As anyone who has watched Korean TV Variety Shows can tell you certain games show up time and time again. One of these, kai-bai-bo, literally scissors, paper, rock, is extremely popular as a ‘choosing’ or ‘starting’ game, meaning it is what you play to make a decision such as which team will start the real game, or who pays the bar tab. Choosing games using just hands have a long history, but being so simple and requiring no equipment means it is often hard to track down their origin. Considering there are tomb paintings from Ancient Egypt showing some types of hand games, as well as accounts from Ancient Greece and Rome it appears that the 16th century Chinese author of Wazazu‘s claim of rock, scissors, fabric being played in the later part of the Han Dynasty (200 BCE – 200 CE) are believable. So it seems that at least 2,000 years ago people in many cultures were playing hand or fist games. In some parts of China today rock, paper, scissors is still called ‘guess my fist’.
Were all these games rock, paper, scissors? No, but they fall into the same general family of games, which also includes slapping and clapping games. The Romans played micato, (micare digitis in Latin which is literally “to flash with fingers”) which is similar to the modern game of morra, where each player shows their hand with a number of fingers extended as each player shouts out what they think the total number of all fingers shown will be. The winner being the person who guesses correctly. There are multiple variants of this type of hand game to include odds & evens and ones & twos.
The first definitive reference to rock, paper, scissors comes from around the year 1600 CE in China, and until someone can prove otherwise I think it is fair to assume this specific type game originated there, despite internet claims to the contrary. At this time China was trading throughout Asia and it is easy to believe the game spread in that way. I can’t find any mentions of it showing up in Korea at this point in time, but there are references to it and similar games showing up in 17th century Japan having come from China.
In Japan these games were grouped under the ken family, or sansukumi-ken ‘the three who are afraid of each other’. Mushi-ken is said to be the oldest variant to come from China, and it uses the thumb for the frog, the little finger for the slug, and the index finger for the snake. If you’re wondering why a snake is afraid of a slug, that is probably due to a translation/language error as in China it was originally a frog, a snake, and a poisonous centipede who could climb into the snake’s head and poison it. In Indonesia this is man, elephant, ant, where the ant either climbs the elephant’s trunk and tickles him to death, or enters his brain and drives the poor elephant crazy. A popular Japanese variant was kitsune-ken, which is unique because it used gestures needing both hands. The ones who were afraid of each other were a fox, a village headman, and a hunter. It has been said that when these games came to Japan from China that they were drinking games, and also sometimes played like strip poker in the local brothels. There is a handbook of Japanese ken games from 1809.
The version that turned into the game we play today was janken, which is still extremely popular in Japan today. It is played by adults and children alike and has become a part of popular culture. The Jpop group AKB48 has even used a janken tournament in order to determine which members would appear on their next single. And in 2005 when a rich businessman couldn’t decide which famous auction house would sell his extensive art collection he made them play janken!
There is some debate if kai-bai-bo arrived in Korea from China at an earlier date or if it arrived with Japanese occupation. It does seem likely that it was the latter as anthropologist Stewart Culin in his 1895 book, Korean Games, with notes on the corresponding games of China and Japan, does not mention a rock, paper, scissors, type game for Korea, although he does list a couple of hand games. He does describe, however, the ken games of Japan.
Rock, paper, scissors, sometimes called Rochambeau or roshambo in the West, starts to show up in Europe in the mid 1800’s but it is not until the 1930’s that there’s a written reference to the game in the USA. This is not to say immigrants weren’t playing the game before then, but that it wasn’t sufficiently mainstream to be a part of general culture. The huge rise of the popularity of rock, paper, scissors around the world came in the post WWII years and has continued with the spread of globalization. Anime, Korean Variety Shows, online games, and other entertainment sources have elevated it back into the consciousness of many who remember playing it as children.
Rock, paper, scissors has been described as the “purest form of competition two minds can have with each other” and is actually a fairly sophisticated game that uses psychology and principles of game theory. There are only three possible outcomes and a tie. And although the game itself is random, the humans who play it are not and good players can soon take advantage of that. Many pro players in fact use predetermined gambits and the people they hate to play the most are children, because they in fact come closest to being random players. Much time has been spent studying the game and some people claim to have winning strategies, but so far the only 100% winner is a robot who cheats. He has a camera so fast it detects the beginnings of his opponent’s hand movements and then throws out his hand.
There are quite a few different versions of kai-bai-bo played in Korea, with an upgraded version called muk-jji-ppa being quite popular. Other versions work better in multiplayer situations and can mess with the minds of a more traditional player. So next time you’re in Korea and it is time to decide who is going to pay for something make sure your kai-bai-bo skills are up to form and good luck.
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