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I have heard a few times that paper beats rock in rock-paper-scissors due to the following reason:

It comes from an ancient Chinese tradition where when a request was sent to the ruler on a piece of "paper" or the equivalent at the time, the rock was placed over the paper if the request was accepted, the paper was draped over the rock, indicating defeat of the request, if the request was rejected. Hence, paper over rock = defeat.

How true is it?

1

According to wikipedia, which is extensively sourced on this topic (although I haven't checked any of them myself for reliability), says

The earliest Japanese "sansukumi-ken" game was known as "mushi-ken" (虫拳), which was imported directly from China.[7][8] In "Mushi-ken" the "frog" (represented by the thumb) is superseded by the "slug" (represented by the little finger), which, in turn is superseded by the "snake" (represented by the index finger), which is superseded by the "frog".[7] Although this game was imported from China the Japanese version differs in the animals represented.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 (蜈蜙) were apparently confused with the characters for the "slug" (蛞蝓).[8]

Today, the best-known "sansukumi-ken" is called "jan-ken",[8] which is a variation of the Chinese games introduced in the 17th century.[9] "Jan-ken" uses the rock, paper, and scissors signs[7] and is the game that the modern version of rock-paper-scissors derives from directly.

Its English-language name is therefore taken from a translation of the names of the three Japanese hand-gestures for rock, paper and scissors:[12] elsewhere in Asia the open-palm gesture represents "cloth" rather than "paper".[13] The shape of the scissors is also adopted from the Japanese style.[12]

Sources:
7) Linhart, Sepp (1995). "Some Thoughts on the Ken Game in Japan: From the Viewpoint of Comparative Civilization Studies". Senri Ethnological Studies 40: 101–124. hdl:10502/750.
8) Linhart, Sepp (1995). "Rituality in the ken game". Ceremony and Ritual in Japan. London: Routledge. pp. 38–41. ISBN 9780415116633.
9) Sosnoski, Daniel (2001). Introduction to Japanese culture. Rutland: Tuttle. p. 44. ISBN 9780804820561.
12) 長田須磨・須山名保子共編 (1977.4). 『奄美方言分類辞典』上巻. Tokyo: Kasama shoin. ASIN B000J8V5WU.


Assuming that the sources are correct, there's no truth to this legend, because the "paper" name wasn't introduced until long after the game had spread out of China.

-3

Okay, what about this? http://wiki.answers.com/Q/Why_does_paper_beat_rock_in_a_game_of_rock_paper_scissors

Why does paper beat rock in a game of rock paper scissors? In: Toys [Edit categories] Answer: It comes from an ancient Chinese tradition where when a request was sent to the ruler on a piece of "paper" or the equivalent at the time, the rock was placed over the paper if the request was accepted, the paper was draped over the rock, indicating defeat of the request, if the request was rejected. Hence, paper over rock = defeat.

same source though...

or this source:

While not exactly intuitive, the sympolic meaning of paper covering a rock dates back to ancient Chinese culture. When a petition was made to the Emperor, the petition was signified by a rock.Upon making a decision the Emperor would have his servants place a sheaf of paper either over or under the rock. If the sheaf was placed under the rock it would signify acceptance of the petition. If the sheaf was placed on top of the rock it signified denial of the petition. Over time the symbolic image of paper covering a rock became synonomous with defeat.

http://www.worldrps.com/faq.html

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    I don't think either answers.com or that FAQ would qualify as a reliable source for citing proof from. – Bobson May 8 '14 at 21:07
  • It is up to the reader to decide if it is reliable or not. I properly identified the sources. It seems to come from those crowd-sourcing sources. – edn13 May 9 '14 at 0:27
-5

Your Asian/Chinese origin assumption seems correct. By Wikipedia standards: The first known mention of the game was in the book Wuzazu (zh) (simplified Chinese: 五杂俎; traditional Chinese: 五杂组) by the Chinese Ming Dynasty writer Xie Zhaozhi (谢肇淛; fl. ca. 1600), who wrote that the game dated back to the time of the Chinese Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD).[citing Moore, Michael E.; Sward, Jennifer (2006). Introduction to the game industry. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall. p. 535. ISBN 978-0-13-168743-1.]

I tried a brief search in a few humanities databases, but all I could find is the use of the game for various methodological or clinical reasons.

  • 3
    This doesn't seem to answer the question. – Oddthinking May 7 '14 at 2:14
  • I find the voting unfair...I did a thorough search and found nothing additional to what I said ...which seems to me to answer the question...that it cannot be answered...weird. does this site want an answer even if the answer cannot be found? – edn13 Dec 17 '14 at 2:14
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    If the answer is "True" or "False", we want an answer that demonstrates that. If the answer is "Nobody knows", we want an answer that demonstrates that (e.g. by quoting an appropriate expert who has done a thorough literature search and concluded there is no answer). However, we don't want answers that say "I personally don't know." All we have here is your inability to find an answer, and in general, we are skeptical of random Internet users. We don't know if your search was thorough enough - in fact, you say it was brief - so we can't conclude that the claim is true, untrue or unknown. – Oddthinking Dec 17 '14 at 6:54

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