Bao Huang


This page is based on information from James Cumming and Leo Hong.


This Chinese climbing game for five players is said to have originated in Shandong province, and in the early 21st century it has become popular across a wide area of northern China and online. Băo huáng (保皇) means 'protect the emperor', and the game is also often known as dìwáng (帝王) meaning 'emperor'. In each deal two players, the emperor and his protector the eunuch (xiao baozi: 小孢子), play against a team of three, the farmers or people (ping min: 平民). The emperor and the eunuch are the holders of particular cards. While the emperor is known from the start, his protector remains hidden until the card is played.

As in all climbing games the object is to get rid of one's cards (and help one's partners to do so) by playing them singly or in combinations, where each play must beat the previous play.

The descriptions of this game that I have seen all emphasise that there are many variations, and I have partial descriptions of some of these. I would be grateful to hear from anyone who knows more about these or other versions of this game. The main account below describes a version played in Rizhao (日照) in Shandong province.

Players and cards

huangbaoThere are five players and a pack of 168 cards is used. This can be constructed from four standard 52-card packs from which the 3's, 4's and 5's are removed plus four red jokers and four black jokers. Suits are irrelevant in this game, and the cards rank from high to low:

Red joker, Black joker, 2, A, K, Q, J, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6.

One red joker and one black joker are marked on the front, and the holders of these two cards will be the emperor and the eunuch respectively. Although standard Anglo-American cards can be used, the game is sufficiently popular that special 168-card packs can be obtained for this game with the emperor and eunuch cards ready printed.

The game may be played either clockwise or anticlockwise. Once established, the same direction of play is maintained throughout the session.

Deal and Partnerships

The cards are shuffled and stacked face down. As in most Chinese games they are not distributed by a single player. Instead, players take their own cards from the top of the pile, one card at a time, in turn, until all the cards are taken. A neighbour of the play who shuffled cuts the cards, and the next player in that direction takes the first card. This establishes the direction of play. Since the number of cards is not exactly divisible by five, some players will have one more cards than others. Players hold their cards so that they can see their faces and their opponents cannot.

For subsequent deals, the turn to cut and to take the first card rotates in the direction of play, so the player who took the first card in the previous deal should cut, and the next player should take the first card.

Holding a hand of as many as 34 or 35 cards will be an unusual experience for most Western players. In China, players often hold their cards in more than one row or in a sort of array with equal cards in a column, as in the photographs.

holding cards in bao huang 1 holding cards in bao huang 2

The holder of the marked red joker (emperor card) is the emperor (or king) and the holder of the marked black joker is the emperor's protector (also known as the eunuch or the royalist), who plays as the emperor's partner. The other three players are the common people, also known as farmers or revolutionaries. The holder of the emperor card can choose not to be the emperor: in this case the emperor card is passed to the next player in the direction of play. No card is given in exchange: the original holder of the emperor card now has one card fewer and the new emperor one card more than were originally dealt. If the new emperor does not want the role, he or she can pass the card again, and this continues until it is received by someone who is willing to be the emperor.

While the emperor is immediately known from the fact that this player begins the play, the emperor's partner should keep quiet. The common people will not know initially which player is supporting the emperor: they may suspect who it is during the play by observing who seems to be helping the emperor, but it will only be known for certain when the marked black joker is played.

If one player holds both the emperor and the eunuch cards, this player will play alone against a team of four, although the team members will not initially realise that this is the situation. If the emperor does not wish to play alone, this can be avoided by passing the emperor card to the left.

In the second and subsequent deals there is a penalty for the losers of the previous deal. After all the cards have been taken, the members of the team that lost the previous deal must each give away their highest card other than a joker: this will usually be a two. These high cards are placed on the table face down, taken by the members of the winning team and added to their hands. The emperor from the previous deal must give away his or her highest two cards (other than jokers) if the emperor's team lost, and takes two of the high cards offered by the farmers if the emperor's team won. An emperor who was playing alone will give or receive four cards in the next deal.

Playable Combinations

Cards can be played singly or several at a time. When playing more than one card, the cards must form a playable combination. The playable combinations are:

  1. Any quantity of equal cards, irrespective of suit, for example 8-8 or Q-Q-Q-Q or 9-9-9-9-9-9-9.
  2. Any number of equal cards together with any number of jokers of any colour, for example 7-7-black or 6-red or K-K-K-black-red. A combination including one joker is known as guà le yī ge (挂了一个: one card hanging), with two jokers guà le liăng ge (挂了两个: a pair of cards hanging), with three jokers 挂了三个 and so on.
  3. Any number of jokers of any colour, for example black-black-red.

A single card can only be beaten by a higher single card. A combination beats a previously played combination if and only if

  1. it is playable, and
  2. it has the same number of cards, and
  3. each card of the new combination beats a corresponding card of the previous combination.

