Peng Shusheng, King of Xiangqi (Chinese Chess) in Northwest China Part 1

Author: Jim Png Hau Cheng

Note: This article first appeared on It would be the first of two articles dedicated to Peng Shusheng.

In Xiangqi, there have always been legends that altered the way the game was played. While most of these legends were invincible during their time, only a few could change the way Xiangqi was played, and even fewer would leave a legacy. Today's article would be a tribute to one of them. Peng Shusheng (彭述圣1874-1960AD, Péng shù shèng) was one of the legendary figures in Xiangqi during the twentieth century. Imagine a Xiangqi player so good that the top players and experts from the capital city came to learn from you.

This article would be divided into the following topics. It is a condensation of the tributes paid to the legendary Peng Shusheng.

Humble Beginnings

Early encounters with Xiangqi

King of the Handicap Challenge

The inspiration from Wang Hesheng

The legendary visit to Beijing

Encounter with Na Jianting

Peng Shusheng vs. Zhang Dekui

Humble Beginnings

Peng Shusheng was born in the village of Yan Dun in Gao Lan County (皋兰县烟墩沟Gāo lán xiàn yān dūn gōu), which was located in Gansu Province in China. It is located in North-west, China. Peng showed that he was different from other kids of his age, often giving others the impression that he had a lightning-fast and razor-sharp mind. He was also savvy about a lot of things. When he was young, he learned tailoring, cooking, and other skills. He was also known to have been an expert with the abacus. He went to school for a few years in a private institution and never received a formal education. Despite his humble beginnings, Peng was destined for great things in Xiangqi.

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Early encounters with Xiangqi

Xiangqi was prevalent during the late Qing Dynasty, which was the time when Peng was born. Although Lanzhou (Gansu Province) was considered less developed, Xiangqi was very popular. Peng's father was a Xiangqi lover and was said to have been quite proficient. Under the initial tutelage of his father, Peng learned the game.

When Peng was young, there were many tea houses in Lanzhou where Xiangqi was played. When the experts played, they would often draw large crowds. Peng was often seen watching the games, and over time, his level of skill improved, and he was soon invincible amongst the kids in the area.

When Peng was about fifteen years old, he got to play against the finest Xiangqi players in Lanzhou. These players included: Liu Fan (刘番Liú Fān), Sun Tang (孙唐Sūn táng), Chen Ba ( 陈八 chén bā), and Bai the Carpenter (白木匠bái mùjiàng). The experts gave him a Horse handicap, but Peng still lost his games and was even admonished by Chen Ba as being a lousy player. Chen Ba had another encounter with Peng, and Peng still lost his game, and Chen Ba laughed at his poor skills. The insults by Chen Ba lit Peng up, and he swore to improve his skills to revenge himself.

With help from his friends, Peng Shusheng managed to get his hands on the ancient manuals Elegant Pastime Manual, the Secret in the Tangerine, the Plum Flower Manuals et cetera. For three months, he studied the books' contents and was inspired by the ancient manuals that presented Peng Shusheng with many different ways of playing the game. His skills improved dramatically, and he was soon able to hold his own against the experts in Lanzhou who never could play handicap matches against him anymore. When he was twenty years old, he defeated his past demons and established himself as the top Xiangqi player Gansu had to offer.

When he was young, Peng Shusheng got married, but he did not have any children. His infatuation with Xiangqi saw him neglect his duties as a husband and his wife eventually left him. Peng would never marry again.

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King of the Handicap Challenge

Peng would later make a living as a Xiangqi player who would play for money. He would often give handicaps to his opponents, and this constant 'training' led him to become one of the best Xiangqi players in this field in Xiangqi's history.

Traditionally, handicap matches could be divided into move-handicap and material handicap matches. Move-handicap matches were played when the stronger player would allow the weaker player to make two or even three moves to start the game. Material handicap matches would involve the stronger player giving up one or more pieces to start the game. The most common material handicap was one Horse, while there were also material handicaps of two horses or giving up a chariot. But Peng did not stop there. He was known to give up the Cannon or even a full guard (two elephants and two advisors) against weaker opponents and was eventually known as the King of Material Handicap (饶子大王 ráo zǐ dà wáng).

