The Chinese Tarot Deck by Jui Guoliang
Review by Joan Cole

If you would like to purchase this deck, click here.

The whole notion of making a Chinese Tarot is a fascinating one, and this deck is a successful effort in creating "card designs based upon the symbolism, legends, beliefs, manners and customs of ancient China".  The deck is enlivened by gods, demons and ghosts from the Chinese pantheon, such as the Heavenly Twins and the God of Longevity, and beautified by other traditional painting subjects, such as the "four gentlemen" (the plum, orchid, chrysanthemum and bamboo).  The artwork on this deck fits into the millennia-old tradition of Chinese watercolor painting.  This is more of an art deck rather than an attempt to blend tarot with a structurally different tradition, whether that be Taoist alchemy or the I Ching or anything else.

Traditional secular Chinese images, like tarot images, conceal sometimes elaborate meanings behind the arrangement of various simple elements.  This vocabulary of images is something one learns growing up in the culture. (Alas, I did not grow up in the culture and have only a handful of undergraduate courses in Asian Studies, a stack of books and several hours of pointed web searching backing up my opinions.) A gift of art, or the paper in which a gift is wrapped, can be selected to express messages to the recipient.  Often, the components of this vocabulary earn their place by being homonyms: for example, a bat, "fu", can stand for good luck (also "fu").  With this system, a painting of a monkey holding a bee can congratulate someone for a job promotion.  In addition to this, China has three great religions, Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. Unlike Christianity, which has had such a formative impact on Western cosmology, these religions do not demand exclusivity from their practitioners.  A person can follow all three.  Rather than a monotheist cosmology, there are hundreds of gods, demons and ghosts populating the spirit world and impacting the mortal world.  Added to this are numerous historical and literary figures.  All of this means that there is plenty of "material" that can be drawn from to express the concepts behind the traditional tarot images in a completely new way.  Of course, the users of the tarot, if they do not know Chinese culture, will need good explanations to know what they are looking at.  Unfortunately, there is no accompanying book for this deck, and the little white booklet (LWB) is notably skimpy. 

In China, painting is one of the "three perfections", the other two being calligraphy and poetry.  Due to the great reverence for tradition in Chinese culture, paintings from The Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220) through the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911 A.D.) have far more in common than European artwork over the same time span.  Indeed, the "ancient China" that this deck depicts could well indicate that period of more than 1000 years. Looking at this deck next to pictures in books about art history in China, this deck seems to fit right into the tradition of Chinese painting.  I have been unable to locate any information about Jui Guoliang (not even in the LWB), so I can't say what his training and background actually are.

In reviews of decks, there is always some concern about how much renaming has been going on with the Major Arcana.  This deck does very little renaming, though the imagery is quite different than the usual tarot.  Wherever possible, the artist finds figures in Chinese mythology which express the meaning of the tarot card as it might be translated into Chinese culture.  This can be contrasted with the approach of the Ukiyoe Tarot which depicts typical tarot images done in Ukiyoe style.  Research into the figures beyond the short descriptions of the LWB will be very profitable for the user of the deck without prior knowledge of this mythology.  Such research reveals nuances of meaning that are not typical of traditional keywords.

Traditional

Chinese Tarot

Depicts

0 - Fool

The Fool

Identified in the LWB only as The Fool, this is possibly an illustration of Ji Gong, "the mad monk"

1 - Magician

The Magician

Again, the LWB does not give any better identification, but from the flaming sword and bowl, it seems to me that this is illustrating the Chinese equivalent of prestidigitation rather than magick.

2 - High Priestess

High Priestess

A Buddhist abbess

3 - Empress

The Empress

An Empress; LWB calls attention to peony and phoenix details

4 - Emperor

The Emperor

An Emperor; LWB calls attention to two five-clawed dragons

5 - Hierophant

Heavenly Master

Chang Tao Ling, the founder of the Taoist sect known as the Celestial Masters

6 - Lovers

The Lovers

The two He-he, the gods of marriage. They are heavenly twins, and their name means 'togetherness' or 'harmony, concord'. In addition to the two boys with shoulder-length hair, the lotus, bats, steaming bowl are all found in this image. Lotus (he) expresses the wish for 'heart and harmony shared', and the bats, 'good fortune'.

7 - Chariot

The Chariot

A warrior in a dragon drawn chariot.

8/11 - Strength

8 - Strength

Wu Sung, a legendary tiger slayer from the Sung dynasty

9 - Hermit

The Hermit

A Hermit

10 - Wheel of Fortune

Wheel of Fortune

Ba gua (8 trigrams) with taiji (yin-yang symbol) in the center, surrounded by tiger, phoenix, dragon and tortoise

11/8 - Justice

11 - Justice

The bodhisattva Wei T'o in full armor

12 - Hanged Man

Hanging Ghost

A hanged ghost, or hungry ghost. When a person (often a woman) had no recourse to get justice, after committing suicide her ghost could go for vengeance. The ghosts of drowned and hanged persons are often looking for substitutes.

13 - Death

Death

Yama, King of Hell in Buddhism

14 - Temperance

Temperance

A Buddhist monk in meditation in front of a huge bell

15 - Devil

The Devil

Pan Guan, the Prime Minister of Hell under Yama, has two lackeys named Niutou (Cow Head) and Mamian (Horse Face). These "terrible twins" are pictured on this card.

16 - Tower

The Tower

Lei Kung, the god of thunder with his drums and hammers and his wife, T'ien Mu, the goddess of lightning with her mirrors.

