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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dates to about the same time as our earliest sources on the origins of printing, but which eventually died out, to be superseded by other amusements.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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1 See Carter Thomas Frances, The invention of printing in China and its spread westwards (New York: The Ronald Press Co., 1925, 1955 (2nd edition)), 183192.

2 Dummett Michael, The game of Tarot (London: Gerald Duckworth & Co. Ltd., 1980), 10.

3 See the later section A Yuan dynasty date in this paper.

4 Von Leyden Rudolf, Ganjifa: the playing cards of India (London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 1982), xii.

5 See, for example, Pan Zhiheng, Yezi pu, in Zongyi Tao et al. , (comp.), Shuo fu sanzhong (Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe, 1989), x, juan 39, 1834. See also forthcoming article ‘The late Ming game of ma diao’ in The Playing-Card. For an introduction to Chinese card games, see Lo Andrew, ‘Dice, dominoes and card games in Chinese literature: a preliminary survey’, in Wood Frances (ed.), Chinese studies (British Library Occasional Papers, 10, London: The British Library, 1988), 127134 and Lo Andrew, ‘Amusement literature in some early Ch'ing collectanea’ in Peterson Willard J., Plaks Andrew H., and Yu Ying-shih (ed.), The power of culture: studies in Chinese cultural history (Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press, 1994), 275 303. The present article forms part of a forthcoming monograph on traditional Chinese card games. The author would like to thank Professor Tim Barrett for his suggestions for improvement.

6 See Carter , The invention of printing in China, 184; Needham Joseph, Science and civilisation in China, iv (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1962), 329; Tsien Tsuen-hsuin, Paper and printing, in Needham Joseph, Science and civilisation in China, v (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 131132.

7 Ouyang Xiu, Gui tian lu, printed with Pizhi Wang, Mianshui yantan lu (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1981), 31.

8 Yanti Wang (ed.), Qingzhao Li, Shu yu ji zhu (Shangdong: Shandong wenyi chubanshe, 1984), 124.

9 Wang Pizhi, Mianshui yantan lu, printed with Xiu Ouyang, Gui tian lu (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1981), 110.

10 Su E, Tongchang gongzhu zhuan, in Zongyi Tao et al. (comp.), Shuo fu sanzhong, VIII, juan 113, 5203–4.

11 Dingqiu Peng et al. (comp.), Quart Tang shi (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1960), 8299.

12 He Guangyuan, Jian jie lu, in yun Ji et al. (comp.), Siku quanshu (Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe, 1987), MXXXV, 883.

13 Tuo Tuo et al. , Liao shi (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1974), 87.

14 Quoted in Shihan Wang, Yexi yuan qi, in Congmu Wangshi yishu (Changsha: Qiantang Wangshi, 1886), 3a.

15 Rucheng Huang (ed.), Yanwu Gu, Ri zhi lu jishi (Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe, 1985), 2117.

16 Xiu Ouyang, Gui tian lu, 31.

17 Chuhou Wu, Qingxiang zaji (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1985), 87.

18 Pizhi Wang, Mianshui yantan lu, 110.

19 Ganding lu (author unknown), in Fang Li et al. , Taiping guangji (Beijing: Renmin wenxue chubanshe, 1959), II, juan 136, 978.

20 Xiu Ouyang, Gui tian lu, 31.

21 Ganding lu, 978.

22 Xiu Ouyang, Qi Song, Xin Tang shu (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1975), juan 59, 1561; Zheng Qiao, Tongzhi, in Yunwu Wang (ed.), Shi tong, no 4 (Shanghai: Shangwu yinshuguan, 1935), juan 69, 810.

23 Fang Qianli, Touzi xuan ge, in Zongyi Tao et al. , (comp.), Shuo fu sanzhong, VIII, 4688.

24 Bin Liu, Han guan yi, in Wumujing ji qita yizhong, in Yunwu Wang (ed.), Congshu jicheng chuhian (Shanghai: Shangwu yinshuguan, 1936).

25 ibid., 1.

26 ibid., 13.

27 Pizhi Wang, Mianshui yantan lu, 110.

28 Wang Yaochen et al. (comp.), Chongwen zongmu, in Yun Ji et al. (comp.), Siku quanshu, DCLXXIV, 78.

29 Qiao Zheng, Tongzhi, juan 69, 810.

30 Meng Sun (ed.), Gongwu Chao, Junzhai dushu zhi jiaozheng (Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe, 1990), 695.

31 Duanlin Ma, Wenxian tongkao, Jingji kao (Shanghai: Huadong shifan daxue chubanshe, 1985), 1295.

32 Tuo Tuo et al. , Song shi (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1977), 5292.

33 Xiu Ouyang, Gut tian lu, 31.

34 Huang Tingjian, Shangu bieji, in Yun Ji et al. (comp.), Siku quanshu, MCXIII, 647648. For a collection of anecdotes about Wu Cailuan, see Dehui Ye, Shulin qinghua (Beijing: Zhonghua shju, 1987), 285288.

