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~~ Gallery 18 ~~
Regional Cards

China and Hong Kong
page 2
Money-suited Cards
part II

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page 1
cards I
page 3
Chinese chess
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I wish to express my sincere gratitude to John McLeod, Dylan W.H. Sung, Lilian Hsiao and ChungPang Lai
for providing me with valuable information and for helping me with the Chinese nomenclature

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 is a different kind of money-suited deck.
Mah Jong (though its real Chinese name is Ma Jue), is probably the most common gambling game played throughout the country.
In spite of such popularity, it has two different spellings, phonetically similar: the first one, used in the south (in the area of Canton and Hong Kong), means "hemp sparrow", while the one used further north (Shanghai, Taiwan, Peking) has the meaning of "hemp general". Apparently, none of these names has a specific relation with the pieces, nor with the rules of the game.

Mah Jong is played by using a set of tiles, as the ones on the right, but a deck of cards is a cheaper solution, and much easier to carry. In fact, the first version of this game is said to have been played with cards, played in the streets and in boats; but since wind caused problems during play, they were later replaced with heavier and more solid tiles.

Mah Jong tiles

Mah Jong deck by Double Dragon Brand (Hong Kong);
top row: Season 1 (Spring), Flower 4 (Bamboo), East Wind,
Green and White Dragons; bottom row: 1 and 8 of Bamboos,
5 of Circles, 9 of Characters and a wildcard ("100 purposes")
The deck comprises 144 cards, as many as the tiles in a set, divided into three suits, given the Western names of Circles (or Wheels), Bamboos (or Sticks) and Characters (or Myriads).
The original names of these suits are:
  • tong ("tubes" or "pipes") for Circles, graphically representing the section of a cylinder;
  • suo ("strings"), or popularly  tiao ("long things" or "sticks") for Bamboos;
  • or wan ("myriads, 10,000") for Characters, which is the same wan described in page 1, which in cards is more often spelt with the common glyph, especially in modern editions.
In Mah Jong only one out of three suits, namely Circles, does not fully match the corresponding one belonging to standard money-suited cards, i.e. Coins (or Cash), but the graphic resemblance is still quite evident.
Also in the Mah Jong pattern the Myriads suit is the only one in which values are shown by means of numerals, not by pip arrangement.

Instead, some distinctive features are:
  • the 1 of Bamboos, featuring a bird, more often a sparrow;
  • the four Winds, represented by means of their respective directions:  Dong (East),  Nan (South),  Xi (West) and  Bei (North); note that in the game of MahJong the main direction is East, and South is located on its right (not on its left, as in a Western compass card);
  • the Red Dragon ( Hua Zhong, "inner red", whose second glyph is featured on the card or tile), referring to the animal world;
  • the Green Dragon ( Qing Fa, "green emission", whose second glyph is featured), referring to the vegetable world;
  • the White Dragon, ( Bai Pi, "white skin"), referring to the spiritual world. This subject sometimes looks like a blank piece, but more often it comes in the shape of a rectangular frame, either blue or green and red.
The Winds and Dragons are honours.

single-ended Mah Jong cards (by Effect Company, Hong Kong);
top row: Season 1 (Spring), Flower 4 (Bamboo), the three
Dragons (red, green and white); bottom row: East Wind,
1 and 8 of Bamboos, 5 of Circles, 9 of Characters

Each suit runs from 1 to 9, as in any classic money-suited pattern, but Mah Jong decks or sets contain the aforesaid honours: three different Dragons (White, Red and Green Dragon) and four Winds (East, South, West and North).
Each subject is repeated four times.

large size Mah Jong cards (Winner brand, Hong Kong);
the last card on the right, bottom row, is a wildcard
The deck is completed by eight more special subjects, known as the four Seasons and the four Flowers i.e. Plum, Lily, Bamboo and Chrysanthemum (in some editions, the last two are in reverse order), variously depicted; unlike all values and honours previously described, each of these eight pieces is single.

Some editions of the deck also have a further wildcard, repeated four times, which may be used as any subject the player prefers (i.e. as a Western joker). It usually features two characters which read "100 rides", meaning "multi-purpose card".
These cards are only used in some areas of the country, particularly around the city of Shanghai.
A further type of "extra cards" may feature animals: a rooster, a mouse, a cat and a worm. They are very seldom found in tile sets or card decks made in China, being more typical in editions from Malaysia and Singapore.
Lastly, there are editions with a double set of Seasons and Flowers (i.e. four sets with four cards each), whose subjects may vary.

In Mah Jong decks the value of each card may be shown either in a white tile-shaped rectangle on a background of slightly different colour, or may be freely drawn in the center of the card. The former variety is double-headed, while the latter is single-headed, and usually features small indices in two corners (players have to hold 13 of these cards in hand).

