Monday 26 January 2009

The Turfan Card

I really like this Chinese card found at Turfan in 1905, by Albert von Le Coq, head of the German archeological expedition there in the early part of the last century. It is probably the oldest surviving playing card. It is probable that there is a common ancestor to the Persian and Indian Ganjifah, and Mamluk packs (also called Ganjifah), and that that is the Chinese “Money Pack”. This card resembles the figure called "Red Flower" in the Money Pack.

I agree with the consensus opinion of Carter, Bernhardi, and Dummett against that of von Le Coq and Culin, that the card dates to the 13th or 14th centuries (von Le Coq thought it was from the eleventh century). I follow Michael Dummett’s reasoning in “The Game of Tarot” (pp. 38-39, and 38 note 15) –

The Chinese money pack cannot have been the immediate progenitor of the European pack; but that does not rule out its having been its remote ancestor, through various intervening intermediate forms. Whether this is a real possibility depends upon the antiquity of the money cards. A single Chinese playing card was found in 1905 by von Le Coq at Turfan. He tentatively dated it to the eleventh century. It shows a human figure, which strongly resembles that which depicts Wang Ying, one of the Shui hu chuan [Story of the Water Margin] characters, and appears, in a number of money packs, on one of three extra cards, inscribed simply ‘Wang Ying.’ The Turfan card has an inscription at the top, in a tilted rectangle, which, unfortunately, is hard to read, at least in the illustrations, because it is overprinted by a seal. If it does represent Wang Ying, the card cannot possibly be as early as the eleventh century; Carter assigned it to the fourteenth. [(Dummett’s note to this): T.F. Carter, op. cit. [The Invention of Printing in China and its Spread Westwards, New York, 1925], 1925 and 1931 editions, plate opposite p. 142, and 1955 edition, plate opposite p. 184. Carter states that there were two Chinese playing cards found at Turfan, but I do not know any confirmation of this; I have also been told that there is an early Chinese playing card in a museum in Bombay, but do not know if this true. The Turfan card is also illustrated in C.P. Hargrave, A History of Playing Cards, New York, 1930, 1966, p. 7, and in A. Bernhardi, ‘Vier Könige’, Baessler-Archiv, vol. XXIX, 1936, pp. 148-80, plate 9a. Bernhardi also gives it as his opinion (p. 164) that the card is to be dated to about 1400.]
Both the sixteenth-century Yeh tzu p’u and, according to Prunner, the fifteenth-century Shu yüan tsa chi of Li Jung describe the lower two suits as having suit-signs and the upper two as showing Shui hu chuan figures; if we assume that the association with these figures was a feature of the pack from its first invention, then this association sets a bound to its antiquity. The Shui hu chuan is the outcome of numerous legendary accretions that have attached to a historical nucleus, the exploits of a Robin Hood-like band of robbers in the early years of the twelfth century. The version that is now read dates from the seventeenth century, but has been expanded from earlier versions, the first of which,, the Hsüan-ho i-shih, dates from the early Yüan (Mongol) dynasty; plays based on the story were performed at the same period, and portraits of and poems about ‘Sung Chiang and his Thirty-six’ dating from the later Southern Sung period (1127-1279) are well attested. Given our hypothesis that the association with the Shui hu chuan characters is an original feature of the money pack, that pack can in no case be earlier than the twelfth century, and can hardly be later than the fourteenth: its most probable date of origin lies in the late Southern Sung, that is, in the thirteenth century.
Albert von Le Coq at Turfan

About the "Water Margin", which has been made into TV series in China and Hong Kong (before the reunification), and also dubbed and shown on UK television, see wikipedia - here

For Wang Ying, the wikipedia article is here. Wang Ying's character is rough, greedy, lustful, skilled in martial arts and very strong. Why he (and the other characters chosen out of dozens from the story) was chosen to be a card in the pack I don't know.

The card was first published, to the best of my knowledge, by Stuart Culin in 1924 (just a year before Carter’s work cited by Dummett).

From “The Game of Ma-Jong”

By Stuart Culin, Brooklyn Museum Quarterly, Volume XI, October 1924, pages 153-168.
(article from the University of Waterloo’s “Elliott Avedon Museum & Archive of Games” - Game of Ma-Jong )

(10. Dr. Le Coq, to whose courtesy I am indebted for this illustration, informs me that this card was found by him in 1905 while digging in the loess and debris from the mountain side, deposited on the N. terrace of Temple No. 10 in the glen of Sangim Aghyz between Murtuq and Qara Khoja near Turfan. "Unfortunately I am not sure that this locality, which is close to a road has not been invaded by treasure seekers. Still the objects found with it, a pen and ink case and some fragments of Uigur mss. belong without any doubt to the Uigur period." From these indications it would appear to he at least of the 11th Century.)

“Found in 1905 by Dr. A. von Le Coq with fragments of manuscripts of the Uigur period in the glen of Sangim near Turfan, Chinese Turkestan. This card, which corresponds with the red flower of the present Chinese pack (Plate 1), presumably is not later than the 11th century AD, and probably is the oldest known playing card.

The seal over the man's head contains a denomination of money, three fan, and the characters at the top and bottom give the maker's name.

The form and general appearance of these cards suggests a high antiquity. A presumably old card (Plate 2)10 in the Museum of Ethnology, Berlin, found by Dr. A. von Le Coq among the Uigur ruins in the oasis of Turfan in Chinese Turkestan, which must have belonged to a similar money-derived pack, varies but little from cards now current.”

Andy gives a colour image of the Turfan Card that shows the Chinese characters more clearly than most published versions; as Dummett laments, the seal over the figure's head is still difficult to make out, although Culin/von Le Coq explain it as "Three fan", a denomination of money (the cost of the pack?) -

As Andy notes at his page on Chinese cards
Uyghur was never (that we know) written in Chinese characters – unless there were a local manufacture of Chinese cards (not likely), it must have been imported. The Mongols swept in in the the middle of the 13th century, and I would be inclined to date it to the Mongol period. But le Coq found the card amongst Uyghur documents and artifacts near Turfan, which according to him contain Manichean and Buddhist writings. The Manichean writings date to the 10th and 11th centuries, while the Buddhist date from the 10th to the 14th. Since I can’t find out which texts he found with the card (Culin gives the precise location from le Coq, so it should be able to be found with enough research), I can’t make a guess on the date – if Buddhist, and the card dates from the time of the texts (not certain at all), then it could be as late as late as 14th century. Until I find out more, I’ll have to go with Dummett's argument about the Shui hu chuan limiting the date to around 1300 at the earliest, give or take a few decades.

A comparison of the "Red Flower" cards in (a) a pack published by Breitkopf, "Versuch, den Ursprung der Spielkarten" (1784), plate VI; (b) the Turfan Card; (c) a modern Red Flower, "Double Elephant" brand

For much more information than you probably want to know about the discoveries in Turfan and the region, see the Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften website –

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