Yes, once again it’s time for one of those very satisfying stories that begins with “we don’t know exactly when.” We don’t know exactly when playing cards were invented. We know where, though. As always when it comes to “paper” and “inventions” in the same sentence, the answer is China.
The first definite, absolute, totally authenticated reference to cards that is for sure about cards is from the (Mongol) Yuan Dynasty. So late, I know, 1295! Except that the reference to cards is a pissy as hell judgment from “the Department of Punishments of the Secretariat” accusing two JERKS of printing cards. “Cards!” the Department of Punishment practically wails. “Cards! For fuck’s sake! They had woodblocks, they had paper, and then they tried to destroy them as though we were going to miss the fact that they were running a gambling den what with the thirty-six taels of paper cash they had stashed around the damn place! And then some asshole functionary pointed out that technically all the gambling cases we’d tried were for dice and ’[metal] money or goods’ and that we didn’t have precedent! Well, how do you like your precedent now, Mr. Nitpick? Served with a side of legal justice. Department of Punishments of the Secretariat out.”
From which we can decipher that a) cards existed prior to 1295 but b) not so much prior that the new Mongol overlords really knew what to do with them.
There are a bunch of unauthenticated references to playing cards predating 1295 in China, as you’d expect, which range from the “yeah that’s probably someone playing cards” to “wait, what the hell is ‘fishing for the giant sea turtle’”? The most frequently discussed is a game from the Tang Dynasty called ‘the game of leaves’ which may or may not have been partially a card game and which was almost definitely partially a dice game, and which, as far as scholar Andrew Lo could find out (I am extensively relying on him throughout the China section here), has rules that are some combination of
- mancala, and just possibly
- Chutes and Ladders.
I swear to god I am not making this up.
Anyway, ‘fishing for the giant sea turtle’ is a variation of a popular drinking game from the Tang/Song Dynasties along the lines of the classic game King’s Cup. Depending on the card you draw, you drink according to different rules. The difficulty is that it’s unclear whether or not the Tang/Song Dynasty games had cards or jade plaques or wooden fish again I am not making this up, and in any case the cards were a lot more game-specific and don’t count as standardized playing cards even if they were paper. In the case of the giant sea turtle, the cards probably were wooden fish, because it was all themed on the turtle statue that sat at the top of the emperor’s court; when you aced your examinations you were said to be sitting on the head of the giant sea turtle. A sample card contained the following: “How did the giant from Elder Dragon Kingdom fish for the turtles then?/He used a rainbow for a long rod, and the crescent moon for a hook. [Instruction:] Please use fine wine to urge those who have passed the examinations to drink a full ten units.” It was called fishing for the giant sea turtle because you literally had to fish for the plaques from seven chi away, while getting steadily drunker. I think it should be clear to everyone at this point that in terms of having a good time, the Tang and Song Dynasties had this shit on lock.
And those fun images above on the left? Well, Mamluk Egypt and possibly India both thought this “playing with cards” thing sounded boss. Mamluk Egypt, with the characteristic restraint and simplicity with which it did everything, thought the Chinese didn’t really understand the whole concept of this block printing thing, because seriously what’s the point of having playing cards if you can see the designs on them? From Egypt, the cards made their way into Italy and Switzerland, where they proceeded to make Europe addicted to gambling.
Those Dark Ages. So full of boring farmers farming boringly.
Hello, friends! Thank you for sticking with me for the long, long radio silence, for which I sincerely apologize. Hopefully in the coming months I’m going to have a little more time to update. I love you all, particularly the very brave and very enthusiastic people who followed me during the four months of nothing. You’re my kind of gals.