Asian Origin of Rock Paper Scissors
The first known mention of the game of Rock Paper Scissors was in the book ‘Wuzazu’. This book was written by the Chinese Ming-dynasty writer Xie Zhaozhi. They wrote that the game dated back to the time of the Chinese Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD). In the book, the game was called shoushiling. Li Rihua’s book ‘Note of Liuyanzhai’ also mentions this game, calling it shoushiling, huozhitou or huoquan.
Throughout Japanese history there are frequent references to “sansukumi-ken”. Translated “ken” means fist games with “san” meaning three-way and “sukumi” being deadlock. This is in the sense that A beats B, B beats C and C beats A. The games originated in China before being imported to Japan and subsequently becoming more popular.
The earliest Japanese “sansukumi-ken” game was known as “mushi-ken”, which was imported directly from China. In “Mushi-ken” the “frog” (represented by the thumb) is beaten by the “slug” (represented by the little finger), which in turn is beaten by the “snake” (represented by the index finger), which is beaten by the “frog”. Although this game was imported from China, the Japanese version differs in the animals represented.
In adopting the game, the original Chinese characters for the poisonous centipede were apparently confused with the characters for the “slug”. The most popular sansukumi-ken game in Japan was kitsune-ken. In the game, a supernatural fox called a kitsune defeats the village head, the village head defeats the hunter, and the hunter defeats the fox. Kitsune-ken, unlike mushi-ken or rock paper scissors, it is played by making gestures with both hands.
The Creation of Rock Paper Scissors
The earliest form of Rock Paper Scissors was created in Japan and is called Janken. This is a variation of the Chinese games introduced in the 17th century. Janken uses the Rock, Paper and Scissors signs. It is the game that the modern version of Rock Paper Scissors derives from directly. Hand-games using gestures to represent the three conflicting elements of rock, paper and scissors have been most common since the modern version of the game was created in the late 19th Century. This was between the Edo and Meiji periods.
By the early 20th century, Rock Paper Scissors had spread beyond Asia, especially through increased Japanese contact with the West. Its English language name is therefore taken from a translation of the names of the three Japanese hand-gestures for rock, paper and scissors; elsewhere in Asia the open-palm gesture represents “cloth” rather than “paper”. The shape of the scissors is also adopted from the Japanese style.
The Spread of RPS beyond Asia
In Britain in 1924 it was described in a letter to the Times as a hand game, possibly of Mediterranean origin, called “zhot”. A reader then wrote in to say that the game “zhot” referred ti was evidently Jan-ken-pon, which she had often seen played throughout Japan. Although at this date the game appears to have been new enough for British readers to need explaining.
In 1927, La Vie au patronage, a children’s magazine in France. The game was described it in detail, referring to it as a “jeu japonais” (Japanese Game). Its French name, “Chi-fou-mi”, is based on the Old Japanese words for “one, two, three”.
In America that game was written about in a New York Times article in 1932. This was on the Toyko rush hour describes the rules of the game for the benefit of American readers. It suggested that it was not at the time widely known in the United States. The 1933 edition of Comption’s Pictured Encyclopedia described it as a common method of settling disputes between children in its article on Japan. The name was given as “John Kem Po” and the article pointedly asserted “This is such a good way of deciding an argument that American boys and girls might like to practice it too”.
Rock Paper Scissors is one of the few sansukumi-ken games still played in modern Japan. It’s uncertain why Rock Paper Scissors managed to surpass the popularity of all the other sansukumi-ken games. Everyone believes that the global success of rock paper scissors comes from the universal appeal of its simplicity. Unlike other sansukumi-ken games, rock paper scissors could be easily understood by any audience.