Origins of Xiangqi (Chinese Chess) 07: Warring States Period Part 2


In the previous article, the relevant parts of Xiangqi history in the Warring States Period were discussed until around 300BC and ended with Zhuang Zi.

This article would be a continuation of the previous article and continue to examine the relevant parts of Xiangqi's history during the Period of the Warring States (c. 476 – 221 BC). The next part of Xiangqi's history during this period would discuss the important writings discussed by both Chinese and Western historians alike.

In this article, the contents will be as follows:

C. 380 BC – C. 332 BC, The wealthy citizens of Linzi played Liubo

c. 343BC – c. 222BC Elegies of Chu by Qu Yuan or Song Yu mentioning Xiangqi!

A brief introduction to the possible authors of the Elegies of Chu

The actual verses from the Elegies of Chu

Some modern-day translations

Chu Ci Zhang Ju (《楚辞章句》 Chǔ cí zhāng jù).

Zhao Ming Wen Xuan (《昭明文选》 zhāo míng wén xuǎn)

c. 307BC – c. 295BC King Wuling of Zhao



C. 380 BC – C. 332 BC, The wealthy citizens of Linzi played Liubo

Zhan Guo Ce (《战国策》Zhànguócè) was a piece of historical writing that described politics during the tumultuous Period of the Warring States. The original author(s) were not known, but the text was assimilated into one piece of writing by Liu Xiang (刘向 77BC – 6 BC, LiúXiàng) from the Western Han Dynasty. Hence, the original passages were written way before Liu Xiang's time.

Regarding the history of Xiangqi, there was a passage that mentioned Liubo as one of the games that the wealthy citizens of Linzi played. The original passage from Zhan Guo Ce is given below:

《战国策.齐策》: "临淄甚富而实,其民无不吹竽、鼓瑟、击筑、弹琴、斗鸡、走犬、六博、蹴鞠(cù jū)者。" (1)

The following is the author's translation:

"The people of Lin Zi [临淄Lín zī] were well-to-do. All its citizens knew how to play musical instruments, involved in cockfighting, dog racing, Liubo, playing kick ball (Cu Ju)."

There was another parallel passage from the Records of the Grand Historian, which was written in 91BC:

《史记·苏秦列传》: "临灾甚富而实,其民无不吹竽鼓瑟,弹琴击筑,鬬(dòu)鸡走狗,六博蹋鞠(tà jū)者。" (2)

It was a nearly identical passage as some of the ancient archaic forms of writing the Chinese characters were given. The translation provided by the author would suffice.

The time frame given would mark the birth of Su Qin and end in 332BC when Su Qin's Vertical Alliance fell apart. Su Qin's initial visit to the State of Qi occurred many years before 332 BC, successfully forming the Vertical Alliance. Several years passed by before it dissolved. The time frame given above would probably describe the leisurely pursuits as provided in the passages. A short video explaining the Vertical Alliance is given below for interested viewers. There is no English Youtube videos at the moment.



We can conclude from these two passages that Liubo was already very popular in China.

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c. 343BC – c. 222BC Elegies of Chu by Qu Yuan or Song Yu mentioning Xiangqi!

Zhou Jiasen wrote in his book that Xiangqi and Liubo were related.

  • Hypothesis Number 9: Liubo and Xiangqi were related.

Zhou went further to suggest that the Xiangqi pieces were inspired by the pieces in and combinations in Liubo. He even went on to say that the water in the waterways was similar to the river on the Xiangqi board. Zhou gave the time frame as 403BC – 206 BC. (3 pp. 1-2)

Zhou Jiasen cited a significant passage in the Chapter of Zhao Hun in the Elegies of Chu.


A brief introduction to the possible authors of the Elegies of Chu

Before diving into the actual passage, a short introduction to the possible authors of the Elegies of Chu and the book itself is mandatory.

Qu Yuan (屈原 qū yuan, c. 343 – 278 BC) was a patriotic poet and politician who lived in the State of Chu. He was born into a wealthy family but was maligned by then Prime Minister Zilan and eventually forced into exile. Qu would finally commit suicide in protest of the fall of the State of Chu. There were different interpretations of his suicide, but it would not be in this text's scope.





