Origins of Xiangqi (Chinese Chess) 06: Warring States Period Part 1

In the previous article, the Spring and Autumn Period was discussed with relevance to Xiangqi. This article would continue to discuss the relevant parts of Xiangqi history in the Warring States Period. Many more mentions of Xiangqi and the texts found that were produced in this period have been put under the scrutiny of both Chinese and Western Historians alike.


Some background history

A short review is necessary to put things into perspective. The history of the Zhou Dynasty has been divided into three periods for study:

  • Western Zhou (c. 1045- c. 771 BC),
  • Spring and Autumn Period (c. 771 – 476 BC), and
  • Warring States Period (c. 476 – 221 BC).

The Spring and Autumn Period and the Warring States Period have been collectively discussed as the Eastern Zhou. There has been some overlap and the transition from one period was not clear and distinct, but the Partition of Jin has been used to mark the end of the Spring and Autumn Period to the Warring States Period. (1) (2)  

There is too much content for this period that can be presented in one short article. Instead, the Webmaster has divided the relevant history of the Warring States into several articles. For the first article, the following will be given discussed:

Important people and their influence on Xiangqi

The following collection is a list of important philosophers, scholars et cetera in ancient China that have contributed facts or proofs about the origins of Xiangqi. As this article is targeted at an international audience who may not be familiar with who they are, short introductory videos from Youtube have also been given for the interested reader.

Mo Zi 墨子

Mozi (墨子 Mò zǐ, c. 470 – c. 391 BC) is one of the lesser-known but equally essential philosophers from the Spring and Autumn Period. He was the founder of Mohism, which argued against Confucianism and Taoism. Mozi is especially intriguing because he invented a crossbow that could explain the precursor of the Cannon piece in Xiangqi. Professor Joseph Needham wrote extensively on this topic. (3)

A nice introductory video to Mozi and Mohism can be found on Youtube for interested philosophers.



Indeed, Zhou Jiasen stated in his book that one of the hypotheses that:

  • Hypothesis Number 8: Mozi invented Xiangqi.

More will be discussed slightly later on.

Lie Zi 列子

Lie Zi (列子 Liè zǐ c 400 BC ) was another important Taoist figure in the history of Taoism, but there remains doubt about his identity. Lie Zi was his honorific name, and his original name was 列禦寇 (Liè Yǔkòu). He wrote a Taoist classic by the same name. There was also mention of gambling and Liubo in his texts. These texts have been cited and examined by Chinese and Western historians alike, which is why he is mentioned in this article. (4)   (5)



Mencius 孟子

Mencius (孟子 Mèngzǐ, 372-289 BC) has been widely regarded as the "Second Sage" after Confucius himself. He was part of Confucius's fourth generation of disciples, where he inherited the great Sage's thinking and perfected it. Mencius had also written several passages that mentioned chess in his time. (6)



Zhuang Zi 庄子

Zhuang Zi (庄子 Zhuāngzǐ, c. 369- c. 286 BC) was another important philosopher. He is considered to be on par with Lao Zi and is one of Taoism's most influential persons.  (7)

Zhuang Zi is mentioned in this article because he had written about chess in his philosophical writings.

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Mo Zi invented Xiangqi?

As mentioned earlier, one of the hypotheses of the origins of Xiangqi was:

  • Hypothesis Number 8: Mozi invented Xiangqi.

Zhou Jiasen gave this hypothesis in his book. The following passage has been deliberately written in traditional Chinese, which was used in Zhou's book.

周家森 《象棋與棋話》:

“週末戰國之初,輸攻墨子之時,墨子善用機械,將發石之機,(按炮字之義系以機發石)大加改良,方可以命中而及遠,遂成為軍中之利器,墨子喜言兵,因疑砲為墨子所改良,而象戲亦疑為墨子及其徒所創.(西元以前六零六至三七六年).按《後漢書》:袁紹為高櫓, 起土山以箭射曹軍,操乃發石車擊紹樓皆破,軍中乎曰:”霹靂車”,景懷注以其發石聲震烈,故呼為霹靂,似亦炮類 (8)

Given is a translation by the Webmaster.

