Asiatic Playing Cards

By M. K. Van Rensselaer.

It has long been the opinion of students that the key to many things that are mysterious to Europeans could be found through studying the habits, customs, games, or cults of Asia and Africa, whose people cling to ancient ideas and habits, so through looking at things with their eyes, and listening to their views or opinions on the everyday happenings of life, that the tangled skeins that puzzle our academically trained minds would be unravelled.

Much has been done in this direction by Mr. F. H. Cushing and Mr. Stewart Culin, who have discovered, by patient research in America and the Eastern part of Asia, the value of the arrow in divination, in music, in money-making, and in symbolism, as well as in war, for which purpose it was primarily intended. It was put to minor uses by its simple adaptability to the needs of the people, who were direct in their purposes, and who used the tools that were at hand no matter for what they were originally intended.

Any student of the Bible knows how often the gods were appealed to, not only through the different offerings, but also for the purposes of directly divining their wishes, which was done most frequently through a simple stick that could be cut from any sapling. This became in turn a “divining arrow,” or a magician’s wand when in the hands of the Egyptian magi. “The staff of Moses” as used during the plagues of Egypt, or the rod “that put forth leaves” when marked with Aaron’s name. Small wonder, then, that the “golden-leaved rod,” or Aurea virga, given by Apollo to Mercury, was a venerated symbol, probably derived from the Egyptians, and by them from the Assyrians, where it was symbolically used in the worship of the gods, and when it was placed on the cards all persons could understand at a glance the intention and meaning of the Rod. It was not only adopted from the Babylonians, who used it with the serpents twining around it exactly as it is seen in Mercury’s hands, but the people had seen it put to practical use by the great marshal of the Israelites, who confounded their wise men, or magi, with their own weapons. “And the Lord spake unto Moses and unto Aaron, saying: ... Take thy rod and cast it before Pharaoh, and before his servants, and it became a serpent. Then Pharaoh also called the wise men and the sorcerers; now the magicians of Egypt, they also did in like manner with their enchantments, for they cast down every man his rod, and they became serpents; but Aaron’s rod swallowed up their rods.” (Exodus vii:9.) Then Aaron was commanded to take “the rod which was turned to a serpent,” and to “smite the waters that were turned into blood”; but the magicians did the same thing, and again were able to produce the next plague by imitating Aaron’s rod when it was stretched forth. But these wise men failed with their enchantments to produce lice at their biding, saying: “This is the finger of God.” It is more than likely that these magi were priests of the temple of Thoth, who were the learned men of that day.

Moses was also commanded “to lift up thy rod,” so that the children of Israel should “go on dry ground through the midst of the sea” (Exodus xiv:15), and to use the same rod to “smite the rock in Horeb” (Exodus xvii:6). These examples may be multiplied, but enough has been quoted to show the importance of this symbol in the minds of primitive people.

Looking next to a people of this century who have retained almost unchanged their inherited customs, Mr. Culin has dwelt at length on the people of Korea, who with the culture inherited from their neighbours, the Chinese, have still a childlike simplicity and follow in the footsteps of their ancestors in their habits, games, and heraldic devices.

In “Korean Games,” Mr. Culin traces the origin of Playing Cards directly to “practical arrows bearing cosmical or personal marks used by primitive man.” See also Numbers xvii:3. He says: “The pack of cards used to-day stands for a quiver of arrows with the emblems of the world’s quarters,” and further states that the most primitive Playing Cards of Asia, the Htou-Tjyen of Korea, still bear the marks of their origin. This confirms the opinion already formed by the writer, who studied the subject from the Biblical and African point of view, concluding that the pips on the Tarot cards had a meaning that could be traced to the diviners of a period much earlier than the fortune-tellers or gypsies of Europe; that the cards themselves were not intended for a game, but were originally devoted entirely to consulting the wishes of the gods; and that it was more than probable that the cult of Thoth Hermes was a scientific adaptation of the arrow worship of early man; and that the gift of speech that Mercury was credited with bestowing on humans was the comprehension of the signs and the ability through them to transmit to men the wishes of the gods.