Today, people commemorate his patriotism with the Dragon Boat Festival, which is also called the Dumpling Festival. It was said that the people of Chu tried to prevent the fish in the river where Qu Yuan committed suicide by throwing dumplings into the river and letting the fish eat the dumplings instead. The Dragon Boats were invented so that the people could rush and find Qu's body before it decomposed. (4) (5)

Song Yu (宋玉 song yù, c. 298- c.222BC) was a disciple of Qu Yuan.

About the history of Xiangqi, the Elegies of Chu (《楚辞》 Chǔcí) was perhaps the earliest writing to mention Xiangqi (象棋). The Elegies of Chu was believed to have been written by either Qu Yuan or Song Yu. The Chinese historians have been divided on this issue. Regardless of the author, in the chapter of Zhao Hun (招魂zhāo hún), which is translated as 'Recalling the Soul,' there was a passage that contained the term Xiangqi.

As for the Elegies of Chu, it was a passage that described the enjoyments of the mundane world that were required to 'entice' a soul to come back after they had died. It was also a sort of lamentation of the state of affairs during Qu or Song's time in the State of Chu and mentioned the daily objects found in that time. As for the date when the Elegies of Chu was written, the Webmaster has chosen it to be the period from Qu Yuan's birth to Song Yu's death, which would be c. 343- c. 222 BC. It would be a smaller time frame if compared to Zhou Jiansen's writings.


The actual verses from the Elegies of Chu

 The relevant passage in the Elegies of Chu mentioning Xiangqi is as follows:



This passage from the Elegies of Chu is one reason why many scholars acknowledge Liubo as the ancient prototype from which Xiangqi was derived. The first verse or eight Chinese characters contained both Xiangqi' 象棋' and also Liubo' 六簙.' The '六簙' seen here was an archaic way of referring to Liubo, and there is no confusion in the meaning.

Unfortunately, the interpretation of these six verses was another mammoth problem. The passage was very obscure, and there have been many discussions about the identity of the Xiangqi mentioned in the poem.


  • Was it an ancient prototype of Xiangqi?
  • If so, how was Liubo related to Xiangqi?
  • What were the similarities and differences between Xiangqi and Liubo?
  • How was it played?
  • Or was it just another game with NO relation to Xiangqi?

The answer to these questions can only be deduced, and it may never be known.

Modern-day chess historian Peter Banaschak wrote an article called "FACTS ON THE ORIGIN OF CHINESE CHESS (XIANGQI 象棋). " As Mr. Peter Banaschak put it, "From this sentence, it cannot be decided for sure whether one game (Liubo alone) or two games (Liubo and Xiangqi) are meant. If Xiangqi or one of its predecessors were meant, this would point to an origin in the contending realms period.'

As the Elegies of Chu was written well over two thousand years ago, the vocabulary and intended meaning would have been different. Explanation of this passage had to rely on interpretations or translations that were written a few centuries after the Elegies of Chu.

Some modern-day translations

To kick off this short discussion, the following translations by modern-day historians and sinologists are given. 

The late modern day Sinologist Professor Yang Lien-sheng translated the above passage as:

"With bamboo sticks and ivory draughtsmen,

There is the game liu-po.

Dividing into groups and proceeding together,

Forcefully they threaten each other.

Having become Hsiao 枭 (i.e., in the lead) and going to win double,

One shouts for the "five-white" 五百…" (6 p. 129) (7 p. 204)

Later, in An Additional Note on the Ancient Game Liu-Po, Yang mentioned that perhaps "having made a Hsiao" would have been better than "having become Hsiao." (6 p. 129) (7 p. 204)

David Hawkes, a sinologist and translator of Chu Ci, had a translation published in the 1980s. His translation was:

"Then with bamboo dice and ivory pieces the game of Liu Bo is begun;

Sides are taken, they advance together, keenly they threaten each other.

Pieces are kinged, and the scoring doubled. Shouts of "five white!" arise." (8)

Both Yang Lien-sheng and David Hawkes neither acknowledged nor disproved the theory that Liubo was indeed related to Xiangqi in their translations.

Another modern-day historian, David Li, had his rendition of the passage.

"With bamboo sticks and ivory playing pieces, the game of Liu-bo is set out.

Dividing into sides, proceeding with paces, each threatens the other with defeat.

