 in the Museum of Ethnology, Berlin, found by Dr. A. von Le Coq among the Uigur ruins in the oasis of Turfan in Chinese Turkestan, which must have belonged to a similar money-derived pack, varies but little from cards now current.

The cards I have described as being those from which the ma-jong pieces are derived are extremely narrow, which narrowness Mr. Wilkinson explained as due to the prevailing Cantonese [Page 162] fashion of holding them in the clenched fist and not spread out fan-wise. Again, although it is quite certain that they may be regarded as the ancestors of European cards, they have only three instead of four suits. Another pack, however, in the Brooklyn Museum (Plate 3), which the writer received from Mr. J. P. Cowles of Fuhchau in 1887, shows that these cards were originally much wider, like European cards.

Plate 3
Money-Derived Cards
with 4 suits,
from Fuhchau, China,
in the Brooklyn Museum
Plate 3

A pack consists of four sets of 38 cards each. There are four suits: coins, strings, myriads, tens of myriads, and three extra cards. The plate shows the nines of each of the four suits and the three extra cards. It is probable that European playing cards were copied from some such pack with four suits.

Furthermore, it more closely approximates the European game in having four instead of three suits. This Fuhchau pack consists of thirty-eight cards: Four suits of numbered, and three extra cards. The cards are two and three-fourths by one and one-eighth inches with an impression of two and seven-sixteenths by one inch. The material is thin, flexible cardboard, printed heavily in black with an impression consisting of a geometric design on the back, corresponding in size with that on the face of the cards. The four suits are designated as tsin (cash), sok (strings), man (ten thousands) and shap (tens). These denominations all refer to money, the man being so many man kun or myriads of strings of one thousand cash and the shap or tens so many tens of man kun. In this pack there are nine cards in each of the suits of cash, strings, and ten thousands, but the suit of shap or tens runs from two to nine, lacking the ace. The three extra cards correspond with the red flower, white flower, and old thousand, except that the latter card is marked pak min kun, one hundred ten thousand kun, instead of ts'in man (kun) or one thousand ten thousand kun. In the regular order this pak man kun card would be the tenth of the suit of shap or tens, or the one or ace of a next higher suit.11 The nine numbered cards of the man and shap suits both have named pictures of personages from the Shwuy hoo chuen.

Plate 4
Chinese Dominoes
Plate 4

Showing the manner of paring
in the game of "Tin Kau"
or "Heavens and Nines"

Mr. Wilkinson has described the cards of this last type, which he says are confined to the Hakka country of South China, under the name of Rut chi or "waste paper." They are distinguished, he says, by having four instead of three suits and in being used in games in which the cards take one another.12 Like the kwan p'ai, the Rut chi packs have always cards additional to the thirty-six [Page 163] belonging to the four suits. These additional cards may be identified as money cards of higher denominations.

Mr. Wilkinson has pointed out that there is no question that these two games have the same origin, and, while it is difficult to say which represents the more primitive form, it may be assumed that the Rut chi was the parent game of our western cards. All of the seventeen different packs of kwan p'ai in Mr. Wilkinson's collection from fifteen different localities in China, are made of cardboard, as are the two lut chi packs from Swatow and Canton. The game which then (1891) was like the present ma-jong is from Ningpo and called chung fat, "hit and go," and consisted of small tablets of bone with bamboo backs. It had four each of nine pieces numbered from one to nine of the suits of cash, strings and myriads, and four each of tablets marked East, West, North, and South, chung, fat, and eight blanks. This game, Mr. Wilkinson states, is confined to the provinces of Chekiang and Kiangsu. It is usually, if not invariably, put up in tablet rather than pasteboard form and its method of play is analogous to khanhoo. At the time Mr. Wilkinson made his collection the name ma tseuk (ma tsioh), "sparrows," was applied in Central China to the paper cards with three money suits.

