An 11th century source reports that the game of cards appeared in the middle of the T'ang dynasty (613-906) and that a certain Yang Tan-ien greatly esteemed the playing of cards, and that these cards had markings taken from dice. This evidence suggests that card playing began in China at an early date. Printing had also been developed in China as early as the eighth century for printing Buddhist texts, and later, banknotes or money printed on paper. At some point playing cards were also printed from woodblocks. Another report dates from 1294, when Yen Sengzhu and Zheng Pig-Dog were apparently caught gambling in Enzhou (in modern Shandong Province). The law case notes that nine paper cards and thirty six taels of zhong tong period (1260-1264) paper currency were seized, along with wood blocks for printing cards. Our next source is from the writings of the Ming dynasty scholar Lu Rong (1436-1494), who notes that he was sneered at for not knowing how to play cards when he was a government student at Kunshan in modern Jiangsu Province.
We note that printed texts, paper currency and playing cards were all produced in China long before they eventually arrived in the West. Indeed, playing cards, religious images and decorated fabrics were to become the earliest applications of printing technology in Europe, following suit from earlier developments in the East.
Shanghai is the centre of modern day playing card production in China. Between 1931 and 2010 more than 35 playing card factories existed in Shanghai, including several that have now closed. Today there are over 70 playing card factories throughout China. China has a large variety of playing cards, including cards featuring landscapes, animals, advertising, cultural or historic themes, and so on.
During the period 1966-1976, known as the Cultural Revolution in China, card games were generally prohibited and cards were no longer manufactured. When new factories started printing playing cards again in the 1970s the English indices A, K, Q and J were substituted by 1, 13, 12 and 11 respectively. These packs are now rather rare. Chinese people play a lot of cards in the streets. Sometimes when one player has lost his money the whole deck is thrown into the air.
Mah Jong Cards 麻将纸牌
The Chinese took their cards with them wherever they travelled and traded in the East, and we find Chinese cards in use not only in the mainland but also in Hong Kong, Malaysia, Indonesia, Taiwan, Singapore, North Borneo and Vietnam. A paper version of the tile game, Mahjong Cards are also played with in Japan as well as in many different parts of the world both by the local inhabitants and the Chinese settlers.
Money Suited Cards
"Money-suited cards” refers to a family of playing cards which have three suits. Cards in this family include Mahjongg, the dongguan pai, and ceki in all it’s forms. These suits are coins, strings (of coins), and myriads. These three suits take their inspiration from old Chinese currency. Old Chinese coins had a hole in their centres. Large quantities of coins were strung up by their central hole for easy handling. In mahjong, the strings have been corrupted into bamboos, owing to their similar shape. The suit of myriads or 萬 is simply the next denomination of coins - units of 10,000.
During the nineteenth century Belgian manufacturers (eg Brepols, Van Genechten) and also Camoin of Marseilles produced Chinese cards for export to South-East Asian countries including Java, Sumatra, the Celebes, Thailand, Vietnam and possibly China as well.
The best known Chinese playing cards are the money-derived ones. Packs are made of up to one hundred and twenty cards composed of four identical sets of thirty cards each. These cards are narrow, flexible strips of cardboard. Often the cards contain illustrations alluding to traditional literary scenes or folk stories. Money cards are used or produced in China, Hong Kong, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Java and Bali in many different styles, formats and sizes. Four Colour Cards →
Domino Cards 十五湖
Domino cards, deriving as they do from the 21 throws of a pair of dice, could be descended from the earliest known playing cards. Often these cards contain drawings of flowers, butterflies, animals, images from popular stories or lucky charms which embellish the otherwise rather dull designs.
The cards where the pips are oriented vertically are called 十五胡. The ones where pips are oriented horizontally and have water-margin characters are called 川牌 Sichuan cards, after the part of China the cards come from.
Chinese Character Cards
Cards with Chinese characters on them that children used in pre-modern China to learn to write their first characters. See Chinese Wikipedia→
Other Regional Types
Characters of “The Water Margin” - 水滸撲克
These images often appear on Chinese money-suited, domino or Mah-Jong decks (as seen above), as well as French-suited cards see more →
Chinese Imperial Culture Playing Cards
HCG Poker produce an extensive range of Chinese historical, art and culture playing cards in European Poker format, i.e. 52 cards + 2 Jokers. Three Kingdoms playing cards describes the story of the Three Kingdoms period of Chinese history... see more →
Great Leader Zedong Mao Playing Cards
Great Leader Zedong Mao playing cards celebrate the story of the Chinese leader and statesman Chairman Mao, with pictures from different periods of his life. Produced by HCG Poker Productions. 52 cards + 2 Jokers.
More packs by HCG Poker Productions
Chinese Opera Face Painting Art Playing Cards 脸谱
Chinese opera is one of the oldest dramatic art forms in the world. Different styles of facial make-up painted on each performer's face symbolize a character's personality, role, and fate. The technique may have originated from ancient religions and dance but facepainting including glitter dusts and henna art is very popular today at children's parties and street carnivals, without the permanence of a real tattoo.
Children’s Playing Cards 玩具纸牌
As can be seen from the above, a large number of playing card manufacturers based in China export playing cards and card games world-wide, in all styles and patterns. Today there are over 70 playing card factories throughout China. These include: Guangxi Credit International Trade Co. • Lanxi Caixing Poker Co. • Shanghai Diantian Printing Business • Shenzhen Senfutong Paper Co. • Shenzhen Wangjing Playing Cards Paper Co. • Wenzhou Jinyi Printing Co. • Wenzhou Tiange Printing Co. • Yiwu Xinhua Playing Cards Factory • Zhejiang Wuyi Tiantian Printing Co. • Zhejiang Wuyi Yaoju Paper Producing Co. Many of these companies manufacture playing cards for European producers and distributors.