35 Wang Hui, Yutang jiahua, in Yun Ji et al. , Siku quanshu, DCCCLXVI, 459.

36 Mianliang Qu, Zhongguo guji banke cidian (Jinan: Qilu shushe, 1999), 99, 552.

37 Hong Zun, Pu shuang, in Zongyi Tao et al. (comp.), Shuo fu sanzhong, VIII, 4659.

38 Qingzhao Li, Shu yu ji zhu, 124.

39 Hu Yinglin, Shaoshi shanfang bicong, printed with Ying Zhou, Zhi lin (Taipei: Shijie shuju, 1980), 329.

40 Pizhi Wang, Mianshui yantan lu, 110.

41 Following Hu Yinglin and reading the character wei as zheng. See Yinglin Hu, Shaosh shanfang bicong, 327. For the story of Huang Ba, see Gu Ban, Han shu (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1975), XI, 3632.

42 For Zhuang Zhou's dream, see Watson Burton (trans.), Chuang Tzu (New York and London: Columbia University Press, 1964), 45.

43 Dingqiu Peng et al. (comp.), Quan Tang shi, 8299.

44 See, for example, Lingshan Daoren, Jiya paigui, preface dated 1700, 6a; rare book in Beijing Library.

45 Pizhi Wang, Mianshui yantanlu, 110.

46 Li Qingzhao, Dama tu, in Zongyi Tao et al. (comp.), Shuo fu sanzhong, VIII, 46484651.

47 Zhongyong Wang, (ed.), Shen Yang, Sheng an shihua jianzheng (Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe, 1987), 514.

48 Wang Daokun, Shuqian ye pu, in Zongyi Tao et al. (comp.), Shuo fu sanzhong, x, 18191825.

49 Xibian Zhao, Junzhai dushu houzhi, 420.

50 Zhufeng Luo (comp.), Hanyu dacidian XII, (Shanghai: Hanyu dacidian chubanshe, 1993), 1403.

51 Zhufeng Luo (comp.), Hanyu dacidian v (Shanghai: Hanyu dacidian chubanshe, 1991), 114.

52 Yushi Zhao, Bintui lu (Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe, 1983), 46.

53 Yingzhou is one of the five magical mountains which rest on 15 giant sea turtles. All the buildings on the mountain summits are made of gold and jade. A giant from the Elder Dragon Kingdom came fishing and got six of these giant turtles on his line in one go. See Bojun Yang, Liezi jishi (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1985), 151154.

54 This refers to an encounter between Grand Councillor Li Shen (772 846) and the poet Zhang Hu (c. first half of the ninth century) in the year 844, when Zhang sent Li his calling card signed ‘The Fisher of Giant Sea Turtles’. Li asked Zhang how he would fish, and he gave the replies of the rainbow and the crescent moon. When asked what bait he would use [to get the turtles which represent outstanding talent], he replied ingratiatingly that he would use Grand Councillor Li. See He Guangyuan , Jian jie lu, 908.

55 Zhang Yuan, Gaojian zhuibi, in Zongyi Tao et al. (comp.), Shuo fu sanzhong, II, 719.

58 Zhensun Chen, Zhizhai shulu jieti (Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe, 1987), 422.

59 Dantu xian wenjiaoju Zhenjiang bowuguan, ‘Jiangsu dantu dingmaoqiao chutu Tangdai yinqi jiaocang’ in Wenwu II, 1982, 1432.

60 Jiugao Lu, Xing Liu, ‘Lunyu yuzhu kao lue’ in Wenwu 11, 1982, 35.

61 Yushi Zhao, Bintui lu, 45.

62 ibid., 46.

63 Cao Shao, Anyatang jiuling, in Zongyi Tao et al. , (comp.), Shuo fu sanzhong, II, 851858.

64 Cao Jishan, Anyatang gonglü, in Zongyi Tao et al. , (comp.), Shuo fu sanzhong, VII, 43024317. Jishan is the style name of Cao Shao.

65 For the story of the man from Qi, see Lau D. C. (trans.), Mencius (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1970), 137.

66 Shao Cao, Anyatang jiuling, 852, 855. The title of the second poem is probably a mistake. Tu Benjun's version has the title ‘At a banquet with King Zhuang of Cliu, cap ribbons are plucked’. See Jishan Cao, Anyatang gonglu, 4304. This refers correctly to a banquet held by King Zhuang when the lamps and candles went out and someone then pulled at the robes of a beauty. She in turn pulled off the ribbon fastener of his cap as a mark and told the King what had happened and wanted him to have the lights back on. King Zhuang refused, and ordered everyone to pull the ribbon off his cap before having the lights back on. Two years later, a vassal distinguished himself in a battle and it turned out to be the grateful person with the frisky hands. See Shanyi Zhao (ed.), Xiang Liu, Shuo yuan zhuzheng (Shanghai: Huadong shifan daxue chubanshe, 1985), 143144.

67 Yizhi Fang, Tong ya (Beijing: Zhongguo shudian, 1990), 428.

68 Lianggong Zhou, Shuying (Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe, 1981), 143.

69 Ruan Kuisheng, Chayu kehua, printed with Mingyu Hu, Ding e zalu (Taipei: Zhonghua shuju, 1963), 551.

70 Yi Zhao, Gai yu congkao (Shanghai: Shangwu yinshuguan, 1957), 711.

71 Yixing Hao, Zheng su wen, in Ming Qing suyu cishu jicheng (Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe, 1989), III, 2384.

