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

Murray's A History Of ChessThe long-standing authority on chess history is H. J. R. Murray's A 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 and Japan.

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.

But 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...

Consider This:

The 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.)

A 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 the world.

In 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.

So, 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.

xiang "elephant"...

move of the early advisor or guard in xiangqi (Chinese chess)
The advisor naturally blocks an attack
from the enemy chariot
When 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.

move of the early advisor or guard, and elepahnt or minister, in xiangqi (Chinese chess)
The minister/elephant is also neatly positioned to block an attack.

neat symmetry of the advisors and elephants in xiangqi (Chinese chess)
all blockers, perfectly aligned
Later, 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 elephant or foreign minister in xiangqi (Chinese chess) "xiang" the foreign minister
or the elephant

xiang, the minister in xiangqi (Chinese chess) "xiang" the minister

 the broken symmetry of the advisor and elephants in shatranj (ancient Persian chess)
The symmetry has been broken.

the peculiar move of the elephant (bishop) in ancient chess
the move of the elephant in
Persian/Arabic/Medieval chess

Then, 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.

So 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 move.

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.

One 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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