Chinese Games with Dice and Dominoes

Extract from: Smithsonian Institute Report, 1893, pages 518-521

Stewart Culin

Before proceeding to discuss the origin and antiquity of the Chinese game, an account will be given of dominoes used in other parts of China, and among the people of the adjacent countries.

Figure 17A set of dominoes from Fuhchan1 in the Oriental Section of the Museum of Archaeology and Paleontology of the University of Pennsylvania is made of bamboo and numbers 32 pieces. They measure 31/32 by 27/32 by 15/32 inch, and have slightly curved faces that follow the natural curve of the reed. The concave faces are marked with incised spots that are painted red and green, and are arranged in the Chinese series (Figure 17), green taking the place of black spots. These dominoes are accompanied with 16 wooden disks resembling draughtsmen, an inch in diameter, the faces of which are reproduced in Plate 8. They each bear a Chinese character referring to one of the 16 pairs formed with the 32 dominoes.2

Plate 8Four of these, t’ín, tí, yan, and wo, are the same (Page 519) as those used to designate the four highest pieces in the mán series, Plate 5, but the remainder, in place of the vulgar names usually given to the other pairs, have the characters shü, ngau, fú, tô, lung,shé, má, yéung, hau, kai, hün, and chü, which represent the names “rat,” “ox,” “tiger,” “hare,” “dragon,” “serpent,” “horse,” “goat,” “monkey,” “cock,” “dog,” and “pig,” the 12 animals of the duodenary cycle.3 I understand these discs are used in connection with a kind of lottery.

I am informed that bamboo dominoes, similar to the above, are used at Shanghai, and at all the Chinese ports from Funchal northward.

There are several very interesting sets of Chinese dominoes from Funchal in the museum of the Long Island Historical Society, Brooklyn, NY4 One of these sets (A) consists of 126 marked pieces and 2 blanks. They are made of bamboo, faced with bone or ivory which is attached to the wood with glue, or, in the case of one of the sets, with small brass pins. The pieces measure about 7/8 by 5/8 by 3/8 inch. This set is composed: first, of 3 suits of 21 pieces marked with black and red dots, each comprising the Chinese series without the duplicates; second, of 2 suits of 21 pieces, similarly marked with black and red dots with the addition of ornamental devices of flowers in red and green; third, of 1 suit of 21 pieces, each with double sets of dots, 1 set being placed at each end of the pieces, and between certain devices in red and green, comprising the emblems of the Eight Genii, the characters for “sun” and “moon,” a tiger, and various flowers.

A similar set was exhibited by W. H. Wilkinson, esq., Her British Majesty’s consul‑general, Seoul, Korea, in his collection in the section of games at the Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1893. They were from Shanghai, and designated as Hua ho (fá ho) “flower harmony.”5

Another set (B) in the museum of the Long Island Historical Society comprises 141 marked pieces and 2 blanks. They are made of bamboo with a bone or ivory face, which is skillfully mortised to the wood, and measure 7/8 by 5/8 by 3/8 inch. This set is composed:

  • First, of 4 suits of 9 pieces each, marked in red, green, and blue, with from 1 to 9 circles
  • Second, of 4 suits of 9 pieces each, marked in red and green, with from 1 to 9 narrow rectangles
  • Third, of 4 suits of 9 pieces each, marked with the characters yat mán, “one ten thousand,” to kau mán, or “nine ten thousand.” The characters for “one” to “nine” are in blue, and that for mán, “ten thousand,” is in red.
  • Fourth, of 4 pieces marked pak, ” north,” in blue; of 4 pieces marked sám, “south,” in blue; of 4 pieces marked tung, “east,” in blue; of 4 (Page 520) pieces marked sai, “west,” in blue; of 4 pieces marked chung, “middle,” in blue; 1 piece marked pak wong, “northern ruler,” in red and blue; 1 piece marked nám wong, “southern ruler,” in red and blue; 1 piece marked tung wong, “eastern ruler,” in red and blue; 1 piece marked sai wong, “western ruler,” in red and blue; 1 piece marked chung wong, “middle ruler,” in red and blue; 1 piece marked t’ín wong, “heavenly ruler,” in red and blue; 1 piece marked t’í wong, “earthly ruler,” in red and blue; 1 piece marked yan wong, “human ruler,” in red and blue; 1 piece marked wo wong, “harmony ruler,” in red and blue; 1 piece marked ch’un, “spring.” in red; 1 Piece marked hà, “summer,” in red; 1 piece marked ts’au, “autumn” in red; 1 piece marked tung, “‘winter.”
  • Fifth, of 8 blank pieces.

A set nearly identical with this was also exhibited by Mr. Wilkinson. It lacked the pieces designated as “rulers of the five directions,” the t’ín, tí, yan, and wu wong, and the 4 pieces with the names of the seasons. It had, however, 4 pieces bearing the character fát. This set was from Ningpo, and was designated by Mr. Wilkinson as chung fa (chung fát). “The coloring,” he states “whether in red, green, or blue, is purely ornamental, and has nothing to do with the play of the game.”6

Another set (C), front Ferchau, in the museum of the Long Island Historical Society, is made entirely of bamboo. This set is composed of 32 pieces, measuring 7/8 by 9/16 by 5/16 inch. They are inscribed on one face with the usual dots and the characters that represent the names of the pieces of the Chinese game of chess, tséung k’í.

