The Chinese Tarot by Jui Guoliang

click images for zoomed-in view

So… funny– I’ve had The Chinese Tarot by Jui Guoliang, first published back in 1989 then reprinted in 2012, brand new, still shrinkwrapped, for years. Years. I probably set it aside with the intention of sitting down to open it at some point, but forgot about it. The deck then got swept into a pile with others and only last month when I decided to do a total spring cleaning did I stumble upon this brand new deck of cards. And I thought, you know, this is worth sharing as a deck review on my blog.

The card back design is… not my favorite, but the two mirror images of dancing apsaras is kind of a cute idea. [Apsaras are sensual, beautiful female spirits that can inspire artistic and musical creativity. Celestial apsaras dwell in heaven and worldly apsaras dwell in the waters on earth.]

The Fool card seems to be a reference to the beggar who became the Emperor of the Ming Dynasty, but I could be wrong. The reason I think that is because the beggar king trope would be a nice play on the Fool’s Journey. Or it could be Sū Càn (蘇燦), a martial arts folk hero who lived the life of a beggar.

Sometimes the Little White Book included with this deck (written by the late Stuart Kaplan) offers specific insight. For example, The Hierophant features Zhang Daoling. I make several references to him in The Tao of Craft (which can be easily referenced via the index) because he’s, well, inarguably an important figure in the history of Taoist magic.

The Lovers card features what the LWB calls the “Cupids of China,” or more specifically, Hé Hé Er Xiān (和合二仙), the Immortals of Harmony and Union. Fun fact: the Immortals of Harmony and Union were historically depicted as two effeminate monks (as in both male) who lived together in seclusion up in the mountains, and they found such joy and happiness with each other that it became their divine powers that they could bless people with. Over the centuries, the depiction evolved with societal norms, and they were changed to a male and female pairing. Sigh.

click on the images in this post for zoomed-in view

With these types of ultra-specific themed decks, I acquire them to collect them. So I don’t get bent out of shape when the artwork and classical tarot card meanings don’t line up. Like featuring Yama (Yán Wáng, 閻王), king of the underworld in Buddhist eschatology on the Death card. [Actually, a strong case can be argued that it makes sense, and a strong case can be argued that it doesn’t.]

But I do appreciate some companion write-up explaining why the creator chose those associations or correspondences. I’m not going to judge right or wrong; I just wanna understand the thought process. =) Like you know how Yoshi Yoshitani’s Tarot of the Divine has a companion book of fairytales that comes with the deck? Jui Guoliang’s The Chinese Tarot is the type of deck that would have been best served with a fully fleshed out companion book.

Wu Song, 1 of 36 heavenly spirits from The Water Margin, on the Strength card

Continuing on with my walk-through of the cards… Strength (Key 8 in this deck) features Wu Song, one of the 36 heavenly spirits from the Chinese novel Water Margin. I talk about the significance of Water Margin to tarot’s ancestry in the chapter Cultural Integration and the Prisca Theologia” from the Revelation Edition of the Book of Maps.

I liken the pictorial depictions of Water Margin spirits and demons on Ming Dynasty Chinese playing cards to Dante’s Divine Comedy referenced in the 15th century Italian tarots. You can read more about that in the “Cultural Integration” chapter.

Wei Tuo, Buddhist guardian warrior spirit on the Justice card

Justice (Key 11) is Wei Tuo (韋馱), a Buddhist guardian spirit who, when mortal was a great warrior general. Wei Tuo fell in love with a human incarnation of Kuan Yin, but didn’t feel worthy of being her husband, so instead of pursuing his romantic feelings, he pledged his unconditional loyalty to her and served as her protector. (Oh man, talk about being eternally friend-zoned…) He’s typically depicted as having kind of an angry face and wields a sword. Given that back story, it’s quite poignant to have him as Justice, corresponding astrologically to Libra.

For the version of The Hanged Man here, i.e., Hanging Ghost (scroll up and click on the image if you want a close-up view), I wanted to chat a bit about artistic interpretations of Key 12. I’ve always construed the “hanging by the foot” part of the pictorial depiction for The Hanged Man to be essential. And emotionally, the card doesn’t give off that sense of pain and punishment, full-on suffering.

The Hanged Man depiction I tend to prefer is– okay you could argue it’s nice-washed, where they’re hung up by a foot, not looking terribly bothered by their situation, and there’s no noose around their necks. It’s implied that the one being hung wields the power to get out of the situation, but willfully chooses to be suspended there, for divine reasons beyond our human comprehension.

