Chinese Chess by check_off

It’s Sunday afternoon, which is when, during the winter, Xiangqi (Chinese chess) players convene indoors at the Consolidated Benevolent Association in Chinatown. I had planned to join them today but woke late to a cold rain, and decided instead to sit in a Cambridge coffeehouse mulling over what it is about Chinese chess that leads me to a small room in Chinatown where most people speak little English and some none at all — and yet I am welcome.

It’s not irrelevant that the pieces are colorful — red and green or red and blue — rather than the black and white that is standard in Western chess. Color suffuses the board, and enters into daydreams about it. It’s true, too, that my ego doesn’t hemorrhage when I lose at Xiangqi, especially if I’m losing to a native Xiangqi player. After all, I am but a newbie, having discovered the game last summer on a walk through Chinatown with a friend.

We saw men crowding around board games that employed discs, differentiated by the ideograms painted on them. We couldn’t read the ideograms but their movements had a sort of funhouse familiarity, and we picked up that they were being mobilized, in their way, for checkmate. What we were watching, then, was a long lost relative of Western chess, another expression of the same game gene.

The mother of all chess games is understood to have surfaced in India circa 600 AD. One of its descendants traveled West — though Persia, the Islamic world, and Europe, to become the game Westerners call chess. The other child of Chaturanga traveled East and became Xiangqi.

How are the pieces related? The elephant of Xiangqi, for example, after all due cultural mutations, becomes the bishop of Western chess, destined for diagonals. In Xiangqi, as in Western chess, the king (sometimes referred to in Xiangqi as the General), is the sine qua non of the operation. The Western king can roam all over the board, and becomes a potent offensive weapon in the endgame. The Xiangqi king is restricted to a 3 by 3 confine throughout, his fortress or palace, depending on translation. But he can do one thing that might make a Western chess king envious: if faced on an unobstructed file by his opposite number, he can, like a wired warrior in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, fly clean across the board and skewer his enemy.

The pieces are no more unlike than the manners and mores of the game. The way Chinese behave around a game of Xiangqi would be considered utterly inadmissible for Western chess. Xiangqi bouts set off loud and prolonged dispute, not only among onlookers but between onlookers and players. The very boundary between onlooker and player barely obtains. It is not unusual, for example, for a spectator to reach down and emphatically replace a move he objects to with one he has argued is superior.

This sort of intervention is unknown in Western chess, in which the whole idea is to pit two solitary minds against each other, allowing each to entertain the notion that they are a chess genius, a name to reckon with — Philidor, Morphy, Fischer, Kasparov, Polgar, Anand — in the bud. However inept the players actually are, the rules of engagement suppose and cradle individualism.

In Xiangqi, however, at least at the street level, individualism and crowd restraint are beside the point — except when there’s money riding on a game, in which case silence tellingly prevails. Otherwise, the rules of engagement allow for and encourage intra-communal debate. A game sociologist might even stretch the point by saying that games of Xiangqi are simply pretexts for the forging of ever shifting chess-based alliances in the Xiangqi public at large. And the Xiangqi public is not, as with chess in the West, a fraction of the general population: in China and the vast Chinese Diaspora it is close to co-extensive with the entire population.

Xiangqi, historically, was a people’s game, a street corner, marketplace, lower crust deal. As one scholarly Qing dynasty advocate put it: “Women, children, farmers or herdsmen may grasp the techniques of Xiangqi, but to be good at it is another matter, and even grand Confucian scholars and famous worthies do not dare to lay this claim.” Weiqi (better known in the West by its Japanese name, Go) was the game of skill favored by the elite. The sharp-witted loud-mouthed argumentativeness of Xiangqi was likely not permitted in its patrician precincts.

That’s something else I like about the Xiangqi, that it’s everybody’s business. I’ve become accustomed, when, I play, to being advised, admonished and overruled, even if most of it takes place in Mandarin or some other dialect of Chinese I will never understand. But potentially useful bits of English do filter through. I’ve been told:

“Push him! Push him!”

“Not thinking two moves. Not thinking four moves! Not thinking two moves!”

“I kill you. You kill me. I go through your holes!”

“Concentrate here! Concentrate there! Forces left side! Forces right side!”

Such admonishment slowly eats away at my ignorance. I see the board better. I pick up a few tricks and win some games, mostly against other newbie Westerners but sometimes even against Asians who haven’t touched Xiangqi in decades. Chinese tourists and summer students were amazed to see a Xiangqi board in Harvard Sq. where I set up often last summer. They were amazed a Westerner could play their game. Some — not too many, to be sure — were treated to the extra amazement of losing to that Westerner.

Xiangqi strikes me as every bit as sophisticated as Western chess. The rules enjoin a different kind of dance, but one that’s no less complex. (Those flying kings). And Xiangqi strikes me as more than another way of thinking about chess; it’s another way of thinking, a board game window into another culture.

Sam Sloan, a seasoned tournament player in both traditions put it well (in “Chinese Chess for Beginners”) when he said a player of international chess taking up Xiangqi must do nothing less than “try to reshape the structure of his brain.” Xiangqi, then, is both a cultural and a neurological alternative.

I intend to be in Chinatown next Sunday where I will do my best to think four moves, think two moves, go through holes, and push him, push him.



Filed under chess, China, Xiangqi

2 responses to “Chinese Chess by check_off

  1. Jeff M

    It would be interesting to hear how Xiangqi is viewed inside Chinese culture.

    Perhaps it’s more like baseball, in it communal participatory nature, than is Western Chess.

  2. hblume



    i agree. but maybe more like softball than hardball, softball requiring less space & playable on grass or asphalt, in the country or the city equally.

    an mit student from china once told me, in a derisory tone, that xiangqi was no big deal, was played all over the place where he was from. he wasn’t impressed when i extolled the xiangqi players of boston chinatown. he screeched about them, as about the multitudes of them back home: “all they do! every day!!”

    but that’s not accurate, at least about the local xiangqi fiends. they go to work, too.

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