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Lost Filipino Culture: Playing-cards I

Tuesday, 9th December 2014

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.



Cutting Edge store in SM Megamall.

Cutting Edge store in SM Megamall.

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 "four" and "one" spots on Chinese dice are traditonally painted red.

Traditional Chinese dice

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.)

Ancient Chinese cash coins strung together.

Ancient Chinese cash coins strung together.

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:

  1. Ch’ién (Chinese: , trans. cash), representing Chinese pre-decimal square-holed coins,
  2. T’iáo (Chinese: 條, trans. strings), representing a hundred coins strung together, and
  3. 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: , 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, trans. red flowers), and pái hua (Chinese: 白, 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).

Top row: Myriads, featuring characters from the Classical Chinese novel, Shuǐ Hǔ Chuàn; Middle row: Strings, meant to represent bundles of cash coins; Bottom row: Cash, Chinese pre-decimal square-holed coins. Right side: Wildcards marked with red ink.

Chinese Money-suited cards (錢卡) c. 1905 owned by Michael Stanwick, Courtesy of The Mahjong Tile Set < >

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:

  1. Darāhim (Arabic: دراهم, trans. coins), plural of dirham, an Arabic coin of Greek origin, a direct continuation of the Chinese ch’ién suit,
  2. 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. 
  3. Suyūf (Arabic: سيوف, trans. scimitars),
  4. 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.)

«Panguingue» by José Taviel de Andrade (1895). Oil on canvas. 61 cm. x 88 cm.

«Panguingue» by José Taviel de Andrade (1895). Oil on canvas. 61 cm. x 88 cm.

Next: Playing-cards in Spain and the Philippines.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Saturday, 7th March 2015 06.51 am PST

    Hello. Your picture of the Chinese money-suited playing cards is taken from my site without my permission. These cards belong to me as does the image of them. If you want to use the picture, please put in your caption ” Courtesy of “.

    • Saturday, 7th March 2015 01.13 pm PST

      Certainly. Which ones are yours so I make the proper attribution? I found them on a Chinese website using 百度 .


      • Friday, 13th March 2015 02.55 pm PST

        Hello. Thank you for putting up the attribution. Can you give me the url of the Chinese web site?

        I am part of an editorial team publishing a high quality magazine on the Mahjong tile set.

        I am not familiar with the style of game played in the Philippines and what it is played for. Does the Mahjong tile set differ from sets seen in Western European countries? I was wondering whether, if you had information about the cultural use of the tile set you might consider writing an artlcle to feature in the magazine?

        I can send you a complementary copy of the 1st issue(just published). You can see items from it on my web site under the ‘Posts’ section on the ‘Home’ page.

        Also, if you go to ‘Tile set History’ you will find the development of Chinese playing cards in the 2 last articles in that section.

        I look forward to hearing from you.

      • Thursday, 19th March 2015 10.30 pm PST

        «Can you give me the url of the Chinese web site?»

        Sure. Just go to and sign up for an account. After you’re in, subscribe to the 錢卡 topic.

        «I am not familiar with the style of game played in the Philippines and what it is played for. Does the Mahjong tile set differ from sets seen in Western European countries?»

        I honestly don’t know if there are any local variants of mahjongg. Never played a game before. When I was in middle school, there used to be an illegal gambling den down the street from a friend’s house.

        Since his Dad was a player, we would usually go down there on weekends for dinner since and free Chinese food on-demand was part of the den service.

        I do know that most mahjongg sets in the Philippines are manufactured in and imported from China so I doubt we have any variant tiles.

        «I was wondering whether, if you had information about the cultural use of the tile set you might consider writing an artlcle to feature in the magazine?»

        Thank you Michael, for the writing opportunity, but it would be a very short article.

        “All forms of gambling are illegal in the Philippines, but illegal gambling dens can be found everywhere and you can be invited as a guest as long as you know someone. In case the den gets raided by the police, the police may ignore you if you are connected to the wealthy or those with political power (best case scenario) or ask for a bribe to be let go (the norm).”

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