When the writer visited Shanghai in December 1909 he found the first street within the wall of the Chinese city given over to the manufacture and sale of bone and bamboo dominoes, for the greater part bearing designs copied from cards. Boxes of dominoes of several kinds were spread out for sale on tables facing the street and boys in the rear were sawing and glueing the pieces. The writer purchased here for the Brooklyn Museum the specimens that have been exhibited in the Chinese hall. Among them were sets of the Chinese game called t'in kau, "heavens and nines," composed of thirty-two pieces, the original form of the Chinese domino game13 (Plate 4). Another game had identical marks, but the [Page 164] faces were ornamented in addition with floral patterns in red and green.

Still another set had one piece only of each kind with the dots duplicated on each piece (Plate 5), and, in addition to the floral patterns, the double-double six marked with each character for the sun and the double-double five with the character for moon, both incised in red in red circles.

Plate 5
Chinese Domino Game
Plate 5
Showing marks duplicated
on the individual pieces.
Brooklyn Museum Collection
Purchased in Shanghai, China,
December, 1909.

Of more immediate interest is a set (Plate 6) more or less closely approximating majong. It comprises:

Twenty-seven pieces, consisting of three suits of nine each, of the suits of coins, strings and ten thousands, quadrupled. The ones or aces of the suit of coins are marked with pictures of sparrows in blue. These three regular suits are supplemented with the following extra pieces:

Four each with the characters for North, South, East and West.

Four each with the character chung (in red) and fat (in green), translated by Mr. Wilkinson as "hit, and go."

One each with the name and picture of the following objects incised in mixed green and red:

  • chuk, bamboo
  • mui, plum
  • kuk, chrysanthemum
  • lan, a flower
  • k'am, lute
  • k'i, chess (board)
  • shu, books
  • wa, picture.

One each with the characters man, "civil," mo, "military," and tsung, "controller."

Bone Counters

With these dominoes I purchased a set of counters, flat bone rods of four different lengths, marked at both ends with dice or domino dots:14 Double six, double ace, double four, and three [Page 165] one, and a small bone box containing bone disks numbered from one to ten. [Editors Note: Graphic at left is of "counters" in the Museum & Archive of Games Collection".

It was evident from what the venders told me that there was no fixed or standard form of the game pieces last described. They were prepared to make whatever their customers demanded. My Chinese informant, Dzau Sing Chung of Shanghai, explained to me that these dominoes had become a favorite game, and that while they used to be played only by rich people they were now extending to all classes. He told me there were two games, one called wak fa, "to draw flowers," and the other cho ma-cho (ma-tseuk, sparrow). He told me also they were beginning to play the game in Canton, but I was unable to find the special implements for it for sale in any of the Chinese shops where they made dominoes there on my visit later the same winter.

Plate 6
The Game of Ma-Tseuk
Plate 6

Individual Pieces
(For description, see page 164.)
Brooklyn Museum Collection
Purchased in Shanghai, China,
December, 1909.

From what has been said it appears that the three suits of nine pieces each in the ma-jong game are copied directly from the paper cards and that the extra pieces have no definite tradition but have been added like the jokers in the Chinese card packs.

The explanations which have been made of them are fanciful and for the most part transferred from the old Chinese domino game which has a quasi-philosophical foundation, the dominoes having been used for purposes of fortune telling. I find no indication whatever of paper cards being used in China for fortune telling.

As for the Chinese playing cards with money suits it is obvious that their general form as well as their denominations have been copied from Chinese notes which originated in the Tang dynasty [Page 166] (618-908) and of which specimens survive. This theory was advanced in print by Mr. Wilkinson15 who asserted that the cards of the kwan p'ai pack are or originally were bank notes with which and for which the gamblers played. This opinion is confirmed by the Ching tsze tung, a Chinese encyclopedia published in 1678, in which the author explains yeh-tsa, "leaves," an early kind of playing cards, as "Sung money." The old block-printed paper notes, hansatsu, issued in Japan during the Tokugawa Shogunate, bear a close resemblance to the Chinese money cards.

Much additional information concerning the antiquity of Chinese paper money has been available since Mr. Wilkinson's article appeared in 1895.

