1999 / 10月
Chang Chin-ju /tr. by Phil Newell
Ten years from now, will Chinese chess be an Olympic event?
The third Forshang Cup Chinese Chess (Xiangqi) World Championship, sponsored by the Taiwan-based Forshang World Foundation, which offered total prize money of NT$7 million, has just ended, and competitors from various countries are already back at work preparing for next year's competition. Next year's champion, accompanied by the previous champions, will head to Lausanne, Switzerland, home of the Olympic headquarters, to hold a demonstration competition. This event will be an important step in efforts to have Chinese chess accepted as an Olympic event.
Due to the efforts of dedicated individuals, and the spread of Chinese people around the world, Chinese chess-this "brain teaser" long enjoyed by the ordinary people of China-has, in the same way as Tang dynasty Chinese chess did, begun to spread to other lands. Moreover, as Chinese chess becomes international, this game, which has evolved and adapted to meet changing times over the centuries, is again quietly being renovated in an effort to keep up with the rhythms of modern life.
Twenty or so years ago, there were two soldiers who used to play chess to while away the time. After each game, the loser would declare that he would bring a highly skilled friend to avenge the loss. The winner was not impressed: "So you've got some hotshot to rely on, big deal! You think I don't know any world-beaters?" So the soldiers agreed to bring their champions to meet at the Tsu Chi Temple in Fengyuan City. As expected, when the experts came face-to-face, they were inspired to new heights, and they played on and on, to the delight of the crowd that grew around them, in the "great Fengyuan chess challenge." After dozens of games, the master player named Lin had gained a slight advantage, but the player named Chen was no pushover, and constantly had his adversary in hot water.
What a shame, these two masters felt, that they had only just met! And for such a short time, since their desire to play against an opponent of such caliber had been far from exhausted. Thus these two men, who also relied on chess to while away their monotonous military service, began an unprecedented Chinese chess battle through the mail-each sending one move per day by postcard. Once they had begun this Chinese chess relay, says Lin Yi-shih, one of the combatants and now secretary-general of the ROC Chinese Chess Association, "the days just seemed to fly by, and after only a few games we were discharged."
Life is like chess
Lin, whose face lights up with joy talking about those days gone by, has just come back from the Forshang Cup competition in Hawaii. Although on this occasion he did not win, he was delighted at the opportunity to hone his skills against an increasing number of international competitors. In the past, chess addicts like Lin had little choice but to roam all over Taiwan, keeping their ears open for word of some skilled player somewhere, and then go on the attack, fighting do-or-die battles to refine their skills and establish their reputations. Today's players are much luckier: They can stay home and find opponents of comparable ability over the Internet.
Another advantage for today's players: Mainland China's chess world used to be inaccessible to Taiwan players. Now records of games played in the mainland-as well as anywhere else-are available. On top of this, the growing number of international invitational competitions, and the increasing prize money, mean that some players will be able to make a living at chess, so the day cannot be far off when there's a system for the development of professional players.
The Mr. Chen who held those epic battles against Lin Yi-shih so long ago is Stephen Chen, general manager of the Sohare company, which specializes in the development of Chinese chess software. Two decades ago, you could find young Chen in the night market in Shuili Rural Township in Nantou County. There he would set up endgames on a portable chessboard he made himself, and show others how to play. Chen would wager cigarettes, and if he won his opponent would pay him five or ten NT dollars. In this way he made a little pocket money.
Today, Chen still relies on chess to make his living, but it's not nickel-and-dime. The endgames he developed as a young man for his street-side business have become the foundation for computer software called "Roadside Chess Player," which features 4,000 endgames. This product, plus other chess software such as "Brothers of the Marsh Chess" and "The Art of Chess War," which came out beginning three years ago, have altogether sold more than 10,000 sets. Two other titles that Chen's company has produced for beginners have been cited by the ROC Ministry of Education as outstanding teaching materials for children.
