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,
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
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
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!