"Towards the end of the Zhou Dynasty to the beginning of the Period of the Warring Periods, was the time when Shu attacked Mo Zi. Mo Zi, being the skillful carpenter he was, improvised and improved upon the catapult (which explains the radical for stone in the word 砲). Mo Zi's new invention could hit targets at far distances accurately and quickly became a weapon that was employed in battle. Mo Zi was also fond of military strategy, and because he invented the catapult, it has been said that Xiang Xi was created by Mo Zi (during 606-376BC).

The Book of the Later Han has said that Yuan Shao built tall watchtowers and created small mounds made of the earth where his army could shoot arrows at the Cao Army. Cao retaliated with the stone-throwing Chariot to destroy the watchtowers. The troops in Cao's army were ecstatic and called the invention 'Thunderous Chariot (Pili Che),' as the sound made by the Chariot throwing stones was thunderous, and seemed to be like cannons."

Zhou Jiasen even cited evidence from the Book of the Later Han, which was written centuries after Mo Zi's time.

The Webmaster finds this hypothesis to be questionable. Mozi was indeed a warfare specialist and has been depicted in the movies. He was well versed in strategy and a master craftsman.

However, ascribing the invention of Xiangqi to Mozi would seem forced. After all, only one of Xiangqi's components was mentioned, and there was no explanation of the structure of the Xiangqi board, its rules, et cetera. Even if Pili Che was taken to represent the Chariot, there was no mention of the other pieces, the Xiangqi board, or the rules.

However, the Webmaster finds Mozi to be a possible explanation of the origins of the Cannon piece. The great sinologist Professor Joseph Needham dedicated an entire chapter called "Projectile Weapons: II. Ballistic Machinery, (4) Spring, Sinew, Sling, and Swape; Definitions and Distribution."

He called "The crossbow constructed in large size and mounted on a framework or carriage (Fig. 61a) we shall call the arcuballista." (9 pp. 184-240)  

The description of the arcuballista was very similar to the Cannon in Xiangqi.

Therefore, the Webmaster is inclined to believe that the invention of the Cannon piece in Xiangqi could be related to Mozi. Still, the validity of the hypothesis that Mozi invented Xiangqi would need much more proof to support.

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Lie Zi mentions Bo

Lie Zi may cause some confusion to the Westerner unfamiliar with the history of China. The same term 'Lie Zi' could refer to the person Lie Zi (列子Liè zǐ, c. 450-375BC), AND also to the book which he supposedly wrote. However, the authenticity of the book Lie Zi is itself debated. Nevertheless, a passage described how the game of Liubo was allegedly played during the time of Lie Zi.

《列子.说符》: 虞氏者,梁之富人也,家充殷盛,钱帛无量,财货无訾。登高楼,临大路,设乐陈酒,击博楼上,侠客相随而行,楼上博者射,明琼张中,反两㯓鱼而笑。飞鸢适坠其腐鼠而中之。侠客相与言曰:“虞氏富乐之日久矣,而常有轻易人之志。吾不侵犯之,而乃辱我以腐鼠。此而不报,无以立慬于天下。请与若等戮力一志,率徒属,必灭其家为等伦。”皆许诺。至期日之夜,聚众积兵,以攻虞氏,大灭其家。 (10 页 21)

The passage can be translated (author's translation) as:

"The Clan of Yu 虞氏(yú shì) was one of the wealthy families of Liang. It was hard to estimate the wealth that they had. One day, one of the Yu family members climbed a tall tower that faced the main street. Musical instruments were arranged, and a feast was prepared. As part of their celebrations, they began to play Bo.

A group of swordsmen passed by the tower. When one of the people playing the Bo threw the die, a combination of Wu Bai was seen, and two fishes were flipped, and six Chou were earned. The winner was so happy that he laughed out aloud.

Simultaneously, an eagle flew past clutching in its talons a rotten mouse that it had caught. Perhaps startled by the laughter, the rotten mouse was dropped by the eagle, which landed on the group of swordsmen. The swordsmen thought that people from the Clan of Yu had thrown the rotten mouse, which greatly angered them.

The swordsmen felt that they had been belittled, as the Clan of Yu was rich and often looked down on others. The swordsmen thought that they had not antagonized the Clan of Yu and were treated in this manner. They vowed to take revenge for the way that the Clan of Yu had 'treated' them. Not long after, the swordsmen gathered more of their companions and attacked the Clan of Yu's house, exterminating the Clan of Yu.

