Sunday, 1 July 2018

"Long cards" 2: 川牌 Sichuan Cards

No. 888- [Sichuanese domino cards] Binwang, 105+10c
No. 888 《川牌》 宾王, 105+10副

 Now we come to the other form of "Long cards" -- Ones based on Chinese dominoes. There are several kinds of Domino cards used in China, such as the "Fifteen point" (十五湖) cards used in Hong Kong ( see Here). These cards are used in Sichuan [Szechuan] ( yes, the same place as the sauce!) and are thus called by the Chinese "Sichuanese cards" ( 川牌)

The composition of this deck differs in several ways from Chinese dominoes made of wood.
A set of domino tiles contains 21 unique tiles. Some of these tiles are doubled. The complete set contains 32 tiles.
  The structure of the Sichuanese deck is simpler. There are Four copies of each tile/subject. The deck thus contains 21 x 4 = 84 cards. However, some decks, like this one, possess 5 copies of each card. To these 105 cards are added "Jokers" . There are two kinds of joker, with five copies of each kind. The whole deck thus contains 115 cards.

The pips in the Sichuanese deck are oriented horizontally, unlike the vertical arrangement of pips in the Fifteen-point cards
In the middle of each card, is depicted a personage from The Water margin, a Chinese novel. The personage depicted does not influence the actual value of the card. It is merely decoration. Decks are produced that lack the central personage
The individual ranks are also given names. For example, the [6,6] is called "Heaven" . These names are the ones used in Sichuan. Some differ from the names used in Pai Gow, which may be more familiar to western readers.  

Chinese Name
English Translation
Character depicted
Song Jiang, leader of the 108  outlaws
Gongsun Sheng
Tai Ming 
Zi Jing
Plum Blossom
Ge Ping
Long Three
Wu Song
Long Two
Monk Hua

 Of the five copies of each card, one of them is marked with a green flourish (like the  [5,6]) , and the other four are plain. (like the [4,6]). I have chosen to alternately show cards that bear the flourish, and cards that do not. I must emphasize that ALL the subjects exist in Flourished and unflourished forms. 

Chinese Name
English Translation
Character depicted
Zhang Qing
Red Ten
Yang Zhi
Tall One
Suo Cao
Xu Ning
Red Nine
Lu Junyi
Red Seven
Huyan Zhuo
Red Five
Li Ying

The Last Seven cards in the deck. The central personage is printed in Red or Black, depending on the presence of red pips ( the 2s and 4s) in the card. For example, the [1,4] which has red pips, has its its personage printed in Red. The [2,3], which has no red pips, has its personage printed in Black. This is probably economizing on the printer's part. However, the presence of red pips affects the score a card is given in the games played. An observant player might exploit this feature.   

Chinese Name
English Translation
Character depicted
Black Nine
Wu Yong
Level Eight
Lin Chong
Black Seven
Hua Rong
Black Five
Zhu Gong
Black Eight
Guan Sheng
Two Red
Liu Tang
“Ding Ding”
Dai Zhong

The two "Jokers" of the deck. On the Left, printed in green is 聽用- Ting Yong- "Listen and Use". On the Right, printed in red is the 財神 Cai shen-- " God of Wealth" . 

Here are two copies of the [1,1] one with the flourish, and one without. 

Games played with the deck
The two main games played with the deck are 打亂出- Da Luan Chu, a Trick-taking game, and 鬥十四 - Dou shisi , a rummy-like game. I hope to describe the rules of the two games in subsequent posts. 

Tuesday, 5 June 2018

Gaming tiles from Singapore

[Gaming tiles], 32c. Anon. 

The tiles in their box. 

Some years ago, I saw a set of gaming-tiles from a Mahjong shop in Singapore. The tiles were extremely peculiar. The proprietor was ignorant about their function, and the objects themselves seemed very old. I nonetheless bought them, and they have been a mystery ever since. 

The box contained 32 tiles. The design of the tiles resembled the ones used for mahjong, but the similarities ended there. 

The complete deck

The complete 'Deck' contained 32 tiles, engraved on long, thin pieces of plastic. This sort of shape is typically associated with Chinese dominoes. But it had radically different subjects. As mentioned above, it had mahjong-like pips with ranks from 1 to 10, plus three 'Court cards', indexed in large Roman letters. The result is a sort of single-suited deck.

