"Washing" playing cards and Mahjong tiles

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From Bryan Van Norden:

There is a style of shuffling that is used in both Western card games and in Mahjong, called "washing" in English and xǐ 洗 ("washing") in Chinese. As you probably know, a common theory is that playing cards were invented in China during the Tang dynasty, so I wonder if it is more than a coincidence that "washing" as a method of shuffling is a similar metaphor with poker and Mahjong?

Washing Playing Cards:

Elizabeth Barber comments:

Hmmm, interesting.  I never saw that method before.  But I know that in playing with a double set of dominoes (120, as I recall), the only reasonable way to shuffle is to push them together into a rough line a couple of times from different sides, then move them around a lot with a circular motion.

As for the origin of cards, there does seem to be some Chinese input (especially with the old suit of Coins), but our decks actually took their general form in medieval Persia It seems that the Persians so loved to play games that the shah actually had a minister in charge of games, the premier game being polo. So when they invented their cards, they had 4 suits, each representing one of the 4 chief ministries:

1) Coins, representing the ministry of finance;
2) Cups, representing the ministry of food;
3) Swords, representing the ministry of war; and
4) Polo Sticks, representing the ministry of games.

So they had 2 "round" suits, Cups and Coins, and 2 "long" suits, Swords and Polo Sticks. Cards in this form spread across the Near East and eventually came to Italy, where they fell on fertile ground. The earliest Italian cards had the suits of Coins, Cups, Swords, and…well, the Italians didn't understand polo sticks, so they became Clubs–that is, big fat cudgels. Spain and Italy (> Mexico > Apaches) continued to use these suits. The Germanic world made up its own (leaves, bells, etc.), while the French, having just invented stencil printing, figured that if they simplified the suit signs they could make a bundle selling small cheap cards to soldiers (who loved to carry instant entertainment in their back pockets). So they came up with hearts, diamonds (red = the old round suits), "Pique" (stabber), and "Trefle" (3-leaf clover–like the German Leaf suit) (black = the old long suits). When the English then borrowed the French suit signs, they kept two of the old names: Spade (= Latinate for "sword"–sign looks sharp, but not sword-like) and Club (oops, that's the French picture of a Trefle "trefoil").

(Doncha love it??)

But back to the Persian and early Italian cards: they were SO big and heavy (sometimes made of metal), that you couldn't possibly shuffle them, or even hold more than one or 2 at a time in your hand. So any influence on shuffling would have to post-date the advent of French-style small, cheap paper cards.

And there you have a masterful mini-history of playing cards from a linguist-archeologist-anthropologist-folk dance-textile expert.


Selected readings


  1. Jerry Packard said,

    July 14, 2021 @ 7:59 am

    As I understand it, xǐ 洗 is the generic term for 'shuffle' in Chinese when talking about playing cards (poker, bridge, etc.), and does not refer to a specific kind of playing card shuffling.

  2. Ed M said,

    July 14, 2021 @ 7:59 am

    I wonder the instructions include taking the top card and putting it on the bottom. Nothing randomizing about that move, as far as I can see.

  3. Bryan W. Van Norden said,

    July 14, 2021 @ 8:03 am

    Michael Dummett was a famous 20th-century philosopher of language and polymath who wrote several books on the tarot. He argued that the use of the tarot deck (whose suits are wands, cups, swords, and pentacles) to play an innocent card game antedated by centuries its use for fortune-telling and as an (alleged) source of esoteric knowledge. See, for example, Michael Dummett and Sylvia Mann, The Game of Tarot: From Ferrara to Salt Lake City. For more, see here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Dummett#Card_games_and_tarot

  4. DCBob said,

    July 14, 2021 @ 8:37 am

    Great accent that guy has. Where's he from?

  5. NSBK said,

    July 14, 2021 @ 8:37 am

    Unsure what the technical term would be for this adjective kebab construction:
    > linguist-archeologist-anthropologist-folk dance-textile

    … but the programmer in me would like to see something to group together "folk-dance" unambiguously.

    I can come up with some:
    – linguist-archeologist-anthropologist-(folk dance)-textile
    – linguist-archeologist-anthropologist-folk\ dance-textile
    – linguist–archeologist–anthropologist–folk-dance–textile

    … but the first two are very programmer-oriented and the last one seems like a lot of work.

    I suppose if I were going to express this sentiment, I'd probably give up on the kebab and go with:

    "an expert of linguistics/archeology/anthropology/folk-dance/textiles"

  6. Terry K. said,

    July 14, 2021 @ 9:34 am

    Though the spade symbol (English card decks) doesn't look anything like a sword (Italian, plural, spade), it does look a little bit like a spade (which isn't a sword).