The Korean cards are printed on paper, and are, therefore, one step higher in the scale than those found among the Alaskan Indians. These are simple round sticks on which are painted stripes of red and black, to denote their value. In some sets the ends are notched like arrows, which probably adds to the numerical value of the card. The Indians keep their sticks in a sealskin pouch wrapped around with a thong of leather, on the end of which is a shark’s tooth that is passed under the wrappings to hold them in place and secure the contents. A handful of oakum accompanies the bag. This is needed during the consultation of the wishes of Manitou, for these sticks are used for divination purposes as well as for play. A heap of oakum is placed on the ground, under which the sticks are hidden. The players squat in a circle around and draw from under the pile one stick after the other, the meaning of which is interpreted by one of the party.

Gambling Cards


The Alaskans also have a game somewhat like the Mora of the Egyptians and the Italians, only it is the value of the sticks or the stripes painted on them that must be guessed.

One step higher are the sticks used by the Hidah Indians, the natives of a little group of islands in the Pacific Ocean off the west coast of North America. These sticks show the totem marks of the tribes or families, such as the Bear, the Tortoise, etc. They are clearly derived from arrows, and sometimes have notched ends, and are still used for divination, although also for games. Taken with those from Alaska, they are the most primitive packs known.

The next step forward is from the wooden shafts or rods to thin slips of yellow oiled paper, narrow and long, that belong to the Koreans. The use of these “cards” is still the same, and the close resemblance to the North American packs is marked, showing that all came from a common source. These Korean cards serve as a link connecting the primitive arrow or rod with the step that follows, from which come the Chinese gambling tools.

The Korean cards are made of strips of paper about eight inches long by three-quarters of an inch wide. They are uniformly decorated on the reverse side with a feather, which Mr. Culin considers important as attaching the cards to the original winged shaft. There are eighty cards in the pack, divided into eight suits of ten cards each, numbered from one to nine with numerals peculiar to these cards, which, like the device on the other side, come from arrow feathers. The suit marks correspond to the totemic emblems of the Koreans.

These cards are a vital bridge between the primitive traps for divination and the more enlightened devices of the canny Egyptian priests, for it was through the use of strips of bamboo, simple straws, or the arrows of the period that the priests first transmitted the wishes of the gods to mankind. But whether the cult of arrows originated in Egypt and travelled from that centre both east and west, being modified, simplified, or elaborated by every nation through which it passed, or whether it started on the Pacific Ocean, to sweep across Asia to Africa and Europe, has not been made clear.

It is more than probable that the simple art of divining through the fall of arrows is due to the primitive tribes of Asia, and certainly in Exodus, Numbers, and others of the books of Moses, there are many records of the direct command of the Almighty to his people to carry out his wishes through using the “rods,” or to consult his orders through occult means to be revealed by the rods. These are authentic records on the subject, and are supported by the tablets found at Babylonia, so we may suppose that “the arrows of divination” spread gradually from this Asiatic centre, becoming altered from time to time, until in many places all traces of the original purpose was lost, and the art of consulting the wishes of the gods through them lapsed into the pleasure of gambling.

The Korean name for their pack of cards is Htou-Tjyen, signifying “Fighting Arrows,” according to Mr. Culin in “Korean Games” (page 128). “The suits,” he says, “represent Man, Fish, Crow, Pheasant, Antelope, Star, Rabbit, and Horse, the name of the card being written on it in Chinese characters in some packs. Six Generals, or Court cards, representing the heads or the chiefs of the different families, and two entirely blank cards, or Jokers, complete the set.”

Other packs have different totemic marks, but all agree with each other in general appearance. It is said that there are a number of games that are played with these cards, but they are difficult for a foreigner to understand or learn.

A close connection exists between the Korean pack and the lots used by the Chinese to divine the lucky numbers in the game called Pak-Kop-Piu, as these cards retain the feather device, and the names of both are nearly identical with the word for arrows.

The most common packs of Chinese cards are narrow, like those of the Koreans, but are less than half the length, sometimes only about two and a half inches long by a quarter of an inch wide. These packs generally have plain red or black backs with no designs on them, and are printed with black ink on white paper. There are at least twenty-five different kinds of Playing Cards common in China. Some of them are intended simply for divination, others are for gambling, and some for the amusement or instruction of children.

