Card games in China

Playing-cards were probably invented in China, where they are recorded as early as the 13th century - see David Parlett's page The Chinese Leaf Game. These earliest cards were long and narrow, with suits based on denominations of money. Traditional money cards are still used in some regions, but most Chinese card games are nowadays played with the international 52 card pack, often with red and black jokers added.

Climbing games are widespread. Examples are

Zheng Fen (Struggling for Points) is a climbing game which also incorporates the characteristic Chinese card values: king=10, ten=10, five=5. The same values are used in the point-trick games Da Bai Fen (Hundred) and Zhao Pengyou (Looking for Friends), Tuolaji (Tractor) and in fishing games such as Chinese Ten.

Other popular games include Gong Zhu (Catch the Pig), which is an enhanced version of Hearts, and Twenty-Four, a game of mental arithmetic.

Fifty-One is a commerce game played in Fujian province in which players try to collect five cards of a single suit.

Money cards typically have three suits (coins, strings and myriads) with cards from 1 to 9 in each, plus some bonus cards. Often there are several copies of each card. The most familiar pack of this type is Mah Jong, which is normally made as a set of tiles rather than cards and is used for a game related to Rummy. Another type are the long, narrow Dongguan cards, used for Quan Dui and other games. The four suited Hakka cards are another type of money cards, used for the trick-taking game Luk Fu.

Chinese Dominoes have numbers of spots from 1 to 6 at each end, so that there are 21 different tiles, but in a set eleven tiles are duplicated, so that there are 32 altogether. Although there are some games (such as Ce Deng or Jie Long) where the tiles are laid out with adjacent ends matching as in Westerm domino games, Chinese dominoes are often used for other types of game: trick taking games (such as Tien Gow), fishing games (such as Tiu U), rummy games (such as Kap Tai Shap), banking games (such as Pai Gow) and solitaire games (such as Xiang Shi Fu).

Dominoes are also available in the form of packs of cards. Some have 32 in a set for Tien Gow. More often they come in packs of 84, containing four of each card, which are used for a climbing game Chang Pai, which is described in an article by Anthony Smith and Günther Senst in The Playing-Card volume XXIV No 4.

Chess Cards have names of Chinese Chess pieces written on each card, and are found in sets containing each piece in two or four colours. The four colour cards are used for the rummy-like game Si Se Pai.

Number cards are used in western China, for example in the cities Xian and Guilin. There are two "suits", one with plain Chinese numerals and the other with the more elaborate formal number characters. Each suit has numbers from 1 to 10, indicated by the character at each end of the card; the twos, sevens and tens are red and the other numbers are black. There are four identical copies of each card, plus 1 or 5 additional cards, making a pack of 81 or 85. A game Two-Ten-Seven played with these cards is described in an article by Isao Umebayashi in The Playing-Card volume XXV No 4.

This page is maintained by John McLeod (   © John McLeod, 2001, 2004, 2007, 2015, 2021. Last updated: 8th January 2021