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Published April 05, 2003 Updated June 09, 2024

Chinese Playing Cards 中国纸牌

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.

China Chess Water Margin Mahjong Ceki Domino-Suited Madiao Money-Suited Pai Add to Collection
detail from Dongguan Pai

“Leaves (cards) are descended from those of the tala tree used for Buddhist sutras of old”

Introduction   介绍

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.

The Chinese word for Card, as in Cardboard is 卡 - Kǎ. However, for playing cards, the Chinese use the word 牌 = Pái. However, the same word also is used for dominoes, perhaps indicating that the earliest cards in China were but paper copies of dominoes. Hence, it is common to call dominoes 骨牌 (Bone cards), whilst playing cards (of paper) are called 纸牌 (Paper cards).

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.

Money Suited Cards

A string of Chinse 'cash' coins

Above: an example of a string of 100 Ch'ien 'cash' coins which are used as on money-suited cards in denominations of 10, 100, 1,000 and 10,000.

"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.

lao qian pai. China, c.1905. 30 of 120 cards. The three suits bear naturalistic coins for the 'Cash' suit and strings of coins for the 'Strings of Cash' suit

Above: local name: lao qian pai. China, c.1905. (Click image to zoom). A very well preserved deck of cards, showing the three suits bearing naturalistic coins for the 'Cash' suit and strings of coins for the 'Strings of Cash' suit. The sinogram for wan(guan) is on each of the 'Myriads' suit as well as naturalistic figures from the Shui Hu Zhuan, the "Water Margin". Image courtesy of

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.

Chinese Chi Chi Pai cards exported to Far Eastern countries by Belgian manufacturers

Above: typical example of Chinese Chi Chi Pai, or Money suited cards, exported to Far Eastern countries by nineteenth century Belgian manufacturers.

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 →

Dongguan Pai

Above: "Dongguan Pai" from Dongguan, a place in the province of Guangdong (canton). This "Money Cards" deck has 244 cards, comprising of 240 cards plus 4 "joker" cards. It is made by "Double Elephant brand". Fifth from the right we have the "white flower" the text on it reads "he xing, hongkong". The one to its right is the "little red" (xiao hong) it bears 3 red stamps and a little portrait of a man in the middle. Next to it is the "big red" (da hong) as before, it bears a picture of a man & 2 red stamps. The one on the right is a joker, or "ghost" card, the text on it bears information about the maker. The back of the cards is plain orange (the cardstock is actually almost translucent). Images courtesy Anthony Lee.

Chinese Money cards

Above: a more colourful edition of Money suited cards; 5 sets of 30 cards, plus five cards with full-length figures and an additional card marked Wang Pai (trump card), total 156. Manufactured by Zhejiang Wuyi United Printing Company Limited, Zhejiang Province, on the eastern coast of China.

Mah Jong Cards   麻将纸牌

Mah Jong cards

Mah Jong cards

Mah Jong cards

Mah Jong cards

Mah Jong cards

Mah Jong cards

Mah Jong cards

Mah Jong cards

Above: 8 cards from an unusual chromolithographed Mah Jong pack, c.1910, in which the suits show 108 characters from the 'Story of the Water Margin'. The suit sign, printed in blue, is the old form of 'wan', meaning 10,000, as shown on the higher ranking suit(s) of old money suited cards which traditionally showed the Water Margin characters. (Courtesy John Berry).

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, Thailand, 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.

Chinese Mahjong cards

Above: modern Chinese KR brand Mahjong cards, manufactured by Qingyuan Wan Qi Poker Products Co., Ltd. and also marketed in Hong Kong   See also: Malaysian Mahjongg CardsMahjong tile game.

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.

Above: Chinese domino cards featuring characters from the celebrated Chinese novel "The Water Margin" 水浒传.

Double Happiness Chinese Domino playing cards

Above: “Double Happiness” Domino cards containing small symbols emblematic of the blessings of life. Another similar example is shown below; in this case the cards were exported to Hong Kong. The importer's name can be read on the side of the box.  Click on image to zoom.

Chinese Domino playing cards imported into Hong Kong Chinese Domino playing cards

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

Chinese Character Cards

Above: Chinese Character Cards described in "Catalogue of the collection of playing cards bequeathed to the Trustees of the British museum by the late Lady Charlotte Schreiber" published in 1901, p.193. Information courtesy Jonathan Will.

Other Regional Types

Chinese Hakka playing cards

Above: “Double Happiness” brand Hakka [客家] playing cards (used by Hakka ethnic communities who have a separate identity from the Cantonese people). The wrapper of the Hakka playing cards shows the phrase "中國江蘇製造” Made in Jiangsu, China   more

For standard English cards, see

A further variety of Chinese playing cards is Chess Cards  see example →   See also: Chinese Fortune Telling Cards

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

Characters of the Water Margin

Above: cards from a double boxed set of 108 cards featuring Characters of “The Water Margin”. Image courtesy Matt Probert.

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.

See also: Terracotta Army Playing CardsChinese Roles of Beijing OperaMao Zedong & International Friends

Above: Cocktail playing cards are a contemporary low-cost deck of playing cards manufactured by an anonymous Chinese firm and imported into Europe by the German, novelty household goods importer ‘Out of the Blue’. The deck comprises 52 cards plus two jokers, and each card features the recipe and illustration of a different cocktail. Sadly ‘Harvey Wall banger’ has been omitted, but recipes for the classic Martini, Margarita and Long Island Iced Tea are among the fifty-four recipes included. Courtesy Matt Probert.

More packs by HCG Poker Productions

Children’s Playing Cards   玩具纸牌

Above: 'Mini-Poker' miniature cartoon character playing cards made in China by @pple, based on comics and computer games   see more →

Above: 'Angry Birds' card game made in China licensed by Mattel Inc., and marketed in Europe, East Asia and USA, 2011. Angry Birds is a registered trade mark of Rovio Mobile Limited. The game set contains 36 Structure Cards, 20 Special Power cards, 2 Dice and 1 King Pig. The object of the game is to discard all of your structure cards and be the first person to knock down the King Pig with a flick of the die   see more →

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 BusinessShenzhen Senfutong Paper Co.Shenzhen Wangjing Playing Cards Paper Co.Wenzhou Jinyi Printing Co.Wenzhou Tiange Printing Co.Yiwu Xinhua Playing Cards FactoryZhejiang Wuyi Tiantian Printing Co.Zhejiang Wuyi Yaoju Paper Producing Co.  Many of these companies manufacture playing cards for European producers and distributors.

Chinese ladies playing cards
Chinese ladies playing cards

Matchbox Labels from Macau

Above: "Mini Trump Card" key ring playing cards, published by Popcorn Co. Ltd, made in China, 2011.

Above: Li River Souvenir Cards made in China.

Above: M&M's Playing Cards made in China.

See also: London UndergroundI Love London'Giraffe' Spanish cardsSilja Line shippingBrittany FerriesCarnival CruisesWaikiki Beach, HawaiiCliché SkateSmileyWorldBaraja EspañolaMaxi PukeMagic Poker cardsChinese Dragon Robes.


1439 Articles

By Simon Wintle

Member since February 01, 1996

Founder and editor of the World of Playing Cards since 1996. He is a former committee member of the IPCS and was graphics editor of The Playing-Card journal for many years. He has lived at various times in Chile, England and Wales and is currently living in Extremadura, Spain. Simon's first limited edition pack of playing cards was a replica of a seventeenth century traditional English pack, which he produced from woodblocks and stencils.

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