Producing a xiao, cheering for this feat, one roots for "five white" to come about." (9 p. 130)

David Li would go on to say that:

"The above passage, incidentally, has caused considerable commotion, because, on the first line, in Chinese, the words Xiangqi and qi (Hsiang and chi under the Wade-Giles system) appear next to other—by sheer coincidence. However, taken together, the two words mean chess. Thus, many enthusiastically attribute this two-word combination to chess, thereby suggesting that the game is known back then.

This attribution – much as this writer (David Li) would like to concur – is overzealous and, he regrets to say, is simply inappropriate. The proper rendition of these two words, in this context, is given by the writer in the above: playing pieces made of ivory." (9 p. 130)

The issue on hand was the identity of Xiangqi and also the description of Liubo in the passage.  

Other than the available translations given above, each of the rest of the passage provided some information. But again, there have been arguments by different scholars as to what was meant in the Elegies of Chu.

The most commonly cited interpretations of the Elegies of Chu occurred a few centuries later. There were two significant works:

Chu Ci Zhang Ju (《楚辞章句》 Chǔ cí zhāng jù).

This commentary was written by Wang Yi (王逸wáng yì, c. 89 AD? – c. 158 AD ?) who was given the task during the Eastern Han Dynasty.









Zhao Ming Wen Xuan (《昭明文选》 zhāo míng wén xuǎn)

During the Southern Liang Dynasty of the Southern Dynasties Period, Crown Prince Xiao Tong (萧统xiāo tǒng 501 AD - 531 AD ) was left in charge of editing Wen Xuan (《文选》wén xuǎn) which was also known as Zhao Ming Wen Xuan (《昭明文选》 zhāo míng wén xuǎn).

The Crown Prince died at a very young age and was posthumously given the title of Emperor Zhao Ming of Southern Liang. 

Zhao Ming Wen Xuan was the earliest collection of literary poems to date and was a primary literary source for future scholars who added notes to explain the ancient texts. The notes added would be similar in concept to modern-day study guides to the ancient literature. There are at least seven more analyses of the Elegies of Chu by later scholars after the Southern Liang Dynasty up till the Qing Dynasty. Zhao Ming Wen Xuan was a breakthrough as it marked the start of literary criticism in China.







呼五白些。〈五白,簙齿也。言己棋己枭,当成牟胜,射张食棋,下逃于窟,故呼五白以助投者也。〉  (10)




It would be impossible to go through all the passages in this short article. At least fifteen A4 pages are discussing the text in the book that the Webmaster is preparing. Instead, if time permits, the analyses of the Elegies of Chu would be presented in another article.

The Webmaster believes that the Elegies of Chu was significant in the history of Xiangqi for two main reasons:

  • It is the earliest text, to date, where the term Xiangqi first appeared.
  • It seemed to suggest that there was a relationship between Xiangqi with Liubo.

Note: German chess historian Peter Banaschak had a mistake in his translation.

"The castor shrubs hide the Xiangqi, but there still is the Liubo! (or: … there it is, the Liubo! (?))" (11)

The mistake that he made stemmed from using '篦' (bì) instead of '菎' (kūn), which are two different Chinese characters. '篦' would refer to a type of ancient comb, and is a Chinese character that the author is not familiar with either. The definition of '菎' has been given above and would refer to ivory. Mr. Banaschak did not elaborate further on the other verses.

Hence, Peter Banaschak's translation would be inaccurate for the first verse. Nevertheless, his efforts at tackling the ancient texts remain admirable!

For more on the topic of Liubo, Jean Cazaux's website would provide ample information.

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c. 307BC – c. 295BC King Wuling of Zhao

In Zhou Jiasen's book, there was yet another hypothesis on the origins of Xiangqi.

Hypothesis Number 10: Xiangqi originated from the Period of the Warring States and was inspired by the War Chariots and War Horses.

The original passage was:

象棋肇於戰國,參酌車戰馬戰而制象棋,當時趙武靈王 胡服騎射,已有馬戰.(西元以前三零七至二九五年)   (3)

A translation by the Webmaster is given below:

"Xiangqi was created during the Period of the Warring States. It was inspired by the battles fought with chariots and horses. At that time, King Wuling of Zhao had already implemented his military reforms of wearing the Hu style of clothes and fighting on horseback. As could be seen, there were already fights on horseback. (307 BC – 295 BC)"

The passage that Zhou Jiasen mentioned referred to King Wuling of Zhao (赵武灵王 c. 340 – 295 BC), who was king of the Kingdom of Zhao. His reign was about 325 BC to 299 BC. The date that Zhou Jiasen gave was accurate.