The Pips (1)
There is an unequal number of copies of each subject, as you can see here. There are two copies of the ace, the 2, 3, 4,5, 6, and 7 have three copies each. The 8,9 10 and courts again have two copies. 

The Pips (2)
The 7, 8, 9 and 10.  Up to the 8, the arrangement of pips agrees with those in mahjong tiles. The Nine and 10 diverge.  In mahjong tiles, the pips for the Nine are arranged in 3 rows of three. In this deck, they are arranged 5,4. The Ten is absent in a mahjong deck, so our engraver has arranged it 6,4

Three of the six courts. Note the large roundel that shows their rank. 

What sort of game is played with this deck? We can speculate. Counting was clearly an element in the game. But how the numbers were used is another open question. Why are there some cards with two copies of each, and others with three? A game like black-jack is a likely candidate. But the uneven distribution of cards would make the deck awkward to use for such a game. . There are Seven subjects that have two copies of each card (A, 8,9,10, J,Q,K), and Six subjects that have 3 copies of each (2,3,4,5,6,7)

Number of copies
Ace, 8, 9, 10
Jack, Queen, King,
14 cards.
18 cards
Total number in deck -----------------------------------------
32 cards

Another possibility is a 'comparison' game, like Daun Tiga or Koo Kiew. The relative scarcity of high-ranked cards in the deck might make these games more challenging. 

The other three courts. 

The game might also have been played with English playing-cards, as the inclusion of the courts suggests. Three of the courts have a blue "Index", and the other three have this painted in red. Does the difference in coloring mean the color of the cards was significant in the game, or is it merely the maker wanting to introduce variety? 
The tiles. 

I do not think the set is incomplete. The tiles fit the box provided perfectly. The distribution of the ranks seems unlikely to be resulting from chance. But if it is not chance, what is the rationale? We can only speculate.

If any reader has more information on what these tiles are, or what game is played with them, the author will be most grateful.

Saturday, 5 May 2018

Water Margin cards 水滸牌

"High Quality plastic poker cards" ( Water Margin cards), Yunchu, 120c
“高級全塑扑克牌” (水滸牌),雲楚 , 120c.
Here is another deck of money-suited cards. The cards seem to be fairly well-known. An Example from the 1960s is shown here  ( called "3 suits-10). Despite being half a century younger, the decks are extremely similar. This present deck is printed on Plastic. Chinese playing-card makers seem to have taken a liking to the material.
This deck possesses 30 subjects. There are four copies of each card.

The suit of coins. Nine is on the Left. The cards are ranked, from Left-to-right, in descending order, with the Ace on the Right. The same holds for all other images. 

 Notice that the ace and Nine of coins have the coins replaced by human figures. Both are personages from the Water Margin. Names of characters from the same novel are also written on the other cards. For instance, the name Bai Sheng is written over the two of coins, even though there is no portrait of him on the card.  

Rather helpfully, each card has its rank spelled out on top of each card. So, on the six of coins, the words expressing the rank 六并  are spelled out, above the six coins depicted.
The word used is 并, which, currently means "also" . In all probability the character is shorthand for "餅“, meaning "Cake", which fits the meaning-- a cake of silver. 

The suit of strings, or as they are called here, "Fish". This may seem an odd choice, but the Chinese counting-word for fish  is the same as the one for strings. The 2, 3 and 4 of fishes appear to be swimming, but their brethren on the higher ranks appear to be dead, hanging on strings. 

The ace of coins is here called the "Small fish" . The personage depicted on the card, Zhang Shun was well-known for his powers in swimming. 
Note the bold white-on-black geometric designs on the cards. These function as the indices. Each card has a unique index. Also note that the indices in the Ace and Nine are tinged with red.

The suit of myriads. Here the personages on each card are actually depicted. On the Nine of myriads there is the leader of the 108 outlaws of the Water Margin, Song Jiang. 

Like the previous suits, only the figures on the Ace and Nine are colored. The cheery color scheme of red and yellow is austere compared compared to some other decks ( like this one),

On the top row, are the honour cards, called "Old Thousand", "White Flower" and "Red Flower" 

The manufacturers also print a luxury version of the cards, with gold ink . The cards from the luxury version are marked A, the ones from the normal version marked B. The luxury and Normal versions are known by different names. The Normal version is called 雲楚-- Yunchu and the Luxury version called 明富 Mingfu

Above are shown the boxes that contain the cards. (A) and (B) show two sides of the box. C and D are the backs of the boxes. They contain an inscription, extolling the virtues of the cards. The inscriptions are identical, save the name assigned to the cards. C is the box for Yunchu, D for Minfu. Below is a translation of the inscription.  

