As I understand it, playing cards made their way to Europe perhaps via China (paper) but most visibly by way of the Mamluks. One legend is the Mamluks and Tibetans defeated the Chinese once in battle and extorted the technology from a prisoner of war.

Below is an illustration showing how Europeans adapted the playing cards the Mamluks first introduced to their own tastes.

enter image description here

Like I said, each culture has modified the suits for their region. Part of this transformation appears to have to do with lifestyle. First, consider the original Mamluk suits were:

  • Polo sticks
  • Cups
  • Coins
  • Scimitars

History would lead us to make sense of some of these. For example, the Mamluks were polo enthusiasts. However, Polo was not a "thing" in continental Europe around the 1400s so polo sticks became "clubs" over time.


So with polo-sticks being somewhat self-explanatory: it would suggest an entertainment/recreational motivation for the suit correspondence. That still leaves three open questions for what the other suits (coins, cups and scimitars) meant to the Mamluks; some of these do appear to be more ceremonial in nature. What did the other suits likely represent to Mamluks and why?

  • 3
    Have you read en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Playing_card? It offers a fairly plausible explanation for the cups.
    – Jan
    Oct 12, 2022 at 10:19
  • In the image, the order of the symbols for French and German cards looks strange. I am used to diamonds/hearts/spades/clubs and bells/hearts/leaves/acorns. This is relevant if we assume that the round thing ("bells") in the German deck might correspond to the smallest unit ("coin") in the Chinese deck.
    – Jan
    Oct 12, 2022 at 11:17
  • Documenting preliminary research will improve both the probability of an answer and the quality of the answer(s). All questions should address why Wikipedia does not answer the question (note Jan's comment. ) This question presents no evidence of an association between the suits and the Mamluks; it is founded on unsubstantiated assertions.
    – MCW
    Oct 16, 2022 at 19:35

1 Answer 1


Wikipedia suggests that the cup might be derived from seeing the Chinese character 万 (ten thousand)* upside down, which is certainly possible with playing cards.

If we follow that logic, 十 (ten) as used in this wp article (e.g. in the table roughly in the middle of that article) would be a good candidate for crosses or maybe a single sword or crossed swords, while coin (or 钱 in that wp article) would be the basic unit.

This leaves one of the symbols unexplained, but given that Chinese playing cards usually also consist of four sets of cards, and that different characters were used to mark these sets (e.g. the 万/萬 thing mentioned above) I suspect that fourth symbol might also be derived from a Chinese character. E.g. 交 would be a good candidate for crossed polo sticks and is mentioned in this article, but the mention is quite short and inconclusive and it is unclear if 交 and 十 would have appeared together in the same card deck (as in 钱 and 万) or if one would have replaced the other (as in 万 and 萬).

This is of course quite a bit of speculation and it is possible these symbols on Mamluk playing cards have a very different origin.

*before the character reform of the 1950s, 萬 would actually have been the more "correct" character for that word. But according to other internet sources, 万 has also already been used for the same word since antiquity.

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