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Chapter 7 - Playing Cards

Dutch playing cards from 1920-1927: King of Hearts

There is compelling evidence that the pastime of playing cards originates from China. The first reference to the card game dates close to the 9th century, when the Collection of Miscellanea at Duyang, written by Su E , refers to the family of Princess Tongchang's spouse as the Wei clan of the Tang Dynasty (618–907 AD) who were playing the "leaf game" in 868. A card came guide named Yezi Gex, attributed to a Tang female writer, has also been cited by some Chinese scholars of subsequent dynasties. Another scholar Ouyang Xiu (1007–1072) of the Song Dynasty era (960–1279) has hypothesized that playing card games existed since the mid Tang Dynasty and associated it with the invention of paper in China. During the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). Designers of these cards used characters from popular novels such as the Water Margin to illustrate the faces of cards. By the 11th century playing cards could be found throughout the Asian continent.

Ancient Chinese "money cards" have four "suits" which each represent different denominations of money. Each suit normally contained ranks from one to nine. The usual suits are: cash,for which the suit symbol is a disc, representing a coin; strings, for which the suit symbol represents 100 coins strung together through holes in their centers; and myriads, representing tens of thousands. Like most Asian cards, money cards tend to be long and narrow.

Modern Chinese money cards; 5 sets of 30 cards, plus five cards with full-length figures and an additional card marked Wang Pai (trump card), total 156

European Playing Cards

There are evidences that the modern cards were introduced to Europe by the traders from the Mamelukes of Egypt in the late 1300s. The Mameluke deck contained 52 cards comprising four "suits": polo sticks, coins, swords, and cups. Each suit contained ten "spot" cards (cards identified by the number of suit symbols or "pips" they show) and three "court" cards named malik (King), na'ib malik (Viceroy or Deputy King), and thani na'ib (Second or Under-Deputy). The Mameluke court cards showed abstract designs not depicting persons There are some evidence to suggest that earlier Chinese cards brought to Europe may have pass through Persia, and subsequently influenced the Mameluke cards.

This set of cards is designed by the graphic designers of Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt. c. 1500. According to a passage in Ibn Taghri Birdi's HISTORY OF EGYPT, 1382-1469 A.D., the future sultan al-Malik al-Mu'ayyad won a large sum of money in a game of cards . In these playing cards the suits were coins, cups, swords, and polo sticks.

Playing cards spread  in Europe rapidly -- in Spain 1371, in Switzerland 1377, and in Italy and France 1380. These early cards, like those designed for Charles VI, were hand made. Later on they were mass produced from wood blocks and were colored using a stencil. One could argue that these were the first poster like graphic designs. Europeans changed the design of Mameluke cards into the court cards using king , chevalier , and knave characters . In Italy, the batons were replacing the Mameluke's polo sticks and later on changed into smooth rods with decorated ends. In Spain and Portugal, they became rough cudgels. Sometimes around 1440s Germans substituted Queens for Kings.

With the passage of time it became standard for decks to contain a King, Queen, Knight, and Valet and total about 56 cards. German cards had the suits of hearts, bells, leaves, and acorns which still prevails in Eastern and Southeastern German decks today. The French introduced the suits of hearts, diamonds, spades and clubs at the end of 15th century.

The illustrations on these early decks were influenced by Rouen designers like Pierre Marechal c.1567. Rouen became an important centre for card-making whose influence extended far afield. Packs of playing cards reached England from Rouen. The style of the costumes on English playing cards is late medieval, being descended from the Rouen models.In these early designs figures like the Jack of Spades, Jack of Hearts, and King of Diamonds were highly elaborated full-length figures shown mostly from the rear, with their heads turned back over the shoulder so that they are seen in profile.

Stuttgart Cards (Stuttgarter Kartenspiel) dated c.1430, originally in the collections of the dukes of Bavaria, are assumed amongst the earliest surviving sets of the German playing cards. The cards were hand-painted, and sometimes engraved. They depict hunting themes with suits of falcons, stags, hounds and ducks. Ironically, the graphic designers projected a harmonious relationship between the human figures and animals. True to the tradition of graphic design these cards conveyed ethical and moral messages as well as a social commentary.

