Xiangqi Chess Polymaths in China

Author: Jim Png

Note: This article first appeared on Xiangqi.com

Excelling in one form of Chess is hard enough. Imagine, to be recognized as experts in more than one form of Chess would be an even more formidable task. A simple analogy would be the triathlete who has to be exceptional in running, swimming, and cycling. There are many games of intellect in China, but perhaps the most commonly played games would be Xiangqi and Weiqi (Go). Both forms of Chess existed for centuries and have been essential pastimes. Naturally, many people have played two more games since ancient times. Indeed, there has been plenty of mention of people excelling in more than one form of Chess, namely Xiangqi and Weiqi.

In this article, the author will discuss chess polymaths that excelled in Xiangqi and other forms of Chess in China. An introduction to Mixed Chess tournaments will be presented in a later article.

Note: Chess would be used in a generic sense in this article. Specific forms of Chess would be mentioned directly.

'Chess Polymath' coined by the author

The author coined the term 'Chess Polymath' in his Lexicon of Xiangqi (Chinese Chess) in English to refer to this group of remarkable people adept at more than one form of Chess. Of course, they would have to have attained results and accomplishments to back up their claim.

The term in Chinese is much more colorful. 双枪侠 (shuāng qiāng xiá) is the commonly used term in magazines and periodicals to refer to chess polymaths. A direct translation of the Chinese term would be a gunslinger with two guns.

Sometimes, 跨界 (kuà jiè) is used to describe a player playing other forms of Chess that were not his forte. The direct translation of the Chinese term would be a crossing over a boundary.

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A short history of Chess Polymaths

The ancient Chinese have started playing games of intellect well over 2500 years ago. Perhaps the earliest games of intellect that the Chinese played were Weiqi (Go) and Liubo. Both games were known as Boyi (博弈) in the ancient times. The Great Sage Confucius was known to have said :

《论语。阳货》 子曰:「饱食终日,无所用心,难矣哉!不有博弈者乎,为之犹贤乎已。」

'The Master said, "Hard is it to deal with who will stuff himself with food the whole day, without applying his mind to anything good! Are there not gamesters and chess players? To be one of these would still be better than doing nothing at all."' (1)

With the 'blessing' of the Great Sage himself, no wonder the ancient Chinese kept playing Chess.

Liubo would later become extinct, but Xiangqi became one of China's most popular games for centuries. It was no surprise that many people were adept at both forms of Chess in ancient times.

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Cultural Emphasis on Chess: The Four Arts

Palace architecture in HenanBoth Xiangqi and Weiqi have been played for centuries, and they are both integral parts of the Chinese culture. In ancient China, a person was considered to be learned if he was well versed in several pursuits. These pursuits included playing the zither (or any other ancient musical instrument), Chess (which could be Xiangqi or Weiqi), calligraphy, and Chinese paintings ( 琴棋书画 qín qí shū huà) in Chinese. Collectively, they were called the Four Arts (四艺 sìyì), and they referred to music, Chess, calligraphy, and painting. The earliest mention of the concept was in the Tang Dynasty (618AD-907 AD), but the idea had existed much earlier. (2) 

The Chess here referred originally to Weiqi but has since been adapted to include Xiangqi. Special mention has to be made of Zhu Quan (朱权 1378- 1448AD zhū quán), the Prince of Ning (the 17th son of Ming Hongwu Emperor) who was both a Xiangqi and Weiqi enthusiast. According to Professor Zhang Ru-an in his book, the History of Xiangqi (《中国象棋史》), it was Zhu Quan that included Xiangqi as the Four Arts. In a song, Zhu Quan used Xiangqi instead of Weiqi to represent Chess in the Four Arts. (3 p. 207)

These four pursuits are considered to be gentlemanly pursuits in China. Among the four, Chess is ranked number two, and it shows the importance that the ancient Chinese placed on games of intellect.

Most people in China would know how to play Xiangqi and Weiqi or have a rough idea of playing the games. That is why it would not come as a surprise that there was plenty of mention of chess experts in China's history. Most of them excelled in both Xiangqi and Weiqi.

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Chess Polymaths from the Ming Dynasty

While Wen Tianxiang excelled in Xiangqi, not much was known about his prowess in Weiqi or other Chess forms. We can only assume that he learned the game well from his father and grandfather.

Chen Zhen (陈珍 ?-? chén zhēn) was perhaps the earliest recorded chess polymath who excelled in Weiqi, Prasaka (双陆) and of course, Xiangqi. He was a native of Yanjing (燕京 Yān jīng), which would be modern-day Beijing. Chen was described as 'proficient in both Weiqi and Shuang Lu, but his forte was Xiangqi where there was no one who could take stand up against him.'

The original passage is given below, and it was recorded in Professor Zhang Ru-an's book. The author has failed to identify where the passage originated.

