Eastern Ink Tarot was conceptualized by Zhong Ling, a Chinese tarot reader and founder of the Chengdu Arcana Culture Communication Company, the publisher of this deck. She’s also the founder of a tarot school in China, established in partnership with Lo Scarabeo.
Zhong Ling teamed up with award-winning artist Zi Kang, who studied under renowned Chinese masters and trained in traditional Chinese painting styles. For the paintings you see in Eastern Ink Tarot, he sourced his inspiration from ancient books, traditional Chinese culture, and philosophy, specifically the yin-yang school of Eastern philosophy.
Both Zhong Ling and Zi Kang are seasoned tarot scholars, and that’s something I really appreciate from deck creators. They’re passionate and learned about the tarot, and then decided to create a deck. In Eastern Ink, you can see that knowledge come through in which RWS symbols they preserve and where in the art they take creative liberties.
Sasha Graham, who needs no introduction, helped to proofread and rewrite the English translation of the guidebook. Sasha’s the author of a wide portfolio of popular decks, such as the Tarot of the Witch’s Garden, the Dark Wood Tarot, and Tarot of the Haunted House, to name a few. She’s also the author of The Magic of Tarot, Llewellyn’s Complete Book of the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot, and more. I had the opportunity to meet and lunch with Sasha at Readers Studio in New York many years back and she’s the magnanimous, vibrant, and bright personality you’d imagine. I love that she supported Chengdu Arcana in bringing Eastern Ink Tarot to a Western audience.
The art in Eastern Ink Tarot is a fusion of traditional Chinese ink painting and Western watercolor. Symbols and iconography important to Chinese culture have been woven seamlessly throughout the imagery to express the tarot archetypes. There is a harmony and musicality to Zi’s art, serene and delicate.
The integration of Chinese mythology with the RWS tarot structure is brilliant. You’ll come across the golden pheasant, the three-legged crow on the robes of the King of Swords, lions, the qilin, and xiezhi, all while balancing Confucianism, Legalism, and Taoism with Western occult philosophy.
The companion guidebook is generally helpful to a tarot beginner, but isn’t as helpful with regard to describing the imagery on the cards and artist intentions. For example, the guidebook entry for The Fool reads, “The Fool is the freshly born child of the universe. The Fool’s robe blends sky and earth and displays an embroidered golden pheasant closely related to the sacred phoenix. It is a symbol of noble virtue and good fortune.” Wait, huh? Then the rest of the entry is a fairly generic “by-the-books RWS card meanings” explanation for Key 0: The Fool.
For The Magician, we do get notes that he’s holding an emerald yin yang sphere in his hands, which symbolizes balance and symmetry. That’s the extent that the guidebook gets into the specific artwork for The Magician card of Eastern Ink Tarot. The rest of the entry is a beginner-level explanation for the card meaning.
For The Empress, we do get a quick descriptive that she’s wearing a fengguan, or ceremonial crown, and wielding a ruyi scepter, surrounded by wheat, persimmons, and corn poppy, symbols of fertility and harvest. But there isn’t quite as much exposition on the mythological and cultural references as I would have liked. Personally, not going into more detailed explanation of the Eastern iconography in a tarot and book set for a Western audience is a bit of a missed opportunity.
Typically in Chinese culture we pair the dragon and phoenix together, and while there is some phoenix symbolism in The Empress card, the guidebook more clearly associates the phoenix with The Fool. Whereas The Emperor card prominently features the yellow dragon. The Hierophant appears to be depicted as a Taoist ceremonial magician, though I couldn’t confirm that via the guidebook entry. I do, however, appreciate the detailing for The Chariot, noting that the chariot its being pulled by two qilins, associated with the wise warrior.
The Hermit card, per the guidebook, is an expression of Confucian self-discipline and inward exploration. It reveals to us that the shadows hide a tiger, symbolic of potential dangers and confronting beasts of shadow.
The Justice card features a xiezhi 獬豸, a mythical goat or ox like animal with a single horn on its head, likened to a unicorn. The xiezhi’s magical ability is to determine right from wrong, and will then use its horn to punish the guilty to restore justice. It has classically been a symbol of justice, so it’s the perfect representation for Key 11. We also see expressions of Legalism here in the illustration for the Justice card.
Death and Temperance are two of my favorite works of art from this deck. The illustration for the Death card represents the dual existence and co-existence of Yang Jian and Yin Jian (which I talk about in this video on Taoist spirit maps). Temperance features two-toned rivers to symbolize the dualism of yin and yang, but how it blends together as the one Wuji. The two-toned rivers also represent the Yangtze River and Yellow River of the Chinese landscape, rivers vital to the cradles of East Asian civilizations.
These panels of ink brush paintings on xuan paper are soft and exquisite. Xuan is a canvas made from rice that’s historically used for ink and watercolor paintings. If we apply the Six Principles (Liu Fa) of Chinese painting per the 6th century art critic Xie He 謝赫, we assess the following:
- The spirit resonance or creativity and originality of the painting,
- Structural use of brush strokes and how the detailing communicates texture,
- How the objects and subject matter are represented – assessing the artist’s line work and forms,
- Color palette, how well color layering is applied and harmony of the tones,
- Composition, or arrangement to communicate depth and spacing, and
- Transmission, meaning how well the artist is channeling reality in the painting and also how well the artist is channeling ascended masters in the craft.
