Chinese Dice

Figure 1

Chinese dice1 are small cubes of bone marked on each side with incised spots from 1 to 6 in number (Figure 1), which are arranged in the same manner as the spots on modern European dice, as well as those of Greece and Rome of classical antiquity;2 the "six" and "one," "five" and "two," and '"four" and "three" being on opposite sides. The "four" and "one" spots on Chinese dice are painted red, and the "six", "five", "three," and "two" are painted black. The "one" is always much larger and more deeply incised than the other spots, possibly to compensate for its opposite, the "six." The origin of the custom of painting the "fours" red is accounted for, according to the a Kan san sai dzu e,3  by the following story:

An emperor of the Ming dynasty (AD 1368-1643) played at sugoroku with his queen. He was almost defeated by her, but had one way of winning through the dice turning "fours." He cried and threw the dice, and they came as he desired, whereupon he was exceedingly glad, and ordered that the "fours" thereafter be painted red, in remembrance of his winning.

A similar story was related to me as a common tradition among the Cantonese, by au intelligent Chinese, who gave the emperor's name as L Ling Wong,4 who reigned under the title of Chung Tsung (AD 684, 701-710). [Page 493] Mr. Herbert A. Giles5 tells me that this story is mentioned by a Chinese author, but I am inclined to regard the account as fanciful, and think that it is probable that the color of the "fours" was derived, with the dice themselves, from India.

Several sizes of dice are used by the Chinese, varying from a cube of two-tenths to one of seven-tenths of an inch. Different sizes are employed in different games, according to custom. Dice are usually "thrown by hand into a porcelain bowl, the players throwing around in turn from right to left, and accompanying their efforts with cries of loi ! "come!" The Chinese laborers in the United States play several games with dice, but they are not a popular mode of gambling, and are generally neglected for fan t'n, and Chinese dominoes.


1. The common name for dice among the Cantonese is shik tsz', composed of shik, "colors," and tsz', "seed,"  "dice." In Medhurst's English and Chinese Dictionary, Shanghai, 1847, three other names for dice are given: t'au tsz' composed of t'au, written with a character compounded of the radicals, karat, "bone," and sh "a weapon," "to strike," and the auxiliary tsz'; shung  luk, "double sixes," from what is regarded as the highest throw with 2 dice, and luk ch'ik, literally "six carnation." The last name may be considered as a compound of the terms for the most important throws: "six" and carnation or red; the "four," to which, as will be seen, an especial significance is attached, as well as the "one," the lowest throw with a die, being painted red. In Japanese dice are called sai, a word written with a Chinese character, ts'oi, " variegated," "lucky."

2. About the only dotted cubical dice which depart from this arrangement are those of the ancient Etruscans, which are regarded as having the "one" and the "three," " two" and "four," and " five "and " six " opposite, a system which does not appear, according to the writer's observation, to have been constant.

3. Japanese Chinese Three Powers' (Heaven, Earth, Man) picture collection, Osaka, 1714; vol. 17, fol. 4.

4. Whence a vulgar name for dice among the Cantonese, hot l, composed of hot, "to call out loud," and l, for L Ling Wong. Modern Indian dice are usually marked with black and red spots. In the Mhbharata (IV, 1, 25) reference is made to "dice, dotted black and red." (Prof. E. W. Hopkins, J. A. O. S., vol. 1, p.123.)

5. Chinese dice are the exact counterpart of our own except that the ace and four are colored red; the ace because the combination of black and white would be unlucky and the "four" because this number once turned up in response to the call of an Emperor of the Tang dynasty, who particularly wanted a "four," to win him the partie. (Strange stories from a Chinese Studio. Vol. II. p. 145.)

Last update January 31, 2010