Figure 23

According to a tradition current among the Chinese laborers in the United States, dominoes were invented by Hung Ming,1 a hero of that popular romance, the Sm Kwok chi,2 for the amusement of his soldiers to keep them awake during the watches of the night in their camp before the enemy. Others attribute them to the ingenuity of Kung t'i Kung,3 and give a similar reason for their discovery. A Chinese physician, the most scholarly of my informants among his class, insisted that they were invented by Fn La,4 whose picture, from a popular illustrated edition of the Thug chau lit kwok,5 is reproduced in Figure 23.

Little importance need be attached to these stories, which are given as illustrations of the conflicting statements made by the comparatively uneducated Chinese regarding things which are a matter of record.

Dr. Gustav Schlegel6 quoting from the Chi sz yin kau (Ch sz' ym ku),7 states that dominoes were invented in 1120 AD by a statesman [Page 531] who presented them to the Emperor Hwui tsung, and that the game with its explanation was locked in the imperial treasury and first came into general use in the reign of Hwui-tsung's son. Kao-tsung (1127-1163 AD).

Mr. Karl Himlycites Knghi's Dictionary as saying that according to general tradition, dominos were invented in the second year of Siuen-ho (1120) and circulated abroad by imperial order at the time of Kao-tsung.

Mr. Chatto9 quotes the other great Chinese dictionary of the last century, the Ching tsz' tung, on the authority of  Mr. Samuel Birch, as saying that the cards now known in China as Teen-tsze-pae (tim tsz' pi) or "dotted cards," were invented in the reign of Siuen-ho, 1120, and that they began to be common in the reign of Kao-tsung.

Mr. W. H. Wilkinson has recently also shown10 that in the citation made by Chatto from the Ching tsz' tung, he omits the concluding and most important sentence: "It does not follow that this class of games originated in the period Hsan-ho",  and says that the passage, adduced again and again by European writers to prove that cards (dominoes) Were first invented in the reign of Siuen-ho, when carefully examined, distinctly declares that such a conclusion would be unsound. Mr. Wilkinson says,

"It is perfectly clear, that all that was done or asked for in 1120 was an imperial decision as to which of several forms of T'ien-kiu (Heavens and Nines) was to be considered orthodox. The game and the cards must have been in existence long before. The passage from the Ching tsz' tung runs thus: 'Also ya p'ai, now the instruments of a game.' A common legend states that in the second Year of the Hsuan-ho, in the Sung dynasty (1120 AD ), a certain official memorialized the throne, praying that the ya p'ai (ivory cards) might be fixed as a pack of 32, comprising 127 pips (sic, it should be 227, but Chinese printers are careless), in order to accord with the expanse of the stars and constellations. The combination, 'Heaven,' (6-6, 6-6) consisted of two pieces, containing 24 pips, figures of the 24 solar periods; 'earth' (1-1, 1-1) also composed of two pieces. but contained 4 pips, the four points of the compass - east, west, south, and north: 'man' (4-4, 4-4) two pieces, containing 16 pips, the virtues of humanity, benevolence, propriety, and wisdom fourfold; 'harmony' (1-3, 1-3) two pieces of eight pips, figuring the breath of 'Harmony' which pervades the eight divisions of the year. The other combinations had each their names. There were four players having cards apiece for their hand, and the cards won or lost according as the number of the pips was less or more, the winner being rewarded with counters. In the time of Kao-tsung [Page 532] (1127-1163) pattern packs were issued by imperial edict. They are now known throughout the empire as ku p'ai, 'bone pai;' but it does not follow that this class of games, po-sai, ko-wu, and the rest originated in the reign Hsan-ho."

As the foregoing shows that the historical evidence is inconclusive as to the actual invention of dominoes, and as the Chinese accounts of the invention of other games are not particularly trustworthy, and especially as the history of all games seems to be one of gradual evolution, rather than direct invention, the following pages are devoted to an examination into the origin of the game from internal evidences rather than an historical point of view.


  1. Chu-ko Lian (Hung Ming), AD 181-234. The great counselor of Liu Pei, who owed to the sagacity and military skill of Chu-ko Liang his success in establishing himself upon the throne. (The Chinese Reader's Manual, No. 88.)

  2. Wylie, A., Notes on Chinese Literature, Shanghai, 1867, p. 161.

  3. Kiang Tsze-ya (Kung t'i Kung) is reported to have been a counselor of Si Peh, twelfth century BC (The Chinese Reader's Manual, No. 257.)

  4. Fan Li (Fn Lai), minister of Kow Tsien, Prince of Yeh, whom he aided to overthrow the rival kingdom of Wu, the final victory of which, after twenty  years' warfare, was achieved BC 473.. (The Chinese Header's Manual, No. 127.)

  5. Notes on Chinese Literature, p. 162.

  6. Chinesische Bruch and Spiele in Europa, Breslau, 1869, p. 18.

  7. Investigations on the traditions of all things.

  8. Zeitschrift der deutscher Morgenlandischen Gesellsehaft, Band 43, p. 451.

  9. Facts and Speculations on the History of Playing Cards, London, 1848, p. 55.

  10. The American Anthropologist, Jan., 1895, vol. 8, No. 1, p. 66.

Last update January 31, 2010