These marks are arranged as follows:

  • 6-6 6-6, kü, “chariot”, in red.
  • 1-1 1-1, tséung, “elephant”, in green.
  • 4-4 4-4, kü, “chariot”, in red.
  • 1-3 1-3, séung, “elephant”, in red.
  • 5-5 5-5, tsut, “soldier”, in red.
  • 3-3 3-3, ping, “soldier”, in green.
  • 2-2 2-2, sz’, “secretary”, in green.
  • 5-6 5-6, má, “horse”, in green.
  • 4-6 4-6, má, “horse”, in red.
  • 1-6 1-6, tsut, “soldier”, in red.
  • 1-5 1-5, tsut, “soldier”, in red.
  • 6-3 4-5, sz’, “secretary”, in red.
  • 6-2 5-3, p’áu, “cannon”, in red.
  • 4-3 5-2, p’áu, “cannon”, in green.
  • 1-4, ping, “soldier”, in red.
  • 2-3, tsut, “soldier”, in red.
  • 2-4, tséung, “general”, in green.
  • 1-2, shui, “general”, in red.

Mr. Himly7 describes a set of Chinese bamboo dominoes, 32 in the set, with the characters of the chessmen, which is identical with the (Page 521) preceding, except for slight variations in the association of the names of the chessmen on the dotted pieces. He offers it in explanation of the number, 32, of the domino game, and says that it could only have been made to save space while traveling. As in the preceding, the 32 dominoes do correspond, piece for piece, with the 32 men in the Chinese game of chess. It is clear that the devices on some, at least, of the other decorated dominoes were copied from playing cards, those on the set A being identical in number as well as in devices with a set of the dotted cards from Funchal in the same collection, while the set B has the names of the familiar suit marks, ping, sok, and mán, of the cards; hence it is possible that the “chess dominoes” were imitated from the corresponding “chess cards,” and that the true explanation of the number of the domino pieces must be found elsewhere.

Mr. W. H. Wilkinson also exhibited at the Columbian Exposition a set of dominoes from Wenchow, called hua tang chiu, “flowery tang chiu.” They consist of 5 suits of 21 pieces each and 17 extra pieces (total, 122) and 4 blanks. The extra pieces are (1) 6‑6 6‑3, (2) 1‑1 1‑3, (3) 4‑4 1‑3, (4) 2‑1 4‑4, (5) 3‑3 5‑6, (6) 1-2 2‑2, (7) 1‑2 2‑4, (8) 4‑5 5‑5, (9), (10), (11) 3 pieces marked with the sequence 1‑6, that is, 1‑4 2‑6 3‑5; 1‑6 2‑5 3-4; 1‑5 2‑3 4‑6, and 6 pieces bearing the characters (a) wen, “civilian;” (b) wu, “military;” (c) tsung, “universal;” (d) t’ai, “highness;” (e) ho, “lily;” (f) p’ei, “heap up.” “The blanks are used only to replace cards lost.” The material was wood, stained black, with incised spots, painted white and red. “The coloring of the cards is immaterial.” They measured 1 by 14/16 by 8/16 inch, and the inner face was slightly concave, like the dominoes from Funchal, mentioned on page 518.8


  1. Received through the courtesy of J. P. Cowles, esq., U. S. vice‑consul, Fuhchau.
  2. Prof. Rodolfo Lanciani, in the Athenaeum, January 7, 1888, gave an account of the discovery of a tomb in Perugia twenty‑one centuries old, in which an inveterate gambler had been buried together with his gambling apparatus. Among other remarkable sets were “16 tesserae, or labels, cut in bone, 4 inches long, with a word engraved on one side and a number on the other.” The importance of the discovery is concentrated on the words and numbers engraved on the bone labels. The ancients used to give a special name to a certain number, or addition of numbers, which they obtained by throwing the dice. … As regards the newly discovered labels, it appears that any number from 1 to 12 was considered a very bad throw, and consequently the corresponding words or names were very objectionable indeed (Moechus Vappa, etc.). The “13” is neither good nor bad; hence its name, vix rides, “You hardly smile.” The names corresponding to higher numbers are all of good omen, such as benignus (25), amator (30), and felix (60), which seems to be the maximum of the game discovered at Perugia.” While the agreement of number of tablets in this Etruscan series with those in the Chinese is probably a mere coincidence, it is curious to note the occurrence of such similar usages in ages and countries so widely separated.
  3. Chinese Reader’s s Manual, part 2, No. 301.
  4.  The gift of the Hon. George Glover, formerly US consul at Fuhchau. There is a similar collection given by him in the American Museum of Natural History, Central Park, New York.
  5. Cf. Descriptive Catalogue World’s Columbian Exposition, Department M, revised edition. p. 87.
  6. Descriptive Catalogue, p.87.
  7. Zeitschrift des deutscher Morgenländischer Gesellsehaft, Band13, p. 453.
  8. Cf Descriptive Catalogue, p. 88.