京人陈珍,字国用,“围棋双陆皆可独以象棋擅名,举世无与抗衡者”, ... (3 p. 243)

Chen Zhen's claim to Xiangqi glory was that he defeated Zhang Xiqiu (张希秋 ?-? zhāng xī qiū), who was another expert in his time. Chen Zhen was called National Expert ( 国手 guó shǒu), which was given to people who were amongst the strongest Xiangqi players of his time. However, despite his prowess, he was no match for the best of his time, Li Kaixian (李开先 1502-1568 AD, lǐ kāi xiān). Li Kaixian was able to give Chen Zhen a one-horse handicap and still win easily. Li Kaixian was not known to be a chess polymath.

Next on the list would probably be Li Fu (李釜 1529? – 1588? AD lǐ fǔ) from Beijing. According to Yi Zhi (《弈旨》yì zhǐ) by Wang Shizhen (王世贞 1526-1590, wáng shì zhēn), Li Fu was nearly unbeatable in Weiqi, but he was also an expert in other games like Xiangqi.  (3 pp. 246-247) 

Note: The chess player Li Fu mentioned here is NOT to be mistaken for the Top Scholar of the Imperial Exams Li Fu (with the same name) from an earlier Song Dynasty.

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Chess Polymaths from the Qing Dynasty

The Qing dynasty would also have its fair share of chess polymath.

Cheng Lanru (程兰如 1690? AD -1765? ) was perhaps one of the most famous chess polymaths in Xiangqi from the Qing Dynasty. He was a native of Anhui province. He was also the author of a book called Games played at the Fragrant Night Pavilion (《晚香亭弈谱》 wǎn xiāng tíng yì pǔ) which is non-extant to the author's knowledge. Cheng was one of the top four Weiqi players of his tie.

李斗《扬州画舫录》载:“程兰如弈棋不如施、范,而象棋称国手。”说明兰如资质不凡,于围棋、象棋都能达到极高的境界。   (4)

Xu Xingyou (徐星友 1644AD?- ?, Xú Xīng yǒu) was from Hangzhou, and he was well known as a top Weiqi exponent. When he was young, he was also a Xiangqi expert and was recognized as National Expert and had authored a book called Eighteen Ways of Sacrificing the Horse (《弃马十八法》qì mǎ shí bā fǎ)which is also non-extant to the author's knowledge. (5) (3 p. 291)   

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Xie Xiaxun, perhaps the first Xiangqi/International Chess polymath

Fast forward to the twentieth century. The introduction and popularization of International Chess by Xie Xiaxun in China saw the birth of perhaps the first Xiangqi/International Chess polymath in the twentieth century. Xie was a legend in Xiangqi circles, and there was no doubt about his prowess in Xiangqi. For International Chess, he defeated the Malaysian International Chess Champion Hunt of the Her Majesty's Royal Armed Forces in 1935.

Xie also defeated the 1927 Indonesian International Chess Champion in the same year. His victories resulted in the Silver Dragon Cup being held in Hong Kong, where other International Chess experts from Germany, the United States, Austria, and Great Britain took part. Then German National Champion Weiss was one of the participants. Xie Xiaxun won the Silver Dragon Cup with an impressive record of 18W1D1L.  (6 页 15-18)

Xie Xiaxun was not the first nor the last of the chess polymaths.

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Other notable names from the 20th Century

In the early 1950s, Dong Wenyuan (董文渊 dǒng wén yuan, 1919-1996) was the acknowledged as the King of Xiangqi after defeating Zhou Deyu. He was also an avid Weiqi player who was placed 4th place in the 1962 Chinese National Weiqi Individual Championships. (7) (8)

Zhang Donglu (张东录)was another lesser-known chess polymath. He was from Heilongjiang. His biggest claim to fame in Xiangqi was being placed 4th in the 1958 Chinese National Xiangqi Individual Championships, defeating defending champion on his way. Zhang Donglu would switch to playing International Chess and even won the 1966 Chinese International Chess Individual Championships. (9)

Zhang Donglu was not the only chess polymath that Heilongjiang produced. The late Li Zhongjian (李中健 lǐ zhōng jiàn, 1939-2012). He began learning Xiangqi and was the Changchun City Xiangqi Champion in 1959-60. He would also represent China in various international events. For International Chess, Li Zhongjian was in 2nd place in the Chinese National International Chess Championships in 1978 and was placed from 3rd to 7th place many times in the event. He would later coach Women's Grandmaster Liu Shilan. Li Zhongjian was also one of the top endgame specialists in his time. His puzzles remain some of the best that China has to offer. And he has also written dozens of books on Xiangqi, which the author loves to death. (8) (10)

Xu Tianli (徐天利 xú tiān lì, 1936 - present) from Shanghai was a grandmaster in Xiangqi who had been placed in second and third place in the Chinese Xiangqi Individual Championships in 1980 and 1981 respectively. There are many more achievements in Xiangqi to his credit. As for International Chess, he was the Chinese National Champion for International Chess in 1960 and 1962 and a Fide International Master. But perhaps the most significant contribution to Xiangqi that Xu Tianli had was that he was one of the mentors to Hu Ronghua! (8) (11) (12)

The list does not stop here. There are many other chess polymaths in China.

