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Most people believe that Xiangqi and Shogi are variants of International Chess which was invented by the Indians in the 6th Century. This is simply not true. According to recent research, both Xiangqi and Backgammon evolved from an ancient Chinese game called Liubo that was invented some 3,500 years ago. Like Liubo, the modern Xiangqi consists of one general and five pawns, and the game is decided by the capturing of the general. Unlike Liubo, the moves of the modern Xiangqi are not determined by the roll of dice. The dice part of the game eventually evolved into another famous game, the Backgammon. Based on this revelation, Xiangqi predated both Shogi and International Chess, and the latter are obviously variants of the former instead.
There are two possible reasons why Xiangqi is called the Elephant Game (with Xiang meaning elephant and Qi meaning chess). First of all, the game pieces of general and pawns in Liubo were made of ivory. Since the games pieces were called Qi and ivory came from elephants, these pieces were called Xiangqi. Secondly, Chinese were known to incorporate elephants in military. The legendary Huang Di (>4000 years ago) allegedly had a fleet of elephants in his army. It was also recorded that elephants were used in combats during the Han Dynasty (approx. the time of Christ).
The term Xiangqi was mentioned repeatedly throughout literatures in the Chinese history. The first historical figure to be mentioned as playing Liubo (from which Xiangqi was evolved)was Emperor Shang Wu Yi. Zhou Mu Wang was also known to play Libo. In Zhao Hun of Chu Ci, the phrase "Qun Pi Xiangqi" was mentioned, and in Liu Xian's Shuo Yuan, Meng Changjun was described as playing Xiangqi and dancing with Lady Zheng.
During the Han Dynasty, a new game called GeWu or Saizhang emerged from Liubo making it one step closer to the rules of modern Xiangqi. The GeWu game was essentially the same as that of Liubo but without the use of dice. Like the modern Xiangqi, GeWu was a game of skill and not luck. Han Wu Dai was a great fan of GeWu and he established a Game Official position in his administration, just for that purpose.
By Tang Dynasty, we know that Xiangqi had evolved into a game with many game pieces (other than generals and pawns). Niu ZengYu of the Tang Dynasty mentioned a game called Xiang Xi in Xuan Qui Lu.
He wrote, 'according to the legend, in Ba Zhou of the Sichuan province, there lived a family who had two odd looking mandarins growing out of a mandarin-tree garden. Each mandarin was as big as a bowl, and inside were two old men playing 'Xiang Xi', a game with many different game pieces. Xuan Qui Lu did not describe the rules of the game, but mentioned that this incidence occurred during the Chen-Zhui period. Thus, this game, probably belonged to that of the BeiZhou Dynasty. Any rate, the term "Joy inside a mandarin" has been used as a nickname of Xiangqi for centuries.
During the Bei Zhou Dynasty, Emperor Wu (Di) summarized and improved on this popular game of Xiang Xi, and documented in an article called Xiang Jin. In the third year of Tian He (568 A.D.), he summoned all his officials and demonstrated his new version of the game. Unfortunately, both Xiang Jin and any artifacts of Xiang Xi had been lost. The above was recorded in Xiang Jin Xu by Wang Bao and Xiang Xi Fu, by Yu Shin. However, both of the literatures are scholiastic in nature and did not mention the rules nor the setup of the game. Based on the information, one can only deduce that Xiang Xi was played on an 8 by 8 board with square grids. There were the outside and the inside layers. The outside layer was subdivided into two layers with East, South, West, North, South-East, South-West, North-East, and North-West on the outside, which matches the Ba Gua on the inside. The inner layer (third layer from the outside) was comprised of 12 squares, one for each month. The game pieces consisted of gold, wood, water, fire, and earth, and were known as horses. Other pieces consisted of sun, moon and star, and were known as dragons. Horses were on the outside and dragons on the inside. The movements of the pieces were determined by the ying-yang of the wu shin (gold, wood, water, fire and earth) and ba gua, which directed the movements of the sun, moon, and star. Since wu shin all have their own nemesis, it's conceivable that the pieces could capture each other. However, dragons could not capture horses, much like 'rich should not mock the poor, and bend the rules', as mentioned in Xiang Jin Xu. Horses, on the other hand could be promoted to dragons, and vice versa, as alluded to in Xiang Jin Xu, 'promotions are rewarded to the righteous and demotion afflicted upon the evil.' Sun, moon and stars are often refered to as Xiang (Tian Xiang, or astronomy) which is the same character as elephant in Chinese. Together with horses (knights) as pieces, it's very possible that this is an early version of the of the modern Xiangqi...