When contemporary tarot decks opt for the depiction of a hanging person, in that the imagery denotes disempowerment, suffering, punishing, suffocating-around-the-neck sort of way, which wow. I just… I don’t know if I’ve been tarot-naive or what, but it’s not something I vibe with. Anyway. Moving on.

I love that the myth of Ox-Head and Horse-Face are featured in this deck, even if I don’t fully get why they’re on The Devil card. The two are guardians of the underworld, but don’t have the same negative connotations that Satan as the Devil has, nor do they make sense as an equivalent to Baphomet as Key 15. If anything, Ox-Head and Horse-Face make more sense on the Death card, with Yama moved over to the Devil card. So like a switcheroo between the two.

With regard to Yama, there’s not so much a Western association with Death or Devil vibe to the Chinese/Buddhist underworld king as there is more an Osiris vibe plus your last clear chance to repent and not go to hell. Let me flesh that out a bit… what I learned about Yama as a kid was this: say you’ve been a horrible human being and you’ve been judged to go to hell. You’ll be taken there by hell’s guardians Ox-Head and Horse-Face to meet Yama. Yama will give you one last clear chance to repent: do you confess the transgressions you committed during life and are you willing to atone for them through your karma? If yes, you’ll get to be reborn as a human rather than continue to hell, but you’ll have, you know, a crappy life, due to the bad karma. But at least you’re in the process of atonement. If you do not confess your sins, then that’s when Yama sentences you to hell, serving a bit as a judge and executioner.

Dianmu, Goddess of Lightning, and Lei Gong, God of Thunder on The Tower card

The Tower card features Dianmu, mother goddess of lightning, and Lei Gong, the god of thunder (the calligraphy in the bottom left corner says “Lei Gong Dian Mu”). I talk a bit about Lei Gong in an old Tinkering Bell video on Taoist Thunder Rites.

The Star card features the Old Man (or Old Immortal) of the South Pole (南極仙翁). I also love animal symbolism, such as the cranes here symbolizing hope and healing, while earlier in The Lovers card, the two bats symbolizes a prosperous marriage.

Chang Er, the moon goddess on Key 18: The Moon

The Moon card is none other than Chang Er, the moon goddess (the Chinese calligraphy on the left says as much– “Chang Er flying off to the moon”), and in The Sun card, Houyi, husband to the moon goddess. Houyi is a demigod-like figure and a superhero archer.

This depiction of Chang Er kind of reminds me of “Chang Er Flying to the Moon” (1955) by artist Ren Shuai Ying. Doesn’t it?

Chang Er Flying to the Moon (1955) by Ren Shuai Ying

Well… I guess all artistic depictions of Chang Er pretty much look like that.

Confucius for Key 20: Judgement is kind of a weird pick to me, and while I always love seeing Kuan Yin, in every scenario, it’s also a little head-scratchy that she’s on The World (or The Universe) card. My guess is that The World card association here is just to emphasize how important she is culturally to the Chinese?

I’m showing the cards photographically in the exact order they appear straight out of the box brand new. In the suit of Swords, the LWB doesn’t mention any specific mythological references for the figures depicted. It’s just a queen with a sword, or a valiant page, a dexterous youth, Taoist priest, four warriors, girls dancing with swords, etc.

The LWB does offer welcomed insights into Chinese symbolism. For example, the coral that the maidservant holds in the King of Staves symbolizes longevity and an official promotion. The peacock pictured on the Queen of Staves represents beauty and dignity. The tiger that has now become a carpet that the Knight of Staves is standing on conveys that he is valiant. The Page, pictured as an old man, conveys the meaning of the Page of Staves (per the LWB by Stuart Kaplan): an emissary, trusted friend, or a stranger bearing important or good news.

The Chinese inscriptions you see on the artwork offers insights into the card meaning, or at least the artist intentions, but these inscriptions didn’t get translated into the LWB, sadly. For example, the Ace of Swords reads: “the body and the sword merge as one.” But then the LWB just says, “A man practices martial arts, exhibiting skill and discipline.”

Then there are times when it feels like whoever wrote the LWB card meanings is not in agreement about said card meanings with the artist illustrating the deck.