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Xiangqi, the common starting point for Chess Polymaths?

The author has noticed an interesting phenomenon. Chinese International Chess players often started with Xiangqi before switching to International Chess. And most Xiangqi players also have a love for Weiqi. And almost all of these chess polymaths started with Xiangqi before progressing to other forms of Chess, suggesting that Xiangqi was the common ground for Chess Polymaths in China

Maybe it was because International Chess was not so well known in China before the early twentieth century. 

For various reasons, some of the players would switch to International Chess and become full-time International Chess players. Some would switch back to Xiangqi and become much more potent than before.

For example, Zhang Donglu started learning International Chess because International Chess players lacked in Heilongjiang during his time while the Xiangqi department was too full of people.

Grandmaster Hu Ronghua, whom many consider as perhaps the greatest Xiangqi player of all time, was also very strong in International Chess. According to himself, a foreign International Chess Grandmaster had once noted that his International Chess level was about an ordinary Chess Master level. The author has not been able to find more information from the Western media but believes it to be true. (13)

Grandmaster Xu Tianli started with Xiangqi, switched to International Chess, and then dived back into Xiangqi decades later.

The Chinese International Chess players all had a strong background in Xiangqi. Indeed, it was reported in an article that ex-Women's World Champion for International Chess once commented that the Chinese International Chess players were all Xiangqi enthusiasts too.

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Xiangqi/Weiqi Chess Polymaths

Many Xiangqi players were also adept Weiqi players. Grandmaster Hu Ronghua was known to have switched to Weiqi for a few months early in his career. His achievements in Weiqi were quite impressive, but it was acquired at the expense of his Xiangqi. Later, he was asked to switch back to Xiangqi, where he would rule the world of Xiangqi for decades. Weiqi legend Nie Weiping was known to have vouched for the strength of Hu Ronghua's Weiqi, claiming that he was at the top of the amateur and bordering on a professional level.

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Xiangqi/Checkers Chess Polymaths

Women's Xiangqi Master Shi Sixuan is another unique chess polymath in her own right. After having attained the title of Women's Xiangqi Master, Shi took a leave of absence from Xiangqi and took on Checkers. and began to excel in the game so much that she was the Chinese Women's Champion. Master Shi has also defeated other international masters in checkers. Shi Sixuan has also authored several books in Chinese to introduce the game to China, and she has also authored books on Xiangqi too. (14)

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Chess Polymaths outside of China

Chess polymaths are not unique to China. The late legendary Emanuel Lasker excelled in both checkers and International Chess.  

The author's good friend, Sergej Korchitskij, comes to mind immediately. Sergej is a World Xiangqi Federation Master in Xiangqi but has also been the Shogi Champion in Europe for years. His International Chess is also powerful.

International Chess Master Sam Sloan is another chess polymath who happens to be strong in Xiangqi, too, and his book, Chinese Chess for Beginners, remains to be one of the earliest books on the topic.

There are many more chess polymaths out there in the world.

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Some Reflections

It would seem that the love for Chess knows no bounds. Xiangqi Grandmasters and Masters alike have been known to take a liking to other forms of Chess. While some have been successful and achieved incredible results in different Chess forms, others have been known to dabble in various Chess forms. For example, Grandmaster Zhao Guorong is known to have a liking for Korean Janggi in the past few years. The late Li Zhongjiang mentioned earlier also took a strong interest in Korean Janggi.

Grandmaster Fabiano Caruana had tweeted about playing Xiangqi before. (15)

The author firmly believes that different Chess forms, in a generic sense, remain strong in the modern world today. However, the rise of video games, arcade games, et cetera would seem to have driven youngsters away from traditional Chess. The age of the Internet and social media would not be alternative ways of spending time on leisurely pursuits.

The author cannot be sure if the Internet would affect Chess (generic sense) in the long term. He cannot predict whether the Internet or social media would be advantageous or disadvantageous to the passing of the torch for the various forms of Chess to the next generation. There can be arguments from both sides, which will not be addressed in this article. Nevertheless, this issue of the effects of the Internet and social media on Chess would have to be tackled eventually for Chess to be passed on to future generations.

The effects or perhaps even the threat of artificial intelligence have dramatically changed how different forms of Chess are learned and played. Somehow, the 'human' touch to Chess seems to have been 'diluted.' Would the different forms of Chess lose their 'humanity'?

Perhaps, different forms of Chess could come together so that they could be passed on to posterity. The author wishes to see the eventual organization of international mixed chess tournaments where different experts from different disciplines come together to determine who would be the true champion of Chess.

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