Introduction to the Xiangqi (Chinese Chess) Opening

Bonzai 01The Xiangqi Opening is a mammoth topic whereby most Xiangqi enthusiasts immediately try to learn more about it. There is a saying in Chinese, "A good start would put you halfway on the path to success" (好的开始是成功的一半 hǎo de kāi shǐ shì chéng gōng de yī bàn) which sums up the importance of the Xiangqi opening nicely.

Visitors new to Xiangqi are encouraged to read the article found under the Xiangqi basics section to have a rough idea of what Xiangqi openings are. If you have already had strong fundamentals in the Basic Kills and the Endgame, this section would be the place to continue your journey.

As with the entire website, the WXF recommendations will be used first and foremost.

Overview of the Xiangqi Opening

The discipline of Xiangqi Openings is so huge that the Webmaster cannot cover it in one short article. It can be divided into the following topics for discussion:

Note:

Because of the scope of the content, the following topics will be presented as separate articles:

 

A Brief History of Xiangqi Openings

The history of Xiangqi openings is very much related to the history of Xiangqi itself. It can be divided into three eras.

A) Infant stage

In the late Northern Song dynasty, Xiangqi finally took to its current form. From this period till the late Ming Dynasty, the main opening for Red was the central cannon. "The 18 Stances of the Golden Roc" or 《金鹏十八变》 (later to be collected and assimilated into the Elegant Pastime Manual 《适情雅趣》 ) evolved around the Same Direction Cannons (ranked chariot vs. filed chariot, filed chariot vs. ranked chariot), and the Major and Minor Variations of the Opposite Direction Cannons. Both were Central Cannon Openings. There was also limited discussion on the Central Cannon vs. Single Horse Defense, Central Cannon vs. Elephant-eye Horse (中炮对转角马 zhōng pào duì zhuǎn jiǎo mǎ), the Horse opening vs. Central Cannon, Elephant Opening vs. Central Cannon et cetera.
The general conclusion was that the Central Cannon was invincible, both as a Red Opening and Black counter. Indeed, there was a verse from a Xiangqi poem that went:

"Placing the Cannon at the center to start the game would be better than most other moves起炮在中宫,比诸局较雄 qǐ pào zài zhōng gōng bǐ zhū jú jiào xióng)."
At this stage, the study of openings was more concerned with the checkmate technique and simple tactics. It had a style that was quite romantic.

B) Developmental stage

Boat by shore 01This stage can be said to have started in the Qing dynasty and ended before the founding of modern-day China in the 1950s. The battle of Xiangqi was now focused on the central cannon vs. the screen horse defense. There were supporters for each opening, and their argument went back and forth for centuries. The most influential book on this opening was Wang Zaiyue's Plum Flower Manual (《梅花谱》 (清) 王再越 wáng zài yuè), which was the first major publication to show that the Screen Horse Defense was able to defeat the mighty Central Cannon. This breakthrough gave birth to another era of Xiangqi Openings and also spurned interest in other openings.
By this time, the level of play of Xiangqi had greatly improved and coupled with the innate characteristics of the Screen Horse Defense, strategical formations with brilliant tactical plays could be seen more often, and complicated positions soon appeared.

One of the most striking differences from Xiangqi in the Ming Dynasty was that instead of flashy checkmate kills found in the Ming dynasty manuals; the play became more subtle.
Toward the late Qing dynasty (last 19th century to 1930s), professional Xiangqi players started to appear, and their appearance had a profound impact on Xiangqi. The records of the games that they had played could attest to this. During the publications around this period, it could be seen that there were newer forms of Central Cannon vs. Screen Horse Defense, which would serve as the fundamentals of modern-day Xiangqi Openings. The depth and breadth of the Opening Systems discussed in the Qing Dynasty Manuals also saw a steep increase.  
The foundations for the study of Xiangqi openings were now firmly laid.

C) Prosperous stage

After China was unified, the Sports Department of the Peoples Republic of China listed Xiangqi as an official sporting event and organized annual championships. Xiangqi scaled new heights.

Growing from the foundations laid in the previous stage, Xiangqi players and analysts alike pumped in more effort, breathing more life into the openings. Variation and sub-variations appeared one after another, and they also became much more exquisite.

