A Brief History of Chinese Chess

Chinese Chess
Chinese Chess | ©Andrew Turner/Flickr
Rachel Deason

Chinese chess, or Xiangqi as it is called outside the west, became popular in China long before China was even a concept. Often thought to have spread to the far east from India, the game was already being played in the courts as early as the Warring States period (475-221BCE).

It is hard to tell just when Xiangqi arrived in China or whether it originated there from the start. Part of the confusion springs from the linguistic ambiguity of the character Xiang. Whereas modern Chinese combines single word characters to form larger and clearer meanings, ancient Chinese relied on one character to convey a singular meaning. Thus, Xiangqi could plausibly mean “Elephant Game,” “Figure Game,” or “Constellation Game.” As such, the game has divided scholars along these three terms.

Xiangqi

Those who interpret the characters to mean “Elephant Game” believe that the game evolved from an earlier Indian counterpart, likely influenced upon its arrival in China by the pattern of troops in the Warring States period. Others, primarily Chinese scholars, hold that Xiangqi evolved from a Chinese game called Liubo, an early iteration of backgammon that uses dice. Proponents of such a theory typically believe that the game is a simulation of astronomy, with game pieces mimicking the movements of objects in the night sky.

Many books have been written on the subject, each scholar convinced that his theory is the correct one. Much more solid evidence exists for the timeline of the solidification of the game’s rules, however. The first reference to gameplay comes from the Tang dynasty (618-907CE) story Cen Shun. In the story, the titular character dreams he is visited by a messenger of the Golden Elephant Kingdom who says that his kingdom would soon go to war with the Tian Na Kingdom. The messenger asks Cen if he would like to watch, and suddenly Cen’s room turns into the gate of a castle prepared for a great battle. A military adviser comes to the Golden Elephant King with a unique strategy: “The flying horse (knight) goes diagonally and stops at three (third line), the general moves all over the field, the wagon (rook) proceeds straight into the enemy’s territory, and soldiers should not move sideways.” The king follows the advice and the war is won in a day. Later, Cen digs up a board game, Xiangqi, that uses the same strategy put forth by the adviser.

Chinese Chess in Pingyao

Regardless of its origins, Xiangqi is undeniably a popular board game even to this day. It is in the same family as Western Chess and its play involves similar levels of strategy and forethought. Visitors to China can catch a glimpse of its play in parks and on street corners, with aunties and uncles absorbed in plans of attack just as their forebears were thousands of years before them.

Culture Trips launched in 2011 with a simple yet passionate mission: to inspire people to go beyond their boundaries and experience what makes a place, its people and its culture special and meaningful. We are proud that, for more than a decade, millions like you have trusted our award-winning recommendations by people who deeply understand what makes places and communities so special.

Our immersive trips, led by Local Insiders, are once-in-a-lifetime experiences and an invitation to travel the world with like-minded explorers. Our Travel Experts are on hand to help you make perfect memories. All our Trips are suitable for both solo travelers, couples and friends who want to explore the world together.

All our travel guides are curated by the Culture Trip team working in tandem with local experts. From unique experiences to essential tips on how to make the most of your future travels, we’ve got you covered.

Culture Trip Spring Sale

Save up to $1,656 on our unique small-group trips! Limited spots.

X
close-ad
Edit article