From Cards to Tiles: The Origin of Mahjong(g)’s Earliest Suit Names

Michael Stanwick and Hongbing Xu


A commonly held proposition among playing card collectors and students is that the three suits in Mahjong(g) have a close relation to those of the money-suit system of playing cards. There is much comparative evidence for this relation (Prunner (1969), Dummett (1980) and Lo (2004) offer us good examples of this comparative approach), from the apparent design of the insignia (albeit quite abstracted for two of the suits in Mahjong(g)) to the similarity of the names of the suits and the name of the game.

Apart from comparative evidence that shows an apparent close relation between the three suits in Mahjong(g) and those of the money-suit system of playing cards, is there other evidence that can provide additional support for a direct developmental relationship? We propose one such line of evidence may be found in the meanings of the earliest proto Mahjong(g) suit names – that is, there is a resonance between the meanings of the names of the three suits of preceeding playing cards and the meanings of the three suits of the earliest proto Mahjong(g) suits.

These names are found in documents of one of the earliest proto Mahjong(g) tile sets so far discovered, collected by Karl Himly1 and subsequently described in some detail by him in an article in 1889, and in much more detail in his 1901 article ‘Die Abteilung der Spiele im ‘Spiegel der Mandschu-Sprache’ [The Section of Games in ‘The Mirror of the Manchu Language’].

In his earlier 1889 article, Himly states that his “Ningpoer Bambuskarten” (Bamboo Cards of Ningbo), was part of his own collection of Chinese playing card packs, in other words, they belonged to the playing card family. In his later 1901 article, Himly provided an explanation of the meaning of his proto Mahjong(g) suit terms. It was this explanation we examined and tested via disconfirming data in documents (manuals, novels and academic papers) from the periods in question. To date over 33 documents have been examined, 11 predating Himly’s proto Mahjong(g) set.

  • [1]

    In the same year as he finished his University studies (1865), Karl Georg Frederich Julius Himly (1836 – 1904) arrived in China and, according to Henri Cordier (1904), went “to Peking as a student-interpreter [until 1867, Couling 1917]. Later he was appointed Interpreter at Chifoo [Yantai] then at Shanghai” [as Interpreter for the German Consular Service] (Cordier 1904). It seems Himly therefore lived in Shanghai from 1868 until 1870, with a break on leave from 1871 to 1872. He resumed work in 1872 until 1876 when he retired and returned to Germany. He therefore collected his set some time between 1868–1870, or between 1872–1876. This is roughly concurrent with the set collected by Glover sometime between 1872 and 1873 (see Stanwick 2004).

1.0 Karl Himly’s Analysis.

1.1 The Playing Card Category.

In line with subsequent students of Chinese playing cards such as Wilkinson and Culin et al, Himly also employed a comparative approach when analysing the properties of his playing card collection.

As is well known, but perhaps not to the uninitiated, and also highlighted by Himly himself, the Chinese make no distinction between the thicknesses of their cards – cards of all thicknesses and materials are called pai (literally plaque). Thus, when we turn to Himly (1901) we find that when he discussed his collection of pai, cards, he also considered his proto Mahjong(g), or 麻雀ma qiao set (its main pre-1949 pronunciation), should also be included since it is composed of very thick bamboo plaques or cards, 竹牌 zhu pai, (dominoes), (that is, bamboo tiles). Hence his proto Mahjong(g) set, that is, his proto 麻雀牌 ma qiao pai set, was given the name, in Pinyin, 寧波竹牌 Ningbo zhu pai.

Of more relevance is Himly’s (1901) proposition that his Ningbo zhu pai belonged to the card group exemplified by a type of well known card deck called shi hu pai3 (see Prunner 1969). Himly (1901) reported that shi hu pai were a quadruplicated, three suited category of pasteboard cards with 36 cards in each of the suits, called 餅 bing, 索 suo and 万4 wan, in addition to three quadruplicated extra 花 hua, ‘flower’ cards, thus 120 cards (see Figure 1). Sometimes there were extra cards for a 125, 132 or even a 160 card deck.


Figure 1. Shi hu pai. China, ~ 1900. Partial deck; 30 of 115 of 120 cards.

Himly also proposed that the name shi hu pai meant ‘cards of the ten hu’ – hu being combinations or melds of various cards (ten combinations in this case) with each combination known by a special name, such as ‘wen qian’ (copper coin), ‘qun zi’ (underskirt) and ‘bang zi’ (assistant) for example.