Although the Central Cannon vs. Screen Horse Defense opening system is still the most commonly played opening, other opening systems have caught up. The Same Direction Cannons, the Opposite Direction Cannons, the Sandwiched Horse Defense, the Three Step Tiger, the Pawn Opening, the Elephant Opening, the Horse Opening et cetera have had their place in tournaments. Often a series of wins by a Xiangqi grandmaster or expert would set trends, and the whole Xiangqi world will follow. There is a sense of excitement and vibrancy, as many new worlds were opened.

In this era, the emphasis was on the rules and theory of the openings. After much effort from professionals and amateurs alike, there was an explosion in the volume of Xiangqi openings. Substantial advancements were also seen in basic opening tenets, and the study of Xiangqi openings was more scientifically oriented and practical.

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Trying to Define the Boundaries of the Opening Phase in Xiangqi

It is very hard to define the boundaries of the Opening Phase in Xiangqi. However, the general consensus is that the Xiangqi Opening would refer to the first 20-30 plies by both players. (1).

However, in some of the commonly played variations, the moves as far as 50 plies by both players have been studied in detail. Indeed, if you were to see the games played by the Masters and Grandmasters that have been uploaded by the Webmaster, you would find certain patterns.

Although there is no clear definition as to when the opening phase has ended, there are several characteristics that can identify to mark the transition into mid-game.

They are: (2) (3)

  1. all or most of the major pieces have already moved at least once, and the chariot would often have moved at least twice or thrice,
  2. there is a distinct attack or defending formation,
  3. the intention to attack or defend is clear, and
  4. there is contact with enemy pieces.

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Goals of the Xiangqi Opening

For Red, the main goal of the Xiangqi Opening is to gain an advantage going into the midgame phase. Attempting a checkmate would rarely be successful.

For Black, the main goal would be to try to seize the initiative from Red.

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An Overview of the Classification of the Xiangqi

Drums with Xiangqi characters inscribed 02The Classification of the Xiangqi Opening system is very different from that of International Chess. Instead of using the names for places, people, or objects, the classification of Xiangqi Openings is more of a description of the formations used.

There are several reasons for this:

  • The low Density of Firepower and the presence of natural open lines for development would emphasize the rapid development of material. (see the article on Comparing Xiangqi and International Chess).
  • The Xiangqi chessboard and the array are symmetrical, which allows for symmetrical positions.
  • It is very easy to arrive at the same position through a different but logical set of moves.

The first move has perhaps the greatest impact on one's game. Xiangqi openings are categorized according to what Red makes for the first move. In general, there are four main opening moves for red:

  • the Central Cannon Opening (C2=5 by default)
  • the Horse Opening (H2+3 by default),
  • the Pawn Opening (P7+1/P3+1 by default, although P7+1 appears in most books, ECCO set P3+1 by default),
  • the Elephant (E3+5 by default).

As Red starts the game by default, he has the choice to choose the opening, and he would usually play one of the moves, as mentioned above.
Black counters Red' s opening for his first move, and that would be known as Black's counter. Commonly played counters would include the Screen Horse Defense, Same Direction Cannons, Sandwiched Horse Defense, Single Horse Defense for Red's Central cannon opening. If red chose to start the game with the pawn opening, the Thundering Cannon, Elephant, Horse, Cross Palace Cannon, or Pawn counter, etc., would be used.
The openings can be further subclassified according to the major sub-variations. For example, the Central Cannon vs. Screen Horse Defense opening system can be further subclassified into Central Cannon with 7th Pawn Advancement vs. Screen Horse Defense, Central Cannon, with 3rd Pawn Advancement vs. Screen horse defense, etc.

Further classification of these sub-variations would lead to the various popular openings that we use today. For example, one of the most commonly played openings would be the Central Cannon with 7th Pawn Advancement with Pawn Ranked Chariot vs. the Screen Horse Defense with 7th Pawn Advancement with Edge Cannon for Chariot Exchange variation.

Another commonly played opening would be the 57 Cannons vs. Screen Horse Defense with 7th Pawn Advancement etc...

The Webmaster had chatted with International Master Chao Ifan recently, and he estimated that there are about 300 commonly played lines that can be seen in tournaments. Based on the sub-variations given in opening books that the Webmaster has, the Webmaster believes it to be a rather accurate estimate.

