|Cover Story| |FYI| |In short| |Best Bites| |Comrade| |Classifieds|
|Culture Scene| |Zhao le| |Ask Ayi| |Comics| |Back Issues| |Home|

China's best English language website and weekly newspaper


Hey Ayi, I don't suppose you know much about Western chess, but can you at least outline the rules of the Middle Kingdom¹s national game ­ Chinese chess? I keep watching people play on the street, but they play too quickly for me to learn the rules. Also, why do the players always smack the pieces down? Does this mean that they are about to lose? Sign Me, Pawn in Their Game

Dear Pawn,
First of all, young whippersnapper, don't jump to conclusions about what your ayi does and doesn't know. I happen to play a pretty mean game of Western chess as well as xiangqi or Chinese chess. I learned how to play from American running dog, uh I mean journalist Edgar Snow during long days in the caves of Yan'an. After a month I started beating the pants off him. A lovely man, Snow, he really understood us ChineseŠ

I'm glad you asked this question because I've been wanting to sound off on the subject for a while. You can learn a lot about a culture by observing the games it plays. While Western and Chinese chess may appear similar, they are actually quite different.

Both games have a king, but the piece has different roles. Historical Western kings are hegemonistic, sitting at the heads of invading armies and seeking to expand empires. So naturally, in Western chess, the king is like some fancy-pants dilettante who can move in any direction all over the board. In China, our emperors had more dignity and tended to remain sedentary. This is why the Chinese chess king stays in the palace surrounded by loyal courtiers (shi).

And while the courtiers may be in a similar position as the bishops of Western chess, they are different too. Chinese courtiers can only move one space diagonally and can't even leave the palace. Unlike disloyal Western bishops who run all over the board, Chinese courtiers exist only to please and protect the king.

Then there are the battle elephants (xiang). They move two spaces diagonally, and they cannot cross the river in the middle of the board. The Chinese invented gun powder, so naturally we have cannons (pao). These are the pieces that can jump over any other piece anywhere on the vertical or horizontal and kill any enemy. Our horses (ma) move pretty much the same way as Western knight pieces, but without all the flashy moves. Chinese chess horses cannot jump over any piece that is directly in front of them. Chariots (che) move in the same way as Western rooks do, mowing down the opposing units.

Soldiers (bing) are similar to pawns, but become braver on enemy soil. While only able to move one space forward in home territory, in enemy territory their innate understanding of Sunzi's Art of War makes them experts in guerrilla warfare. After crossing the river, they can move one space forward or side to side. Unlike your pawns, any of whom might turn into a queen after crossing the board, our soldiers are happy being simple warriors. There is no retreat from the soldiers¹ life: once they have reached the far side of the board, they can only move side to side.

Pre-Liberation Chinese women were, well, not liberated and so Chinese chess has no powerful female figures like the Western queen who can go anywhere on the board cutting off heads.

Now, sonny, before you go challenging old men in the park to play, there are a few more details you might want to know. In Western chess, there are only 20 possible opening moves. In our game, there are a lot more possible opening moves. This is because the pieces start all bunched up together in a loose collective, allowing for more than 50 opening moves. This reflects the freedom inherent in our 5000 year-old culture which had a collective society long before the term ³renmin gongshe² (peoples¹ commune) was ever conceived.

I hope that this little talking-to has given you enough insight to go out there and learn to play xiangqi yourself. Go get 'em, big nose. Oh, and as for why they're slapping their pieces down, it's probably because you're staring at them. Try offering them some cigarettes to break the ice.

Previous Stories

Sticks & Rice

Fun & Games

Ayi picks up Internet losers (and winners)

Traditional Chinese exercise

Flyin' high

Is the plural of abacus 'abuci'?


cartoon FYI In Short