Daebak extracurricular–tujeon

Next up in the exploration of games is tujeon (투전).  This is a game played with long thin cards.  The cards were usually made of oiled paper and the decks varied in number depending upon how many suits were included.  Most commonly the number of cards used was 60.  Each suit contained cards numbered 1-9 as well as a “leader” or “general” card.  On the face of the card was either a symbol for or the written name of the suit, while the back was often decorated with a stylized arrow pattern. The possible suits included humans, birds, fish, peacocks, stars, horses, deer, and rabbits.


From the Encyclopedia of Korean Seasonal Customs

There were a number of games played with tujeon cards, just as there are many card games today. One of the most popular (somewhat akin to the modern game blackjack) involved adding up three cards to reach specified goals: 10, 20, or 30. Additional points could be gained if the remaining two cards were a pair or added up to 9.

It is not known exactly when and how tujeon cards first entered Korea, though it is generally held that they were based on similar cards in China.  One story credits the creation of the game to Jang Hyeon, an uncle of Jang Hui Bin (the second queen of King Sukjong). After Lady Jang was killed, Jang Hyeon (along with many of her supporters) was imprisoned and, according to the story, whiled away his time by creating a card game similar to a Chinese game called majopae.

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However it came about, the game completely consumed Joseon society from the lowest levels to the highest.  It quickly became a betting game and innumerable stories of families losing houses, lands, livelihoods abound.  In fact, it became such a problem, that it was banned several times by Kings Yeongjo (r. 1724-1776) and Jeongjo (r 1776-1800).  Eventually, tujeon started to decline when Japanese merchants introduced flower cards (hwatu) in the nineteenth century.  Some tujeon games continued to be played with the new cards, which today are most recognizable as those used for the game go-stop.

It is interesting to me that the symbolic value of tujeon outweighs the possible historical quibbles about when it actually entered Korean culture.  It is clearly the Joseon betting game par excellence and as such deserves to be front and center in any drama which is so focused on gambling in all its possible forms.



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