On the Four of Swords, the Chinese keywords reads: “four swords; standing ready for action.” But then the description in the LWB reads: “In an autumn landscape, two men rest after a martial arts match. Divinatory Meanings: Respite. Rest after illness. Repose. Replenishment. Solitude. Retreat.” In terms of how to interpret the Four of Swords in this deck, the keywords in Chinese calligraphy don’t line up with the LWB card entry.

All of the Ten card in the pips feature a Taoist priest or sorcerer. And if you interpret the tarot Tens the way popular tarot books on card meanings would have you interpret them, then you’re probably going to draw a blank when you see these Tens. If I’m going intuitively based on the emotional values of these four illustrations, I’d say that the Tens in this deck represent the pinnacle of activated powers corresponding to the four suits.

According to the LWB, the Ten of Cups features Zhong Kui (鍾馗), a legendary exorcist and demon hunter. Meanwhile the Chinese inscription reads, “ten cups of harmony.” I don’t…really get it… does not compute…

Imagery of Zhong Kui is more commonly used as a talisman to ward off evil, to scare away demons, or more pragmatically, at places of business as a talisman for warding off thieves and corporate spies. Why is he on the tarot Ten of Cups? Dunno. Wish I knew. Wish there was a guidebook that sets out the artist’s intentions…

Left to right: King of Cups, Queen of Cups, Nine of Cups

The Nine of Cups features Zhuo Wenjun, a 2nd century BC female poet from Sichuan. Great story about her. She was born into a wealthy family, widowed when she was still pretty much a teenager, and then fell in love with this poor poet guy. She eloped with the poor poet guy, then had to live the life of the laboring class– I think she opened up a wine shop, hence maybe the Nine of Cups reference here, I dunno, just speculating– and then her poor poet husband won the favor of the emperor, got promoted, and now suddenly thinks he’s too good for her, and wants concubines. She writes him a heart-wrenching poem that makes him reconsider his ways and he goes crawling back to her.

Based on the inscriptions in Chinese on each illustration, the artistic intention was to illustrate a tarot deck. I would guess that Jui was commissioned to illustrate these cards, knowing the artwork would be for the tarot.

The calligraphy makes references to the number of, say, cups, or swords, coins, etc. for that pip card. The Ace of Cups inscription in Chinese is about being in solitude, at peace, admiring/appreciating what’s held within that single cup. The Seven of Cups says “seven cups [while in a] dream state.” Often, per those Chinese inscriptions, it feels like the artist has a very non-traditional approach to tarot card meanings.

Overall, the presentation leaves me wanting more, and that’s a good thing. A more comprehensive guidebook that offers the actual fairytales, legends, and Chinese mythology would absolutely deepen the value of this deck, especially when the potential is already there. The calligraphy on the illustrations tell you what’s being depicted, but that meaning isn’t always relayed to the non-Chinese reader who has to rely on the LWB.

As a tarot enthusiast, I’m of course curious about the deck creator’s intentions, and why certain deities or historical figures are pictured on certain cards. There is a lot of symbolism in this deck and it’s done well in terms of equivalences between the Chinese culture and the tarot card meaning that’s being expressed.

Compare this deck to The China Tarot featuring the art of Der Jen, which felt more like, “ooh, pretty pictures, just admire the pretty pictures.” Whereas here, the Chinese Tarot Deck with Jui Guoliang’s art was more intentional in terms of illustrating a tarot deck rather than just the artist’s portfolio in tarot card size. Jui Guoliang’s Chinese Tarot is a more heartfelt homage to my culture, while Der Jen’s China Tarot was more fantasy-inspired, a celebration of the Asian aesthetic.

Back to commentary on a few more specific references in the cards. Zhao Gong Ming, who later became immortalized as Cai Shen, the god of wealth, is featured on the Ten of Coins, and also covered in Tao of Craft. His name is often invoked in Fu talismans for prosperity.

And the Nine of Coins features Liu Haichan, which the LWB refers to as a god. Sorta. According to myth, he was a wealthy and high-ranking government official who gave it all up to practice inner alchemy as a Taoist ascetic. He achieved immortality through his cultivation practices and as an immortal, was associated with the three-legged toad, an omen of great fortune. The accompanying inscription in Chinese reads: “Nine coins, merry-making.” (Okay, native Chinese speakers are cringing… my translation is terrible. I dunno how to translate that…. “playing around”?)

There are so many cultural details I love, like the calligraphy for “Fuo” (directly translating to “Buddha,” but holds layers of esoteric meaning when isolated in such a context) behind the Buddhist nun in the Seven of Coins. Though like I pointed out earlier, other times I get confused.

