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~~ Gallery 18 ~~
Regional Cards

China and Hong Kong
page 5
Character Cards
And Related Patterns

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page 1
cards I
page 2
cards II
page 3
Chinese chess
page 4

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my gratitude to Jeff Hopewell and ChungPang Lai
for their valuable contribution to this section.

Due to romanization (i.e. the spelling of Oriental words in Western letters based on their original sound)
some names might have different versions. In these pages the standard system presently used (Pinyin)
has been adopted, including some names quoted from the works of other authors.
For some names the original Chinese spelling is also shown.
Since Mandarin is the official language of the country, though many playing cards
are from areas where Cantonese, Hakka and other dialects are spoken,
the names are given in their most common form.


This kind of pattern is more often called Zi Pai ("character cards" or "letter cards"), but Er Shi Qi Pai ("2-10-7 cards"), Zhi Pai ("paper cards"), and some other local names are also used.
Thin and narrow, as most Chinese patterns, the deck is made of a fixed set of 80 numeral subjects and a variable number of special loose cards (one, or five, or more, when present), according to the pattern and to the edition.

HuNan character cards by ShinPing (HuNan, China):
1, 4, 9 with ordinary numerals (three cards on the left)
and 1, 4, 9 from the official numeral set (last three)

There are two sets (or suits) of numerals running from 1 to 10, repeated four times each.
Their values are featured on both ends of the card. In one suit they are spelled with ordinary numerals, i.e. the usual Chinese characters for 1, 2, 3, etc. The other suit has numerals spelled in official form, i.e. more elaborate characters that express the same numbers 1, 2, 3, etc., used for banknotes, cheques, contracts, documents, etc.

SiChuan province (yellow) and HuNan province (green)

2, 7 and 10 are the most valuable subjects because in the main game played with these cards, called 2-10-7, they form a special series, and also 3, 6 and 9 are important.

All the special cards but one come in couples, and feature characters in ordinary and official form, as the two series (or suits) do.

The backs are not plain, unlike other traditional Chinese patterns, and feature geometrical motifs.

The two main patterns of character cards refer to the provinces of SiChuan and HuNan, in the central-southern part of China, where the two varieties are likely from.


In this variety, the two suits (ordinary characters and official characters) are both black, but the important values, i.e. 2, 7 and 10, are red. The cards have rounded dome-shaped ends, and the numerals are featured in a standard hand-written style.
HuNan character cards also include either one or four special subjects, whose graphic features are as follows:

HuNan pattern (same edition as the previous picture):
the red 2, 7 and 10 from the ordinary set (left)
and the same subjects from the official one (right)

a single special subject: in this
edition it features the character
feng (a mythical bird).

  • two cards featuring butterflies;
  • a "2-10-7" card with the Chinese numerals 2-10-7 in official style;
  • a "2-10-7" card with the Chinese numerals 2-10-7 in ordinary style;
  • a card featuring two Chinese characters, "replace" and "bottom".

    In editions with only one loose card, the latter may be illustrated in a more generic or fancy way (see picture on the left), but its value in play is that of the "replace-bottom" card.
    A fewer number of editions, instead, have further special subjects, among which two "3-6-9" cards and two "5-1-8-4" (one with ordinary characters, one with the official spelling).

  • The HuNan character cards also spread to other nearby provinces, thus becoming the most popular of the two varieties.


    In the SiChuan variety, the suit with ordinary characters is completely black, while the one spelled in official characters is completely red. There is no special mark that makes the 2s, 7s and 10s more noticeable than the other numbers.
    In this pattern the ends of the card are square, and the characters featured are strongly stylized.
    The SiChuan pattern does not contain special subjects, so the pack has 80 cards.

    SiChuan pattern: 1, 4, 7, 9, 10
    from the black set (ordinary numerals)

    SiChuan pattern: same values as in the previous
    picture, from the red set (official numerals)
    The game of 2-10-7, played with either of the two varieties, is very similar to other games for which money-suited cards are used. The players have to form combinations ("three of a kind", "four of a kind", sequences of three progressive numbers), as in Chinese Mah Jong or in Indonesian Ceki, but in this game one player (a banker) competes against two opponents. Either in the case of victory or loss, the two players team up, so that they both pay or receive money from the banker.
    In 4-player versions of 2-10-7, the fourth player is a "dummy", and does not actively take part to the game.


    A particular type of cards based on characters, similar in size to the previous patterns, are the ones called WaWa Pai (literally "doll cards", or "puppet cards").
    In this pattern half of the eight different subjects are red and half are black, marked with Chinese characters at both ends. Each subject is repeated eight times, for a total of 64 character cards, or eight series each one with eight characters.
    The following table shows the full set of glyphs, their colour and their rough meaning.

    four "special" character cards of
    Happiness, Longevity, Sea and Mountain

    Nan (South): the "special" card,
    and an "ordinary" one
    In each series of cards with the same character, one of them has two distinctive features: a stylized human figure in the central part, merely decorative, and what looks like a tiny stylized flower right above the character. The remaining seven subjects are identical, with a blank central part, and no flower.
    A similar scheme, i.e. one among a series of duplicate cards is made "special" by means of distinctive details, is also found in the Chuan Pai pattern, belonging to the Chinese domino group (see the relevant gallery).

    Correctly arranged ( Fu Ru Dong Hai Sho Bi Nan Shan), the eight characters form a popular Chinese wish: "a happiness like the eastern ocean, a long life comparable to the southern mountain".

    The WaWa Pai pattern includes a further subject: a red joker card, duplicated eight times. Seven of them feature the stylized human figure at both ends, in place of a character; the eighth one, the "special" joker, has the human figure in the center and a writing at both ends.

    In some cases, as the sample shown in this page, the writing features four characters:  TaiPing TienGuo ("Heaven of Peace"). This refers to the TaiPing rebellion (185064), a civil war fought by the south-eastern Chinese people of the lower classes against the Qing imperial dynasty, from Manchuria, unable to prevent the Westerners from heavily exploiting the country's resources. TaiPing TienGuo was the name of the new dynasty proclaimed by the rebels.

    In other cases the special joker card features only two characters,  JinTeng, which is the name of a region located in SiChuan province, where this type of cards likely comes from.

    Isao Umebayashi, author of several articles on Chinese cards, described these two varieties of the WaWa Pai pattern as "large" and "middle-sized", but it is not clear whether this refers to the size of the cards or to the size of the characters, or to that of the stylized figures, since the total number of subjects (72) and their arrangement coincide in both varieties.

    two of the eight joker cards:
    in this edition the figures
    face a direction opposite the ones
    featured on characters cards

    Practically nothing is known about the game played with these cards, still in production, although their use today seems restricted to very limited parts of the country.

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