Mr. Ramsden16 printed an important list, with illustrations, of Chinese notes from the Tang dynasty and Mr. Andrew McFarland Davis17 has reproduced one of two examples in his collection of Tang dynasty notes of the Emperor Wu-Sung, AD 841-847. Although all the notes described and illustrated are much too large to be used conveniently as cards their interrelations with playing cards are manifest. For example, the denominations of the notes are in series from one to ten or ten to one hundred. Again, the red seals of the notes are repeated on the money cards, and the mountain rising among the waves on the "white flower" (Plate 1), may be referred to a similar ornamental device which occurs on the border of the Sung notes for one hundred kun.

Figure 1

Shoes and Ingots of Silver

Figure 1

Marks indicating value on Chinese notes of the Tang and Sung dynasties. From Ramsden. These marks may have suggested the cups or chalices employed as suit marks on the Italian and Spanish playing cards.

Admitting that the cash or money and the strings of the Chinese cards are the source of the danari, spade, and bastoni; money, swords, and clubs, of the Italian cards, the suit of coppe or cups of the Italian cards may have been borrowed from the cup-shaped shoes of silver (Figure 1) that occur, with strings of cash, among the marks on the notes. I have not found the cup-shaped shoe pictures on the cards, but the analogous silver ingot or weight of the note-marks (Figure 2) appears on the ace or one of the suit of cakes or money (Plate 1).

Figure 2

A Weight of Silver

Figure 2

A mark on a Chinese note of the western Liao (Tartar) Dynasty. From Ramsden. This mark is to be seen on the one of ace of the suit of coins or cakes. (See Plate 1 - top.)

It is not unlikely that there are forms of Chinese cards, which have entirely disappeared. An old pack described by Breitkopf,18 [Page 167] in the cabinet of M. Link in Leipzig, varies from any of those in Mr. Wilkinson's collection. The cards he figures are designated as the one and nine of the man or "civil" suit and the one of the mo or "military" suit. The first two are inscribed kok to and chu un, and the latter kwok kung, imperial duke, titles of officials of the civil and military ranks.

The present writers' observations have been based so far upon the cards and card games in themselves without reference to the Chinese records. The earliest Chinese mention of objects which have been identified as playing cards refers to a game called yu-p'u, "slips," which Mr. Wilkinson declares was not a card game but played with five dice colored black above and white below. This game, which was regarded as of foreign origin, was probably similar to or identical with the Korean game with stick dice the writer has described under the name of nyout.19

The other old Chinese game which has been identified with playing cards is the one which has been referred to as yeh tsa, "leaves" (in Cantonese ip tsz'), a name applied both to the leaves of plants and of books. The only indication of its character is found in the already cited explanation of these cards as "Sung money.

Figure 3As it may be assumed that cards and card games did not originate in paper money, but that the notes were taken over as convenient models for the playthings, we have yet to look for an explanation for playing cards in themselves. This is to be found in the Chinese-Korean card game of htou-tjyen. These Korean cards consist of narrow strips of oiled paper some seven and five-eighths by one-half inches. A complete pack comprises eighty cards, divided into eight suits: man, fish, crow, pheasant, antelope, [Page 168] star, rabbit and horse. The cards of each suit are numbered from one to nine, the tenth card in each suit being designated as "general." This term, the numbered suits; the name of the game, and the method of play which the writer has described at length in his Korean Games,20 serve to relate these cards to the Chinese money-cards, of which he regards them as the more or less direct ancestors. The design of a feather, Figure 3, drawn on the backs of these cards, suggests their connection with arrow shaftments from which I believe they were derived. (Figure 3 is the upper part of the reverse of a Korean Playing Card, showing arrow feather. Drawing is from Korean Games.)

All games appear to have their roots in more or less primitive conditions and to have so grown up from these conditions that it is impossible to say that any individual in particular was their inventor. In ma-jong the form of the pieces is that of the early Chinese domino game. Its marks are in part copied from Chinese paper cards imitated from money, and, following precedent, are in part more or less empirical, while the play, the game itself, is a modification of an old Chinese card game, which, in turn, may be traced to an earlier game in which success was achieved through the fortuitous association of arrow-derived lots.