However, Andrew Lo (2004) reports that the game was called 十壺 shi hu, meaning “Ten Points” or sometimes “Ten Pots”. Reference to this meaning is found in a playing scene from the novel Hui fang lu (‘A Record of Painted Fragrance’), written by Xiling Yeqiao in about 1878. From the scene it can be inferred that the name shi hu means ten points and is the minimum for a winning hand. Mention of shi hu is also found in Yangzhou hua fang lu (‘The Painted Pleasure Boats of Yangzhou’) by Li Dou, prefaced 1796;

“In the boats people often played with ya pai [ivory plaques] or yezi pai [leaf plaques, as in the long, thin leaves or pages of a book]… With yezi pai, people preferred to play … ‘peng hu, in which
 shi hu was preferred.” Li, in Lo 2004, also notes that “Recently, everyone plays the shi hu [ten pots] game … Also, the five stars [five cards] – fortune, emolument, longevity, wealth and happiness – have been added, making a total of 125 cards.”

From Li Dou’s observations it can be inferred that the later 十壺 shi hu was probably a variant of the earlier 碰和 peng hu.

According to Lo (2004), shi hu was played with a card deck that was a development from the card deck of the late Ming card game of 馬吊 ma diao:

“The ma diao deck of forty cards of four suits developed into a three-suited deck used to play a wide variety of games. The tens of myriads [suit] was eliminated (with one card of this suit becoming a court card), leaving a thirty card deck …. . This deck was used to play trick-taking games like [ 看虎] ‘kan hu’ (watching the tiger), and doubled to sixty to play the game of [ 混江] ‘hun jiang’ (rolling the river), among others. When doubled, quadrupled to 120, or quintupled to 150, the deck could be used for various types of draw-and-discard games such as [默和] ‘mo hu’ (silent harmony), [碰和] ‘peng hu‘ (encountering harmony), [十壺] ‘shi hu‘ (ten points, sometimes called ten pots), and [梭和] ‘suo hu‘ (shuttle harmony). Of these, the most widespread was probably ‘shi hu‘.”

From Li Dou (1796) and Lo (2004) it may also be inferred that the game of shi hu was played with cards called 碰和牌 ‘peng hu pai ‘ that were named after the prevailing game of the time, that is, peng hu. Hence at the height of the popularity of the shi hu game the cards may have become known as 十壺牌 shi hu pai.

Sir Henry Wilkinson on the other hand, remarks in his 1890 manuscript notes (repeated in his 1925 unpublished memorandum, see Stanwick 2004) that it would seem that the terms shi hu and ma qiao were used in the period 1889 – 1892, in at least Wenzhou and Hangzhou in Zhejiang province [a coastal province located south of Shanghai], to specifically refer to a class of quadruplicated pasteboard cards, as the playing instruments of the game,

“with which certain games are played”. In his memorandum, Wilkinson does note that the term 什胡 shi hu 5 “is found on many native boxes of what Mr. Babcock would call Mah-Jongg tiles”.

Interestingly, Lo (2004) also notes that peng hu was used in novels of the late Qing period as the name of the game, that is, presumably the name of the game-play, and later was also used as the name of the game-play in conjunction with ma qiao;

“In addition to its meaning of “encountering harmony,” peng hu also could be read here as “playing for points,” as in the novel Hai shang hua liezhuan (A Biography of Flowers of Shanghai, 1892), … In slightly later novels, the game is sometimes referred to as peng hu, and sometimes as ma que [ma qiao].

From this evidence it would seem that around 1892 in different, but geographically close regions, both 十壺 shi hu [Zhejiang province] and 碰和 peng hu [Shanghai] were used as the name of the game-play whereas ma que was used as the name of the playing cards in Zhejiang province but as the name of the game-play in Shanghai.

It was in the context of the quadruplicated, three suited shi hu pai that Himly (1901) placed his Ningbo zhu pai. Thus;

“The bamboo cards of Ningpo [Ningbo] cannot be separated from the shi hu pai because of the [索] suo and [万] wan [that are] present in them. So we have to add … the bamboo cards of Ningpo [Ningbo], which have 36 [同] tong instead of [鉼] bing, besides the well-known 36 suo and 36 wan.6 …. We have to add the three [化] hua as they carry the names [索化] suo hua, [万化] wan hua, [同化] tong hua,7 so they must have a certain relation to these three basic regulars of the shi hu cards” [that is, the three 枝花 zhi hua, ‘flower’ cards, each associated with a shi hu pai suit].