The Hofämterspiel cards are a good example of graphic design as a vehicle for recording socio-political and historical information. They depict a feudal social hierarchy. As well, they display political structure of the central Europe by displaying the coats of arms of her four most powerful kingdoms in the mid-15th century; France, Germany, Bohemia and Hungary .

The the cards also convey information with respect to the hierarchical structure of the social classes, from the court jester up to the king's steward and other court officials, which are ranked according to their stations by Roman numerals from one to ten.

During the French revolution the hierarchical order of society came under a question mark. In this card, pronouncing the freedom of beliefs,Talmud,Koran and The Book of Ecclesiastes are placed side by side as sources of divine knowledge. The Ace of Heart is also proclaimed as a symbol of fraternity.

In 1928, Dondorf GmbH in Frankfurt produced the Peters Union Reifen, celebrating the age of automobile

Celebrating German Militarism, under the Emperor Wilhelm II, designed by J. Schönfelder.

The Allied Armies' Playing Cards, Montreal, Canada, 1916/17

The first German-suited playing-cards produced by B. Dondorf in Frankfurt/Main were the Deutsche Spielkarten. The original design is from around 1868. The pack shown is a later edition from around 1890. The maker's name is on the Deuce of Hearts.

A Swiss souvenir pack to commemorate the 6th centenary of the 'Swiss Republic, produced by Jean Muller in Schaffhouse, first produced in 1891 .

Throughout their long history German cards has been of outstanding artistic quality. From the earliest times German packs were produced with a great freedom of design and aesthetically pleasing compositions . Germans introduced wooden blocks printing technique in the fifteenth century. They were able to export these cards throughout Europe rapidly. As compared to the hand-made cards, costs of mass production of these were quite low . The substitution of wood blocking and hand coloring with copper plate engraving during the sixteenth century was the next significant innovation in the manufacturing of playing cards. Later on the mass printing of playing cards was revolutionized with the introduction of color lithography in the early nineteen century.

Playing cards were introduced to Japan by the Portuguese sailors whose ship entered the port of Kagoshima (southern Japan) on August 15th, 1549. Incidentally, among the ship passengers was a Jesuit priest by the name Francisco Xavier, who later became Saint Francis Xavier. He was traveling to the Far East to proselytize for Christianity. The crew brought on land a deck of Spanish playing cards. This is perhaps the reason for why the Japanese cards resemble the European cards more than they do to the Chinese ones.

The new, karuta, the Japanese version of the Portuguese word carta or "card" represented the "cards of the southern barbarians", i.e. the Europeans, which became a fad and spread throughout the country. It is interesting however that how Japanese Artists adopted the cards into their own cultural icons.

Go to the next chapter: Chapter 8 - Tarot cards and Mithraism

  1. See: Andrew Lo, The Game of Leaves: An Inquiry into the Origin of Chinese Playing Cards, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Vol. 63, No. 3 (2000), pp. 389-406
  2. Chinese playing cards, as we understand the term today, date from at least 1294, when Yen Sengzhu and Zheng Pig-Dog were apparently caught gambling in Enzhou (in modern Shandong Province) See: John Berry, Intoduction to the Exhibition 'The World of Playing Cards' at the Guildhall Library, London, from September 1995 to March 1996
  3. Kathleen Wowk, Playing Cards of the World, Lutterworth Press (January 1, 1983), ISBN 0718824083, ISBN 978-0718824082
  4. Catherine Perry Hargrave, A History of Playing Cards and a Bibliography of Cards and Gaming,Dover Publications; Unabridged edition (January 11, 2001), ISBN 0486412369, ISBN 978-0486412368
  5. See: William Popper, translation of Abu L-Mahasin ibn Taghri Birdi, HISTORY OF EGYPT, 1382-1469 A.D., University of California Press (1954), ASIN: B000KJB70S
  6. The kingdom of Germany is represented by the single-headed eagle ( the 'regnum teutonicum) while the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation was symbolized by a double-headed eagle.
  7. The Hofämterspiel cards are from the facsimile edition published by Piatnik, Vienna, edited by Ernst Rudolf Ragg, 1976.

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1 comment:

  1. Very interesting article, beautiful images. Thanks for taking the time and trouble to post this!