Friday, December 28, 2012

LID: Time To Play Yeh-tzâ

15th Century Spanish Playing Cards
US Public Domain
December 28

Playing Cards Day

Playing cards is a worldwide pastime that has been passed down from generation to generation. A deck of cards contains a back and a face. The back of the cards have the same design. The face of the cards, are different. There are 52 cards in a normal deck with four suits. These being clubs, spades, hearts and diamonds. Each suit contains a King, Queen, Jack and Ace with number cards ranging from 10 to 2. Although the deck of cards is the same throughout the world, the graphics on the back and face of each deck can vary greatly depending on the artist who drew them. Some deck of cards are not used for play but are collectibles. There are several types of games that can be played with a deck of playing cards. These being:

  • Trick-taking games
  • Matching games
  • Shedding games
  • Accumulating games
  • Fishing card games
  • Comparing games
  • Solitaire (Patience) games
  • Drinking card games
  • Multi-genre games
  • Collectible card games (CCGs)
  • Casino or gambling card games
  • Poker games
  • Other card game
  • Fictional card games

Chinese Origins

Playing Cards were invented by the Chinese during the Tang Dynasty (618–907).  The two oldest games in China, yü-p'u, "slips", and yeh-tzâ, "leaves"are often mistaken for one another. Yet they are not the same. The first one was popular in China during the 3rd century while the last one was popular during the tenth century. 

Yü-p'u was so popular in the Tsin dynasty (AD 317 - 420. 265 - 290) that T'ao K'an (259-334 AD), a well known statesman, is recorded in Tsin records as to "flung into the river the wine cups and yü-p'u of his subordinates, remarking, 'Yü-p'u is a game for drovers, and swineherds.'" The game was still being played in during the Tang Dynasty. Tang records show in 750 AD,  Kuo-chung, brother of the notorious Yang Kuei-fei (mistress of the Emperor Ming Huang), played the game with the imperial gambler in the palace. Two hundred years later, T'ai-tsu, the "High Ancestor" of the Later Chou, gathered his nobles together to play the game and gambled away his "embroidered rugs and damask and gauze of sorts." Forty years later the game was banned in China. Anyone caught playing the game would be executed. The game disappeared from Chinese culture. Yü-p'u was not a card game but consisted of five dice colored black on top and white on bottom. One or more of the black areas contained a 2 spot on them. The game played much like backgammon. The player would roll the dice hoping he would get the highest roll. The highest roll consisted of five blacks (the hound) and counted as sixteen. After that was two white and three blacks (the cock) counted as fourteen.  Yü-p'u may not have originally been invented in China. T'ao K'an also once stated, "Yü-p'u is a foreign game, yet nowadays scholars and officials play it. Can it be that the whole empire is turning foreign?"

Yeh-tzâ cards
Chinese Origins of Playing Cards by W.H.Wilkenson (1895)

The game we are more interested in discussing is yeh-tzâ.  Su E (fl. 880) described the Wei Clan, who were the family of Princess Tongchang's husband,  in her 889 AD book Yexi Gexi, as often enjoying a "leaf game". The Yexi Gexi was a book about the card game, yeh-tzâ. Su E was a Tang woman. Several Chinese scholars have commented on her book in subsequent dynasties. Song Dynasty scholar Ouyang Xiu, commented in his Notes After Retirement, that the game was played in the Tang Dynasty and probably evolved into card form when the Chinese discovered paper. He is probably right. The Tan-yen-tsa-lu states the leaves "were like the modern Pasteboard cards."

W.H.Wilkenson described how the cards came into being in his January 1895 article, Chinese Origins of Playing Cards, in the American Anthropologist Volume VIII, "In the earlier days of T'ang dynasty (say the seventh century after Christ), books were written in the form of scrolls. This was found inconvenient for purposes of reference, and books with leaves were substituted for them (the leaves, however, were more like the tablets in common use in England some few years ago for memoranda - that is to say, they were detached or detachable). Among the books thus made up into tablets were works on dice games. As these were in constant use for reference, "tablets" or "leaves" in this way became synonyms for dice, and finally were used in the place of dice - and thus yeh-tzâ grew into cards. The theory is ingenious and derives considerable support from two circumstances: one, the employment to this day in Japan (which obtained all or nearly all its amusements from China) of card games in which the cards form practically the leaves of a book of poetry; the other, the use throughout western China of packs in which the cards represent, much as in our proverbs, the different words of some well-known sentiment or sentence."

Yeh-tzâ became so popular that by the 11th century the game had spread throughout Asia. During the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) it was common for the playing card faces to show characters from popular Chinese novels.

You can learn more about Yeh-tzâ and Chinese Playing Cards at

Europeans did not have playing cards until the 14th century. You can learn how the Europeans learned about playing cards by visitng this link

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