Hence the names of two of the suits – suo and wan, are the criteria that allows Himly to include the Ningbo zhu pai into the shi hu pai category of playing cards. This observation served as the beginning of Himly’s argument that justified him to compare and analyse common features of his tile set and with those of the then contemporary Chinese three suited playing card decks.

Thus, according to Himly’s detailed description of the tile set, the names of the three suits, 同tong, 索 suo and 万 8 wan, are engraved on three 化 hua tiles and these three hua tiles have a resonance to the three extra cards of the shi hu playing cards. The three extra cards are usually hand painted, printed or stamped with a red mark (see Figure 1.)

In addition to the three hua cards, the equivalent number of cards or tiles in each suit is also a criterion he mentions for considering his proto Mahjong(g) Ningbo zhu pai set to belong to the category of quadruplicated, three-suited Playing Cards.

1.2 The Suit Terms.

As we have seen, Himly reasoned that since his Ningbo zhu pai belonged to the category of games played with zhi pai, ‘paper plaques’, exemplified by the quadruplicated, three-suited shi hu pai and since two of the three hua tiles had the names suo and wan that corresponded to two of the suits of the shi hu pai playing cards, then the remaining name of the third hua tile, 同 tong, corresponded to the remaining third suit of the shi hu pai – that is, 餅 bing.

If we are to evaluate Himly’s conclusion, it seems that to understand the meaning tong in the context of three suited Chinese playing cards, we must first turn to the meaning of bing in the same context.

1.2.1 The Meaning of Bing.

In Himly’s (1901) description of the three-suited card game shi hu pai, he discusses the association of 餅 bing ‘cakes’ to “Cash”, noting that one of the ten, three-card combinations or ‘hu’, was called “[文錢] wen qian ‘copper coin’ = 1, 2, and 3 [of] bing [‘cake(s)’]”. [Note; ‘wen qian’, ‘copper coin’ was the name for a standard unit of money – ‘a cash-coin’ (Peng, 1994), and appears in Lo (2002), as the name of one of the suits – ‘Cash’, in a Late Ming four-suited money deck].

Himly (1901) further elaborated on this meaning of bing in footnote 580, where he noted that the 1716 ‘K’ang-hi Tze-tien’ [Kangxi Zidian] Dictionary9 reported;

“Nowadays in Min (now Fujian), Ou (now Wenzhou) and Hu-Nan, (people) cast silver into cakes 餅 bing, (with the radical 食 (饣simplified) ‘shi’, food’)] which is just a remnant of 鉼 ‘bing’” [with the radical 金‘jin’, ‘metal’, as a conceptual symbol – hence ‘metal-cake’ – as in silver ‘cake’ (a silver coin)]. Note; 餅 bing can also mean ‘shaped like a cake’.

Casting of silver into cakes certainly predates the Kangxi Zidian’s observation of the early 18th century. According to Lien-sheng Yang (1952) “Smaller pieces of silver were commonly known as 餅 bing, “cakes,” in Tang [618 – 907] and Song [960 – 1279] times…”.

In ‘A Monetary History of China‘ Peng Xinwei (1994) sums up these reports by stating that when silver and gold were used as money, one of the units of gold or silver was 
the ‘cake’. The term ‘cake’ 餅 bing, was the name of either gold or silver money that had been cast into the shape of a ‘cake’ (slightly flat and round). Silver was sometimes the more favoured currency and it was also called ‘cake-metal’.

As the unit to count money, reference to 餅 bing – and silver – is also found in the book Hui fang lu (‘A Record of Painted Fragrance’) (1878), by Xi Ling Yeqiao, which has the phrase “shi bing fan yin”, ‘ten cakes of foreign silver’.

The term 餅 bing ‘cake’ was therefore used, usually, as a unit of silver currency or money. Similarly 文錢 wen qian, the cash coin, was used as the unit of the four and three suited money cards. Since both were used as units of money and bore similar round shapes, then this may explain why the term ‘cake’ could have been used as an alternative term for the units of the Cash suit. As Himly observed;

“… and for the bing [suit], besides the real bing (“cake”), there are also single coins with a hole …” (Himly, 1901)

Thus, it seems the cards in his collection show either round ‘cakes’ of silver, bing, or single coins.