" Yunchu Poker cards are made of imported material, which has been refined through stamping. As a result, the cards are opaque, do not crack, and have clearly printed pictures. Of durable make, the firm's cards are of the top quality, and have a wide circulation through the country, warmly received by a great many users. 
[ Red on white text] High Class All Plastic Poker cards"

. It is interesting to see the cards being referred to as 撲克牌-- Pu ke Pai  " Poker cards"  even though it is quite impossible to play the game of Poker with the deck

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

"Long cards" 1: Nantong pattern

[Nantong pattern], "Flower-king playing-cards"  Rugao city poker-card factory. 120c.+5
《南通长牌》--“花王纸牌” 如皋市扑克牌一厂. 120+5 張

The term 长牌 means "Long cards"  The Chinese use this term to refer to several kinds of  Traditional playing-cards. Such a term is unknown in the West. occidental catalogers prefer to classify such cards by their suit-system [Vide S. Mann]. The western classification has its benefits, but we shall use the Chinese term as our guide here, leading our way through the different types of cards used in China.  Some of these cards may seem familiar. But there is little in the western literature beyond photographs of them. In this series, we shall remedy this defect, exploring these mysterious pieces of paper in more detail

I start off with one such deck, which I call the "Nantong pattern". It has a special place in my heart. Until recently, it was the greatest regret of my collecting career.

Sometime in 2010-2012, I was in Geylang, Singapore . It is a place famed for its food, and brothels. Walking back from a restaurant, I noticed something in a drain. Drawing closer, it turned out to be a pile of playing-cards. They were of the Chinese style, but of a pattern I never saw before. The bottom of the cards looked like the common Ceki cards that were used in this part of the world.  But The top half of the cards was occupied with a figure. Furthermore, the cards in the suit of myriads were not marked with the legend 萬, or any Chinese numeral. Instead, they were marked with dots, like dice.  I did not pick the cards up. After all, they might have been the remnants of an illegal gambling den. But a regret lingered in my mind.

  The only other time I saw the cards, was in a mahjong-set. A piece of cardstock, on which the pattern had been printed was used to hold the dice. Other sets in that shop had paper with remnants of domino-suited cards serving the same function. But it seemed preposterous to buy a whole mahjong set for a single scrap of paper. I let that pass too.

One day, whilst idly searching the internet, I found an image of these very same cards. I Clicked on the link. It led to the shop of a merchant, who sold these cards on the Chinese website Taobao. I ordered the cards at once.

The cards are known as 南通长牌-- Nantong long cards. Nantong is a city on the Yangtze river, Jiangsu. They are printed by [Rugao city poker-card factory] This deck is similar to Catalog No. 245B in Sylvia Mann's All cards on the table , but the decks are not identical. The differences will be noted at the bottom of the page. The chief difference are the figures attached to the tops of the cards. Sylvia Mann's deck seems to be made by a maker called 景記

In the notes that follow, I am indebted to Hu Baishen胡柏生 and Du Guoyuan杜国元's  book nantong long-cards-- Talking about Dazihe (南通长牌-- 话说搭子和). published by 大众文艺出版社. This book explicates the cards themselves, as well as their history and the game played with them. Readers unfamiliar with Chinese Money-suited cards may wish to peruse 

 There are three suits: Coins, Strings and myriads. Each has cards ranking one to nine. In addition, there are three extra cards, called "Generals". There are four copies of each of these cards. The deck thus contains 120 cards   The deck also has a set of five "jokers", giving a grand total of 125 cards.

The Suit of Coins, or . The Chinese word literally means " Cake". Some take it as an allusion to the cake-like ingots of silver formerly used in China.  The bottom part of the card depicts the suit-symbols proper to the card's rank. The top half of the card depicts the figure of a person. The description of the cards is adapted from Hu and Du's work. 

