Oriental Memory - A deck from the East

Since we declared our modesty to you all, we actually got many fan letters in which our followers confessed their deep love for playing cards. Moreover, we got a recommendation for a design, which would showcase the Chinese culture (Chinese characters, Chinese knots, Confucianism…). The idea was great, but executing it proved more difficult than expected. Playing cards, after all, are more a part of European culture, rather than Chinese. Upon taking a look at the card designs over the decades, we found very few that actually have any connection to Asia at all! And among the few, many looked like they were designed by Westerners, so they still didn’t have the right feel to them. Chinese culture comes from China. Of course, if any Westerner attempts to make a China-related design, they often only use the visuals, while not really understanding the culture behind it. Despite the Chinese culture being popular, we still have a long way to go with spreading it into the world. That’s why BOCOPO decided to give it a try and create a deck that would be the representative piece of Asian-themed playing cards and hopefully becomes a small contribution to the great cultural heritage. 

The culture of the East is the origin of many global influences. As the great Chinese historian, Sima Qian said in his ‘Historical Records of Six Kingdoms’: “East is where ideas are born, and West is where they mature.” Therefore, we hope that this deck is going to bring you a bit of the philosophical meaning too. Moreover, it is not just Chinese, but also Japanese culture that has made a significant contribution to the world. Because of that, you will find both Chinese and Japanese references in this deck, as they are both the epitome of the Oriental culture. 

Just like we always do, let’s enjoy the deck detail by detail together. In the final version, there will be two styles available, black and white. Now, we’ll introduce one of them. 

When you look at the front of the tuck case, the first thing you see is the title - “Oriental Memory”. In the middle, there is a square window cutout, which is representative of the philosophy of traditional Chinese architecture. This design makes small spaces appear more open, and hierarchal. The sense of separation, of space while retaining some connection between the rooms is conveying the sense of a traditional Chinese saying: ‘Half a face still hiding behind a pipa flute’. Under the window, there is a line of text saying ‘Research”, commemorating the rigorous search for the glory of the East that the designer has undertaken. The window on the front of the box is accompanied by an image of a red-crowned crane. The crane is a classical Chinese decorative symbol. Since as early as the Ming and Qing dynasties, it has had the connotation of loyalty, honesty, and morality. The crane is the most important symbol right after the royal Dragon and Phoenix. Since people call the crane a “supreme bird”, a crane flying in the skies symbolises the “supreme power of the heavens”. In the lower right corner, you can see a Japanese fox mask. During the Kamakura era all the way to the Edo period (about 1185 to 1867), people who we know as ninjas were appointed with espionage tasks. Since the Japanese social classes were strictly divided at that time, ninjas didn’t actually have any political power. Their lives belonged to their master and they could not reveal their identity to anyone, but their master. This was the period when masks like these were created. In Japanese mythology, a fox is the symbol of good harvest, and it is also the messenger of God’s will on Earth. Wearing a fox mask was supposed to bring the wearer a blessing and shelter by the gods. 

On the back side, there is a circular window cut-out with the name of the deck visible inside of it. All images are drawn in the Japanese Ukiyo-e style. You can see the wings of the crane in the upper right corner, mirroring the crane from the front of the box. The lower left corner holds another symbol - a mask of the Dharma, symbolising the perilous nine years after which he finally reached enlightenment. His unyielding spirit in the face of adversity is respected by generations. After Buddhism has spread to Japan from China, the believers would make similar masks to ask for a blessing. They said that if you want to make a wish, you should draw the left eye first. When you want to realise the wish, draw the right eye. These “open eyes” were supposed to be kept in a household for one year and then brought to the shrine to be burned. This was considered to be a “letter to the gods”.  

The whole scene of this side of the tuck case is accompanied by auspicious clouds and cherry blossoms. According to an ancient Japanese legend, a long time ago there was a cherry blossom fairy who once decided to depart Okinawa. She travelled through Kansai, Kanto and many other places all the way to Hokkaido. On the way, she would drop a blossom in every corner, as a promise of love and hope. To commemorate this fairy, the locals called the flowers “Sakura” or cherry blossom. The clouds are an auspicious symbol and were associated with gods. The story of the cherry blossom truly makes a person think of a verse from a poem 

‘I see on painted screen but a mist-veiled running stream. The carefree failing petals fly as light as a dream. Oh, how wonderful… ‘ 