Unlike any other money-suited pattern, Mah Jong decks exist both in "Chinese-sized" editions, i.e. with long and thin cards, and in large ones, slightly smaller than the size of a Poker or Bridge deck, but with a similar shape. In this case the values are always shown in the center, either in a tile-shaped rectangle (as in the previous picture, and in the one on the right) or, more often, over a plain white background (as in the picture below).

large size Mah Jong edition, featuring pictures of a
set of tiles; by GuoGuong ("national pride") company, China

large size Mah Jong cards by KR Brand (Hong Kong)
Also the backs of Mah Jong cards differ from most other Chinese patterns: they are among the few decks which do not have plain ones, of one same colour, but feature geometric textures, as Western cards; some editions made in Malaysia even feature advertisements.

The full set of tiles and the rules for Mah Jong can be found in Steve Willoughby's Mah Jong page.


The pattern derived from the four-suited Lat Chi cards (see page 1, historical notes), and was given this name from the Hakka ethnic group whose communities, scattered in southern China, speak the Hakka dialect.
The pack is made of 38 cards, each of which shows a symbol over a large and rather stylized Chinese character indicating the suit. The latter is therefore always spelled (i.e. not shown by means of a sign, or pictured).
All subjects are in black & white, except the red seals, described further down.
The colour of backs in Hakka decks is traditionally plain black.

The four suits have similar meanings, but no Western name exists for them:

edition by Da Fa Cai ("making a big fortune"),
Hong Kong; cards shown from the left are:
9 and 8 of Sip, and 6 and 5 of Gon
  • Sip: "to gather, to collect", also meaning "10" (in this case "tens of myriads", i.e. 10 x 10,000, see also the introduction in page 1);
  • Gon: "to string together, pierce", and also "a string of 1,000 coins";
  • Sop: "string, rope";
  • Ten: "line, thread".

edition by Double Happiness brand (China):
from the left, 1 of Sip ("Yau Bak Tsu"), 1 of Gon,
1 of Sop and 1 of Ten ("Yau Ten Tsai")
The suits of Gon and Sop run from 1 to 9, while in the other two, Sip and Ten, the regular numbering starts from value 2; in fact, on the first cards of these suits the characters respectively read Bak Tsu ("100 children") and Ten Tsai ("little Ten"), so players call these cards Yau Bak Tsu ("1 100 children") and Yau Ten Tsai ("1 little Ten"); the latter is sometimes also called Mau Ts'en Tsai, more or less "no money".
Two special cards complete the deck: Li Ten ("beautiful thread"), and Li Fa ("beautiful flower", often thrown away because never used in games). The name of the latter card is vaguely reminiscent of the "White Flower" subject from the DongGuan pattern previously described, which lacks a red stamp, as well.

edition by Double Eagle brand (Hong Kong): 1 of Sip ("Yau Bak Tsu"),
8 and 9 of Sip, 9 of Gon, 9 of Sop, 1 of Ten ("Yau Ten Tsai"), 9 of Ten, Li Ten
Such stamps or seals, elongated in shape, appear in the background of eight Hakka cards, shown on the left: "1 100 children", "1 little Ten", 8 of Sip, all four 9s and the Li Ten card. Usually in games these so-called red cards have a higher value.

The sign for the Gon suit is the same character Guan mentioned in the introduction (Gon is its version in Hakka dialect), although in these cards it appears very stylized; some players actually use Wan as an alternative name for this suit.
The differences between this pattern and the ones described so far are:
  • four suits, instead of three;
  • the absence of a Coins or Cash sign, replaced by a second string-related suit;
  • each card's value is stated by a peculiar symbol, above the Chinese character which features the suit's name (no pip arrangement);
  • every card is single (no duplicated values).
These elements of discrepancy with other Chinese cards, instead, are shared with the four-suited Vietnamese cards (described in the Vietnamese gallery).

the Li Ten and Li Fa cards,
edition by Da Fa Cai, Hong Kong

Hakka card symbols and matching values
(by courtesy of Dylan W.H.Sung)
Most of the peculiar symbols indicating values (a few of which curiously remind us of Western Spades, Diamonds and Hearts) have graphic resemblance with ordinary Chinese numerals, as shown by the picture on the left. The use of symbols in place of numerals might be due to the need of easily recognizable shapes so that the many people with a scarce knowledge of the written language, such as peasants, could play the game as well as others.

A curious detail of the Hakka pattern is that value 2 appears as a Spades-like symbol, in which a small Chinese character is featured, different in each of the four suits: all together, they form the text "large character paper cards", as in the picture on the right. This reminds us that the Chinese word for "playing card", pai, also means "playing tiles", therefore the material has to be specified, as well. However, to spell this expression, the four 2s have to be arranged differently from the ordering based on the suits' usual hierarchy in play.
Since in some editions this text appears in full length also on the deck's paper wrapper, it is likely to be a second common name locally used for this pattern.

the 2s of the four suits, resembling Western Spades:
all together they read "large character paper cards"
(edition by "Double Happiness" Brand, China)

The main game played with these cards is Liuk Fu (or "Six Tigers").

The full deck and the rules of the game are illustrated in Dylan W.H. Sung's How to Play Hak Ga Luk Fu Pai.

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