Chinese Money-Suited Playing Cards


This Gallery features Chinese cards of the three money-suit variety that the draw and discard game of ma qiao/ma que/Mahjong(g) was most probably derived.

This three suit variety was developed from a four money-suit deck – also included in this Gallery – that was used for playing tricking taking games such as ma diao (see Gallery pictures Four Suits-1a, 1b) and luk fu (see Gallery picture Four Suits-2).

This development was done by dropping the highest suit, the tens of myriads of guan, (in Chinese ‘shi wan guan‘ = shi 十 (‘ten’) + wan 萬 (‘myriad’ = 10,000) + guan 貫(1 guan = 1000 cash)),  to leave just three suits, each with 9 cards plus three extra cards that serve as Jokers. By quadruplication of each card to 120 cards, and even increased 150 cards with more  Jokers cards possibly added, draw and discard, meld-forming games such as ma que/Mahjong were made possible.

For further details, please read the article ‘From Cards to Tiles‘ in the section Tile Set History and particularly the References.

The Names of the Suits.

When looking at the decks in this gallery, you will see that the remaining three suits are; (starting from the bottom and lowest value and showing traditional/simplified sinogram forms where relevant)

  • Cash, – 1 – 9; either ‘tong‘, 銅/同, (copper as in copper cash) or ‘bing‘, 餅/并, (cake as in cake of silver) or ‘tong‘ 筒 (bamboo tube). These are represented on each card by realistic or abstracted coins or circles (sometimes with a square hole in the middle).
  • Strings (of Cash) – 1 – 9; either ‘suo‘ 索 (strings of cash) or tiao 條/条 (strings) represented by realistic or abstracted bundles of strings of coins or strings of groups of fish or just plain coiled bundles of string.
  • Myriads of Cash – 1 – 9; ‘wan‘ 萬/万 (usually sporting the images of human figures or portraits, sometimes heavily abstracted).
  • In some examples, there is a fourth suit, shi wan guan 十萬貫, tens of myriads of 1000 strings of cash – also known as ‘tens‘ (also with images of human figures or portraits – see the example deck of ma diao).

Pictured at the end of each suit are three (quadruplicated) extra cards, often – but not always – associated with one of the suits. They usually, but not always, have red marks or stamps on them. Starting from the bottom we have, above the human portrait on each card, the names of; (they may or may not be featured)

  • hong hua ‘red flower’, 红 花, sometimes showing a man – wang ying 王英 – with small black boots. Originally it may have been the ‘zero cash’ card showing a Persian presenting a treasure with the heading ‘Void of one cash’ and this original card may have been converted to act as a ‘flower’ card and become ‘red flower’ for the Cash suit. One school of thought says that the ‘red’ refers to the red stamp found on this card (See Four Suits 1a and 1b. See also Three Suits 3).
  • bai hua ‘white flower’ 白花. This may have originally been the ‘half cash’ card and then converted to act as the ‘flower’ card for the Strings suit. The reference to ‘white’ may be because it is devoid of a red stamp (See Four Suits 1a and 1 b and Three Suits-4).
  • lao qian 老千, ‘old thousand’. This was originally the thousand myriad guan card from the now discarded fourth suit. The figure of Wu Song the Itinerant Monk was portrayed on this card (See Three Suits-3).

The Different Styles of Cards.

Gernot Prunner (1969) argued for three styles of Chinese money-suited playing cards from the 19th and 20th centuries. The criteria for these styles appeared in his 1969 East Asian Playing Cards exhibition catalogue (see Literature gallery 3.0, picture 1969-1). A fourth style is also added at the bottom. These styles are;

  • The ‘Naturalistic Style‘. Both four and three-suited decks. This style displays realism in the representation of the human figures with faces displaying recognisable individual features.  The stacks of strings of coins and groups of single coins are also easily recognisable. Occasionally, objects such as fish or bats appear and these too are portrayed realistically. Bold edge patterns representing the cards identity are the the top and bottom of each card. Gallery examples are the complete four-suited deck of the ma diao (Four Suits 1a & 1b) (minus the bold edge markings) and the complete and partial decks Three Suits 1 – 20.
  • The ‘Linear Style’. Both four and three-suited decks. This style displays partial abstraction (or partial realism) in the representation of the human figures and the strings of cash and cash coins show marked geometrical designs of their forms. Thus the human faces are becoming mask-like and the strings are in the form of columns. The coins are also more geometrical in shape and the lower values heavily abstracted. Some examples will show loss of the value patterns at the top and bottom of the cards and the graphics are very linear and thin-lined. Gallery examples are the Three Suits 21- 30.
  • The ‘Geometrical style’. This style features the “complete decomposition” of the human figures, the strings of cash and the cash coins into heavily abstracted geometrical motifs. The graphical lines are very thick and linear with small value patterns. Gallery examples are Three Suits 31 – 33.
  • The ‘Sinogram style’. This last type is a four suited deck that has a style that does not possess any of the myriads of cash, strings of cash and cash pictorial representations. On each card these have been replaced by a large sinogram naming the suit plus the number or value of each card. The Gallery example is Four suits-2.

There are examples of partial and complete decks of cards in this Gallery. The partial decks serve to illustrate the different styles in which the suit patterns were printed from the carved wood blocks. Complete decks also show the differing styles in which the suit patterns were engraved and printed plus the differing colour schemes involved and the possible presence of further extra cards.

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