Mention of this term, in connection with the suits of card games, can be found in Cao Xueqin’s (1715 – 1763) novel Hong lou meng, (‘Dream of the Red Chamber’). In the novel a card game is mentioned, probably shi hu (in the novel it is called “dou pai”), in which we have 二 餅 er bing “2 cakes”. Slightly later, in Li Ruzhen’s (1763 ~ 1830) Jing hua yuan, (‘Flowers in the Mirror’) (probably written before about 1817) bing is mentioned as the name of one of the three suits along with suo, and wan. Finally in Feng yue meng (‘A Dream of Wind and Moon’), written by Han Shang Men Ren in 1848, we have the three suits of shi hu pai as 餅 bing (often abbreviated to 并), 条10 tiao (this term will be dealt with later) and 万 wan (see Figure 2).


Figure 2. Wen ming pai. China, ~ 1941. Complete deck. 30 of 120 cards.

This documentary evidence, indicating that the suit term 餅 bing, 
’cake’, was associated with money, is in accord with Himly’s observations.

Thus, for Himly, if bing ‘cake’ is a monetary unit, then perhaps the use of 同 tong for the third suit also reflects this meaning.

1.2.2 The Meaning of Tong.

In footnote 640 of his 1901 paper, Himly elaborates on his explanation of 同 tong:

“同 “with” [but also ‘transformation’], obviously an abbreviation of 銅 “copper” 11, what would, in that respect, mean [銅錢] ‘tong qian’ “copper piece””(‘copper cash’) [See also Vissering (1877, 1968) for mention of this money term].

If Himly’s association, and hence explanation, of the term 同 tong with 銅 tong is accurate, then it throws up a prediction – that we should expect to find some mention of it in the names of the suits of either the contemporary and/or preceding three suited card games mentioned in documentation prior to or during 1870.

After extensive searching, the term 銅 tong “copper” was found as the suit name in the 1814 book Hong lou yuan meng (‘Completing the Dream of the Red Chamber’), one of the many sequels to the famous book Hong lou Meng (‘Dream of the Red Chamber’). The name of the sequel’s author, Meng Meng Xian Sheng, is a pen name meaning ‘Mr Dream’. There is no information as to his real name or his date of birth/death so it is difficult to determine where exactly the term was used. In the book there is a playing scene of the game 打吊 da diao ‘play diao’ or ‘play diao pai’, but the game is in fact ma diao. A character by the name of ‘Infanta’ draws a hand of each of the cards 空文 kong wen (Zero Cash), 枝花 zhi hua (Spray Flower/Half Cash), 二銅 er tong (Two Cash), 千僧 qian seng (Thousand Monk), 百子 bai zi (Hundred Son), 九十 jiu shi (Nine Ten), 八十 ba shi (Eight Ten) and 二十 er shi (Two Ten).

This excerpt provides evidence that, prior to circa 1870, 銅 tong “copper” was used as the name of the ‘Cash’ suit as in the card 二銅 “Two Cash”, along with term ‘Cash’ 文 wen in the card ‘Zero Cash’. Wen is also used as an abbreviation for wen qian ‘Cash’. Both cards belong to the same suit.

Support for this association of ‘copper’ with ‘Cash’ also comes from the Hanyu da cidian, the ‘Comprehensive Chinese Word Dictionary’. Under 銅 tong, ‘copper’, there is an entry:

“Abbreviation for copper-made things. (3) copper cash, cash.”12

Further, the Hanyu da cidian also has an entry for 同 tong. The entry says that 同 tong can be read as 銅 tong, (copper), and quotes an example of such use from chapter 4 of Chui jian lu (‘In praise of Swords’), by Yu Wenbao (13th century) of the Song dynasty, in which 同 tong is found in 同錢 tong qian (referring to copper/bronze coins, that is, copper cash).

From the entries in the Hanyu da cidian and the entry in the 1814 book Hong lou yuan meng (‘Completing the Dream of the Red Chamber’), we may infer that since 同 tong can be used instead of 銅tong, and since 銅 tong, ‘copper’, can be used as an abbreviation for ‘copper cash’ or just ‘cash’ and can also be used as the name of Cash suit in the game ma diao, then 同 tong may also have been used as a name for the Cash suit.

