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Chinese Dominoes

Nobody is sure where or when Chinese dominoes came into existence, but they were reported by European travelers during the Renaissance and are still popular in Asian countries today. According to Andrew Lo, the earliest extant manual on dominoes is by Qu You (1347-1433) who wrote the "Xuanhe paipu" (manual of dominoes in the Xuanhe period 1119-1125). Also Xie Zhaozhe (1567-1624) mentions the legend of their invention in 1112. Even if these and various other references to domino playing in the 12th century are not to be trusted, they must certainly have been in use well before the early 15th century, when the first of these books was written.

Note that there is no direct historical connection between Chinese dominoes and mah jong tiles. Mah jong tiles were developed in the 19th century as a more durable form of money cards, and both dominoes and mah jong exist in China in both card and tile forms.

Chinese dominoes are different from the usual set of Western dominoes in many ways. About the only things they have in common is a relationship to the dice used in their cultures. However, the Chinese dominoes have a much stronger relationship, and use the same names for both dominoes and corresponding throws on two dice.

There is a good chance that the tiles started as a way to record the throw of the banker in a popular dice game called Tien Gow ("Heaven Nine"). The game starts with a banker covering bets against other players and then throwing a pair of dice. The banker's roll or point, to use terms from Craps, is either in the Civil suit or the Military suit. The suits are sets of pairs which will be explained later. If the banker rolls the highest pair in his suit, he immediately wins all bets; if he rolls the lowest pair in his suit, he immediately loses all bets. Otherwise the dice are passed to the other players who try to roll a higher pair in the same suit as the banker; no money is exchanged on ties. You can see how this dice game influenced Pai Gow and other Chinese domino games.

The tiles are longer and narrower that the "double square" shape used in the West. This is because the games played with them use the tiles like playing cards to build melds or like dice to make totals rather than to build chains of tiles on the table top. They have to have a shape which allows several of them to be held at once, so most pieces are about one inch wide and about two and a half inches long.

They have no dividing bar in the center to separate the two ends. The two ends are separated by either distance, clustering or colors. The games usually depend on the total number of pips and the suit (Civil or Military), so matching the ends are not as important.

Following the convention of Chinese dice, the one pip and the four pip are always colored red. The other pips are all colored white, except for the double six. The double six separates the two ends by coloring three pips red and three pips white in each pip. Twos are shown as two white spots side by side (like Chinese dice) on the extreme end, not on a diagonal like Western dominoes and dice. Koreans sometimes use a large red spot for the one, again following the convention of Chinese dice. The three pips are usually shown as a diagonal, except on the double three dominoes, where the spots are sometimes laid out as two horizontal, two vertical and two horizontal groupings.

Unlike Western dominoes, there are no blanks tiles in Chinese dominoes. The Western set has 28 tiles in the standard double six set; the Chinese set has 32 tiles. In most Western domino games, the total is not as important as the values on each half of the tile. The ranking, name, coloring and arrangement of pips of Chinese dominoes is based on tradition. The important things in the Chinese games are the total pips (usually taken modulus ten) and forming ranked pairs of tiles.

Chinese dominoes are divided into two series -- Military and Civil. These are the same series used in Chinese dice games and their ranking is not in numeric order.

  • The Military series consists of ten dominoes, ranked by their
  • totals as in dice games. Notice that there are no doubles in the Military suit.
  • The Civil series is made of eleven pairs of identical dominoes. There are traditional names for the pairs and for each tile, much like the names that we assign to the throw of dice in a game of Craps ([1-1] is "snake eyes", [6-6] is "boxcars", [4-4] is a "hard eight") or in playing card games (the Jack of Spades and the Queen of Diamonds are a "Pinochle", A full house of Aces and Eights are the "Dead man's hand" in Poker, and so forth).

Military Series
[4-2]Six or Big Chicken
[2-1]Final three or little Chicken
Civil Series
[5-5]Plum Flowers
[3-3]Long Threes
[6-5]Tiger's Head
[6-4]Red Head Ten
[6-1]Long-leg Seven
[5-1]Red Mallet Six

Another way to look at the Chinese domino set is in pairs:

Six Twin pairs: (i.e. pairs of doubles) Five Regular pairs: (i.e. identical pairs, but not doubles)Four Irregular pairs: (i.e same totals, but different pips)One supreme pair: (it is unique)
[1-1] [1-1]
[2-2] [2-2]
[3-3] [3-3]
[4-4] [4-4]
[5-5] [5-5]
[6-6] [6-6]
[1-3] [1-3]
[1-5] [1-5]
[1-6] [1-6]
[4-6] [4-6]
[5-6] [5-6]
[2-3] [1-4]
[3-4] [2-5]
[3-5] [2-6]
[4-5] [3-6]
[1-2] [2-4]

Western dominoes often have a spinner in the middle of the dividing bar on their face. This is a little metal rounded nail rom resting flat on the table top. Chinese dominoes are always flat faced and can be stacked. The Chinese tiles are mixed in the same manner as Western dominoes, but while Western games leave the tiles loosely spread on the table top in a "boneyard", Chinese games build a "woodpile" by stacking the dominoes in one or more rows which are made of stacks of tiles of a certain heights; the exact shape of the woodpile and how you deal the stacks varies for each game.

One common method is to throw dice (usually three dice) and count the stacks in the woodpile. The first player gets the stack determined by the dice and then each player takes the next one in line according to some dealing scheme.

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This page was contributed by Joe Celko (jcelko212@earthlink.net) and updated by John McLeod (john@pagat.com).   © Joe Celko, John McLeod 2002, 2011. Last updated: 5th January 2011