How did the Chinese invent playing cards?
Like many ancient people, the ancient Chinese enjoyed games. The ancient Chinese painted or carved images on sticks, bones or rocks for game playing.
After inventing paper in the second century of the Western Han dynasty (206 BCE – 23 CE) and then woodblock printing in the Sui dynasty (581 – 618 CE), the ancient Chinese married the two together to make playing cards as early as the Tang dynasty (618 – 907 CE).
Why playing cards were invented
Playing cards were most likely invented for ease of use and for sales profit. Since the original game pieces were made from heavier materials, such as rocks, paper cards would have been easier to take from place to place.
Designs on paper cards could have more detail and have more colors than anything carved or painted on a stick or bone.
Printed cards would also have been a merchant’s delight. Paper playing cards, unlike bones or rocks, would be destroyed if they got wet, burn easier than a rock, and tear easier than breaking a stick or bone. All of these destruction methods meant that card players would need playing cards more often than previous types of game pieces. Having a woodblock with the engraved images available to print a new set of cards meant that the merchant could quickly and easily have new cards available for playing card buyers.
Chinese playing card designs
The designs on the earliest type of cards may have looked similar to the paint or carved images on the original sticks, bones or rocks used as games pieces. The earliest playing cards included cards with different numbers of coins shown on each card from one coin per card to ten strings of ten coins. Additionally, some of the cards had pictures of characters from ancient Chinese stories or folk tales.
The size of the ancient Chinese cards was smaller than modern cards. The ancient Chinese playing cards were made in sizes from 1 inch long by 3/8 inch wide to 2 inches long by 1 inch wide.