At the same time, Chen is also working on a project to translate chess rules and principles into English in preparation for international promotion of the game. From time to time players from the US, Japan, or mainland China join competitions on Chen's website. He is also cooperating with the Department of Information Science at National Taiwan University to hold a competition between Chinese chess masters and a computer. IBM's famous Deep Blue chess computer isn't going to get all the glory! Chen has even thought of ways to improve the way games are recorded. He wants to produce visual layouts of positions, so that everyone can easily grasp the principles of Chinese chess.
Lin Yi-shih has gone from scouring temple courtyards and other public gathering places for worthy competitors to participating in international competitions. Steven Chen, once playing out endgames from a night market hawker's stand, now provides an Internet site where the best players can meet. The lives of these two chess masters have certainly changed dramatically. But that is only appropriate, since Chinese chess has itself had quite a varied and colorful life history.
The first chess clubs?
Over time, there have in fact been many types of Chinese chess. The one we have been talking about so far is known in Chinese as xiangqi. Another well-known form, called weiqi in Chinese, is known in the West by its Japanese name of Go, though it too was invented by the Chinese. Today, both forms have a large number of enthusiasts. It's just that xiangqi has always seemed to be a step behind weiqi.
A poem by Bai Juyi of the Tang dynasty mentions the many games enjoyed in the private chess associations and clubs of his day. Among them, weiqi had been long established as a social activity among the gentry. Confucius himself endorsed it as a pastime: "Just eating all day and never using your mind, what good is there in that? Is it not better to play chess? This would be the more virtuous course." The chess mentioned in this epigram is in fact weiqi.
The venerable history of weiqi can be traced to the Zhou dynasty (1122-255 BC). Over the following centuries it was mentioned in many verses, songs, and popular stories. Given the official endorsement by Confucius, and its immense popularity among the literati of the Han, Wei, and Six Dynasties, it gained a reputation as an activity suitable for refined persons, and it maintained an elegant image.
Besides weiqi, Bai Juyi's poem also mentioned a game called xiangxi. This was the forerunner of today's Chinese chess (i.e. xiangqi). There are many tales about the ancient origins of Chinese chess, going back to the legendary emperors Yao and Shun or to the general Han Xin, but there is not much evidence to render them plausible. Thus the references to xiangxi in Tang sources like Bai's poem constitute the first concrete link we can make to modern chess. Niu Zengru, a Tang-era author of an autobiographical novel, in one chapter set in the first year of the Baoying reign period, mentions a number of pieces used in xiangxi which also are used, by the same names, in modern Chinese chess-the horse, field marshal, chariot and foot soldier (or pawn). No wonder Tang dynasty xiangxi is seen as the embryonic form of modern xiangqi.
Interestingly, however, Tang dynasty xiangxi in fact resembles modern Western chess even more than it does modern Chinese chess. Its pieces were upright, and the board was divided into 64 (8 by 8) alternating black and white squares. Even the order in which the pieces were moved in many standard openings is similar.
The successor to Tang dynasty chess
Because of the amazing similarities between Tang dynasty xiangxi and Western chess, many historians suggest that they come from a common source. It is inferred that Chinese chess may have evolved and spread across Asia to Europe in the footsteps of the Mongol armies of the Yuan dynasty. Mongolian chess, which derives from xiangxi, retains the alternating black and white layout of the board, and many of the pieces-tower, horse, pawn-are quite similar to those in Western chess (though in Mongolian chess the tower functions more like a king than a rook). Western chess evolved into its modern form in Spain and France in the 16th century.
Just what is the relationship between Chinese and Western chess? In the field of chess history, this is still an open question. In fact cultures often evolve similar objects, sooner or later, without any mutual contact. Chess is an abstraction from war, and a great brain-teaser, and various cultures have developed similar games. It is just that the similarity between Western chess and Tang dynasty chess is so striking that chess historians can't help but wonder. . . .
Whatever may be the answer to that mystery, we can speak with much greater certainty about modern Chinese chess (xiangqi). Xiangqi, which arose after the end of the Tang dynasty, has certainly crossed over into neighboring countries and left its mark on the local games. For example, in Korean chess, though there is no "Chu River boundary with Han" (a "river" which runs across the center of the xiangqi chessboard), its "field marshal" pieces are marked with the Chinese characters for the ancient Chinese states of Chu and Han. A game of Korean chess is, quite literally, a battle between Chu and Han.