Case in point, the artwork and the inscription in Chinese calligraphy for the Two of Coins feels more Two of Cups. You see what’s pictured there– a loving couple. The inscription says “two coins, fully compatible [or in perfected harmony].” The LWB’s description of this card image: “A pair of coins symbolizes engagement. The palm trees, weeping willows, and full moon all indicate a happy marriage for the couple.” But then check this out: the LWB’s card meaning for the Two of Coins is “Difficulty in launching new projects. New troubles. Embarrassment.” A disconnect or miscommunication must have happened somewhere.

Nevertheless, the Chinese calligraphy seems at least intended to be keywords evocative of the card meaning. Like the Ace of Coins: “one coin, yielding satiety.”

If you’re looking for a Chinese mythology and imperial history themed tarot deck, this might be it. There’s a balanced mix of Buddhism, Taoism, folk religion, mythology, and arts & culture history. I tried to find more biographical information about Jui Guoliang, but wasn’t able to turn up much. Thus, I’m blindly speculating here: I would place my bet that Jui has learned background knowledge in Chinese poetry, or its classical arts, because many of the pictorial references here suggest a studied familiarity.

The artwork is beautiful, rings true culturally, and was done intended for a tarot deck (compare that to decks where the art is shoved into the tarot structure and forced to fit, often feeling clunky). You’ll probably wish that the LWB offered more detailed insight, but I hope this review can fill in a few blanks.

3 thoughts on “The Chinese Tarot by Jui Guoliang

  1. Mari Hoshizaki

    I felt a tiny bit like this when looking at other showa and meiji inspired commentary on Japanese art but I realized my filters were not through those lenses. The Michener and gentlemanly period sources might be likened to an antique lens …they married into it and marvelled with appreciation but were not brought up from the same immersive background.

    It is hard to define the heartbeat and inflections and rhythms of certain song and language and story but I see you do convey such things kindly. I enjoy your great work!

    Like

  2. Mischa

    Thank you for sharing. The art is lovely as were your explanations… It would be a fine thing if the creator of the deck did as you suggest and put out a fully expanded companion book.

    Like

  3. Shadowrose

    Thank you very much for that deck review!

    As you might remember from my commentary on the Journey to the West cards, I had a deck on Chinese mythology in mind on my own. Actually I made some more progress by now, but get frequently stuck at some points with it…

    In my version I decided for Niutou and Mamian for the death card (but that’s not written in stone, yet) – for I go along with you that Yama – a death god he may be, but – does not match the death card’s meaning as transition/farewell/grieve/change.
    I could imagine him holding the wheel of life as the wheel of fortune. Though this is also arguable… Or as justice card – he is a judge after all.
    Mengpo could be a choice for death, but I rather see her as judgement. After the soul has suffered in hell, it is released from its pain when drinking her soup and crossing the bridge to the next life.

    Confucius is the hierophant to me for he is the epitome of tradition, moral rules, piety, rituals and scholarship.

    Moon – of course – is Chang’e (well, and Changxi – there is a discussion, if they are the same, anyways)

    As sun I chose Xihe releasing one of her three-legged crows – the others resting in Fusang Tree. (While only one crow is occupying the sky, there is light and happiness. But the sun also has the potential to burn and blind. That’s why I don’t go along with Yi for that card.)
    Yi might also be the justice card for “keeping the balance”/adjusting it/cutting away the excess.

    The tower card is Gonggong destroying the pillars of the earth and sky to me. And the devil could be a fox demon like Daji or maybe Baigujing.

    My problem is that it’s pretty tough to make proper decisions. Some characters might fit into several cards due to different aspects. And there are some cards that I can’t find a suitable match for. Or it’s the “if you take A, you also have to include B” dilemma. I don’t want to disgrace/dishonor any mythological entity…

    And the pips are also causing me some headache… Because I want to adjust them towards Chinese numerology instead of classical tarot numerology. However, it’s hard to choose, again. 7 for example stands for journey, helping aspects, friends and (non material) resources when considering the bagua. But it also stands for the ghost realm… How to include both conflicting aspects while trying to show how each element deals with it?

    Those are the reasons why progress is so damn slow…

    However, the deck shown above is beautiful and interesting. I agree with you that conflicting keywords are somewhat confusing. But maybe it’s the choice of the reader, whether he’d like to stick to traditional tarot or to go with the calligraphy.

    Like

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