17 - Star

The Star

Shou-Xing, the God of Longevity appears on this card with peaches (symbol of longevity or immortality), deer (lu, homonym to good income, and another symbol of longevity) and cranes (yet another symbol of longevity).

18 - Moon

The Moon

Chang-e, the Moon Goddess

19 - Sun

The Sun

Hou Yi, the heroic archer who shot down nine of the ten suns that used to be in the sky.

20 - Judgement

Confucius

Confucius, or Kong Zi, creator of the Confucian moral code, xiao, which had such an enduring effect on Chinese culture.

21 - World

The Universe

Kuan Yin (or Guan Yin), the goddess of mercy. Interestingly (and parenthetically), she was originally the male buddhist saint Avalokitesvara, who is the Buddhist saint incarnated in the Dalai Lama.


Finally, a few thoughts on structure.  China already has a native oracle system, the I Ching, which is a binary system of eight trigrams that form 64 hexagrams.  It is also possible to do divination using Mah-jongg tiles, a three-suited set of tiles (Circles, Bamboo and Ten Thousands), and there are pages on the web that give divinatory meanings for those tiles.  Interestingly, playing cards, the ancestor of those mah jongg tiles, apparently existed in China before 1000 A.D., and it could well be from there that the Mamluks got them.  Money cards, the type of playing card most similar to western playing cards, are still known, and like Mah jongg, have three suits, though some variants have four suits.  Here they are Coins, Tens of Coins (which strung in a stick, could have become polo-sticks), and Myriads of Coins (and, if a fourth suit is present, Tens of Myriads).  A suit goes from one to nine, and there are various numbers of honours (which could fill out a suit like court cards, but are not court cards).  Money cards would be easier to map onto the Minor Arcana than the I Ching, but still, neither of these map exactly onto the structure of tarot.  A similar problem arises if you try to map tarot suits to the five Chinese elements, though there is a deck that has made this attempt, the Feng Shui Tarot by Eileen and Peter Connolly.  The Chinese Tarot deck simply has the suits Staves, Cups, Swords and Coins, and King, Queen, Knight and Page.  It doesn't make any obvious attempt to map structure back to Chinese cards or oracles.  In the table below, I have made a sample correspondence of elemental systems, but this is by no means definitive.  I corresponded Fire to Fire and Water to Water, dropped Earth since it is in the center of the compass, and then chose to assign Wood and Metal based on gender.
 

 

 

Wood

Fire

Metal

Water

Earth

Season

Spring

Summer

Autumn

Winter

End of Summer

Compass

East

South

West

North

Center

Color

Blue or Green

Red

White

Black

Yellow

Creature

Dragon

Vermilion Bird (Phoenix)

White Tiger

Black Tortoise

Ox or Buffalo

Gender

masculine but less yang than fire

most masculine

feminine but less feminine than earth or water

most feminine

feminine but less feminine than water

Seasonal Flowers

Iris, Magnolia, Peony, Plum Blossom

Lotus, Peony

Chrysanthemum

Plum Blossom, Bamboo

 

Four Callings (as Mah Jongg corresponds them)

Fisherman
patience, common sense

Woodcutter
success through activity

Farmer
labor, rich rewards

Scholar
cultivated mind, literary, artistic

 

How I Would Correspond Tarot Suits

Swords

Wands

Pentacles

Cups

 

Relative Age of Court Card Figures illustrated

Swords show the youngest figures

Staves show the eldest figures

Coins show middle aged figures

Cups show next to youngest figures

 


The cards of the Minor Arcana are, with a few exceptions, not clones of the Rider-Waite-Smith images, though they do show scenes.  They are different enough that a person should probably be comfortable reading Marseilles-type decks in order to work immediately with this deck.  The swords generally show martial arts scenes (with swords), and the wands show a blend of concepts, but frequently show Taoist magic.  Cups tend to reference literary figures, such as Li Po, and Coins show more mythological figures than the other suits.  Some of the images are very surprising.  For instance, the 10 of Swords and 10 of Wands do not portray anything negative happening to the person who is at the center of the scene. 

If you would like to purchase this deck, click here.

The Chinese Tarot Deck by Jui Guoliang
Publisher: US Games
ISBN#:  0880793732

You may read another review of this deck here.

 

To learn more about topics mentioned in this review

Chinese Mythology

        The Taoist Deities

Chinese Art

         Tales from the Land of Dragons - 1000 Years of Chinese Painting

         China the Beautiful - Chinese Art and Literature

         Chinese Brush Painting

         The Four Paragons or The Four Noble Plants - A page from Chinese Brush Painting: A Series by Nick Summerbell

Chinese Playing Cards and Mahjongg

         Chinese Origin Of Playing Cards -  This article includes a number of interesting black-line drawings of 19th century Chinese "cash" and Chinese playing cards.

         Andy's Playing Cards: China and Hong Kong: Money-suited Cards

         Hakka Six Tiger Playing Cards - A four-suited deck

         Dong guan Pai - A three-suited deck

         The worldwide Mah Jongg web site - Nice symbolism section

         The Mah Jong Oracle

         Reading the I Ching with a Tarot Deck

Chinese Culture

         The China Experience

         Buddhism and Confucianism

         Taoism Information Page

 

 

Joan Cole is a stay-at-home mom and former geek.   She has been studying Tarot off and on since the early 1980's.  You can see her deck collection here.


Images 1989 US Games
Review 2001, 2003 Joan Cole
Page 2003 Diane Wilkes