Toppling the pieces
As chess moved overseas, it developed differing characteristics in the soils of different cultures. Yet the most dramatic changes occurred in China itself. By the middle of the Northern Song dynasty, formerly upright pieces became uniformly flat; the pieces no longer moved from square to square, but along the lines from intersection to intersection; a boundary river was added to the center of the chess board; and on each side the field marshal was confined to a square "palace of nine halls" (so-called since a square encompasses nine points where lines intersect). The first mention of these changes is in the poem Xiangxi by Cheng Hao, in which he points out the danger that pawns crossing the river pose to the field marshal in his palace.
Zhang Ru'an, a mainland Chinese scholar of chess history, asks: "Why did the Northern Song make so many changes to Tang dynasty chess, causing Chinese chess to become so different from Western chess?"
People comparing Chinese chess and Western chess today feel that the answer is obvious: The design of the games reflects the realities of the two cultures. The Chinese emperor lived in a secretive enclosed palace, so naturally the field marshals also came to restrict themselves to the nine-hall palace. European feudal lords, in contrast, led their soldiers everywhere as they fought, and this is why in Western chess the King can move freely around the board. Another example is that, in Western chess when a pawn reaches the last rank, it is immediately elevated to a queen. This stimulates the aggressive attacking nature of the players, which certainly fits right in with the expansionist drive in European culture at that time.
By this logic, looking back at the fact that the field marshal piece in Tang dynasty xiangxi was not limited to a particular location, obviously Tang dynasty society was more open, and this correspondingly influenced the structure of chess. The successor dynasty to the Tang, the Song, constructed a system of centralized authority. "The Tang dynasty chess layout objectively did not fit with the aesthetic psychology of Song people," avers Zhang Ru'an. "Thus the Northern Song undertook major changes in Tang dynasty xiangxi, adding the nine-hall palace and the river boundary." Today descendants of Tang dynasty chess live on only abroad. Chinese society has ultimately chosen Northern Song chess, which seems to be more purely representative of the Chinese nation.
It is normal and common for cultural activities to change as social structure develops. But that is not the only reason for changes in the form of Chinese chess. For example, flat pieces are simply more stable than upright pieces, and are easier to carry around. Functionally speaking, the changes made in the Song dynasty made the game more convenient. Recently, there have been efforts to promote Chinese chess in Southeast Asia. Because of concern that non-Chinese find it difficult to read the Chinese characters which differentiate the uniformly shaped flat pieces, the promoters attempted to switch to upright pieces, but this proved futile, and they have since gone back to the flat pieces. After all, if so many people who can't read any Chinese can play mahjong, the seven Chinese ideographs used in chess shouldn't be such an insurmountable barrier. Concludes a player from Malaysia who has been to Taiwan to compete, "people prefer the flat pieces."
How to choose a son-in-law
After going through many adaptations, modern Chinese chess (xiangqi) is basically the same as the game that evolved in the Northern Song dynasty. It was then that key rules were formalized, including a playing board of 10 rows by 9 rows, the division of the board by a river boundary, the set of 32 pieces, and the confinement of the field marshal to the nine-hall palace. The aesthetic quality and entertainment value of chess were greatly strengthened beginning in the Southern Song dynasty. Through the Ming and Qing dynasties, the game was widely popularized to the point that it truly could be said that it was played by everyone from the highest officials to the most ordinary commoners.
In the Song, a chess-set handicraft industry arose in the city of Hangzhou. In the Han and Tang dynasties, there was a system under which master players of weiqi (Go) were at the beck and call of the emperor whenever he wanted a game. By the Southern Song, there was a similar system for xiangqi. Song Huizong, an emperor who was also adept at music, calligraphy, and painting, was said to prefer staying home to play chess to going out. An old proverb has it that a good son-in-law should be intelligent and nimble, "skilled at the six arts and at chess." If you believe this Yuan dynasty saying, it appears that chess ability was a requirement for the post of son-in-law.
