1999 / 10月
Chang Chin-ju /tr. by David Mayer
For most people, the pieces in a chess set are naturally used for playing chess, but for the noted Taiwanese journalist Kao Hsin-chiang, it's a lot more complicated than that.
In 1987, Kao sold a house and used the proceeds to hire 100 artists to fashion Chinese chess sets in which the pieces could be recognized by their shape rather than by the Chinese characters that are normally printed on them. From the huge pieces by such sculptors as Wu Jung-tsu and Chu Ming, to the cartoon characters designed by Hung Yi-nan and Tsai Chih-chung, every single set is a true work of art.
Kao, who rose to literary stardom early in his career, has always been very fond of Chinese chess. His inspiration for bringing so many artists together came during a trip abroad when he happened to come across a museum exhibit in which all the items on display were modeled after Western chess pieces. The flat pieces used in Chinese chess, on the other hand, settled into their current abstract form during the Song dynasty, and have seldom been the subject of concrete artistic creation of this sort. When Kao came up with his idea for Chinese chess sets with upright pieces, the exhibit at which he displayed the finished sets created quite a stir.
This huge collection of Chinese chess sets also served as a vehicle of protest against the fact that mass production of low-priced, crudely made goods has made us forget that items of daily use do not have to be made in cookie-cutter uniformity. For this reason, the sets did not go to mass production after the exhibit finished. The works were sold off, and some of the ones that had been produced in extremely limited quantity can no longer be found. Many collectors were disappointed at the scarce supply, and the idea of using pieces of this sort to play Chinese chess never
caught on. In our present day
and age, everything is quickly
forgotten; as soon as Kao's exhibit came to an end, the idea that he was advocating disappeared into oblivion.
Twelve years have gone by since then. When Kao looks over the few chess sets that remain in his possession, he can't help but think back with a sigh upon his inspiration of yesteryear as he cruises through a landscape of his own creation and forgets, for a short while, the cares of the world and the relentless march of time.
(photo: courtesy of Kao Hsin-chiang)