Books of early Tang Dynasty, for example Yi Wen Lei Ju only mentioned the above game of Xiang Xi. However, during mid period of Tang Dynasty, the modern game of Xiang Qi began to take shape. Cen Shun of Xuan Qui Lu, provides an invaluable piece of information as far as the history of modern Xiang Qi is concerned.
In the story, Cen Shun, a native of Yu Nan, lived in a deserted house in Xia Zhou, in which he heard sounds like that of military drums every night. One night, he dreamt of a messenger from the Golden Elephant Kingdom, who told him that they would soon engage in a war against the Tian Na Kingdom, and invited Cen to watch. All of a sudden, the mouse hole at the foot of the wall became a gate of a castle, with two armies facing each other outside the castle. A military advisor came to the Golden Elephant King, informing him about the military strategy and said, '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 sideway.' The King agreed. Indeed, the drums sounded and a horse jumped three feet diagonally. The drums sounded again and a soldier marched side way one foot. The drums sounded a third time and the wagon rolls forward. Like this, the war lasted less than one day, and the Tian Na Kingdom was badly defeated, forcing the king to flee to the south-west. Cen's family members felt funny about the whole thing, dug open the mouse hole and found an ancient tomb. Inside the tomb was a game board full of game pieces made of gold and copper. They finally realized that so-called the military strategy given by the advisor, were the movements of game pieces of this game. This story happened in the first year of Bao Yin (762 A.D.)
The above article is similar to what's described in Xuan Xi Zhi, in which a new game and its
rules were introduced by a fairy tale, implying how the game was originated. From the story
of Cen Shun, one knows that during the Bao Yin period, the pieces bore the names of general,
wagon (rook), horse (knight), and pawn. Moreover, the horse moves diagonally, the wagon
moves forward and backward, the pawn moves one step at a time, and the general is free to
move all over the board. These rules are already very similar to that of the modern
Xiangqi. This version, known as the Bao Yin Xiangqi, is unmistakably an early form of the
Zeng Nian Chang recorded in Xu Cang Jing, 'Shen Nong invented (Tian) Xiang (astronomy) of sun, moon and stars, and Niu Zeng Yu of Tang Dynasty replaced Xiang with wagons, horses, general, advisors, pawns and cannons.' This took place during Emperor Tang Wen Zhong's reign in 839 A.D. At that time, Niu had once again become the Prime Minister of Tang
dynasty and was given the duty of laying down the rules of Xiangqi. The above seems to
imply that the modern Xiangqi was invented in 839 A.D. However, this contradicts the contents of Bai JuYi's Twenty Poems of Deep Spring written in 829 A.D. In the 16th poem, Bai mentioned
Xiangqi which was played with pawns and wagons as the fourth game behind Weiqi, and Liubo. From this, one can see that the modern Xiangqi was invented much earlier. With Niu's contribution in documenting the rules, it is not surprising that Niu was given the credit of inventing the game. This helped to shed light on Cen Shun's story. It was quite clear that the true inventor of the modern Xiangqi made up an interesting story about the ancient tomb to help spread the game. The game was then documented by Niu ZengYu after a few decades. By then, Xiangqi has already become more popular than the fairy tale which started the whole thing.