Compared to mahjong, Chinese chess has fewer pieces and requires only two players; compared to Go it has fewer pieces and a much smaller board, so it is easier to carry around. In fact, you can sketch a chess board on any piece paper. Over time, every Chinese has come to know that a horse moves kitty corner, a chariot can move freely in any straight line, and artillery can fly over obstacles and strike the enemy from a distance.
In parks and street markets, there are always knots of people playing chess. Onlookers make comments and kibitz, while children wedge their way through spaces between adults' legs and watch intently, their jaws thrust forward, until after a while they too can play, and they will go to the parks and temple courtyards to look for people against whom to test their skill. This is how the game has been passed along generation to generation. In fact, following in the footsteps of Chinese people, it has crossed over the oceans, and today, in Chinese communities and Chinese cultural centers around the world, there is always certain to be a good show involving generals, chariots, and horses parading about the chessboard.
No wonder Liang Shih-chiu, a man who knew something about enjoying a high quality of life, declared chess to be the best pastime for Chinese: "On farms, you will find village elders and farmhands sitting under the melon trellises playing chess of an evening. In the tea houses in the cities, you will find gentlemen of leisure whiling away the long day with a game of chess. 'If one doesn't do anything useless, how is one to pass a whole long life?' High officials who feel itchy for action after retirement and have no outlet for their energy will compete in a chess game to fill the emptiness of their lives."
Besides being a pastime, Liang argues, chess also provides a healthy outlet for man's warlike nature, turning the primitive struggle for survival into a battle of wits: "Man is combative and tricky by nature. To win a victory on the chessboard is better than to win in a struggle for political power; to fool an opponent by crushing his chariot through a double-play is better than to gain some economic advantage through false pretenses."
Chess for the masses
A book entitled Ancient Chinese Games of Intellect offers the following surmise: People had the impression that weiqi (Go) was something by which the literati whiled away their time and forgot their worries, so weiqi acquired a rather aristocratic and transcendent image. This is why a new type of chess game-xiangqi-appeared.
Weiqi was also known as "literary chess" while xiangqi became known as "martial chess." Weiqi is played on a bigger board, and there are more angles to be considered, but on the other hand there are only two kinds of pieces, black and white. In xiangqi, on the other hand, there are many different pieces with different positions and functions. In addition, the rules are easy to learn. Games develop quickly, and the situation can change in an instant. These attractive features made it popular among the masses, and it became more widely played than weiqi.
However, though the rules of xiangqi are easy to learn, the situations, positions, and possibilities are immensely complex. In weiqi, as the battle intensifies, the board becomes more and more obstructed. In xiangqi, on the other hand, as the battle progresses from the opening moves to the mid-game and on into the end game, the number of pieces declines, while the options for movement increase. The combinations of attacking and defending increase without limit, and the relative importance of the pieces changes. For example, in the early moves, it is fairly easy to restrict the movement of the horses. But past the mid-game, as the number of pieces declines and obstacles are removed, the horses can move freely about. If nothing stands in its way, a horse can command eight spaces up to a radius of two spaces away, which is called "a commanding presence over eight strategic locations." This is why Chinese chess players say that "in the endgame, a horse beats a cannon."
Meanwhile, the pawns, which don't have the importance of other pieces at the beginning, suddenly become much more important if they can survive and get across the river. Indeed, they become no less valuable than pieces like the chariot and cannon, which have the most value at the beginning of the game.
Though the basic rules of Chinese chess were stabilized by the time of the Southern Song dynasty, "chess playing styles have continually changed with the times," says Lin Chien-chih, a level 6 grandmaster from Taiwan. For example, in the late Qing dynasty, experts devoted a great deal of attention to solving problems related to battles pitting horse against cannon. A number of books were written on even a single variation of this problem, such as how to use horse pieces to defend against an attack on the field marshal by the enemy's cannon. In the 1950s, there was a "revolution in endgames." In the past people had thought that when the game was winding down to the end, and the number of pieces was limited, then the pawns were of little or no value. But under the new thinking, the pawns became extremely useful pieces.