Plate 7

Chinese note for one kun, ten strings of one hundred cash of the Emperor T'ai Tsu (Period: Hung Wu, AD 1368-1398) of the Ming Dynasty.

Plate 7

Chinese playing cards were copied from similar but earlier notes. The value of the note is expressed pictorially by strings of cash, which were transferred to the paper cards and subsequently to the pieces of the game of majong. This note is in the collection of the Brooklyn Museum.


  1. The writer has chosen this transliteration of the name of the game to distinguish the game as it is known and played in the United States.
  2. W. H. Wilkinson, "Chinese Origin of Playing Cards", The American Anthropologist, Vol. VIII, No. 1, 1895, p. 61.
  3. This catalogue has printed in the Descriptive Catalogue, World's Colombian Exposition, Department U, Revised Edition. p. 8-1. Chicago, 1893. It was printed again, with illustrations, by the present author in his Korean Games, Philadelphia, 1895, pp. 135-146.
  4. See "Chinese Games with Dice and Dominoes", Report U. S. National 'Museum for 1893, Washington, 1895, p. 513.
  5. Ibid. p. 514.
  6. Ibid. p. 511.
  7. For example, while the name of Shi Tsin, one of the heroes of this romance, appears on one of the five jokers in a pack of khan p'ai in Mr. Wilkinson's collection - three of the other jokers: "Blue Snake", "White Snake" and the "Fairy Ha" - are taken from "The Tale of the White Snake."
  8. A Japanese edition (Sui ko den) translated by Bakin (1767-1848), is illustrated by Hokusai.
  9. Le Siecle des Youen, Paris, 1851, p. 108.
  10. Dr. Le Coq, to whose courtesy I am indebted for this illustration, informs me that this card was found by him in 1905 while digging in the loess and debris from the mountain side, deposited on the N. terrace of Temple No. 10 in the glen of Sangim Aghyz between Murtuq and Qara Khoja near Turfan. "Unfortunately I am not sure that this locality, which is close to a road has not been invaded by treasure seekers. Still the objects found with it, a pen and ink case and some fragments of Uigur mss. belong without any doubt to the Uigur period." From these indications it would appear to he at least of the 11th Century.
  11. There is no reason to believe the money cards were limited to even four suits. There are eight suits in their antetypes, the Korean htou-tjyen, a number, which is reduced in some packs to six.
  12. This latter peculiarity is not confined to the Rut chi, as the kwan p'ai or stick cards are used also in games in which the cards take each other as described above.
  13. There are two kinds of pieces for this game, both marked in the same manner. Those here referred to are of bamboo and bone conjoined, like those used for ma-jong. The other kind, in general use among the Cantonese are of wood, stained black, two and five-eighths inches long by seen-eighths by three-eighths of an inch, with incised spots painted white and red, representing the permutations of two dice. Eleven of these pieces are duplicated, making thirty-two in the complete set. This, the present form of the game, was decided by an Imperial edict in 1120 AD, which date is cited incorrectly as that of the invention of Chinese playing cards. Mr. Wilkinson has pointed out that all that was done or asked for in 1120 was an Imperial decision as to which of several forms or interpretations of the game now known as "heavens and nines" was to be considered orthodox and that the game and the cards must have been in existence long before. These "cards" are what we know as dominoes, the invention of which may be attributed to the Chinese. They differ from our dominoes in the absence of the blank.
  14. These marks are borrowed directly from dominoes and dice throws in which they receive the names of Heaven, Earth, and Man and the Harmony that is supposed to unite them.
  15. W. H. Wilkinson, "Chinese Origin of Playing Cards", The American Anthropologist, Vol. VIII, No. 1, 1895, p. 68.
  16. H. A. Ramsden, Chinese Paper Money, Yokohama, 1911.
  17. Andrew McFarland Davis, Certain Old Chinese Notes, Boston, 1915.
  18. J. G. I. Breitkopf, Versuch den Ursprung der Spielkarten zu erforschen, Leipzig, 1784.
  19. Korean Games, p. 66
  20. Korean Games, p.123.

Last update January 30, 2010