Palace architecture in Henan 03Given the scope of Xiangqi openings, some experts have used the following terms to describe the different nature of various openings and their variations: 

  • Rapid attack opening 急攻型 jí gōng xíng
  • Slow attack opening 缓攻型 huǎn gōng xíng
  • Bilateral attack opening 对攻型 duìgōng xíng
  • Steadfast opening 稳健型 wěn jiàn xíng
  • Trendy opening 新潮型 xīn cháo xíng
  • Rare openings 冷门型 lěng mén xíng
  • Popular opening 流行型 liú xíng xíng
  • Scattered opening 散手型 sǎn shǒu xíng
  • Defense Oriented Opening= 防御型开局 fang yù xíng kāi jú
  • Rebound Opening= 反弹型开局 (fǎn tán xíng kāi jú) an opening whereby it is defensive at first but quickly takes on a more offensive stance, e.g., Sandwiched Horse Defense,
  • Symmetrical Opening = 对称型 duì chèn xíng
  • Closed opening = 内线布局 nèi xiàn bù jú (An opening whereby you do not attack at first. Instead, the initial formation is set up whereby you wait for the enemy chess pieces to come into your territory before you use various tactics to eliminate them).

Openings are described in such a manner for subjective reasons. Some openings are classified so because a certain critical move would force the game into a specific direction or have an effect on the pace of the game

However, as the play progresses, the character of the opening would change so that it could be a combination of the above few. So, this classification would also have its flaws, and it is up to the reader to discern which classification is best.
Lastly, there is another classification system that is more concerned with the habits of players when playing a particular opening. It has its practical advantages and is very precise and systematic: the ECCO system. ECCO is the acronym for "Encyclopedia of Chinese Chess Openings," which was made based on the ECO system for international chess. This classification is used on the major Xiangqi viewers and remains the preferred classification available thus far.

A separate article has been set aside for explaining the ECCO system.

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How to Learn the Xiangqi Opening

A beginner interested in learning Xiangqi would often face the same problem of knowing what to learn for the opening. One would face different openings all the time. Over time, one may become discouraged from losing too many times, and some would eventually give up on the game itself.

How to learn the opening is a big issue. Learning the Xiangqi opening must be done efficiently before one could have a feel or rough idea of a particular opening. There has been much advice written on how to learn the opening. Still, in this section, the Webmaster has chosen to focus on the advice given by Grandmaster Liu Dianzhong and Master Huang Shaolong in their books, and from a passage written by Grandmaster Zhao Xinxin on his blog. They have been assimilated into a general guideline below.

According to Grandmaster Zhao, learning the Xiangqi opening should be focused on the following three goals: (4)

  • Know openings that others do not know.
  • If your opponent knew the same opening or particular variation, be sure to know that same opening in finer, deeper detail.
  • If your opponent would know the same opening or particular variation deeply, be creative and bold, create new variations.

According to Grandmaster Zhao, if you were able to perfect your opening to such a state, then can it be called a first-class opening.

To learn the opening and meet the goals mentioned above, Grandmaster Zhao advocated the following learning process:

Start with the tabia.

These must be learned, understood, and memorized.

Focus on one opening or variation.

It would be like choosing a weapon to master. Wanting to learn all the openings and their variations when you are just starting in Xiangqi is impractical and even detrimental. As the saying goes, "Better to be a master of one trade than be a Jack of all trades. "

Choose a practical and conventional opening.

Conventional and orthodox openings have stood the test of time. While unconventional or unorthodox openings may seem flashy and interesting, they are easily dissolved if one knew how to counter. Also, do not learn any new opening because others were doing so. Choosing to spend much time to learn an opening on a whim is also not advisable and would be an inefficient way to master the opening. Be systematic and stick to the same path until you master a particular opening very well.  

Be sure that you are very familiar with the various variations and sub-variations of that opening you chose.

But what is meant by being familiar with that opening? Being familiar would mean that one would know what every move meant after being played. Master Huang went even further to define being familiar as knowing the variations and sub-variations for the first 12 plies of that particular system.