Besides formal competitions and ever more sophisticated and complex chess theories, variations have been developed-like blind chess (no looking at the board, or even no board at all), "hidden" chess (in which the pieces start turned over and in random positions), and pre-arranged endgames. These not only provide entertainment for the individual, but are a recreational activity among friends.
Chess instruction texts or books of recorded games from ancient times have rather elegant sounding names. One can imagine chess lovers reclining with a pot of tea and enjoying a cool breeze as they go over classic contests of the past, watching as the red and the black sides battle it out to see who can make their position impregnable. Evidently some people have found chess so addictive that they have neither slept nor rested, and there is a saying to the effect that "thoughts of spring make it hard to sleep, but chess can help pass a clear night." No wonder some ancient chess aficionados declared that unless they were in contact with chess, their chi (energy flow) and pulse would become irregular and unsteady, and their brains would atrophy.
Working out endgames and reading records of past games can even be a kind of self-cultivation. In the book The Chess King by the mainland Chinese author Ah Chung, the main character Wang Yisheng attracts crowds of people by playing blind chess against nine opponents simultaneously. Chess lovers all know that after you've played for a long time, there is a chess board in your head, and you can repeatedly play out imaginary games. Many chess players can dispense with the board altogether and play verbally, even against two or three opponents at the same time. The mainland master Liu Dahua once played blind chess against 18 opponents simultaneously in Wuhan, earning the nickname "Asia's Deep Blue."
Legend has it that blind chess was invented by the patriotic general Wen Tianxiang. A book by Zhu Guozhen of the Ming dynasty says that Wen, a lover of both chess and swimming, used to entertain himself by playing verbal chess against his commanders as they wallowed in the river on hot summer days.
Chess has a history of creativity and innovation, but there have always been some people who have seen it as a "useless activity." Especially in today's commercial society, with the fast pace of modern life, it is a luxury to linger in the park or at the chess club for a game. Many parents are too busy to stay home and teach their children themselves, and in fact if their children do play chess, the parents see it as wasted time that could otherwise be spent studying.
However, as the number of temptations for young people grows in society, some parents are beginning to encourage their children to stay home and play chess. At the Chinese chess tournament held at the Fuhsing Temple in Taipei in September, the father of one of the competitors said that he would rather buy chess software so his child could stay home and play than have the child out roaming the streets and playing in video arcades.
Advances in information technology and mass media may be offering Chinese chess a new lease on life at the end of the 20th century. Many people who in the past found it tiresome to head out to chess clubs or parks can now hone their skills at home, and find opponents from all over the globe. Mou Hai-qin, a businessman and skilled chess player who lives on the US West Coast, says that chess gives him the same thrill a general must feel planning strategy in his tent. His website handle, CCCC, homophonous for the Chinese words "death, death, death, death," warns would-be opponents what he holds in store for them. Since Mo has a hard time finding equally competitive opponents (New York, San Francisco, and Houston all have Chinese chess clubs, but no organized competitions), he really benefits from being able to play on the Internet. Lin Shih-wei, a member of the Peitou chess club who plays at level 5, says that you can find opponents on the Internet 24 hours a day, so you don't have to waste time on trips to the chess club just to find out there's no one around you want to play against.
The Department of Information Science at National Taiwan University has been actively developing a Chinese chess-playing computer for the last two years, and has held a number of events pitting Chinese chess masters against the computer. The plan is to use artificial intelligence to plumb the depths of this game that has intoxicated Chinese people for so many centuries. Today, IBM's Deep Blue computer can already compete in Western chess at a world championship level. How well does the Chinese chess computer play? Hsu Shun-chin, a professor of Information Science at NTU, says their computer-which has yet to be christened-plays at level 5, and would be considered one of the top 20 players in Taiwan.
Professor Hsu explains that, as far as the use of artificial intelligence is concerned, the difficulty of a form of chess for the computer depends on the size of the board. For example, Go has 361 possible places to move, which makes it more complex than Western chess, with its 64 squares. For the computer to calculate all possible moves is much more difficult. That is why thus far computers can not even play Go at level 1. On the other hand, wuziqi (something like Othello), which has the smallest board, has already been completely resolved by computers. It would be hard to imagine anyone beating a computer at this type of chess today.
