IT’S an ever-present scene in China. As you stroll down a quiet alley, wander in a public park or pass a private courtyard with the door open, you’ll likely spot people playing a board game on a table, a bench or just on the ground. And more often than not, there will be a group of onlookers hovering over the two players, offering free advice and commentary on every move the players make.
The game being played is likely none other than xiangqi or Chinese Chess, a passtime with more than two millennia of history.
Xiangqi, which means literally “elephant game” or “image game,” is a two-player strategy board game. It was first mentioned in “Chu Ci” or “Songs of Chu,” an anthology of Chinese poetry compiled in the 4th century BC.
The exact origins of xiangqi have always been contentious. Some scholars believe that Chinese Chess is a variation on International Chess, a game invented in India in the 6th Century BC. Others posit the opposite: that xiangqi came first.
British Sinologist Joseph Needham (1900-1995) believed that divination could be a common origin of the world’s various ancient games, with Chinese divination techniques leading the way for versions of chess that developed elsewhere.
Also, Pavle Bidev (1912-1988), a Yugoslav philosopher, historian, Orientalist and noted chess player, also deduced that it was the Chinese game of chess that was the progenitor of all the world’s chess traditions.
David H. Li, who has written about Chinese history and chess who now lives in the United States, thinks xiangqi was invented by Chinese General Han Xin in 203 BC. In his book, “The Genealogy of Chess,” which won the Book of the Year award in 1998 from GAMES Magazine, Li suggests that Han combined his game with some rules from an earlier game called liubo and ancient Chinese military strategies.
Li even suggests that Han’s game, or xiangqi, was later brought to Persia and India via the Silk Road and evolved into various forms of shatranj and chaturanga. It was also introduced into countries such as Korea and Japan, becoming the prototype for shogi and janggi. However, Li’s theory has been frequently challenged by other scholars.
In fact, even the name of xiangqi has different explanations. In Chinese, xiang means elephant and qi is chess. It’s been theorized that the reference to elephants is either because the game pieces of were originally made of ivory, or because elephants were used in ancient warfare.
According to a Chinese legend, xiangqi was once also related to the oranges, the citrus fruit. It’s said that eons ago, there was a farmer growing oranges in today’s Sichuan Province, in southwest China. One day, when he was harvesting his fruit, the farmer found two unusually large oranges. He immediately brought them home.
But after he cut them open, he found two old men with long grey hairs and beards playing chess inside each of the fruits. One of the old men said that since their game of xiangqi was suddenly interrupted by the farmer, they had to leave. The next moment, the old men quickly ascended into the sky riding small dragons. Since then, xiangqi has also been called the Orange Game.
According to historical records, however, modern xiangqi did not take shape until the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907); and after two more sets of pieces were added to the game during the Song Dynasty (AD 960-1279), it eventually became the game we see today.
The rules of the game are rather simple, but the various strategies and moves involved are too numerous to be counted. That helps explain why xiangqi is such a popular board game in China, loved by people from all walks of life, old or young.
In recent decades, Chinese Chess has begun to interest players in other parts of the world. Many counties now have their own xiangqi leagues and clubs. The First World Xiangqi Championship took place in Singapore in 1990 and now it is held every two years.
Like many other games, Chinese Chess is now also played online, especially among younger generations.
But most people in China still love to play it in parks, streets, alleys and courtyards.