72 Carter , The invention of printing in China, 184.

74 Zhaozhe Xie, Wu zazu, in Guoxue zhenben wenku (Shanghai: Zhongyang shudian, 1935), I, no 13, 253.

75 Qu You, Xuanhe paipu, in Zongyi Tao et al. , (comp.), Shuo fu sanzhong, x, 17901798.

76 Pan Zhiheng, Xu yezi pu, in ibid., 1842.

77 Zhou Mi, Wulin jiushi, printed with Meng Yuanlao, Dongjing menghualu, Naideweng, Ducheng jisheng, Xihu Laoren, Xihu laoren fanshenglu and Zimu Wu, Mengliang lu (Beijing: Zhongguo shangye chubanshe, 1982), 127.

78 Rong Lu, Shuyuan zaji (Beijing, Zhonghua shuju, 1985), 184.

79 Pu Zhang (comp.), Wanbao quanshu, 1758 Wanjuanlou edition, juan 13, 6b 7a., (London: School of Oriental and African Studies Library).

80 Needham (ed.), Science and civilisation in China, IV, 329.

81 Tsuen-hsuin Tsien, Paper and printing, 131132.

82 Yinglin Hu, Shaoshi shanfang bicong, 328329.

83 Shihan Wang, Ye xi yuan qi, 1.

84 Nanxian Zhu, Zhongguo xiangqishi congkao (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1987), 41.

85 Rong Lu, Shuyuan zaji, 173174.

86 Pan Zhiheng, Yezi pu and Xu yezi pu, in Zongyi Tao et al. , (comp.), Shuo fu sanzhong. x, 18341842.

87 Xiu Ouyang, Gui tian lu, 31.

88 Li Qingzhao, Dama tu, in Zongyi Tao et al. (comp.), Shuo fu sanzhong, VIII, 4647.

89 Yang Weizhen, Chuhong pu, in ibid., 4674. In his preface, Yang Weizhen (1296–1370) attributes the work to Zhu He.

90 Rong Lu, Shuyuan zaji, 173.

91 Mi Zhou, Wulin jiushi, 51, 128.

92 Xihu Laoren, Xihu laoren fanshenglu, 12, 18. Wu Zimu's Mengliang lu (A dream of splendour while the millet is cooking; the preface is dated 1274), describes many events in detail from the period 1241–74: dice, pai'er (cards? dominoes?), and tie'r (tokens?) are mentioned. Zimu Wu, Mengliang lu, 46.

93 Mingben dazi yingyong suijin, in Zhongyang yinyue xueyuan zhongguo yinyue yanjiusuo , (comp.), Zhongguo gudai yinyue shiliao jiyao, I (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1962), 727.

94 Dayuan shengzheng guochao dianzhang (compiler unknown) (Taipei: Guoli gugong bowuyuan, 1976), Dianzhang section, juan 57, 20b 21a.

95 See Japanese reprint as Jo Genzui, Rigaku shinan, appended to Anonymous , Kyoka hitsuyo jirui (Kyoto: Chubun shuppansha, 1984), 344.

96 Shi Cai, Guanhua huijie bianlan, in Ming Qing su yu cishu jicheng, II, 1580.

97 Defu Shen, Wanli ye huo bian (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1980), 516.

98 Rong Lu, Shuyuan zaji, 173174.

99 For actual playing cards from the Ming period, we may note the card found near Turfan and which is given a probable date of about 1400 a.d., See Carter , The invention of printing in China after p. 184; Tsuen-hsuin Tsien, Paper and printing, 310. The same card is given in Culin Stewart, ‘The game of ma-jong: its origin and significance’, in The Brooklyn Museum Quarterly, (New York: Brooklyn Museum, 1924), plate 2, after p. 10, and is dated no later than the eleventh century a.d. This card depicts a man frontally with two characters each at the top and bottom, which I read to mean ‘Made by Guan Huan? he’. There is an illustration of 30 traditional but undated cards from Yan'an, Shaanxi Province, and one card depicts a man frontally with two characters each at the top and bottom, which I read to mean ‘Made by Guan Qixing’. The character ‘Guan’ in the second card does not have a ‘bamboo’ radical like that in the first card, but otherwise, the similarity is intriguing. See Shengzhong Lu, Zhongguo minjian muke banhua (Changsha: Hunan meishu chubanshe, 1990, reprinted 1995), 154.

A second card is in the National Museum, Delhi, and I am grateful to Mr John Gosling for providing me with the information and a photograph. The card depicts a man with a child, and in my opinion refers to the Water margin hero Zhu Tong babysitting the son of a prefect. Later cards from the Qing period will bear out this conclusion. See, for example, the card with the two characters Zhu Tong and depicting Zhu Tong and a boy illustrated in Culin , ‘The game of ma-jong’, plate 3, after p. 12.

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