When you take the deck out of the tuck case, it will surprise you with extra two special cards on the top and the bottom of the deck. The one on top has a symbol of the traditional Chinese paper umbrella. These umbrellas have a more than 1,000 year-long history. They are the predecessors of a modern umbrella and were hand-made from natural materials. Since the paper umbrella showcases the centuries of Chinese wisdom and skill so well, it was impossible not to include it. The next special card on the back is a tribute to the Ukiyo-e paintings the Great Wave of Kanagawa, or Fine Wind, Clear Morning from the Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, painted by the famous painter Katsushika Hokusai of the Edo period. Ukiyo-e literally means "pictures of the Floating World”. The notion of the floating world comes from Buddhism and talks about the cycle of life and death and the emptiness of the world. Therefore, whether it really represents this life or the afterlife, the Ukiyo-e style has the ability to transport us away from this world. 

            Now, let’s take a look at the back of the cards. The BOCOPO designer knows that the overall colour is what makes the first impression and therefore they have designed the back of the cards to fit the colour, as well as the designs of the tuck case. You can find repeated elements, just like the decorative window, elegant cranes, and also the sweet cherry blossoms. The fronts of the cards are kept in the classic colours, but we have added a tasteful tassel under the sign of the card. Although the pips cards may seem rather ordinary, the small details still make it appear elegant. 

In the middle of the Joker card, we can see a symbol that we are already familiar with - the Japanese fox mask. It is accompanied by an intricate pattern consisting of a combination of cranes, oil paper umbrellas, and Japanese folding fans. The combination of auspicious symbols of cranes together with the fox obviously have a religious connotation. However, how do paper umbrellas fit this concept? In fact, the oil paper umbrella was widely used during Japanese, Korean and Chinese religious ceremonies of the Tang dynasty. Moreover, the paper umbrella was used to shelter oneself while being carried in a sedan chair. As a symbol of protection from foul weather or even the evil, we think that a simple paper umbrella is in no way secondary to an auspicious symbol. 

The Ace of Spades is adorned with two cranes and a Tang dynasty umbrella. This pairing does not need too many comments, maybe just that it is beautifully complemented by the image of a fan in the background. The appreciation of the fan culture is deeply rooted in the Chinese tradition. Even though it is China who has the reputation of the kingdom of fans, we used an image of a folding fan from Japan. In the ancient times the technology of making fans quickly made its way from China to Japan. The monk of the Shu Kingdom is in Jingjing (now Kaifeng, Henan) and wrote: I saw Song Taizong and offered him twenty-two precious bat fans. In this case “bat fans” mean foldable fans. 

Finally, the court cards combine multiple styles and elements. Behind the characters themselves, you can detect an ornate byobu. Byobu like these were traditionally placed behind the Emperor’s throne. They had a wooden frame; crimson silk was draped over them and they were covered with an axe pattern. Over time, the byobu became a symbol of imperial power and historical records often mention “the emperor standing in front of a byobu”.  

While the decorative screen is very easy on the eye, the characters standing in front of the byobu are equally eye-catching. First, let’s take a look at the black suit. Jack is a North Korean/Chinese minister. He is holding an ivory guard and wearing a traditional headdress. Queen is a beautiful princess wearing a cape and holding a porcelain bowl. King is the emperor holding an imperial jade seal and wearing a headdress with threads of gems. Having said that, we believe that many people don’t know why the Emperor’s headdress had a curtain of jewels hanging from it. Apart from making the Emperor stand upright at all times, it was also meant to make him see less clearly. That’s right, obscuring the Emperor’s vision was meant to remind him that when he was receiving officials in the imperial hall, he had to try to be tolerant and always be able to “close one eye” when looking into matters. Seeing the Emperor’s benevolence, the courtiers would be overwhelmed with gratitude towards their esteemed leader. 

In the red suit, Jack is a special envoy with a traditional headdress and holding a clearance document. Although Queen does not seem to have such a royal demeanour, she is holding a folding fan and looks like a lady from a good family nevertheless. Just like in the black set, King is the image of the Emperor. From his headdress style and a weapon in his hand, it’s clear that this time it is a formidable Mongolian ruler. 

All of these small details scattered around the Oriental Memory deck make it obvious that the BOCOPO has hand-picked them with great care. The whole deck is very attractive and makes the observer experience the true oriental culture. 

Stone has spent more than 1-year compiling materials home and abroad until he finally came up with the Oriental memory. The ancient oriental culture has a long history and we hope that Oriental Memory will make you feel that the culture is still around and so close, that you have to just reach out your hand…