If this chain of inferences is correct then it might support Himly’s original contention that 同tong is an abbreviation of 銅 tong, ‘copper’ and hence was used instead of 銅錢 tong qian ‘copper cash’ or ‘cash’ for the third suit in his Ningbo zhu pai.

1.3 The Meaning of Suo and Wan.

But what of the other two suit names, ‘Strings’ (of Cash) 索 suo and ‘Myriads’ (of Cash) 萬(万) wan, mentioned in his description of his Ningbo zhu pai (Bamboo Cards of Ningbo)? In his 1901 paper, Himly describes these two names in relation to the illustrations on cards in packs of his shi hu pai category of three suited Chinese playing cards, found in the North of China:

“As in the case of [索] suo the still used money strings of brass coins with a hole in the middle are illustrated throughout [see Figure 1], and among the bing besides the real [餅] bing (» cake”) there are also single coins with a hole [again, see Figure 1], the expression wan, or more completely wan guan, can also only be understood as a higher money unit, by either understanding wan as an abbreviation of [萬(万)錢] wan qian (10.000 brass coins) or as [萬(万)貫] wan guan. The presence of wan guan in the packs of Fujian makes the latter probable. Suo “cord” describes a string of 100 brass coins, guan “to thread” is an expression for 1000 of such coins, meaning = 10 suo …”.

Himly subsequently links these terms with those found in his proto Mahjong(g) tile set Ningbo zhu pai;

“On the other hand, besides the suo hua and the wan hua there is a tong hua in the bamboo cards of Ningpo [Ningbo] to be mentioned later, the nine suo are shown by the usual strings of money, the wan by the character, the [同] tong, as we should say here instead of bing, by single coins, – obviously you have to complete the phonetic symbol tong with the conceptual symbol [金] jin “gold” (‘metal’) to give [銅] tong “copper”.

As stated earlier, Andrew Lo (2004) reported that the quadruplicated, three-suited playing card deck was derived from the four-suited deck that was used to play the game of ma diao. Ma diao was detailed in the card game manual Yezi pu (‘A Manual of Leaves’) by the Late Ming scholar Pan Zhiheng (1556 – 1622)13 and translated by Andrew Lo in a series of articles that appeared in The Playing-card (see Lo 2000, 2002). According to Pan:

“ A string is used to string cash, and a hundred cash is called a string [suo]. … Ten strings would be called a guan [Hence a guan is a string of a thousand cash]. Thus 10 strings is discarded from this suit, and it is used to start the Myriads series. … The Myriad [wan] gets its name from piling up ten strings.” [In this case 1 string equals a thousand cash. Hence, a myriad consists of 10,000 cash]

Thus the four suits were called 文錢 wen qian ‘Cash’, 索子 suo zi ‘Strings of Cash’, 万貫 wan (guan) ‘Myriads’ and 十万 shi wan (guan) ‘Tens of Myriads’ (Lo, 2004).

Further support for the meaning of 索 suo as a monetary unit is found in Volume 9 of the Hanyu da cidian. Under 索 suo, definition 16, number 2, we have “unit of currency, coinage. In the past string was threaded through coins and each 1000 wen ‘cash’ made a suo, … .” Thus a suo referred to a string of 1000 coins or cash, as opposed to 100 coins reported by Pan and Himly.

Further, Endymion Wilkinson (2000) highlights the various names applied to strings of a thousand cash, of which 索 suo and 貫 guan are mentioned:

“Cash were reckoned in wen 文 … and in short, full, and standard strings of 1,000 cash. The strings were called normally guan 貫, suo 索, or min 緡 before the Song [Dynasty 960 – 1279] and diao 吊 or chuan 串 in the Ming [1368 – 1644] and Qing [1644 – 1912].”

One possible explanation for the discrepancy between suo as a string of 1,000 cash or 100 cash may be the fluctuation in the value of coin over various locales or for various contexts. For example, from his base in Ningbo, Kong Qi of the Late Yuan (circa 1352) wrote:

“The official rate is one hundred coins [per guan], but in Wu and Yue [i.e.,Jiangnan] the prevailing rate of exchange among the people varies from eighty to sixty, or even forty, coins, depending on the place.” (Kong Qi quoted on Von Glahn (1996).

These accounts provide further support for Himly’s observations that the suit names suo and wan can have a basis as monetary units when his Ningbo zhu pai is considered within the context of the quadruplicated, three-suited playing card category of Chinese playing cards – as exemplified by his shi hu pai – that were developed from the four suited ma diao deck.