  7. Robert Coren said,

    July 14, 2021 @ 9:42 am

    I remember from years ago that some card-players used wash as a synonym for "shuffle", with no implication that implied a distinctive method.

  8. Brett said,

    July 14, 2021 @ 11:45 am

    @Robert Coren: That just sounds like a malapropism to me. To me, wash specifically means to randomize a deck by spreading the cards around on the table (or floor) as shown in the video (although it doesn’t have to follow the video’s exact procedure). A deck is washed specifically when ordinary shuffling is likely to be insufficiently random (for example, when a brand new deck is being used; Martin Gardner pointed out that two perfect rifle shuffles, followed by any kind of cut, will set up a new deck to deal out four perfect bridge hands).

  9. Cervantes said,

    July 14, 2021 @ 11:51 am

    The main reason for using this shuffling method, apart from the fact that it doesn't require any card handling skill, is that you can't really cheat. Expert card handlers can make a riffle shuffle do anything they want. With the wash methods, there's nowhere to hide.

  10. Doug said,

    July 14, 2021 @ 12:51 pm

    @Robert Coren
    A guy I play bridge with uses "wash" as a synonym for "shuffle". I'd never heard of this "wash" method until now.

  11. Elizabeth J.W. Barber said,

    July 14, 2021 @ 1:07 pm

    Well, that was off the top of my head by memory–my parents published many books and articles on the subject. (I wasn't expecting "publication"!) For a really nice summary of early card history, see V. Wayland, H. Wayland, and A. Ferg, PLAYING CARDS OF THE APACHES (2006), pp. 37-44, with a good picture of 8 surviving 15th-century Mamluk cards on p. 37, polo sticks and all. Yes, I knew Sylvia Mann and Michael Dummett, and they undoubtedly have good pictures of the early Italian tarot decks (which include the 4 suits) with their huge, beautifully painted and gilded cards. (I LOVE the term"kabob" construction; and I usually just write "folkdance" as one word when adjectival.)

  12. Victor Mair said,

    July 14, 2021 @ 1:53 pm

    Thanks for all the super comments. Highly enlightening!

    I remember Martin Gardner's (1914-2010) learned columns on cards and other games and puzzles in Scientific American for a quarter of a century.


  13. cameron said,

    July 14, 2021 @ 3:34 pm

    Mathematician Persi Diaconis has done a lot of work on whether and to what degree shuffling produces randomness. He started out as a professional magician and entered mathematics as a protégé of Martin Gardner's.


  14. djw said,

    July 14, 2021 @ 4:03 pm

    Growing up in Central Texas in the 50s and 60s, I typically heard "shuffle" for cats and "wash" for dominoes. I didn't hear of mah jong until I met it as a computer game in the 90s.

  15. Matt McIrvin said,

    July 14, 2021 @ 4:05 pm

    If I recall correctly, mahjong evolved from a game that was played with cards (long, skinny ones, but definitely cards). The use of the tiles is relatively recent–when mahjong was marketed in the West it was claimed to be an extremely ancient game, but it's 19th-century.

  16. AntC said,

    July 14, 2021 @ 5:40 pm

    @djw I typically heard "shuffle" for cats …

    haha presumably a typo for "cards".

    Shuffling cats seems more achievable than herding them.

  17. A suitable case said,

    July 14, 2021 @ 6:34 pm

    @DCBob. Atlantic Canada, probably Prince Edward Island. He could be my brother in law.

  18. William Berry said,

    July 14, 2021 @ 10:29 pm

    @DC Bob:

    He sounds like the well known actor, Robert Forster.

    Think of his characters in, e.g., “Jackie Brown”, or “Breaking Bad”.

  19. Misha Schutt said,

    July 15, 2021 @ 8:21 am

    When I was a kid, I could never do the riffle, at which my father and big brother were expert, so I invented the method shown in the video, much to their amusement (though my father objected to the corner damage my method occasionally inflicted).

  20. bks said,

    July 16, 2021 @ 4:42 am

    I had never heard the word "washing" in this regard. "Smooshing" was how we referred to it, and so it is called in this Quanta article:

  21. Duncan Mak said,

    July 22, 2021 @ 9:08 pm

    Reading Robert Lifton's book on Thought Reform, I recently learned that the term brainwashing came from Chinese, specifically referring to the techniques used by the CCP.

    Lifton's book cites Chinese as the origin of the word, but the Chinese sources that I can find online all seem to refer back to Lifton, saying that Lifton says it came from the Chinese word 洗腦 (xi-nao), but I couldn't find any other Chinese etymology on 洗腦.

    So here's another use of the word "to wash" that seems to originate from Chinese usage.

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