At some point you are almost certain to come across the often-repeated claim that the first playing cards were in China. It is a particularly common assertion that you will find online in basic and simplified articles about the origin of playing cards. And we all know that everything on the internet is true, right?
Certainly there is some historical evidence that points in the direction of supporting this claim. China is where paper and printing was first invented, and it’s also where we find games like dominoes and mahjong, which bear some resemblance to playing cards. So it’s not surprising to discover that an early ancestor of playing cards did exist in China. But were playing cards actually invented there?
The reality is that we can’t be sure. Certainly it appears to be a real possibility that playing cards were invented in China during the Tang dynasty around the 9th century AD, as some believe. There is some evidence that games involving cards in some way were used in this time, although we can’t be sure whether these cards functioned as currency for other games, as stakes for gambling, or whether they served as the game itself. But if playing cards did originate during this time, possibly from or alongside tile games like dominoes and mahjong, it would mean that they have their first beginnings prior to 1000AD. From China, playing cards would have proceeded west via India and Egypt, and eventually made their way to Europe.
But it is also possible that playing cards were invented in Persia, and from there spread east to places like China and Korea, and only then west to Europe. Historians really can’t be sure, because paper is a very fragile product, so there’s very little evidence that has survived the centuries and which we can reliably go by.
Playing cards unique to the native Americans of the 18th and 19th century also exist, with colours, suits, and icons that are derived from their own culture, and manufactured on rawhide and horse skins. Does that mean that they also invented playing cards? Not at all, because it is obvious that they just adapted an existing concept that was brought over to America from Europe by the early settlers. In most cases these native American decks were simply adaptations of existing Spanish decks they had already been introduced to. It is not impossible that the same happened with Chinese decks, which may actually have originated elsewhere.
What does appear to be certain is the striking resemblance between the first playing cards that emerged in Europe in the late 14th century and those used in Egypt prior to this. Playing cards first appeared in Italy in the late 1300s, and the four suits used there (cups, coins, swords, and clubs) are a close match to the goblets (cups), gold coins, swords, and polo-sticks found on playing cards used in Egypt during the Mamluk period.
But while playing cards appear to have made their way into Europe via Mamluk Egypt, this still doesn’t establish their origin. In fact, in his book about the history of playing cards, Roger Tilley argues that it is even possible that playing cards in Europe had an altogether independent development. Perhaps we will never know where they first emerged on the pages of history, although once we get to the 14th century onwards in Europe, there is ample evidence about their function in society and culture.
With the absence of solid historical evidence, we may never be entirely certain about the precise origin of playing cards, although it does seem likely to have been in somewhere in the East, with China being at best a strong candidate. Unfortunately inaccurate information can easily acquire a life of its own in our internet age, and the oft-repeated claim that playing cards originated in China reflects a rather simplistic interpretation of the facts, that while undoubtedly well-intentioned and having some basis, remains to be proven. While we can’t thank the unidentified ancestors that bequeathed us with playing cards today, we certainly can thank the many modern designers, publishers, retailers that are building on the foundation inherited from the past, and are giving us wonderful playing cards to enjoy today!
About the writer: EndersGame is a well-known reviewer of board games and playing cards. He loves card games, card magic, and collecting playing cards. This article first appeared on PlayingCardDecks.com here.
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