1.4 An Extra Term for the ‘Strings of Cash’ Suit – the Meaning of Tiao.

條 (条 simplified) tiao was also another term for the ‘Strings’ [of Cash] suit, appearing in Guang ling chao (‘The Waves of Guangling’), written by Li Hanqiu in 1908 – 1919. In the book, this term is used for the ‘Strings’ [of Cash] suit for both paper card games and ma que, with the other two suits called bing ‘Cakes’ and wan ‘Myriads’ (of 1000 Cash). But an earlier record of the term tiao for the ‘Strings’ suit from the Qing Dynasty, is found in Feng yue meng (‘A Dream of Wind and Moon’) written by Han Shang Meng Reng in 1848, so predating the observations of the suit names reported by Himly. The other two suits were also called bing and wan. These 1848 terms were used for the game shi hu pai. Both of these books are situated in the area of Yangzhou (a city in Jiangsu province).

However we know from Jing hua yuan (‘Flowers in the Mirror’), written by Li Ruzhen probably around 1817, that the three suits are called bing, suo and wan. We also know Li Ruzhen lived in Haizhou, in the north of Jiangsu province – geographically close to Yangzhou. Therefore we tentatively propose that the term tiao may have appeared in this region in the period 1817 – 1848.

We also propose three hypotheses for how 条 tiao might have originated. Firstly, it may have been related to the fish figures that are found on the cards of the ‘Strings’ suit of the three suited money cards (see Figure 3), since tiao is a unit used to count fish. However, this presupposes that the fish figures appeared very early in the nineteenth century, but as yet no evidence exists to support this. Packs sporting Strings of Fish and 条 tiao, together with the abbreviated bing 并 and the simple form of wan 万, did appear in the early twentieth century as in Figure 3, and were still being produced in the late twentieth century, see Figure 4.


Figure 3. Tai zeng pai. China, ~ 1930. Partial deck. 30 0f 65 of 120 cards.


Figure 4. Shui hu pai. China, ~ 1970. Complete deck. 30 of 120 cards.

Secondly, tiao might have been derived from the term 吊 diao. Since diao was already in use as a monetary term as early as the Ming Dynasty – as a string of a thousand cash – then tiao may have derived from diao purely due to their similarity of pronunciation and then applied as a name for the ‘Strings’ (of Cash) suit sometime in the early nineteenth century.

Alternatively, if diao were already a suit name then tiao may also have been derived from it for the same reason of their similarity of pronunciation. This presupposes that diao was in use as a suit name in the early nineteenth century (1817 – 1848). As yet, there is no evidence to support this presupposition.

The earliest documented use of diao as a suit name comes from a record made in 1890 by Sir Henry Wilkinson, that appeared later in his 1925 memorandum under the heading;

“2. Extracts from my unpublished notes. (a) from a MS written by me in 1890:”. He had observed; “ … a thousand of the cash so strung being called a [吊] tiao [diao] or “string”.”

We know this is his intended meaning since in his ‘Conclusion’ to the memorandum he also drew the character,吊, diao (but labelled it “tiao ‘strings (of cash)”) together with a drawing of another sinogram for ‘strings’, 索, suo, labelling it “so ropes.”

  • [2]

    Note. In this article full-form or traditional Chinese characters are used throughout. Simplified Chinese characters are used only when they have appeared in other sources that have been used in this article.

  • [3]

    Himly offers two alternatives for the name of this category of card deck, 十乎牌 and 一十胡牌, in which the character for ‘hu’ is different. The first alternative, 乎, comes from page 61 of Robert Morrison’s 1822 A Dictionary of the Chinese Language: in three parts, Part III, English and Chinese. Himly observes that Morrison used a mere phonetic symbol for ‘hu’. The second appears to be from Himly’s own observations, from which he states that the character for ‘hu’, 胡, means Inner Asia.

  • [4]

    万 is the simplified version of wan. The traditional or full-form is 萬.

  • [5]

    This name corresponds to one of the names Himly ascribed the game.

  • [6]

    Wilkinson (1895) also lists similar terms. But instead of 索 suo he lists 吊 diao, and instead of 同 tong he lists 餅 bing, and for the third suit 万 wan.