There was some discrepancy between his time of birth and death and his rule, but it was around the 3rd and 4th century BC.

Zhou Jiasen's hypothesis that Xiangqi was born during this time was questionable based on just one historical event. There was no actual mention of any game or how it could have been played.

Given below is a short Youtube video which mentions King Wuling of Zhao at about 1:30.



However, suppose this passage were to be taken into consideration with earlier passages mentioning the presence of a game that was modeled after warfare. In that case, the passage about King Wuling of Zhao might explain the use of the horse in Xiangqi. By this time, there was considerable mention of the existence of a game that was modeled after warfare.

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The Period of the Warring States was one of the most tumultuous periods in the history of China. Despite war and civil unrest, the masses still needed leisurely pursuits, and Liubo was very well known.

The Period of the Warring States was also extremely significant, for it was during this time that the term Xiangqi first appeared. However:  

Is Liubo related to Xiangqi?

The author is inclined to believe that there is a connection. Unfortunately, the exact relationship between the two may never be understood.

The next article would also be about Xiangqi history in the Period of the Warring States.

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1. (西汉)刘向. Pre-Qin and Han -> Histories -> Zhan Guo Ce -> 齐策 -> 齐一 -> 苏秦为赵合从说齐宣王. 诸子百家 Chinese Text Project. [Online] [Cited: Dec 14, 2019.]

2. (西汉)司马迁. Pre-Qin and Han -> Histories -> Shiji -> 列传 -> 苏秦列传. 诸子百家 Chinese Text Project. [联机] [引用日期: 2020年Dec月20日.]

3. 周, 家森. 象棋与棋话 第三版. s.l. : 世界书局印行, 1947, 民国36年. No ISBN.

4. 维基百科编者. 屈原. 维基百科. [联机] 条目版本编号:62824398, 2020年Nov月17日. [引用日期: 2020年Dec月20日.]

5. Qu Yuan. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. [Online] Page Version ID: 994355150, Dec 15, 2020. [Cited: Dec 20, 2020.]

6. Yang, Lien-sheng. An Additional Note on The Ancient Game Liu-Po. Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies. Jun 1952, Vol. 15, 1/2, pp. 124-139.

7. A Note on the so-called TLV Mirrors and the Gameof Liu-Po 六博. Yang, Lien-sheng. 3/4, 1947, Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, Vol. 9, pp. 202-206.

8. (战国)屈原? Pre-Qin and Han -> Ancient Classics -> Chu Ci -> 招䰟. Chinese Text Project. [Online] [Cited: 11 7, 2019.]

9. Li, David H. The Genealogy of Chess. s.l. : Premier publishing, 1998. 0-9637852-2-2.

10. Wikisource贡献者. 昭明文選/卷33. Wikisource. [Online] Nov 19, 2018. [Cited: Jan 5, 2020.] 页面版本ID:1514226, 蕭統 編 李善 注 . -{R|}-.

11. Banaschak, Peter. FACTS ON THE ORIGIN OF CHINESE CHESS (XIANGQI 象棋). [Online] No date given. [Cited: Mar 15, 2020.]

12. (战国)列子. Pre-Qin and Han -> Daoism -> Liezi -> 说符. 诸子百家 Chinese Text Project. [联机] [引用日期: 2020年Dec月6日.]

13. Pre-Qin and Han -> Confucianism -> Shuo Yuan -> 善说. 诸子百家 Chinese Text Project. [Online] [Cited: Sep 29, 2020.]

14. (西汉)司马迁. Pre-Qin and Han -> Histories -> Shiji -> 世家 -> 趙世家. 诸子百家 Chinese Text Projects. [Online] [Cited: Jan 12, 2020.]

15. Wikisource贡献者 and (东汉)王逸. 楚辭章句/卷09. Wikisource,。. [Online] 页面版本ID:956922, Jun 22, 2017. [Cited: May 9, 2020.] -{R|}-.