Journey to the West (Monkey King) Taiwanese Playing Cards

Click on image files for enlarged view

This is kinda for Kim from FablesDen. I was listening to her chat with Wai here where she talked about wishing there was a Journey to the West tarot deck. While I don’t have that, and don’t know if one exists, I do have this very cool Journey to the West themed deck of playing cards.

Journey to the West is a Chinese epic from the 1500s. It’s about Tripitaka, a Buddhist monk from China’s ancient capital (think: somewhere in the central north of the modern-day country you’re familiar with) who is tasked by Kuan Yin to journey to India to receive Buddhist scriptures.

Kuan Yin frees the Monkey King, a trickster figure with magical abilities, from his incarceration, who was punished by the Buddha and imprisoned after he stole peaches of immortality from Heaven. In exchange for helping the monk on his quest, the Monkey King will not only be freed, but will achieve enlightenment.

White Dragon Horse, a banished dragon spirit transformed into a horse, serves as Tripitaka’s steed. At the end of the journey, the horse becomes a bodhisattva and is restored to his original white dragon form.

Pigsy, a philandering and gluttonous warrior general banished from Heaven’s army after he offended Chang’er, the moon goddess, is also tasked to accompany Tripitaka, as is Sandy, another former warrior general in Heaven exiled to the mortal realm due to anger management issues. It’s a quest story about a virtuous, principled monk and a band of misfits who fight or outsmart demons and survive supernaturally perilous terrain.

Princess Iron Fan was a minor character in the epic, and yet for some reason, she was the most memorable character for me. I just loved her few scenes and her story arc. You weren’t supposed to cheer for her. You were supposed to root for the Monkey King. But I just couldn’t. I thought the Monkey King was an asshole and she was every bit justified in the actions she took. =)

Click on any of these image files for an enlarged and close-up view of the illustrations. This deck I’m showing is at least 34 years old.

I believe I made reference to this deck in Holistic Tarot. Without knowing a single thing about cartomancy, or even that cartomancy was a thing, I’d attempt to (or fantasize myself) divining with this deck of cards. And from the imagery on these cards, paired with the playing card correspondence, and those captions with each figure’s name, you can easily see how I’d intuit that.

Instead of playing card games with it, I’d shuffle, focus on a question or thought, and then pull a string of cards onto the table. I’d imagine that the characters from the epic that showed up in that layout of cards was telling me something prophetic and magical.

I’m not entirely sure why there’s English on these cards. They were made in Taiwan in the late 80s and I got them in Taiwan. Not that it matters, because some of the English translations on these cards are wild, and if it weren’t for the Chinese, I’d have no idea which divinity or character that English name was referring to.

Even if you know nothing about Journey to the West or the Monkey King, you can still intuit how easy it would be to interpret divinatory meaning out of these card faces, right? It just feels like there’s something more to this than a mere deck of cards for poker.

Daww… Kuan Yin is the Queen of Hearts (I associate it with the Queen of Cups). That’s lovely!

Though just to manage expectations, if you know anything about the characters in the Journey to the West and you have a systematic way of interpreting pip cards in readings, you’ll see that they don’t quite line up. Okay, they don’t really line up much at all. =)

Kim‘s casual mention about wishing for a Journey to the West deck totally sparked this nostalgic walk down memory lane. I have memories of how big these cards were in my tiny little hands, when now they’re teensy tiny and I have to be so delicate when handling them. I have memories of them smelling like a crisp, brand new deck of cards, glossy white. And now they’re worn, frayed, with faded stains on a few of the card backs.

A Journey to the West or a Three Kingdoms Tarot deck would be amazing. Unfortunately, unlike say, Alice in Wonderland, Sherlock, or Wizard of Oz, these Chinese epics aren’t familiar to English-speaking tarot readers. And without getting the references, I think you’d be missing half the fun of a Journey to the West or Three Kingdoms Tarot. =/

10 thoughts on “Journey to the West (Monkey King) Taiwanese Playing Cards

  1. Nina

    I love the monkey king story line. I think I have watched ever version available on Netflix. I have been attracted to since I was a child. Thank you for sharing this treasure. I would totally buy a Journey to the West based tarot deck!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. OMG YES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I saw the notification in my e-mail and went, “What a coincidence, I was literally just talking about this on Wai’s channel….” πŸ˜‚πŸ˜‚πŸ’–πŸ’–πŸ’–πŸ’– And THREE KINGDOMS!! Or a Liaozhai Zhiyi deck!!

    Liked by 2 people

        1. That book is on my study desk until I get a companion deck! No, not yet. 😦 But I also haven’t had the time to try very hard yet. After SKT III is out and delivered, I’ll return my attention to some of these fun things. =D

          Liked by 1 person

  3. Marie-Christine

    One of the elements of this story i kept in my mind was the part where the monkey king is locked up inside a fiery oven in the heavenly kingdom because everyone wanted him dead, but he came out of the fiery oven stronger than ever with eyes shining like fire 😁


  4. Shadowrose

    How cool is this!!! Love it!
    Well, those whimsical translations of names were probably made to make it an attractive souvenir for tourists. I have a deck of playing cards with the terracotta army – while there isn’t something to translate, the pictures are also assigned rather random. Those were also meant as a souvenir without special meaning.
    However, with those beautiful cards of yours one can put a lot of meaning into it. You can use them for any spread where you need characters (whether that’s portraying a complex relationship situation or the hero’s journey or story plotting).

    I am much into mythology – especially Chinese. And I also had the idea of a deck of cards (though not limited to just one certain legend – but rather Chinese mythology in generell). I did some intense research including Shanhaijing and reliable scientific books on mythology for I didn’t want to rely on western interpretation and simplification only (you know, though not intended, it could easily lead to cultural appropriation when you dig into other cultures without doing your homework properly). Anyways, I still have this idea in my mind, but there are a lot of other things right now that demand my attention. If I’ll ever really start with it, I’d love your council and review.


  5. Brynton

    Long shot since this is over a year old, but fingers crossed! Do you happen to have any information on a company name that may have produced these cards? I read you got these in Taiwan back in the 80s, but wanted to look more into them myself. I got my hands on a double pack of these (one the exact same as the one you posted above, backing and all) and another that appears to have the same face cards, but different backing all together.

    With the second one still being sealed, I didn’t want to open it to try and find an info card or anything.

    I kind of rambled there, sorry about that. Basically I was hoping you might have a manufacturer’s name or some sort of lead along those lines. Thank you in advance!


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