An Illustrated History of Chess_________________5____
long-standing authority on chess history is H. J. R. Murray's
History of Chess, published in 1913. According to Murray,
chess began in Northern India, traveled from there to Persia,
and later, from Persia back eastward to China, and on to Korea
Murray's work was so intimidatingly huge — some
900 pages of text with passages in obscure languages and elaborate
footnotes in small print — that few have dared to reassess
his assumptions or conclusions — nearly 100 years later.
gradually, advances in research, archeology and world communication
are giving us tools to look at these questions anew. Without
being too quick to evaluate the evidence one way or the other,
let us take a brief look at a view of chess history that comes
from Chinese texts...
original chess was invented in China, right around 200 B.C.,
by a military commander named Hán Xin ("Hahn Sheen").
The game was designed to represent a particular battle, anticipated
by Hán Xin's troops as they waited out the winter holding
their ground. This first chess was called The game to capture
Xiang Qi, Xiang Qi being the name of the commander of the
opposing army. (This battle is well established in Chinese history.)
few years after his victory in this battle, Hán Xin fell
out of favor with the emperor, and his game became less popular,
or even forbidden, but was resurrected in the Tang Dyanasty
(7th through 10th centuries A.D.). At that time several new
rules came into effect...and variations of the game spread throughout
subsequent years, the name of the game was shortened to Xiang
Qi, hence xiangqi. The Chinese characters, xiang
and qi, also mean "elephant game," and this
became the most common interpretation, losing the original reference
to that ancient battle.
that's the short story of Chess originating in China. Probably
largely mythical. But let's take a microscopic look, and see how
a Chinese origin of chess answers one of the mysteries of the
pieces. I speak of the mystery of The Elephant.
The advisor naturally blocks an attack
from the enemy chariot.
chess began, as we were saying, in China, there was no elephant.
The commander (our "king") had an advisor (later two of
these) who could simply block him from attack by stepping diagonally
in front of him. Like the President's number one Secret Service
man, if you'll excuse the American allusion.
Later, during the innovations of the Tang Dynasty, another guarding
piece was added. Fitting with the Chinese tradition, it had slightly
different names on the two opposing sides: the Minister on one side
(a high official), and the official Translator (or foreign minister)
on the other side. This piece had the logical move of the piece
which stands next to the Advisor. Since he stands one more space
away from the Commander, he moves two spaces diagonally,
once again, able to jump in line as a blocker, in front of the Commander.
The minister/elephant is also
neatly positioned to block an attack.
all blockers, perfectly aligned
there were two of these, and the Commander and his blockers enjoyed
a neat symmetry.
A logical, geometrically perfect, arrangement.
Then thing got messy. The word for foreign minister, "xiang,"
(say this word, "shyahng") can historically be translated
into some 200 meanings, the most common of which was elephant.
And since the piece stood next to another animal — a
horse — the elephant identity began to stick,
even though the same piece in the opposing camp was obviously a
person, a minister (also, incidentally, pronounced "xiang").
"xiang" the foreign minister
or the elephant
"xiang" the minister
The symmetry has been broken.
the move of the elephant in
when chess was taken from China to Persia and India, it was adapted
to India's popular game board, the ashtapada, a board of 8 x 8
squares. The Commander's (King's) central position was lost, as
was the symmetry of his flanking army. The Ministers lost their
neat symmetrical coverage of the Commander, and they lost the
original meaning of their name, as the name "elephant"
was the translation that stuck.
throughout Persia, northern India, across the Muslim world, and
into medieval Europe came a game of chess with a piece called
"elephant" (Arabic al fil), with a most un-elephant-like
A true story? Chess history buffs the world over wish that a
comprehensive cross-cultural, multi-lingual modern archeological
investigation would give us some solid answers. In the meantime,
this view of chess history holds a certain charm, a clear logic...and
a long tradition. But when we look back to the earliest chess
writings, we have to admit it's hard to tell legacy from legend.
thing we know for certain is that the Chinese branch of chess
has spread to large sections of the eastern world, and we can
see its influences in nearby lands. So let's look at something
a little different...
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