There are many advantages to doing so. If you were familiar with an opening, and if your opponent tried a new variation or sub-variation, you could immediately judge or have a rough idea of whether it was a good or bad move. Also, it would be natural for you to understand the principles, strengths, and weaknesses of your opening, and that, in turn, would deepen your understanding of your opening overall.

Over time, being very familiar with a particular opening variation would lead you into levels of play that you'd never thought existed.

Learn some flying daggers

Flying daggers is Xiangqi's counterpart for an opening novelty. Knowing some flying daggers would allow the beginner to use them on unsuspecting opponents and also prevent themselves from falling into the same trap. Flying daggers can be found in books and various articles.

Be practical in your goals.

Do not say, "I am going to master the Central Cannon." That would be next to impossible. There are too many variations and sub-variations to understand and memorize. Rather, be specific. For example, instead of wanting to master the central cannon, think of wanting to learn the edge cannon for chariot exchange variation, or the same direction cannons et cetera.

Remember, it would be most likely for a beginner to lose in the opening. While losing is not a pleasurable experience, it is not necessarily bad. Think of it as a process that one must go through to be an expert. After all, there is the saying that "Every master was once a disaster."

After 'mastering' a particular variation, one should experiment with other openings. If you have had already learned one opening very well, the same principles will apply, with mild technical modifications here and there. That is why Grandmaster Zhao advised focusing on one opening as if you knew the tricks and details well; they could be applied to other openings as Xiangqi is trans-positional in nature. For example, if you have learned the Central Cannon with 3rd Pawn Advancement well, you could play the Pawn opening and then play the central cannon variation, as mentioned. Given the presence of very powerful Xiangqi programs nowadays, it would be easy to learn these new opening variations.

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How the section on Xiangqi Openings will be presented on this site

Gardens by the Bay Singapore 03The Webmaster will try to present each opening in as simple terms as possible and categorize them according to the ECCO system, even though ECCO has its inadequacies.
It is still the best system on Xiangqi openings that the Webmaster knows, to date, and the ONLY decent one that is present. http://www.xqbase.com/ecco/ecco_intro.htm is the URL for those interested, though it is completely in Chinese. Click here to download an English translation that the Webmaster has done.

As mentioned in the section on Ancient Manuals, it would be worthwhile to go through the variations shown in the various ancient manuals.

For more advanced players, the Webmaster will slowly add the flying daggers (飞刀 fēi dāo, which is the equivalent of novelties) over time.

First Created: April 2011
Last updated: Aug 2020
Acknowledgments: Georg Jeiter for his invaluable help on ECCO, and for reminding me to make the correct links.

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References

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2. 刘, 殿中. 象棋新编课程 象棋布局精要. 北京 : 北京体育大学出版社, 2000. 7-81051-486-5/G.416.

3. Png, Jim Hau Cheng. Lexicon of Xiangqi (Chinese Chess) Terms in English. Taipei : Jim Png Hau Cheng, 2017. 978-957-43-4707-0.

4. 赵, 鑫鑫. 开局学习四部曲. 每日头条. [Online] Sep 15, 2019. [Cited: Aug 14, 2020.] https://kknews.cc/zh-tw/sports/346qzoo.html.

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6. 王, 国栋, 方, 士庆 and 李, 燕贵. 跟我学象棋 初级教程. 成都 : 成都时代出版社, 2010. 978-7-80705-517-4.

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8. 金, 启昌 and 刘, 海亭. 现在布局丛书 过宫炮新编. 成都 : 蜀蓉棋艺出版社, 1996. 7-80548-495-3/G.496.

9. 金, 启昌, 刘, 海亭 and 阳, 辅. 现在布局丛书 飞相局. 成都 : 蜀蓉棋艺出版社, 1998. 7-80548-583-6/G.584.

10. 胡, 荣华. 夹炮屏风 反宫马布局研究. Hong Kong and Singapore : 香港业余象棋协会 新加坡北斗象棋研究会, 1983.

11. 傅, 宝胜. 棋迷过招系列 -- 象棋实战技法. 合肥 : 安徽科学技术出版社, 2009. 978-7-5337-3373-5.

12. 董, 志新. 中炮对单提马. 成都 : 蜀蓉棋艺出版社, 1997. 7-80548-544-5/G.545.

13. —. 单提马横车集. 北京 : 人民体育出版社, 1986. 7015.2319.