1: Sha Wujing, or Friar Sand. He is one of the protagonists of the Journey to the west. The bottom part of the card  depicts Shi Qian, a character from The water margin, another Chinese novel
2: Li Tieguai, one of the eight immortals
3:Zhu Bajie, a protagonist from the Journey to the West. He has the head of a pig, and bears a rake, his trademark weapon. 
4:Tang Sanzang, yet another protagonist from the the Journey to the West. He is shown riding his horse, who will carry him to India to fetch the true scriptures of Buddhism. 
5: Sun Wukong, the beloved "Monkey" of the the Journey to the West. Along with Sha Wujing and Zhi bajie, Sun wukong protects the mild-mannered Tang Zanzang in his quest. 
6: Turtle spirit.
7:Clam spirit
8: Liu Hai chan, a Chinese immortal
9: The Qilin bestowing sons. 
The first "General card" is the white flower 白花 The card itself depicts Ruan Xiauwu, a character from The water margin. The Chinese words in black are 优极 "Excellent quality"  A red overprint covers them. It depicts Taibai Jinxing, the celestial messenger in the Journey to the West.  

The suit of strings.   The figures here are Chinese immortals. 
1: Taishang Laojun, one of the three pure ones of Taoism
2: Lu dongbin, One of the eight immortals. 
3: Cao Guojiu,  another of the eight immortals. 
4: Han Xiangzi, Another of the eight immortals. He plays the flute,being the patron of flutists. 
5: Zhongli Quan, with his magical fan. He is also one of the eight immortals. 
6: Zhang Guolao, another of the Eight Immortals. 
7: Bai niangzi , Madam white snake. From the eponymous drama. 
8: The subject of the red overprint is "The heavenly official gives blessings" 天官赐福. The Chinese characters are 如皋市扑克牌一厂, the maker's name. 
 9: The black Chinese character is , written in the archaic seal script. For its significance, see below. 
The second General card is the 红花, or Red Flower. It depicts Wu Song, one of the characters from The water margin. He is depicted with bulging eyes, a bare chest [with a pair of nipples!] and a pair of boots. The boots seem strangely unconnected to his body. 
The Red flower and nine of strings have the same overprint: A flower. 

The suit of myriads. In Other kinds of money-suited card, the values in this suit are shown by Chinese numerals. In this deck, the values are marked by dots. In addition to the figures in the top half of the card, the bottom part depicts yet another person. I will mark the figure on the top half by T, and the bottom half by B. Characters from the water margin are be marked with the initials WM

1: T: Hu sanniang, B: Yan Qing, (both WM)
2: T: Lan Caihe, one of the eight immortals B: Yang Zhi (WM)
3T: Guan Sheng B: Li kui, both from WM
4: T: Lu zhishen, alias Monk Hua,  B: Chai Jin (both WM)
5: T: He xiangu, one of the eight immortals B; Li Jun (WM)
6: T: Shi Jin. B: Sun Li (both WM)
7: T: Zhu tong B: Qin Ming (both WM)
8: Red overprint: Wu Yong B: Ruan Xiaoqi, the "Living king of hell"  (both WM)
9: T: The words 塑光.  B Lei Heng (WM) . The card has an overprint of a red flower

The last General is the 千子, or "Thousand children". Unique the other general cards, it is depicted as if it were a member of this suit, bearing ten dots. The card depicts Ruan Xiaowu, again from The Water Margin. The red overprint seems to have an inscription in seal-script, but unfortunately I cannot understand it. 

The five jokers. Four of them are marked 百搭- "Hundred connections". One of them is marked 小先生-- “ Little Sir" . On the other end,the cards bear one of the following words; [wealth] ,[rank],寿[longevity] , [fortune] and [joy]. The top half of the cards depicts an animal. 

The inscriptions on the four cards above reads 江蘇如皋-- Jiangsu, Rugao [city]. The place where the cards are made. 
The main game played with this deck is called 笃子胡 or 搭子胡 in a subsequent post, I will describe the rules of the game.

Notes on Sylvia Mann's Catalog 245B 

As mentioned above, a very similar deck of cards is featured in Sylvia Mann's  Alle Karten auf den tisch / All cards on the table [ 1990] She dates the deck to the late 19th century,. The deck possesses 120 cards, [4 x 30] plus five cards-- exactly the same as the Rugao deck. Her notes on the deck are sparse. She notes the domino-like markings on the suit of myriads, and the figures on the top of the cards.  The image used to illustrate them is below:

Here are my observations on the cards.