So for example:

  • 7-7-7 can be beaten by 10-10-10, which can be beaten by A-A-A, which can be beaten by 2-2-2, (two being higher than ace in this game), which can only be beaten by three jokers;
  • 8-8-8-8 can be beaten by 9-9-9-black, which can be beaten by Q-Q-Q-red, but 8-8-8-black does not beat 8-8-8-8 in this version of the game (but see variations);
  • any combination containing a red joker is unbeatable;
  • a combination containing black jokers can only be beaten by a higher combination containing at least as many red jokers - for example 7-7-black-black can be beaten by 9-9-red-red or by K-black-red-red, but not by Q-black-black-red (since only one of the black jokers in the first combination has been beaten) and not by 7-7-red-red (since 7 does not beat 7).


The emperor begins by leading any single card or playable combination. All players, in anticlockwise order, may either pass - saying 'bùyào' (不要) or 'guò' (过) - or beat it by playing a higher card or combination. As explained above, each play must consist of the same number of cards, and must be higher than the previous play. This continues for as many circuits as necessary until no one is able and willing to beat the last card or combination that was played. When a play is followed by consecutive passes from all the other players, the player who played the last (unbeaten) combination begins again and is free to play any card or playable combination.

Note that passing does not prevent a player from playing at his or her next turn if someone else has played meanwhile.

A player whose play is currently unbeaten may ask the other players not to beat it, saying 'zhàn pái' (站牌). If the teams are not yet known this may provide a clue as to which side the player is on or may be deceptive. The other players do not have to comply.

As players run out of cards they drop out of the play and the others continue until all members of one or the other team have played all their cards. If someone plays their last card(s) and these are not beaten, the turn to restart the play with any card or playable combination passes to the next player to the right who still has cards.


If the first and last players to run out of cards are from opposing teams, the first player's team wins and the last player's team loses.

If the emperor has a partner, and the first and last players are from the same team, the game is a tie.

If the emperor is alone, the emperor wins if he is first to run out of cards and loses otherwise.

As mentioned above, in the next deal members of the losing team have to give away their best cards other than twos to the winners. If there is a tie, in the next deal everyone keeps the cards they were dealt.

Sixes Played Last

Bao Huang is sometimes played with the extra rule that sixes (the lowest cards) must be played last. In this version it is illegal to play a six until one's hand contains nothing but sixes.

The play in this variant is somewhat more challenging. In order to be first out of cards, it is necessary to keep a winning combination for your second to last play, so as to finish by leading all your sixes. If your second to last play is beaten, you are doomed to come last unless the player before you ends with an unbeaten set of sixes, allowing you to lead your sixes next.

Other Variations

Leo Hong has provided partial information about some variations played in Shanghai and elsewhere. I would like to hear from anyone who can explain these and other variants in more detail, or who is in a position to translate and interpret the Chinese pages with rules of this game, such as those listed below.

Alternative scoring system

There is a scoring system which gives +4 points to the first player who runs out of cards, +2 to the second, 0 to the third, -2 to the fourth and -4 to the fifth. Each team adds up the points scored by its members, and that score is applied to everyone in the team. For example if the emperor's team come first and second, both will score +6 (4+2), and the three members of the other team each score -6 (0-2-4). If the emperor's team come first and fourth, they each gain 2 points (+4-2), and their opponents lose 2 each. If the emperor's team come third and fifth, they each lose 4, and the opponents each gain 4. Note that because of the unequal size of the teams, the positive and negative points do not balance in this system. To make them balance the emperor's score would need to be doubled.

If the emperor plays alone, the emperor's score is doubled. This presumably means that, for example, the emperor would score 8 points for coming first alone and the other players would lose 4 points each. (To balance the scores, the emperor's score would need to be doubled again, to 16.)

Passing of Cards

Using the scoring system above, a draw is possible if the emperor's team finishes first and last or second and fourth. In this case, no cards are passed after the following deal.

Some play that the losing team place their highest cards (other than jokers) face up on the table, and these are taken by the winning team in order of their finishing position in the previous deal.

Announcement of partnerships

Some play that the emperor's partner may announce who he is at the start of the play, and the scores are then doubled.

Also the emperor, if also holding the marked black joker, may announce that he has no partner, and the scores are tripled instead of doubled.

Order of Playable Combinations

Some play that in a combination with jokers, it is only the jokers that have to beat the corresponding cards of the previous play. It is sufficient for the ordinary cards to be equal. With this rule, 9-9-9-9 can be beaten by 9-9-9-black, which can be beaten by 9-9-9-red. However, if I have understood this version correctly, 9-9-black-black does not beat 9-9-9-black even though it has more jokers. Each joker has to be beaten, not just equalled, so a combination including a red joker is still unbeatable. Also, a set of ordinary cards can only be beaten by another set of the same rank if a joker is used: if the previous player played 8-8-8 it is not possible for another 8-8-8 to be played on it: the next player would have to be at least 9-9-9 or 8-8-black.

Leo Hong's description says that equal cards can be played 'with or without trumps', and that 'trumps like joker or card 2 could make a hand by themselves if necessary'. Taken together, these statements might imply that twos as well as jokers are considered 'trumps', and can therefore be combined with other cards to make combinations like 7-7-7-2. However none of his examples feature this kind of combination so probably this is not allowed.

Other Bao Huang websites

The Chinese website 保皇游戏网 has some information about Bao Huang and its variants.

Another set of rules in Chinese can be found at