1,000-year old bronze chess pieces unearthed from Chengdu
1,000-year-old bronze chess pieces unearthed from Chengdu

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

Weiqi (Go) - Game of Siege
Weiqi (Go) – Game of Siege

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

Chinese chess board
Chinese chessboard

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.

A Chinese chess game by the West Lake in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province. Each chessman is a real man or woman.

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).

9 thought on “A Brief Introduction to Chinese Chess”
  1. The glyph for the blue is wrong.

    It should be 象 Elephant and not 相 Minister.

    Chinese chess is called 象棋 Elephant Game. To point to India as the source.

    Otherwise, it would be called what the Japanese call 將棋, Shogi, The Game of the Shogun 將軍, The Game of the General, as the General 將 is the center piece of the game.

  2. “Go (Weiqi or Game of Siege),”

    Go 圍棋, means The Surrounding 囗 game 棋. 囗 is the picto-semantic part of the glyph.

    Go is not metaphysical. Go is a geo-political game. It looks exactly like the trench warfare of World War 1. And one side has to fight on both fronts.

    Chess, Western and Chinese are militaristic games, which came from Indian chess. They have nothing to do with society.

  3. Chaturanga is the common ancestor of Chinese Chess and Western Chess. Chinese Chess is closer to its Indian ancestor than Western Chess.

    1. When Alexander The Great led his army arrived and conquered the myriads of small kingdoms in a sub-continent known today as India, he thought he had reached the end of the world and didn’t realise there was a powerful super-kingdom beyond the Himalaya mountain range. Many historians fancy what might occur if the army of Alexander The Great met the warriors of First Emperor Qin.
      Clearly before Han Dynasty there was hardly any interaction between the people in the both sides of Himalaya, while Chinese chess gained popularity during the Warring States era. Go figure.

  4. You seem to know a lot about chess, you should write an e-book on it or something. An excellent read. I will certainly be back.

    1. Hello columbia, thanks for your suggestion. I’m reasonably good at Chinese Chess but not a master on Weiqi, and I don’t think I can offer many useful advices on how to play and win the games. The best I can do is to provide a short introduction for those who know nothing about these Chinese mind sports 😉

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