An Illustrated History of Chess

  1 Origins
  2 Early Chess

  3 Thailand, Burma
  4 China

  5 From China?
  6 Korea
  7 Japan
  8 Evolution
  9 Europe
  10 Variants

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An Illustrated History of Chess

Take a look at this game.>

Xiangqi ("shyang-chee") is the chess of China. A pretty strange sight if you're used to playing western chess. Little wooden pucks inscribed with Chinese characters, sitting not on the squares, but on the intersections of lines, like go stones...

a typical xiangqi (Chinese chess) set, ready to play
xaingqi, ready to play
how the xiangqi (Chinese chess) pieces are laid out on the board
the initial array of xiangqi

...The board is divided by a big open space in the middle; there are strange X's on each side of the board. If you look carefully, you'll see that some of the weird Chinese characters on one side don't even match their mirrored counterparts on the other side...

Is this really chess?

The mere foreign appearance of this game has turned western players — and sometimes scholars — away from learning the nature of this game...for centuries! But a small introduction to this game clearly shows that it is as much a member of the original family of chess games as the one we know and love.

Let's look at the pieces. The one in the corner moves exactly like the rook in ancient and modern chess. It's character indicates a wheeled vehicle (in war, a chariot), just like the rook (rukh) from the ancient Persian game.

The line-up of pieces, though foreign in appearance,
is similar to that of other forms of chess.

the chariot (rook) of xiangqi (Chinese chess) chariot

the horse (knight) of xiangqi (Chinese chess) horse

the elephant (bishop) of xiangqi (Chinese chess) elephant, the minister (bishop) of xiangqi (Chinese chess) minister

the advisor, or guard (queen)  of xiangqi (Chinese chess) advisor

the general (king) of xiangqi (Chinese chess) general, the governor (king) of xiangqi (Chinese chess) governor.

the foot soldier (pawn) of xiangqi (Chinese chess) foot soldiers the foot soldier (pawn) of xiangqi (Chinese chess)


The piece next to it is, of course, a horse. The four little dots in this character indicate the horse's four feet. It also moves just like the ancient Persian piece, and like the modern western piece. One small difference: it can be blocked by a piece in its way.

The next piece is an elephant (as in the Persian game) on one side, and a minister on the other. It moves like the elephant in the Persian game (but this piece too can be blocked).

Next is the familiar advisor, with the familiar move of one space (or one point) diagonally.

In the center is a general or governor (it is said that the king or emperor does not belong on the battle field — or, symbolically, on a board game).

In the front row, we have two types of foot soldiers, slight variations from the pawns we know so well.

Oh, and one more piece: a cannon. This is an oddity. A sort of a rook which leaps to capture. It's a more recent innovation...just a few centuries old.

So...what's the long space in the middle of the board? That's the river. It's ignored by most of the pieces, but impassable by the elephant (or minister), and the pawn gains in power when it crosses into enemy territory. And what's the X on each side? A fortress to which the general or governor (the "king") is confined, with his advisors. (It makes him easier to get!)

You can see that, cultural oddities aside, this game is a very slight deviation from the forms of chess we've already looked at.

Now here's the big news: Chinese Chess is probably played by more human beings than any other board game in the world — including go (weiqi, "way-chee" in Chinese), and including our beloved western "international" chess. There are just so many Chinese people — and the game is so popular among them!

But here's the big question: How are these games related, in the misty depths of antiquity? Read on...

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