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The game of leaves: an inquiry into the origin of Chinese playing cards

  • Andrew Lo (a1)

A passion for card games, like a delight in drinking tea, is something which nowadays unites China with the rest of the world; and, as with tea drinking, many have surmised that the pastime of playing cards arose in China and spread westwards. I begin this study with a consideration of the rules of card games, and suggest that the rules themselves may offer, in some cases, evidence of transmission from East to West. To those interested in past cultural contacts, this suggestion in itself illustrates the value of trying to reconstruct the regulations of early games long forgotten, quite apart from the value of such research to sinologists. But it is not just the rules of play which need to be considered in such a context. The format of the playing card as a physical object that is small, portable and suited to mass production has prompted the thought that cards may have been one of the easiest samples of Chinese printing technique to pass between East and West. For this reason, the main focus of my study in reconstruction is on a pastime, the yezi xi (game of leaves), which dates to about the same time as our earliest sources on the origins of printing, but which eventually died out, to be superseded by other amusements. Are the surviving materials sufficient to confirm or deny existing speculations about its form? And if this was not a card game, when precisely did such games develop? But before considering such sinological questions, let us start closer to home.

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Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies
  • ISSN: 0041-977X
  • EISSN: 1474-0699
  • URL: /core/journals/bulletin-of-the-school-of-oriental-and-african-studies
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