A Brief Introduction to Chinese Chess

1,000-year old bronze chess pieces unearthed from Chengdu

1,000-year old bronze chess pieces unearthed from Chengdu

In the ancient city Chengdu, the provincial capital of Sichuan, 30 bronze Chinese chess pieces were recently unearthed from a tomb dating back to the period between Tang and Song dynasties about a thousand years ago.

Chinese Chess is one of the two major traditional Chinese chess games, along with Go (Weiqi or Game of Siege), and usually has 32 pieces.

The earliest form of Chinese Chess can be traced back to the Warring States era when military strategists used small pieces made of whatever the material available to visualize the potential battlefield situation.

The Difference between Go and Chinese Chess

Weiqi (Go) - Game of Siege

Weiqi (Go) – Game of Siege

The most obvious difference between Go and Chinese Chess is the colour.

In Weiqi, the two sets are marked in black and white, while in Chinese Chess, they are distinguished by the colours of red and green.

Weiqi (Go) is a purely yin-yang dual forces oriented and siege & counter-siege focused game, and the conflict between the two parties is at a more fundamental, metaphysical and transcendent level. For this reason, the game has always been favoured by intellectuals.

Chinese Chess, on the other hand, simulates earthly conditions, therefore is relatively easier to understand and maneuver, hence is more popular among the wide populations.

But the biggest difference is the rules governing the position of each piece on the board (the battlefield in particular and the world in general).

In Weiqi, all pieces are basically the same and equal with a potential to be anything they endeavour to be. It’s the contest taken place in a spiritual realm.

In Chinese Chess, the position and the capacity of each piece is predetermined, which means they are not born equal.

Chinese Chess and Chinese Social Reality

Chinese chess board

Chinese chess board

The difference between the individual pieces in Chinese Chess is actually not based on a hierarchical structure but the unique way each piece moves (acts). A soldier can checkmate the general (equivalent to king in Western Chess) when it is in the right place.

It wonderfully reflects the classic Chinese society. It was a fluent social ranking system, quite different from that in the classic Europe. China abolished a rigid aristocratic social structure solely based on birthright nearly 2,000 years ago, and Chinese people never had problem to accept a peasant emperor, as they traditionally believed any man could become a minister or general.

A telling example is the position of footsoldiers (兵 and 卒) at the bottom level of the ranking.

Footsoldiers in Chinese Chess have an opportunity to be transformed into “Chariot”, the most powerful pieces in the game that can destroy whatever rival pieces on their way.

But there are catches.

Firstly, you as a footsoldier will need to cross the border to arrive in the enemy territory prior to activating the possible transformation;

Secondly, unlike the “Chariot” by birth who could conduct long-range attack (like launching a missile) against anything in its sight (on the same line), you’ll have to engage in body combat, so there is a high chance you could be neutralised before you get close to your target;

Finally and most importantly, you are not allowed to step back. Either progress or die.

Chinese Chess reflects a social reality of China (as West Chess reflects the social reality of classic Europe) that is hierarchical but transformable. From Daoist point of view, such a reality is still highly conditioned, therefore they much prefer a more transcendent reality, and its reflection in game Weiqi (Go).

3 comments

  • columbia

    You seem to know a lot about chess, you should write an e-book on it or something. An excellent read. I will certainly be back.

    • Awen

      Hello columbia, thanks for your suggestion. I’m reasonably good at Chinese Chess but not a master on Weiqi, and I don’t think I can offer many useful advices on how to play and win the games. The best I can do is to provide a short introduction for those who know nothing about these Chinese mind sports 😉

      • Awen

        China’s lag behind the world did not begin at the time or shortly after Zheng He’s world tour. It was since the middle 17th when China was occupied by a backward Manchus, particularly from Quanlong’s era onwards, Chinese people were by and large prohibited by the alien ruling group to interact with the people from outside China. One of such evidences can be found in Qianlong’s dealing with (and letter to) King George III.

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