  • [7]

    In footnote 641, Himly observes that “化. Presumably, you have to think here not of hua to transform, but of an abbreviation for 花 hua “flower” (cf. the [枝花] zhi hua).” In other words, 化 hua ‘transform’ is a verb, but in 同化 tong hua we need a noun so it becomes an abbreviation of 同花 tong hua ‘tong flower’.

  • [8]

    This simplified form is used since Himly used it in his notes. It also is used for the Myriads or wan suit in Glovers 1875 proto Mahjong(g) set.

  • [9]

    The Kangxi Dictionary [Kangxi Zidian] was compiled in 1710 under the order of the Kangxi Emperor and was published in 1716.

  • [10]

    Here, this is the simplified form of 條. The simplified form is often used for the Strings suits in playing cards.

  • [11]

    This use of the term 銅 tong, ‘cash’, should not be confused with the later, different term for the ma que/Mahjong(g) ‘Cash’ suit, that is, 筒 ‘tong’, ‘bamboo tube’, which was recorded by Han Bangqing (1892) in his novel “Haishang hua liezhuan” (“A Biography of Flowers of
Shanghai”). This difference in meaning may be a result of the phenomenon of homophones, since both words have a similar pronunciation such that one may be confused for the other.

  • [12]

    The Hanyu da cidian collects just the usages words, whether they were/are, correct/standard or incorrect/nonstandard usages. Thus, if 同 tong was used in the Himly set in lieu of 銅 tong ‘copper’, so as to denote ‘copper’ and hence ‘copper cash’, then that would be an incorrect or nonstandard usage, but still used nevertheless.

  • [13]

    We have good reasons for accepting Pan’s descriptions of the cards. Pan was a Scholar and therefore well-educated and conversant with
areas of Chinese high culture of the time, moving within the circles of leading scholar-officials. He wrote critically on drama and other subjects, including descriptions of Chinese card games. His position as a well-educated scholar-merchant, his knowledge of the period (based on the range of subjects he wrote about) gives us good reasons to accept his observations about what he saw and heard as being accurate.

2.0 Summary.

As we have seen, the explanation examined here concerns the derivation of the three proto ma qiao pai suits from preceding four suited and three suited Chinese playing cards. This explanation is based on the discussions put forward by Karl Himly in his papers on the Chinese playing cards in his collection (Himly 1889, 1901), since it was his experiences and his tile set, both collected in China, that are the earliest extant documentary evidences of the game.

The provisional evidence so far collected provides support for Himly’s observations and speculations, regarding the meaning of his precursor ma qiao pai suits’ names and their links with contemporary and preceding three suited card games utilizing the cash-based system. The only discrepancy to this model of the suit derivations – and hence of ma qiao itself – being derived from a preceding money based card game, is the term tiao. Various hypotheses are put forward to account for the origin of this term.

Table 1. List of Novels, Texts and Suit Terms Mentioned in this Article.

[Simplified characters are in ( ).]

Author/Publication Name of Game Cash Strings Myriads Ten Myriads
Lu Rong (1436-94)
Shuyuan zaji.
Miscellaneous Notes from the Bean Garden.
dou yezi.
Competing with Leaves.


100 (Cash)
wan guan.**Myriad ***guan
shi wan guan.
Ten Myriad guan
Pan Zhiheng (1556-21?)
Yezi pu/Xu yezi pu
Manual of Leaves/Sequel to a Manual of Leaves.
ma diao.
Horse Dropping (a leg).
看虎 or 鬥(斗)虎
kan hu or dou hu.
Watching the Tiger or Competing with the Tiger.
wen qian/qian
suo zi/suo/bai
Strings (of 100 Cash)
wan guan/wan
shi wan/shi
Ten Myriad/Tens
Taoqing Zhuren
Ma diao xin pu(1676)
A New Manual of the Game Ma Diao.
ma diao/hun jiang
Horse Hanging/Rolling the River.



1000 Cash
Cao Xueqin(1724?-63)
Hong lu meng
Dream of the Red Chamber.
shi hu
Ten Points.

Li Luyuan(1707~90)
Qi lu deng
A Lantern for the Crossroads.
hun jiang
Rolling the River.