The Spread of Xiangqi
The early version of Bao Yin Xiangqi, laid down the foundations for the rules of the modern
Xiangqi during the Song Dynasty. The
bronze game pieces unearthed from the Song Dynasty
contains general, advisors (guards), elephants (ministers, or bishops), wagons (rooks),
horses (knights), cannon, and pawns. However, unlike the modern Xiangqi, each piece has a
picture carved onto the back. The general carries a sword dressed in his uniform, sitting in a
military tent. Guards were females, wearing armors. The ministers are literally elephants.
Rooks are wagons for transporting rocks for the rock-slingers. Knights are horses. Cannons
are actually rock-slinging machines. Pawns are depicted to hold spears. This set was
unearthed in Kai Feng in Beijing.
The documentation of Xiangqi was generally attributed to Niu ZengYu who was the Prime Minister
of Tang Dynasty. Did Niu name the game after Elephant which rhymes with the word Minister
(thus indirectly naming the game after himself) or is it just a coincidence; nobody
Cheng Jing of Bei Song (960-1126 A.D.) wrote a poem on Xiangqi called Xiang Xi Shi:
"Liu Bo and Xiangqi are the games of big cities, through Xiang Xi one can also learn military
strategy. Wagons and horses provide all around attacks, Minister and advisors are official titles
of the Han Dynasty. The wellbeing of the general inside the nine-space palace determines the
outcome of the game, pawns swiftly move across the river diagonally. Smiling in front of a Catalpa
Xiangqi table, even powerful leaders like Liu and Han can fight it out casually."
The poem mentions Generals (in both characters of general as in modern the game), Wagons, Horses,
and Pawns. The game differs from the previous version of Bao Yin Xiangqi in that the generals are
confined to palaces and pawns are allowed to step side way after crossing the river. (Although the
poem uses the word 'diagonally', it is generally agreed that in those day pawns don't physically
step diagonally, but appear to move diagonally after stepping side way.) The mentioning of Liu
(Bang) and Han (Yu) in the poem implies that the inscription of Chu He (Han Yu's territory) and
Han Jie (Liu Bang's territory) was probably quite popular at that time.
About the same time as Cheng Jing, Zhao Bu Zhi alluded to a game which he learned as a kid in
Guang Xiang Xi Xu, "The game is played on a 11 X 11 board with 32 game pieces and is very
inspiring." It mentions that the author tried to expand the game into 19 x 19 with 98 game pieces
to increase its complexity. From this, most people deduced that the board size in Bei Song
(960-1126 A.D.) was 11x11 and did not become the current size until some time in Nan Song
(1127-1279 A.D.). However, Lee Qing Zhao, who was about 30 years younger than Cheng Jing, attached
a Xiangqi board in her publication Da Ma Tu Jing that was identical to the modern board.
This contradicted Zhao Jing's writing. However since Lee actually showed the board, her account of
the board size tends to be more credible. Thus it is safe to conclude that the modern board size
was arrived at before the Bei Song Dynasty.
Let's look at how 32 game pieces can be arranged on a 11x11 board as suggested by Zhao Jing,
which seems puzzling. Having empty spaces next to the rooks will give Red (who plays first) a
tremendous advantage over the opponent in the deployment of the rooks and is almost impossible to
have a balance game. Moreover, the route of the Minister will be all over the place on a 11 x 11
board. Reading Guang Xiang Xi Xu carefully one realizes that the way the game was played
was to place pieces in-between the lines (like the Western Chess) instead of on the intersections.
Thus a board of 11 line x 11 lines, is only 10 x 10 physically. However, with a 10x10 board, it's
impossible to have a palace of nine-spaces in the center of the two sides. This lead to the
suspicion that Zhao was sloppy in his description of the board size; what he meant to say was a
board size of 10 x 11 (which is identical to the modern boards of 9x10). Otherwise, it is difficult
to explain the discrepancy between Lee and Zhao's accounts on the board size. One interest point
is that ancient Xiangqi was probably played with pieces in-between lines like the Western Chess and
did not convert to the current way until some time around the turn of the first millenium.
To be continued...
Copyright Yutopian Enterprises 1999