Top row: The five jokers. They are much more elaborate than the cards of the Rugao deck

2nd row [from top] : The ace through Nine of Myriads, ace on the right, Nine on the right. The figures on the top of the cards are different from the rugao deck. The clam spirit is on the 4 of myriads, instead of the 7 of coins. The Eight of Myriads [ 2nd card from left] has the legend 永興, Yong Xing --" Eternally flourishing" 

3rd row [from top] The ace through Nine of Strings

Bottom row: From the left, The Nine, Eight, Seven, Six and Five of coins, followed by the thousand children, Red flower and White flower. The Six of coins bears the legend 景記, which may be the maker's name.

Like the Rugao deck, the Nine of Strings, Thousand children and Red flower  bear an inscription in the Seal script. Unfortunately I am incapable of reading the whole inscription,

The inscription on the Nine of myriads [2nd row, 1st from left]  is 雲.
The inscription on the Nine of strings  [3rd row, 1st from left] is 商
I am unable to read the inscription on the Ten of Myriads [ Bottom row, 6th from left]
The inscription on the Red flower [bottom row, 7th from left]  may be 實

Friday, 5 January 2018

A "Bunch" of fortune-telling games.

Some time ago I featured a fortune-telling game from "Mother Bunch's golden fortune-teller". I shall now describe the other divinatory games in that book. I present a summary of the rules below

Love in a Bag
An extremely simple game. Players deposit a stake into a pool. A deck of cards is shuffled, and placed in a bag. Players draw two cards from the bag, and observe the combination:

Combination/ card
Foretells a…

Wins Half a stake
A constant lover
Wins One stake
J♥, Q
Cupid &Venus
 “great settlement”
Wins whole pool.
4s, 8s,

“Losses and crosses”
Pay one stake + extra forfeit to pool.

One feels that this would make an excellent party-game.

Cupid's Hearts

 Deal out all the pack among four young persons equally, as if for whist, but make the hearts always trumps, or conquerors : she that gets most tricks this way shall have most lovers, and hearts must be first led off by the person next the dealer. Hard is their fate, at least in affairs of love and marriage, that have no heart to answer the first call, but the more and higher in suit the better for the party ; Cupid and Hymen will befriend them, and the smiling loves attend them. 

  This game is merely a form of whist, but with the following differences:
1) Hearts are always trumps
2) The hearts must be first lead by the person next to the dealer. If the player cannot do this, then they would have bad luck in affairs of love. One assumes they will also be penalized. 
  The number of hearts in the hand dealt, is directly proprotional to the number of lovers the player will have. Same for the number of tricks won.

Cupid Crowned
Not a game per se, but involves playing cards. This game uses a deck of 20 cards, namely the courts, the aces and the 3s. Only four women may play, for reasons that will become apparent. Deal the cards evenly. Players observe the composition of their hands, which will foretell their future. 

Prediction/ symbolism :
Hand with most Kings
Holder has most friends
Hand with most Queens
Holder has most Enemies
King and Queen in hand
Queen and Jack in hand
Intrigue ( an affair?)
More than one Jack or 3
Holder will have children before marriage
More than one Jack or 3, Plus Jack
Holder will never marry
More than one Jack or 3, Plus King
Holder “Stands a good chance” [of being married?]
More than one Jack or 3, Plus Queen
Holder “will be brought to great shame”

A fascinating insight into the anxieties of women. Feminists and historians, take note. 


Mother Bunch's golden fortune-teller was not the only text attributed to this lady. A collection of divination methods, called Mother Bunch's closet newly broke open seems to have existed as early as the 1680s. ( see   for a 19thc. reprint, and Here  and here . for two older editions ) 

This work is in the form of a series of dialogues, where Mother Bunch advises youths on their problems.They mostly concern marriage and love. These solutions typically take the form of some ritual. Most notable is the practice of dreaming for a Lover on St Agnes' eve. This was immortalized by the poem of John Keats.

 The format of the book seems to have been well-known enough to be parodied. A religious organization published a similar chapbook, but with the intent of mocking divination. Tawney Rachel; or, The fortune teller shows the adventures of an fortune-telling crone. She goes around implanting superstitions in impressionable young minds, causing them to waste money and time.
  She ends up being caught  selling obscene ballads. Rachel is denounced by all whom she defrauded, and is transported to Australia. "A happy Day it was for the county of Somerset when such a nuisance was sent out of it". Presumably not so happy for that continent.

Jokes were also attributed to the woman, as for example in a work called Pasquil's Jests, Mixed with Mother Bunches Merriments , Even fairy-tale collections bear her name ( see  Here)