A short article with a cartoon explains the entire incident can be found at the following link. The cartoon depicting Bo would seem inaccurate, but it would be an apt comic of the incident. 

While the parable was meant to teach the importance of being humble, the mention of Bo has made it one of the earliest passages in ancient times to prove the existence of Bo and how it might have been played. Unfortunately, there was not much more information that was furnished about the game. A moment of silence for the Clan of Yu…

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Mencius mentions playing Bo Yi as being unfilial

As with Lie Zi, Mencius could refer to the Confucian scholar or the book he wrote. Two passages have been mentioned in the history books discussing the topic. These two passages would further prove that Bo and Weiqi were not the same things. that said, playing Boyi in the book MenciusThe first passage from Mencius

The first passage from Mencius was:


孟子曰:“世俗所谓不孝者五:惰其四支,不顾父母之养,一不孝也;博弈好饮酒,不顾父母之养,二不孝也;好货财,私妻子,不顾父母之养,三不孝也;从耳目之欲,以为父母戮,四不孝也;好勇斗很,以危父母,五不孝也。 (11)

The following is a translation by James Legge.

Mencius, Chapter on Li Lou 2:

"Mencius replied, 'There are five things which are pronounced in the common usage of the age to be unfilial. The first is laziness in the use of one's four limbs, without attending to the nourishment of his parents. The second is gambling and chess-playing, and being fond of wine, without attending to the nourishment of his parents. The third is being fond of goods and money, and selfishly attached to his wife and children, without attending to the nourishment of his parents. The fourth is following the desires of one's ears and eyes, so as to bring his parents to disgrace. The fifth is being fond of bravery, fighting and quarrelling so as to endanger his parents." (12 p. 213)


Second Passage from Mencius


“今夫弈之为数,小数也;不专心致志,则不得也。弈秋,通国之善弈者也。使弈秋诲二人弈,其一人专心致志,惟弈秋之为听。一人虽听之,一心以为有鸿鹄将至,思援弓缴而射之,虽与之俱学,弗若之矣。为是其智弗若与?曰:非然也。” (13)

Taiwan National Palace Museum 05The author managed to find a few translations for this passage. The different men's translations were similar, and only one will be given in this short article. The other translations have been collected into the book that the Webmaster is still working on.

Reverend David Collie gave the earliest translation that the author could find. There was mention of Yi Qiu (弈秋 yì qiū), who was supposed to be the best Weiqi player in the land in his time. The Reverend used the Yih Tsew.

"For instance, the talents required for chess are but small, yet if a man do not bend his whole mind and attention to it, he will not succeed. Yih Tsew is the best player in the country, suppose you employ Yih Tsew to teach two men to play at chess, and one of them bends his whole mind and attention to the thing, and only listens to the instructions of Yih Tsew; the other, although he listens, yet in his mind he sees a bird coming and thinks how he should handle his bow and arrow to shoot it. Hence, although he learn along with the other, he will not equal him. Is this because knowledge is not equal to his companion? By no means." (14 p. 147)

Of particular note is that the late German historian K. Himly also studied this passage where he discussed the identity of Yi Qiu.

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Zhuang Zi mentions Bo and even Sai

As with Mencius and Lie Zi, Zhuang Zi could refer to the person Zhuang Zi (庄子 Zhuāng zǐ, C 369- c. 286) AND his teachings (the book). Zhuang Zi contained two important passages that the Webmaster believes are very important to the history of Xiangqi.

Zhuang Zi mentioned Sai

During the Period of the Warring States, there were other games similar in nature to Bo, which most ascribed to being Liubo. One of these games was Sai (塞 sài), which is also known as Ge Wu (格五 gé wǔ). Modern-day historian strongly believes that Sai was the second step in the evolution of Liubo to Xiangqi.

In Zhang Zi (the book), there was mention of Sai, which is perhaps the earliest mention of the game. The original passage from Zhuang Zi is shown below:


臧与谷,二人相与牧羊,而俱亡其羊。问臧奚事,则挟厕读书;问谷奚事,则博塞以游。 (15)

The following is a translation of James Legge, who had trouble identifying the game Sai.

