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The Eastern Origins of Playing Cards June 23, 2012

Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval , trackback

There are few things in history more entertaining than the transference of ideas  from one culture to another and the various misunderstandings that arise as the borrower fails to understands the lender. In our own day it is enough to hear an American university lecturer speak about Derrida or a Saudia Arabian discuss the British soccer league… But there were, of course, countless misunderstandings in the past: and with this Beachcombing presents – flourish of trumpets, banging of drums – Europe’s bizarre attempt to render a Chinese game, cards, into a gambling pastime that Genoans, Parisians and Londoners could enjoy.

The origins of Chinese cards are obscure, not least because the word for ‘domino’, ‘cards’ and, on some occasions, ‘dice’ overlap or, depending on the period, are the same: the history of pai gow contains similar confusion with dominos and cards both being used. However, there is one certainty. The earliest references to games of cards from anywhere in the world, comes from China and may point to the eighth or ninth century. Even if we reject this reference – the source is late – cards were, without any question, being played in China by the eleventh century, at least three hundred years before the first European references; references which kick in, towards the end of the fourteenth century.

Could it be argued that perhaps cards had always been around in Europe and that early medieval sources did not pick them up? Perhaps even Europeans sent cards towards China via Marco Polo? Unfortunately for those, like Beachcombing, who enjoy a little western cultural imperialism this just doesn’t stand up. Given the rush of European references in the fourteenth century – the first reference is significantly to playing cards being banned! – it is almost inconceivable that they were not being dealt out long before then. And still more important the very make up of the European game shows that the cards are based on a misunderstanding of the Chinese game. As will soon become evident, it is impossible to argue that the Chinese pack was based on a misunderstanding of a European pack.

The most significant similarity between the two systems are the suits. We today – or most of us today – play with hearts, spades, diamonds and clubs. However, the original Europeans packs were made up of money, cups, swords and sticks (club): these will be most familiar from the tarot pack. The classical Chinese pack probably had four suits: ‘cakes’, ‘strings’, ‘myriads’ and ‘tens of myriads’. In fact, the ‘cake’ was a coin, the ‘string’ was a series of coins hanging on a string (Chinese coins had holes) and the ‘myriad’ was a pile of money and tens of myriads was, naturally, a vast, vast quantity of money.

There is, it will be noted, an inherent logic to the Chinese system that connects the suits: something that cannot be said of spades, hearts and diamonds.

The coin or ‘cake’ became the coin in the European system. The ‘string’ was misunderstood as a stick. And the Chinese symbol of tens of myriads (abbreviated) does resemble a cup: at least when it is turned upside down, something which is easily done in cards.

The symbol for tens of myriads was like a cross or, if you prefer, a sword.

Too neat? Too pat? Wilkinson, the scholar who first argued the connection between Chinese and European cards quotes a near contemporary Willshire misinterpreting Chinese cards (a lieh chih pack) in 1878. Willshire, looking with European eyes at the cards, writes that the suits are ‘bags, money, batons or bows [and] swords’. If Willshire could have made this kind of mistake, how easy it would have been for one of the Polos or better still their friends back home to have done something similar while playing with a Chinese pack.

However, there are other connections between the two systems. (i) The king, the knight and the servant (the early court cards) seem to have been based on a misunderstanding of some of the extra Chinese cards: the origin behind the knight’s card, for example, was, it has been argued, ‘Whiteflower’ which shows a stag, that looks uncannily like a horse. The ‘extra’ Chinese cards, like the court cards, are higher than the numbers. (ii) The ace is both a weak card (with the value of one) and a high card with a value like the court cards. (iii) Chinese card games seem to have depended, as the first European card games, on flushes and sets – combinations in short: much as in modern poker. Admittedly (ii) and (iii) show a connection rather than directionality. But taken with the other evidence the Chinese origins for cards is compelling. Beachcombing is particularly struck by the association of the different Chinese suits: essentially different orders of money.

The vast majority of scholars agree that cards made their way to Europe from China, along with many other inventions at this date: including gun-powder, the compass and moveable type. For all the jumping up and down about ‘the Renaissance’, Europeans in that period proved better at adapting ideas from elsewhere than actually coming up with inventions of their own. But how did cards get to Europe? Are we to imagine that one of the Polos brought a pack with him and opened a casino in the Venetian marshes?

Or did, perhaps, cards arrive indirectly? Many modern writers  suggest that the Arabs acted as intermediaries and certainly the Arabs had playing cards by the twelfth century, cards that suggest a relation to both Chinese and European packs. It goes without saying too that the Arabs very probably mediated other inventions of this period from the far East including the compass, gunpowder and moveable type, but also including some of their own strokes of genius: checking accounts, sherbert, Dante’s imagery for hell, pasta…

Other examples of misunderstood borrowings: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com