Top Card Games in China

In China, card games are a staple of leisure and social interaction, reflecting the nation’s rich cultural heritage and love for strategy. These games not only serve as entertainment but also as a conduit for social bonding, with rules and gameplay that have evolved over centuries. Many historians believe that playing cards originated in China as they were recorded as early as the 13th century.

Dou Dizhu: China’s Premier Card Game

Dou Dizhu, which translates to “Fight the Landlord,” is one of the most popular card games in China. It is typically played with three players using a standard deck of 52 cards plus two distinct jokers. The game’s structure reflects socio-economic themes, where two ‘peasants’ team up to compete against the ‘landlord,’ mirroring historical class struggles.

The game starts with a card auction to determine who will be the landlord, who then aims to play all of their cards first. The landlord plays alone, and the peasants play as a team. The game employs a variety of combinations similar to poker hands, such as pairs, straights, and full houses, which can be played depending on the current game state. Strategic depth is added by the ability to ‘bomb’ or use high-value combinations to change the flow of the game.

Dou Dizhu’s appeal in China is largely due to its fast-paced, strategic gameplay which requires significant skill, memory, and tactical teamwork. The game’s popularity is also bolstered by its reflection of Chinese cultural themes, making it a favorite during social gatherings and festivals. Special regional variations sometimes introduce specific rules or modified scoring systems to adapt to local preferences.

Traditional Card Games Native to China

  1. Zheng Shangyou
    • Origins: Known as “Struggling Upstream,” this game involves players trying to rid themselves of all cards first.
    • Gameplay: Players can play cards solo or in combinations, and gameplay typically involves strategic passing.
    • Cultural Impact: Emphasizes strategic depth and patience.
  2. Sheng Ji
    • Origins: A multi-round game that often involves complex scoring and multiple decks.
    • Gameplay: Teams score points by collecting tricks, similar to bridge.
    • Cultural Impact: Known for its challenging gameplay and is often played in competitive settings.
  3. Gong Zhu
    • Origins: Translates to “Catch the Pig,” a game derived from Hearts.
    • Gameplay: Players avoid certain cards that carry penalty points, while trying to capture beneficial ones.
    • Cultural Impact: Often played during leisure time for its engaging, yet light-hearted nature.
  4. Pusoy
    • Origins: Also known as Chinese Poker, this game involves dividing a hand into three different poker hands.
    • Gameplay: Each hand is compared with the opponents’ hands to score points.
    • Cultural Impact: Popular among poker enthusiasts for its unique twist on traditional poker.
  5. Tuo La Ji
    • Origins: A game that involves quick thinking and card combinations.
    • Gameplay: Players try to play all their cards by beating the previous player’s hand in rank.
    • Cultural Impact: Favored for its fast-paced nature and is often played in social gatherings.
  6. Da Lao Er
    • Origins: Translates to “Big Old Two“. This game originated in China in 1980 and became very popular in Shanghai.
    • Gameplay: Players try to get rid of all of their cards by playing them to the table. You want to have as few cards as possible when another player finishes.
  7. Da San
    • Origins: Also known as “Big Three” to the rest of the world. This game is played mostly in the Shaanxi province and is also called “Dig a Hole” in that area.
    • Gameplay: This game is interesting in that it’s 2 versus 1. After the initial deal a single player is playing against the other two. The highest bidder gets additional cards to make more combos but also risks losing by not playing their whole hand.
  8. Gou Ji
    • Origins: A game that originated in Qingdao, a coastal city in the Shandong province.
    • Gameplay: The goal is to play all of your cards and the first player to get rid of their cards is the main winner. The game will continue to find a second winner, third winner and so on. The last player left with cards is the user. Then you run it again until you only have one winner left.
  9. Băo huáng
    • Origins: This game originated in the early 21st century in northern China and became pretty popular online.
    • Gameplay: Each player will try to make combos with their cards and the goal is run out of cards by beating the emperor (currently unbeaten).
  10. Guàn Dàn
    • Origins: A game whose name means “throwing eggs”. Guan Dan originated in Huaian, Jiangsu Province.
    • Gameplay: The goal is to play with a secret partner and get rid of all your cards while helping your partner. You want to eliminate low unmatched cards and play strong combos to clear out your hand.
  11. Dă Dà A
    • Origins: Also known as “Big Ace” or “Big A”. This game originated from Inner Mongolia.
    • Gameplay: There are 5 players and two decks are used. In each hand two Aces of one suit are chosen and those are the Big Aces. The person who declares an Ace as the Big Ace will have a secret partner who holds the other Ace. The players with cards left are the winners.
  12. Tàihé A Bāo
    • Origins: This is a newer game originating from Taihe county, Jiangxi province, China in 2013.
    • Gameplay: In this card game, one player acts as the declarer, playing against the other players who form a temporary team. Gameplay involves using a 40-card deck, adapted from a standard deck by removing certain cards, and revolves around strategic bidding for specific cards and outplaying opponents by creating higher-ranking card combinations in a counterclockwise play sequence.
  13. Gān Dèng Yǎn
    • Origins: This card game is somewhat newer coming about around 2010 in Shudi in the Sichuan province in southwest China.
    • Gameplay: In this card game, players use a 54-card international pack, including two Jokers, to be the first to rid themselves of all cards by playing them in legal combinations such as singles, pairs, sequences, and bombs. The game is played in a series of tricks where players either play cards following the lead or pass, aiming to have the fewest cards when someone finishes, with special roles for Twos and Jokers enhancing strategic depth.
  14. Sap Ng Wu
    • Origins: Also known as “15 lakes”. There is no real understanding of the origin of this game but the earliest readings show it being played in Hong Kong.
    • Gameplay:
      This Chinese card game, suitable for three or four players, uses a deck of 84 domino cards, featuring 21 unique number combinations replicated four times each. Players compete to play higher cards or sets of cards within the same suit, including civil and military divisions with specific rankings and mixed suit combinations. The goal is to be the first to win a specific number of “wu” points by collecting winning card combinations during play, with an unbeatable “supreme” combination and various scoring increments based on the number of winning cards collected.

FAQ: Card Gaming Culture in China

How do beginners learn to play card games in China?

  • Beginners are often taught by friends or family in casual settings, where the rules can be practiced and learned over multiple rounds.

Are card games in China suitable for all ages?

  • Yes, card games are enjoyed by people of all ages in China, offering various complexity levels to cater to everyone from children to seniors.

What is the best occasion for playing card games in China?

  • Card games are particularly popular during festive occasions like the Chinese New Year and family gatherings.

Do card games involve gambling in China?

  • While some games can be played for stakes, many are enjoyed purely for fun and social interaction, without involving gambling.

Can visitors to China participate in local card games?

  • Visitors are often welcomed to join in, especially if they show interest and are willing to learn the rules.

Exploring the world of card games in China provides a fascinating insight into the strategic, social, and cultural practices that have been cherished across generations. Whether it’s battling it out in Dou Dizhu or forming winning hands in Pusoy, each game offers a unique glimpse into the rich tapestry of Chinese social life.