History of Xiangqi…

To begin with, most agree that the current form of Xiangqi was established in the Southern Song Dynasty ( AD 1127–1279). Evidence for this is found in a poem by Liu Kechuang 刘克庄 (AD1187-1269). In his poem which was a gift to a friend and fellow Xiangqi player, he described the board, the pieces, how they moved and even offered a simple strategy to playing the game. The title of his poem was <<象弈一首,呈叶潜仲>> which translated directly means, a poem about Xiangqi, for my good friend Ye Qianzhong. The poem was collected from <<后村先生大全集>><<四部丛刊>> Volume 5. Distinction from Go, was made by Liu by calling the game Xiangyi 象弈. One point to note is that he described the use of the cannon which is found exclusively in Xiangqi.   

Further evidence of Xiangqi being already well established in the Song Dynasty is found in a buddhist scripture by a monk called 与咸 Yu Xian, The title for the scripture was 《梵网经菩萨戒本疏》 volume 8. In it, Yu Xian mentioned a game called 波罗塞戏 Bo luo sai xi. The chess board, the river, the various pieces including the cannon were all clearly described. And Yu Xian lived about half a century earlier than Liu.  

Xiangqi slowly grew in popularity and flourished in the Qing dynasty where many Xiangqi manuals were written. In the early 20th century, it continued to grow at a much faster pace. Sun Yatsen and Zhou Enlai were both fervent players of the game. Xiangqi entered another era toward the end of the 20th century with the game played at a another higher level.

However, the term Xiangqi 象棋first appeared much earlier. Perhaps the earliest record or mention is found in a verse in <<楚辞. 招魂>> by the patriotic poet屈原 Qu Yuan (1046-255BC). Qu yuan lived in the Chou dynasty (1046-255BC). And for those who do not know, Qu Yuan killed himself by jumping into a river. He was well respected in his time and people threw dumplings made of glutinous rice into that very river, hoping that the fishes would not eat his body. That gave birth to the dumpling festival, which is still celebrated today. 

象棋also appeared in <<說苑>> which was a collection of poems in the Han dynasty (206BC-221AD). But the controversy starts here. 

There are basically two different views to the origins of Xiangqi prior to the Song dynasty. HJR Murray believes that Xiangqi originated from Chaturanga and spread into China. David H. Li claims that Xiangqi existed much earlier and was developed by General Han Xin, to train his troops and prepare them for war and gives the date of invention as BC 203. According to him, Xiangqi was disseminated into Persia and India via the Silk Road. 

The first school of thought maintains that Xiangqi originated from the Indian game of Chaturanga which also gave birth to International chess. This is based mainly on the work by Harold James Ruthven Murray, or HJR Murray. Murray was an elementary school teacher by profession. “ A history of Chess” and “ A short history of Chess” were both published in the early 20th century. This thesis is still widely accepted in the West. 

David H. Li on the other hand is an accountant and has enjoyed an academic career as a professor. He has also translated Confucius’s Analects, Sun Tzu’s Art of War and Dao De Jing. His book “ The Genealogy of Chess”, was published in the 1990’s and seems to be endorsed by most Chinese historians and Sam Sloan. 

The arguments put forward by both sides are interesting but neither have had serious archeological findings to support their theory or to disprove the other. And it is beyond the scope of this website to give a ruling. For those interested, hyperlinks have been given below.

So, which came first, the chicken or the egg? I do not know. What I do know is that I like eating both chicken and eggs…Perhaps one day, there will be an archaeological find that would tell us the answer. Until then, let us continue playing Xiangqi. 

Last updated: 3am 20th March 2011 


1. In English, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Xiangqi

2. In Chinese, <<象棋入门>> by 李浭 & 马正福

3. In English, Chinese chess for Beginners by Sam Sloan.

4. In English,  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Xiangqi

5. In English, interview with David H Li, http://www.chessbase.com/newsdetail.asp?newsid=2455   

6. In English, archaeological findings of Xiangqi pieces, http://primaltrek.com/xiangqi.html

7. In English a pdf version of the Chess of China by Dennis A. Leventhal http://www.banaschak.net/pdf/thechessofchina.pdf 

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