Some are very primitive in their markings; others closely resemble dominos, having similar spots on them denoting their value; while the cards in common use have distorted emblems that are clearly derived from the Sword, Stave, and Money pips of the Tarots, although the Cup of Hermes is not retained. It is noticeable that the Money emblem has a design upon it, and is not the simple ring of primitive times. This leads to the suggestion that these particular cards were devised from those of Mercury. Since there are Court cards and a Joker, it would seem as if the Chinese had adopted part of a pack of Tarots, omitting the Cup suit, since it had no meaning for them, but copying the other emblems in their own peculiar way; but this is only a guess as to the origin of this particular set of cards, and only those used for divination bear these devices.

The Chinese also have Actors’ cards, bearing portraits of the heroes and heroines of certain favourite plays. These have three Jokers, that in China bear the name of “Blessings.” Then there are flower packs and educational packs, Proverb cards, and cards to teach writing, so that the Chinese have in their own original way marched step by step with Europeans, but on parallel lines that have not met. The Chinese declare that they have known and used Playing Cards for two thousand years, in which statement they are probably correct, as certainly the Rod, the Sword, and Money emblems were known and used by the Babylonians in their religious rites two thousand five hundred years before Christ.

Owing to cards having been introduced into Japan by Portuguese traders, the packs are called by the Portuguese name of Karta, as has been mentioned. But the resemblance to European cards stops there, for the “shut-in nation” invented designs and games for themselves, keeping them distinct from divining instruments, of which they have a full share, some of them being identical with the Chinese rods for divination.

One Japanese game is historical, and the packs are beautifully painted in miniature, with gold backgrounds and gold backs. The cards are three by three and a half inches in size. Two sets always come in one box, and the game is played by matching cards. They far surpass European ones, for they are most carefully designed and painted. The two sets in the writer’s possession resemble dainty miniatures, and the small figures might almost be taken for likenesses of living people.

Then there are other sets of cards of the same size as those described, but differently marked, as they have three suits indicated by the colour of the emblems, blue, green, and red. There are two emblematic Court cards, one of them the picture of a house, the other one showing a stream over which a bridge is thrown. The pack in the writer’s collection is rare, for none like it has been described, and there are none in the foreign museums.

Another set of cards is called Bakuchi-No-Euda, or gambling cards. Those in common use are of cardboard about two to two and a quarter inches square, with black backs and flowers painted or stencilled on them, representing the weeks of the year. The game played with them is called “flower matching.” January is represented by a Matsu or Pine tree, followed by the Plum, Cherry, Wistaria, Iris, Peony, and Clover. The eighth suit has a sketch of a volcano, representing August, which is the sacred month; during it pilgrimages are made to the mountain. The card which follows represents a Chrysanthemum; then comes a Maple for October. November is represented by rain, sometimes with a little man scampering through the driving storm with a half-opened umbrella over his head, his shoes flying off in the mud, with the symbol of thunder and lightning placed in one corner of the card. December has the flower sacred to the Mikado, the Kiri.

Each card shows the flower representing it in different stages of development, according to the four weeks in the month. Each has a definite value, and the game is played by three persons, who match cards to make different combinations. The Joker is blank, so these cards were never intended for divining, but were prepared solely for amusement.

Divining arrows, represented by bamboo splints, are used in Japan as well as in China, and are nearly identical in both countries. Fifty sticks are kept in a quiver or a tube of cane, resembling the shape of the modern dicebox. “The splints vary in length,” says Mr. Culin, who describes them in “Korean Games” (page 26), “from two to four inches.” One person consults the oracle, which is interpreted by a “Baru,” or fortune-teller, as described in “Our Neighbourhood,” by Mr. Purcell: “Having rattled his rods together by rolling them between his palms, he raises them to his forehead.” The sticks are then laid out in order on a table, and their meaning is deciphered through referring to the “Book of Oracular Responses,” or through the “inspiration of the magi, who declares that he passes one hour daily in a trance, during which he receives instruction as to the prognostication he must deliver.”