Zhuang Zi, Chapter on Webbed Toes:

"Take the case of a male and female slave; they have to feed the sheep together, but they both lose their sheep. Ask the one what he was doing, and you will find that he was holding his bamboo tablets and reading. Ask the other, and you will find that she was amusing herself with some game." (16 p. 273)

Mention of Sai was by Zhuang Zi was also significant as it was later quoted in Shuo Wen Jie Zi, one of the earliest Chinese dictionaries.

Sai was a game similar to Liubo, except that the element of luck was removed. While Liubo was played by players taking turns to throw, die, and move their pieces, Sai DID NOT contain any dice, and players took turns to make their moves. This was the reason why Li Songfu believed that Sai was the next step in the evolution of Liubo to Xiangqi. (17 页 17-20)

How Sai was played would be discussed hopefully in a future article, for it would be beyond this text's scope to discuss everything.


Zhuang Zi was also one of the earliest scholars to mention the magical square in the Luo Shu

In the past few centuries, one of the more popular hypotheses was that Xiangqi was born from an ancient game that had its roots in divination.

Astrology and the interpretation of the heavens and its stars is one of the fundamentals of Taoism. Therefore, it was no surprise that Zhuang Zi also mentioned the Magic Square or the Luo Shu Square. Unfortunately, Zhuang Zi did not use other Chinese terms that later mathematicians and scholars were familiar. Instead, he used the term '九洛 '(Jiǔ Luò) to refer to the Luo Shu Square. The original passage is given below.



Jiu Luo and the Luo Shu Square are the same things as evidenced by a translation by James Legge:

Zhuang Zi, Outer Chapter, The Revolution of Heaven

How (ceaselessly) heaven revolves! How (constantly) earth abides at rest! And do the sun and moon contend about their (respective) places? Who presides over and directs these (things)? Who binds and connects them together? Who is it that, without trouble or exertion on his part, causes and maintains them? Is it, perhaps, that there is some secret spring, in consequence of which they cannot be but as they are? Or is it, perhaps, that they move and turn as they do, and cannot stop of themselves? (Then) how the clouds become rain! And how the rain again forms the clouds! Who diffuses them so abundantly? Who is it that, without trouble or exertion on his part, produces this elemental enjoyment, and seems to stimulate it? The winds rise in the north; one blows to the west, and another to the east; while some rise upwards, uncertain in their direction. By whose breathing are they produced? Who is it that, without any trouble and exertion of his own, effects all their undulations? I venture to ask their cause.
Wu-hsien Thiao said, 'Come, and I will tell you. To heaven there belong the six Extreme Points, and the five Elements. When the Dis and Kings acted in accordance with them, there was good government; when they acted contrary to them, there was evil. Observing the things (described) in the nine divisions (of the writing) of Lo, their government was perfected and their virtue was complete. They inspected and enlightened the kingdom beneath them, and all under the sky acknowledged and sustained them. Such was the condition under the august (sovereigns) and those before them.'

Zhuang Zi's mention of the Luo Shu Square or magical square is significant to Xiangqi's history. The Webmaster believes Xiangqi could have evolved from an ancient ritual that was based on divination. In ancient times, when generals went to war, they would often consult the heavens. The act of consulting the heavens would be similar to how the early Jews consulted Moses or other prophets when they fought their enemies, as mentioned in the Old Testament in the bible.

As mentioned in the article on Xiangqi's history during the Zhou Dynasty, the Mingtang was the place where a ritual by the Zhou Emperors performed. It had something to do with the magical square.

Indeed, another hypothesis suggested that Zhang Liang from a much later Han Dynasty a few centuries after Zhuang Zi's time invented Xiangqi, which will be presented in due time. A short cartoon from Youtube will suffice for the moment.



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The early part of the Warring States Period contained more information and mentions of Bo, Weiqi, and even Sai. It was evident that Bo, especially Liubo, was very popular and well-known by the masses by this time.

Technical advances in warfare also saw weapons that were refined and could do much more damage. It was the age before the fire-powder had been invented and has been called by some historians as the Cold Weapons' Age.

While the modern-day form of Xiangqi was yet to be invented, the Webmaster firmly believes that the elements required for its eventual formation were already present and perhaps even ripe by this time. 

The hypothesis that Xiangqi was related to an ancient divination ritual and the Luo Shu Square is another fascinating angle that the Webmaster has been pursuing. There have been some interesting findings that will be shared in due time.

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