Colors might be Zi Kang’s strength. These paintings are tranquil, muted, and understated, rendered with such control and mastery that they appear effortless. As a working deck, these cards have a calming energy, attuning you to a more centered and soothed state of being.
In terms of art style, it’s not traditionally Chinese, though features many elements of classical Chinese painting, and while the Westerner might not readily identify the Western elements in this art, I see Western influences of Mannerism, the Neoclassical movement, and Romanticism.
Also, if you click on any of these photos for a zoomed in close-up view of the faces, Zi’s illustrations are a lot more expressive of emotions than you might typically find in classical Asian art styles.
By the way for the Judgement card, I love this Zen proverb that Zhong Ling shares:
“Before enlightenment, chopping wood and carrying water; after enlightenment, chopping wood and carrying water.”
Out of the box, the order that the Minor Arcana suits are presented in are: Swords, Wands, Cups, and Pentacles.
The suit of Swords is color-coded in hues of azure and teal. In the Ace of Swords, the depiction of the sword plunged firmly into the ground is an expression of certainty and being resolute. I love the depiction of dual entangled dragons in the Two of Swords.
The strong blue tones in the Three of Swords with shapes that could be easily reminiscent of water waves is a bit of a novel approach to this card. We do often talk about the RWS Three of Swords as emotional turbulence within the realm of the mind. Here that emotional element is painted with the blues.
The suit of Wands is color-coded crimson. You’ll also see that the compositions faithfully follow the RWS, so if that’s your go-to system, then this deck is quite user-friendly. For those looking to round out a tarot deck collection with a few culturally East Asian themed decks, Eastern Ink Tarot would be a strong contender.
The suit of Cups is color-coded lavender with accents of pale blue. The cups in this suit are jue 爵, a type of drinking vessel from ancient Imperial China. It typically features three supporting feet, looped handles, and a curved spout. These vessels date back to Neolithic China, circa 2500 – 2000 BC, and given their ritualistic purposes, are likened to ceremonial chalices.
The suit of Pentacles is color-coded dark blue with accents of pink. If there was an explanation for the color choices selected to identify the four elementals in the guidebook, then I didn’t find it. But my best guess is that the dark blue tones were intended to correspond with yin energy, echoing the passive character of the element Earth.
These particular types of Chinese coins date back to the 4th century BC and in modernity are associated with amulets for good luck and prosperity.
That Two of Pentacles you see in the photo above trips me up a bit, as my mind always initially assumes Ace of Pentacles and then gets confused by the water. Ha. But once you read the guidebook, you get a better sense for the context, and I like it. The rolling river waters here symbolize the spiritual world, and extending out to the greater meaning for the Two of Pentacles as interpreted by Zhong Ling, this card implies the duality between the visible world and the invisible, the spiritual and the material.
I found that the Eastern Ink Tarot reads a lot better as a tarot deck than some of its comparables, such as China Tarot, which has uneventful pips, or The Chinese Tarot, which is a lot more culturally Chinese, thus comes with a steeper learning curve. Whereas this deck stays true to the RWS deck, redrawn with Imperial culture.
The deck edition I’m reviewing is the Standard, which is packaged in a magnetic clasp box with a laminated gloss finish. But at $30.99 usd, which you can purchase direct from Chengdu Arcana here, it’s a fantastic value. Optionally, you can splurge on the Limited Edition, linked here, print run 2,000 copies. From the photos, it’s a much bigger two-tiered box, elegant and less commercial-focused than the Standard, with blue foil edging, linen cardstock, and includes some fun accessories.
The cards are a glossy finish, fairly standard production quality, and because of the glossy finish, there’s fantastic slip. They fan across the table and riffle shuffle with ease.
The history of Chengdu Arcana is quite remarkable. Zhong Ling and her co-founder Wu Xue started the company in 2005, importing tarot and oracle decks by US Games, Lo Scarabeo, and Llewellyn for the Chinese market. By 2015 the company expanded, partnering with artists to begin producing their own decks.
Now in 2023, I’m so excited to see Chengdu Arcana gaining in prominence directly among tarot consumers in the West. I can’t wait to follow their continued growth!
ORDER YOUR COPY HERE
See also: Eastern Ink Tarot Limited Edition HERE
FTC Disclosure: I purchased the Eastern Ink Tarot. After receiving my order, the publisher reached out to me and asked if I would be interested in receiving some of their other products. Selected tarot and oracle decks were thus sent along with my purchase order in the above-pictured haul, for prospective review. As always, everything I’ve said here is sincere and accurately reflects my opinion.
3 thoughts on “Eastern Ink Tarot by Zhong Ling, Li Kang, and Sasha Graham”
This is a lovely deck. I have the Chines Tarot as well as the Floating World (Yukiyo-e?) Tarot. I am committed to keeping my collection small so I can’t bring in unless some go out. Dear!
Such a beautiful deck! However one card (the devil) so totally turns me off that I cannot buy/use it.
Thank you so much for this review! I always love your feedback, you are so thoughtful in your reviews and I really appreciate your perspective. This is one of those decks that i really like the look of, but i was a little dissapointed in the guidebook–i really want guidebooks to go into WHY certain imagery was selected, and I agree with you that there wasn’t as much if that as i would like. But i also am just super happy that it exists! I love seeing how different cultures interpret tarot, and especially how different people WITHIN a culture interpret tarot! This makes me want to see a comparison between eastern ink and the trickster’s journey tarot, which draw on VASTLY different elements of Chinese culture. Thank you again for sharing!