Chinese chess has 90 spaces, making it quite a bit more difficult for the computer than Western chess. But as central processing units improve, the computer should be able to upgrade its ability by one level about every two years. This means that within five years or so, a computer should be playing Chinese chess at a level comparable to that of Wu Kui-lin, Taiwan's reigning grandmaster, who plays at level 8. If that day really comes, and computers can beat all comers, will anyone still be interested in playing chess?
Old chess, new forms
It's still unknown what impact a chess-playing computer will have on the game. But in mainland China, with its 1.2 billion people, chess is now on the television screen, in the new form of speed chess, in which players must complete 40 moves within forty minutes. Some critics say that the time limit makes the game a matter of reflexes, not of planning and calculation, robbing the contest of its profundity. They say that technology is changing the spirit of the game, and that people today are only interested in commercialized versions of the game and not in its value as a form of art or culture.
Lim Kwan How, general secretary of the Asia Xiangqi Federation, does not agree. He says that if the game is to be internationalized and accepted by the next generation of Chinese, use of television broadcasting and computers is inevitable. Thus, he says, speed chess is also inevitable. But this doesn't mean that traditional chess has to disappear. Take Go for example. In Japan, where internationally accepted standards are set, games can last as long as nine hours per day, and in Western championship chess, a game can carry over several days.
From military maneuvers on a battlefield to strategic ideas on paper, to television screens and computer monitors, Chinese chess has continued to provide people entertainment in a competitive setting for thousands of years. But, if people play more and more online, what will happen to the joy-as described by Liang Shih-chiu-of seeing the look on your opponent's face as he or she is trapped?
The rumble of chariots, the galloping of horses, the roar of cannon. . . . Chinese chess has been with us at least since the Tang dynasty. Comparing these two scenes-one from a Chinese cultural center in Hawaii, the other from a Yuan dynasty painting-it doesn't seem as if the game is any less entertaining now than it ever was.
Chess rules and pieces have evolved over time. In Korean chess (top), the pieces have different sizes, and the "king" pieces are stamped with the Chinese characters for the ancient states of Han and Chu. Another version (left), with the Taiwan Strait as the dividing boundary, brings to mind sharp images of smoky battlefields and furious maneuvering. What can the relationship be between Japanese chess (below) and the history of that country?
Geneology of Chinese Chess Variations
Weiqi (Go): Wuziqi (Five-in-a-Row Chess)/Meihuaqi (Plum Flower Chess)
Saixi (Wall Game): Gewu (Five Square)/Cumao
Siwei (Four Maintains)
Tanqi (Bullet Chess):
Tang dynasty Chinese Chess: Japanese Shogi/Song dynasty
Chinese Chess: Modern Chinese Chess/Qiguoqi (Seven States Chess)/Sanxiangxi (Three Elephants Game): Sanyouxi (Three Friends Game)/Guojiao (Snail Shell Chess)/Mongolian Chess
Gongqi (Palace Chess)
Popular Chess Variants: Jiashi/Xuanluocheng (Conch Fortress):
Shiliumushi (16-Eye Stone)/Dahuqi (Strike the Tiger Chess)/Sanhuqi (Three Tigers Chess)/Macheng (Horse Fortress)/Other varieties
Source: Zhonghua Chuantong Youxi Daquan (Encyclopedia of Ancient Chinese Games)
This photo from the book Patterns of Ancient Chinese Embroidery shows that the earliest form of chess in China bears a striking resemblance to today's Western chess, as shown on the opposite page being played in Xinjiang Province in mainland China.
Members of the Lanyang Dance Company play out a life-sized chess match for onlookers.
Professor Hsu Shun-chin of National Taiwan University (above) feeds records of past games into the computer. The computer puts all the moves of the great masters into a big melting pot, resulting in a recipe that is sure to make it unbeatable in the future. Will Chinese software (opposite page) that allows people to stay at home undermine the admirable tradition of chess gatherings in parks and temple courtyards?