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The inspiration from Wang Hesheng

Every great Xiangqi player would often need another person to help them reach the next level in their pursuit of excellence. For Peng Shusheng, this person was Wang Hesheng (王和生wáng hé shēng).

Wang Hesheng graduated from Beijing's Qinghua School and Nanjing's Dong Nan University when he returned to Lanzhou to work in 1925. Wang was a Xiangqi lover himself and had won the Xiangqi tournaments for college students. He had also drawn against Wan Qiyou (万启有 1895-1943, wàn qǐ yǒu), who was considered to be one of the best in Nanjing in the 1930s.

When the two first met, Wang could not find any way to win his games against Peng. Instead, Wang was pounded and destroyed. Peng's skill and poise earned Wang's respect, and they eventually became close friends.

In 1927-1928, Xie Xiaxun finished compiling his Encyclopedia of Xiangqi Manuals (《象棋谱大全》 xiàng qí pǔ dà quán). Wang Hesheng managed to obtain a copy of the books and presented them to Peng Shusheng. Peng felt that there were discrepancies in the book. Through Xie's books, Peng got to know roughly the players' level of skill in other parts of China. Peng began to entertain the idea of traveling to different parts of China to challenge the other great Xiangqi players of his time.

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The legendary visit to Beijing

In the late Spring and early Summer of 1931, the fifty-eight-year-old Peng Shusheng was encouraged by his friends to travel to Beijing and challenge the experts there. By this time, Peng Shusheng had already established himself as the best player from the North-west.

It took him one month to travel to Beijing. Times were very hard at that point in history as there was civil unrest. If it were not for his genuine love of Xiangqi, it would be hard to imagine any person risking his life to travel so far to challenge others to play a game.

Luckily for Peng Shusheng, accommodation was solved as there was a small 'clan association' formed by Gansu people to look after their own in Beijing. Peng stayed there initially.

After settling in, Peng took to the Xiangqi stalls in the streets to get a rough idea of what the skill level was like in Beijing, taking on a spectator's role. Eventually, he could not contain himself when certain key positions were reached, and he offered his comments. It was this kibitzing that raised eyebrows. Peng was soon brought to the Er You Xuan Tea House (二友轩茶社 èr yǒu xuān chá shè) to challenge the experts there. The act of inviting Peng to the teahouse would be analogous to bringing a Kungfu master to challenge the local dojos.

Peng was too good. No person at the teahouse was even close to the level of Peng's play. Unfortunately, the records of the games that Peng played could not be found.

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Encounter with Na Jianting

Not long after, Peng Shusheng passed by a small Xiangqi stall which had a sign saying "the King of Xiangqi in the North, Na Jianting, awaits" (北国棋王那健庭手谈候教 běi guó qí wáng nà jiàn tíng shǒu tán hòu jiào).

Na Jianting (那健庭 1896 – 1946, nà jiàn tíng) was a Manchurian who was considered to be one of the top Xiangqi players in Beijing in his time. He was one of the Eight Northern Furies (北方八猛 běi fāng bā měng) and also one of the Five Tigers of the North (华北五虎 Huá běi wǔ hǔ).  (1)

Peng was ecstatic to have found where Na was playing Xiangqi and proceeded to challenge Na for two games, which he won convincingly. Na did not take his losses lightly and moved to rechallenge Peng after analyzing his style of play.

There was a sponsor for the second rematch, and it was held at Shi Tou Hu Tong Teahouse (石头胡同茶馆 shí tou hú tòng chá guǎn). Na and Peng did battle for eleven games, and Na could not turn the tables. Peng eventually earned the respect of Na, who admitted defeat.

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Peng Shusheng vs. Zhang Dekui 

Word of Na's loss spread like fire through the Xiangqi circles in Beijing, and the local experts were eager to challenge the mysterious Xiangqi expert from Gansu. Peng's fame grew in Beijing as no one had ever seen before. It was inevitable that the local Xiangqi experts were curious about the new 'King' in town, and they flocked to challenge Peng.