There is another Japanese game called Hayku-Niu-Isshu, or the Poems on One Hundred Arts. For this there are two hundred cards, that are kept in boxes especially provided for them. On each card is printed or written either the first or the last half of one of the hundred poems that give their name to the game, which all well-educated Japanese are supposed to know by heart. “The one hundred cards having the latter half of the poems written on them are dealt and are laid out in rows, face upwards, before the players, one of whom is appointed reader. He holds the remaining hundred and reads them aloud in whatever order they fall. Skill in the game consists in remembering the line following the one read and rapidly finding the card on which it is written. Especially must each one watch his own and pick it up before it is seized by another. If an opponent is nimble he snatches the card from the careless player, giving several from his own hand, and the one who is first able to match and discard all of his cards wins the game. The players usually range themselves on opposite lines and play against each other.” Such is the account of the game given by Miss Alice Mabel Bacon in “Japanese Girls and Women” (page 22).

The cards of this set in the author’s possession are rather small, being two by two and a half inches, or a trifle larger than the Flower pack. They are arranged in small wooden boxes, with a description of the rules of the game printed on the top; the lid moves up and down in a groove. The verses are written in fine running characters on a white ground.

In Hindustan we find strange circular cards that have strayed far from the arrow shape, and seem much more to resemble the European pips. There are eight suits, indicated by the colour of the background, on which are depicted Men, Bullocks, Elephants, and Tigers. The Money and Cup suits may be traced in two of the emblems, the former painted like a double ring, and it is questionable if these cards were ever intended for divining purposes, since they seem to be used purely for amusement.

Persian cards are about two inches by one and a half square. The suits are shown, like those of Cashmere, by the colours of the background. They have nothing in common with the arrow-shaped Korean, Chinese, or North American divination cards, but rather incline to the emblematic figures of the temple of Thoth as retained by the Tarots, for every card displays a symbolic representative figure. These cards are rare even in Persia, and only two incomplete sets are in the writer’s collection, one of which contains six, and the other eighteen, cards.

Three of these cards have black backgrounds on which is displayed a white and yellow animal of a species unidentified. The third card of the set shows a great dragon with a forked tail twisted around a lion. Three of the cards have green grounds, on which are seated figures, and one of them so closely resembles the Emperor, or Osiris, of the Tarots in position and design that it seems it must have been derived from that figure. Of the other two, one resembles the Atout called the Empress, and the other is a seated male figure, in the attitude of some of those in the Tarot pack. Four cards have black grounds sprinkled with dots of yellow. These four all show dragons or mythical animals, and are alike in every respect, which is not always the case with the other designs even when of kindred suits. As none of the Atouts have animals depicted on them except in a subordinate way, it would seem that some of the Persian cards are original, while others may have been copied. Another green suit has only two cards, although there might be more if the pack were complete. The ground is semé, like the last, with orange-coloured flecks, and displays a seated figure with an attendant, its peculiarity being that this King has his legs folded under him in Oriental fashion, while the figures on all the other cards are seated like the Egyptian gods. Two cards have gold grounds, and on them are two standing figures, one beating a drum, the other man holding what may be a magician’s rod or, perhaps, a flute. There are three cards of a dull yellow hue flecked with brown dots. These closely resemble the Atouts, as one of the seated figures holds up a circle or the Money mark, like the Queen of Dinari; and against the knees of the other a child leans, recalling Isis with Osiris. The eighteenth card is the Joker, and shows a likeness of the late Shah of Persia. It was brought from that kingdom in 1904. These cards do not seem all to have belonged to the same pack, for five of them have been much more used than the others. The Persians are secretive about their games, probably because the religion of Mahomet, following that of the Jews, forbids any representation of the human form. Therefore, games bearing such an emblem must be used in private, and descriptions of them are not readily obtained by foreigners. The cards themselves offer an interesting problem, since they retain the emblematic figures without any pip cards, and they stand alone in this respect in Asia, where the pip or arrow cards are more generally to be found than the figure cards. But, then, the Persians use the cup or vase for divining purposes, as a rule, although in some parts the arrows or rods of divination are common. There are also “sticks” found among the common people that seem to be used in this way, but the natives are chary of describing their purpose, so no trustworthy account of them can be offered.


This is taken from Prophetical, Educational and Playing Cards.





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