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  Beijing Scene

Beijing Scene, Volume 6, Issue 9, December 10 - 16


Hey Ayi,
The other day on my way to get some dumplings, I came across a huddle of people on the sidewalk. Judging from the intensity of their stares, I figured the object of their attention must be the remains of someone who learned about Beijing traffic the hard way. Upon closer inspection, it turned out to be nothing more than a Chinese chessboard. What is this game and why, pray tell, all the fanatic enthusiasm?
Sign me,
Mated in Four

Dear Mated,
Nothing more than a Chinese chessboard? Why the enthusiasm?! My dear laowai, Chinese chess is the most popular game in the world. Hundreds of millions of people play it in virtually every country in Asia. Here in Beijing, you would have to be living in a cave (or a Maizidian apartment) not to notice that everyone plays it everywhere all the time: alleys, sidewalks, shops, restaurants, day and night, rain or shine, guys and girls (okay, mostly guys), young and old.

Chinese chess (zhongguo xiangqi or simply xiangqi) literally translates to 'Chinese elephant chess,' rooting the game firmly in its battlefield metaphor. No one knows its precise origin except, like international chess (guoji xiangqi), it is believed to be a variation of a game that was first played in India. The first written record of Chinese chess dates back to the first century AD. Ask some local players, and they'll likely tell you some story about a large orange which, when peeled, revealed two elderly men playing chess. Old men playing chess in a piece of fruit - sounds profound, doesn't it?

With all the advice so freely offered by onlookers, games played on the street often leave the impression that as many people as can fit around the board can play a single game of Chinese chess. Nonetheless, xiangqi is a two-player game. The object of the game is to capture the opponent's king. There are many other similarities between international chess and its Chinese cousin. Each player is armed with 16 pieces; one king, two counselors, two bishops, two rooks, two knights, two cannons, and five pawns, all arranged on opposing sides of a 9 x 10 board in roughly the same scheme as that found in international chess. Furthermore, the king, rooks, bishops, knights and pawns move and capture opposing pieces in roughly the same manner as their western counterparts.

Typically, Chinese chess pieces take the form of squat wooden discs with a Chinese character indicating the type of piece emblazoned on each side. Aside from the color of the character (red or black) to distinguish one side from the other, different characters altogether are sometimes used to indicate the same type of piece, the allegiance of the piece determining the character used. A more fundamental difference between Chinese and international chess lies in the layout of the board. The board is divided across the middle by a 'river' that limits how certain pieces move. (Bishops may not cross the river and pawns can move side-to-side only after they cross the river.) In addition, the king and his two counselors must remain inside of a 3 x 3 'palace' located at the very back of each player's side of the board.

Another notable difference is the lack of a queen and the addition of cannons, pieces that can capture opponents only if there is an intervening piece to jump, or 'fire', over. All of these aspects contribute to perhaps the biggest difference between Chinese and international chess - strategy.

Chinese chess can be a fast and furious game, the outcome often hinging on one or two moves. Whereas its fast pace and short duration should appeal to newcomers to the chess world, the variation in pieces, board rules, and strategy makes Chinese chess a challenge even for the most seasoned of international chess players.

Since I'm feeling particularly magnanimous today, I'll even go so far as to help you get your own Chinese chess career started. First, you may want to get your own set. Many of Beijing's general stores carry a box set, costing about RMB8, comprised of small plastic pieces and a fold-up cellophane board. For classier types, a large set made completely of wood will easily reach the ?00 mark. Often the more expensive boards can be flipped over for a game of Go (weiqi), an altogether different and arguably subtler game of pure East Asian origin.

Once you have a set, or even if you don't have one, finding a teacher in Beijing should be easier than finding a bowl of rice. Just go up to almost anyone and politely explain your western ignorance of eastern entertainment. Your potential teacher will most likely be more than happy to take pity on you, and reveal the mysteries of China's favorite game to your simple foreign mind.

Once you've gotten the basics down you'll be encouraged to join the peanut gallery surrounding every game of Chinese chess played on the street. To get you started, a heartfelt, "You idiot! Now you'll lose for sure!" is always welcome in any game.

If you find yourself find truly bitten by the Chinese chess bug though, there are numerous parlors scattered around the city that provide a venue for playing a more serious game and even participating in the occasional competition.

There are also on-line Chinese chess games where you can play against opponents from around the world. Point your browser at http://www.chinesechess.com.
As for your Ayi, nothing can replace a good game of Chinese chess in the park right after my morning session of taijiquan. See you there!

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