Amongst the challengers was Zhang Dekui (张德魁 1897?- 1969, zhāng dé kuí). A little bit of history is needed here. Before 1925, many people acknowledge the top player in Beijing to be Meng Wenxuan (孟文轩 1893? - 1925 mèng wén xuān). Zhang Dekui was not one of them, and he refused to concede that Meng Wenxuan was better than him.

From 1915-1925, both men had many encounters to determine who was the best, but the older generation of Xiangqi players found favor with Meng. Unfortunately, Meng passed away in 1925, and Zhang Dekui 'succeeded' Meng and was acknowledged as the best player in Beijing. Incidentally, Na Jianting was regarded as the second-best player in Beijing, after Zhang Dekui.

In the winter of 1930, Zhang Dekui won a tournament whereby the best Xiangqi experts from five provinces participated. The players included Zhao Wenxuan (赵文宣 zhào wénxuān), Na Jianting, Xu Cihai (徐词海 xú cí hǎi) et cetera. It was a show of Zhang Dekui's dominance. Zhang Dekui would later be elected to become the first vice president of the Chinese Xiangqi Association in 1956.  (2)

Unfortunately, not even Zhang Dekui's skills could prevail against Peng Shusheng. Interestingly, the actual number of games that the two played was unknown, and not all the scores were preserved. There were two accounts of their meeting. The first account, which is less plausible, states that the two had played seven or eight matches where Peng won all of them. Another account gave the number at ten matches. Whatever the actual number was, it was clear that not even Zhang Dekui was Peng's match. In an article by modern-day journalist Zhang Zhan (张展 zhāng zhǎn), there was mention of an old man, Ma Zhen (马珍 mǎ zhēn) who witnessed the matches and recalled that Peng did win their encounter. Still, the alleged discrepancy in skill level was not as significant as previously believed. Although the meeting with Zhang Dekui left some unanswered questions, there was no doubt that Peng Shusheng had the upper hand and proved himself that very day to be one of the best in China.   (3 页 321-333)

Presented below was one of the matches where Zhang Dekui (Red) lost to Peng Shusheng (Black).

  1. C2=5  H8+7    2. H2+3  P3+1

  3. R1=2  R9=8    4. R2+4  H2+3

  5. P7+1  P3+1    6. R2=7  P7+1

  7. C8=7  H3+2    8. P5+1  E3+5

  9. P5+1  A4+5   10. P5=6  C8+4

 11. P3+1  P7+1   12. R7=3  R1=3

 13. C7+2  H7+6   14. H8+7  H6+4

 15. H7+5  H4+6   16. R3=4  C8=5

 17. H3+5  H6+7   18. R4-3  R8+6

 19. R4=3  R8=5   20. R3+3  H2+1

 21. E7+9  H1+3   22. R9=7  C2+7

 23. A4+5  R5=2   24. R3=2  R2+2

Zhang Dekui L Peng Shusheng

Zhang Dekui (Red) resigned.

The Webmaster ran the final position in his computer program for analysis and found that Peng had an advantage of almost 600 points at this point. Red would still have a slim chance of drawing the game and could continue with C5=6 to prevent his Red Advisor from being captured. However, it would be an uphill battle for Red, and perhaps Peng's momentum had weakened Zhang's will to keep fighting.

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1. 誇誇棋談. 北方八猛——那健庭. 每日頭條. [联机] 2018年Dec月15日. [引用日期: 2020年Dec月17日.]

2. —. 棋手 張德魁. 每日頭條. [联机] 2018年Dec月09日. [引用日期: 2020年Dec月17日.]

3. 张, 展. 象棋人生. 北京 : 经济管理出版社, 2012. 9787509621394 .

4. 亮晶晶象棋. 大國手彭述聖傳略. 每日头条. [联机] 2019年Oct月02日. [引用日期: 2020年Nov月24日.]

5. 象棋天地. 他能讓全國第五名一馬——西北棋王彭述聖. 每日頭條. [Online] Jan 21, 2017. [Cited: Dec 17, 2020.]

6. 邹涛 李双胜. 西北棋王 钱洪发专辑. 兰州 : 甘肃人民出版社, 2017. 9787226052020.

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