In the ancient city Chengdu, the provincial capital of Sichuan, 30 bronze Chinese chess pieces were recently unearthed from a tomb dating back to the period between Tang and Song dynasties about a thousand years ago.
Chinese Chess is one of the two major traditional Chinese chess games, along with Go (Weiqi or Game of Siege), and usually has 32 pieces.
The earliest form of Chinese Chess can be traced back to the Warring States era when military strategists used small pieces made of whatever material was available to visualize the potential battlefield situation.
The Difference between Go and Chinese Chess
The most obvious difference between Go and Chinese Chess is the colour.
In Weiqi, the two sets are marked in black and white, while in Chinese Chess, they are distinguished by the colours red and green.
Weiqi (Go) is a pure yin-yang dual forces oriented and siege and counter-siege-focused game, and the conflict between the two parties is at a more fundamental, metaphysical and transcendent level. For this reason, the game has always been favoured by intellectuals.
Chinese Chess, on the other hand, simulates earthly conditions, therefore is relatively easier to understand and manoeuvre, hence is more popular among the wide populations.
But the biggest difference is the rules governing the position of each piece on the board (the battlefield in particular and the world in general).
In Weiqi, all pieces are basically the same and equal with the potential to be anything they endeavour to be. They are contests taking place in a spiritual realm.
In Chinese Chess, the position and the capacity of each piece are predetermined, which means they are not born equal.
Chinese Chess and Chinese Social Reality
The difference between the individual pieces in Chinese Chess is actually not based on a hierarchical structure but on the unique way that each piece moves (acts). A soldier can checkmate the general (equivalent to the king in Western Chess) when it is in the right place.
It wonderfully reflects classic Chinese society. It was a fluent social ranking system, quite different from that in classic Europe. China abolished a rigid aristocratic social structure solely based on birthright nearly 2,000 years ago, and Chinese people never had a problem accepting a peasant emperor, as they traditionally believed any man could become a minister or general.
A telling example is the position of footsoldiers (兵 and 卒) at the bottom level of the ranking.
Footsoldiers in Chinese Chess have an opportunity to be transformed into “Chariot”, the most powerful pieces in the game that can destroy whatever rival pieces in their way.
But there are catches.
Firstly, you as a footsoldier will need to cross the border to arrive in the enemy territory prior to activating the possible transformation;
Secondly, unlike the “Chariot” by birth who could conduct long-range attacks (like launching a missile) against anything in its sight (on the same line), you’ll have to engage in body combat, so there is a high chance you could be neutralised before you get close to your target;
Finally and most importantly, you are not allowed to step back. Either progress or die.
Chinese Chess reflects a social reality of China (as West Chess reflects the social reality of classic Europe) that is hierarchical but transformable. From the Daoist point of view, such a reality is still highly conditioned, therefore they much prefer a more transcendent reality, and its reflection in the game Weiqi (Go).