Jin Xueshi (1736~98?)
Muzhu xianhua(1783)
Idle Talk of a Swineherd.
ma diao/mo hu/peng hu
Horse Hanging (Up One Leg)/Silent Harmony/Encountering Harmony.
wen qian
suo zi
wan guan
Myriad guan
Li Dou
Yangzhou huafang lu(1764-95)
The Painted Pleasure Boats of Yangzhou.
ma diao/peng hu/shi hu
Horse Hanging (Up One Leg)/Encountering Harmony/Ten Points.
wen qian
wan guan
Myriad guan
shi zi
Mengmeng Xiansheng
Hong lou yuan meng(1814)
Completing the Dream of the Red Chamber.
da diao
Play Diao.

(lit; copper) Cash

Li Ruzhen (1763~1830)
Jing hua yuan
Flowers in the Mirror.
ma diao/shi hu
Horse Hanging (Up One Leg)/Ten Lakes?



Hanshang Mengren
Feng yue meng (1848)
A Dream of Wind and Moon.
shi hu
Ten Pots.


Karl Himly (1836-1904)
Shanghai (1868-76)
Ningbo zhu pai
Bamboo Cards of Ningbo.
Abbreviation for ‘Copper’ Cash

Strings (of Cash)

George Glover
China (1859-1879) Fuzhou (1872-73)
Kao jia qiao
Hit the House Sparrow.
Xiling Yeqiao
Hui fang lu (1878)
A Record of Painted Fragrance.
shi hu
Ten Lakes?


Strings (of Cash)

Han Bangqing (1856-94)
Hai shang hua liezhuan (1891~94)
A Biography of Flowers of Shanghai.
peng hu
Playing for Points.

(Bamboo) Tube

Strings (of Cash)


* 萬 (traditional) and 万 (simplified). Often, playing cards and ma qiao tiles sported either of these forms.

** One Myriad = 10,000.

*** One Guan = 1000 Cash.

**** 條 (traditional) and 条 (simplified). The simplified form is most often seen on extant playing cards and hence is represented here.


Cordier, Henri, T’oung Pao, 1904, p. 624 – 5.

Couling, Samuel, The Encyclopaedia Sinica, Shanghai, 1917.

Dummett, Michael, The Game of Tarot, London, 1980.

Himly, Carl, ‘Morgenländisch oder abendländisch? Forschungen nach gewissen Spielausdrucken’. In: Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft, XLIII, 1889, p. 415-463 + 555-578.

Himly, Carl, ‘Die Abteilung der Spiele im ‘Spiegel der Mandschu-Sprache’, VII’. In: T’oung Pao, 2nd series, Vol.II, 1901, p. 20-3.

Lien-sheng, Yang, Money and Credit in China. Harvard University Press. Cambridge, Massachusetts. 1952.

Lo, Andrew, ‘China’s Passion for Pai: Playing Cards, Dominoes, and Mahjong’. In: Asian Games: The Art of Contest, Colin Mackenzie and Irving Finkel, eds. Asia Society. 2004. pp. 217-231.

Morrison, Robert, A Dictionary of the Chinese Language: in three parts, Part III, English and Chinese. Macao, China. Black, Parbury and Allen, London 1822.

Peng, Xinwei, A Monetary History of China. Vol. I and II. 1994. Translated from the Chinese original ‘Zhongguo Huopi Shi’. 2nd Ed. 1965 by Edward H. Kaplan. Bellingham, WA: Western Washington University Press. 932 p., ill. (Zhongguo Huopi Shi by Peng Xinwei 1st Ed. 1954, 2nd Ed. 1958 (revised), 3rd Ed. 1965 (revised). Shanghai: Shanghai renmin chubanshe.)

Prunner, Gernot, ‘Ostasiatische Spielkarten’. Bielefeld. 1969.

Stanwick, Michael, ‘Mahjong(g) Before Mahjong(g): Part 1’. In: The Playing-card, Vol. 32, No. 4, 2004, pp. 153 – 162.

Stanwick, Michael, ‘Mahjong(g) Before Mahjong(g): Part 2’. In: The Playing-card, Vol. 32, No. 5, 2004, pp. 206 – 215.

Von Glahn, Richard. Fountain of Fortune: Money and Monetary Policy in China, 1000-1700. University of California Press. 1996.

Wilkinson, Endymion, Chinese History: A Manual. (Revised and Enlarged). Harvard-Yenching Institute Monograph Series, 52. Harvard University Asia Center. 2000.

Wilkinson, William H., ‘Mah-Jongg: A Memorandum’ Copyright by The Continental Mah-Jongg Sales Co. Amsterdam, 1925. Not for Publication.

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