Lost Filipino Culture: Playing-cards I
Most Filipinos never give much thought to purchasing a set of playing-cards. For over a century, the domestic market has been dominated almost completely by the Bicycle® line of the United States Playing Card Company. Players do have the option of purchasing cheap generic card sets, but the quality of these are poor and so are never really anyone’s first choice of purchase and are usually bought in bulk either for the purpose of office giveaways or as handouts at children’s birthday parties.
Unknown to most, however, playing-cards in the Philippines and their games have a very storied past. This history has been, in most cases, erased from our collective memory due to neglect, direct state intervention, as well as the changing socio-cultural shifts between generations. Recently, there has been a resurgence of interest by the youth in many aspects of Filipiñana, that in the past have been derided as unfashionable.
This first in a series of articles on playing-cards and gambling is written in the hopes of encouraging Filipinos in the digital age to rediscover and take pride in this almost-forgotten, but unique part of our national identity.
Playing-cards are not difficult to find anywhere you go in the Philippines. The ubiquitous standard 52-card set (N.B.: Sometimes referred to by collectors as the «French set» or «Anglo-American deck».) bearing the international suit pattern of diamonds (♦), hearts (♥), spades (♠), and clubs (♣) can be readily purchased in many locations, including micro-retail stores, wet markets, groceries, toy shops, and stationary chain stores. Larger shopping malls even have boutique shops that offer luxury playing-cards to discerning collectors (e.g. Cutting Edge). It should be no surprise then, to learn that card games have been a favorite pastime among Filipinos for generations. Over time, playing-cards in the Philippines have been monopolized as a state-owned industry, been the focus of moral panic, and even been regulated by dictatorial decree. Despite centuries of state-sponsored cycles alternating between lassie-faire and crackdowns, Filipinos will still find any excuse to get together with friends and family for a friendly game of cards.
Chinese origins of playing-cards Like most consumer goods from around the globe, playing-cards (N.B.: Even those bearing the Jarden brand «United States Playing Card Company».) are manufactured in the People’s Republic of China. Not an unusual place for playing-cards to be made since existing historical records all agree that playing-cards were invented by the Chinese sometime during the T’áng Dynasty (c. 618–907 A.D.).
The origins of playing-cards lie in dice, from which developed Chinese dominos (Chinese: 骨牌), and mahjongg (Chinese: 麻將) tiles. Handcrafted by artisans, these early gaming tiles were made of costly materials like jade, ebony, ivory, and marble, thus limiting the number of people who could afford to purchase them. The invention of the moveable type printing press in ancient China did more than promote literacy and the creation of fiat currency. It also provided the means to create cost-efficient alternatives to costly ivory or bone dice and gaming tiles (N.B.: Apparently, cheap Chinese knockoffs existed much earlier than is commonly assumed.). Even after centuries, games like dominos and mahjongg remain popular in the country today, but gamers view them as tile games and play them solely that way; the average Filipino not realizing that the use of cards is an allowable option. (N.B.: More on this cultural idiosyncrasy in a future article.)
The first playing-cards to break away from dice-based card designs are ch’iénk’ǎ (Chinese: 錢卡, trans. money cards). The design of these playing-cards were inspired by Chinese pre-decimal coins. Since their introduction over a millennia ago, these may be the oldest form of playing-cards still in production today. Aptly described as kùnp’ái (Chinese: 棍牌, trans. stick cards), these thin narrow cards have the appearance of tongue depressors or popsicle sticks. Despite their seemingly odd shape, ch’iénk’ǎ were fundamental for introducing the concepts of the suit and the rank, an integral function of all later playing-cards. (N.B.: In the terminology of playing-cards, a suit is a category into which the cards of a set are divided into, while a rank is the number assigned to the card.) There are several variants of ch’iénk’ǎ available, but they all share a common pattern. First, the set is divided into three suits:
Ch’ién (Chinese: 錢, trans. cash), representing Chinese pre-decimal square-holed coins,
T’iáo (Chinese: 條, trans. strings), representing a hundred coins strung together, and
Wàn (Chinese: 万/ 萬, trans. myriads; lit. tens of thousands), representing ten bundles of t’iáo.
Each suit is composed to cards ranked 3-9. In addition to these, are three special cards not part of any suit, called hua (Chinese: 花, trans. flowers) cards, which acted like wildcards. The subjects depicted on these cards are ch’iēnwàn (Chinese: 千万, trans. ten million), húng hua (Chinese: 紅花, trans. red flowers), and pái hua (Chinese: 白花, trans. white flowers), but usually bore pictures of famous literary characters, particularly from the novel «Shuǐ Hǔ Chuàn» (Chinese: 水滸傳), «Water Margin» or «Outlaws of the Marsh», one of the Four Classic Novels of Chinese literature. A full ch’iénk’ǎ set contains four duplicates of each rank (120 cards in total).
The Moro refinements By the 11th century, playing-cards had been spread to India, Iran, and Arabia either by way of the Silk Route or along with the invading Mongols. Known as ganjifa (Hindī: गंजिफा,), ganjifeh (Fārsi: گنجفه,), or kanjifah (Arabic: جانجيفا,), the words for “playing-cards” in those languages show a common etymology and origin. In the Mamlûk Sultanate of Egypt, playing-cards were further developed and began to receive their familiar characteristics and modern design. Some changes were minor, like the addition of a 10 ranked card, and a proper 1-3 ranked index.
One major advancement to the design of the playing-card set was the replacement of the wildcards found in the ch’iénk’ǎ set with a proper fourth suit. In the Mamlūk set, properly called «Mulūk Wanuwwāb» (Arabic: ملوك و نوأب,), or «Kings and Viceroys», the four suits are:
- Darāhim (Arabic: دراهم, trans. coins), plural of dirham, an Arabic coin of Greek origin, a direct continuation of the Chinese ch’ién suit,
- Tūmān (Arabic: طومان, trans. chalices), it has been suggested that the choice of chalices as the suit’s distinctive sign may have been due to a cultural misinterpretation of the Chinese character wàn (万) which, when viewed upside-down, has the shape of a chalice or goblet.
- Suyūf (Arabic: سيوف, trans. scimitars),
- Jawkān (Arabic: جوّكان, trans. polo-sticks; lit. polo), which may have been a cultural misinterpretation of the Chinese t’iáo suit.
Another Moro advancement was the introduction of three court cards or (face cards) to each suit. These court cards seem to have been directly adapted from the earlier hua cards. These were the malik (Arabic: ملك) or king, the nã’ib (Arabic: نائب) or viceroy, and the nã’ib thanī (Arabic: نائب ثاني) or second viceroy. (N.B.: Due to the inherent iconoclasm of Muḥammadanism, earlier depictions of human figures as seen on ch’iénk’ǎ were removed and replaced with calligraphic writing and abstract geometric shapes. Female titles were also taboo. Queens would not grace the court cards until the introduction of playing cards to Europe.) (To be continued.)
Next: Playing-cards in Spain and the Philippines.