Origins of Xiangqi (Chinese Chess) 09: the Chu-Han Contention

Author: Jim from Xqinenglish

Note: This article was first published on

This article would be a continuation of previous articles on the history of Xiangqi. It will examine the relevant parts of the history of Xiangqi during the short-lived Qin Dynasty (c. 476 – 221 BC) and the Chu-Han Contention (206 – 202BC). The Chu-Han Contention is a significant period in the history of China and especially so with regards to the possible origins of Xiangqi. It is the first of a few articles to focus on the possible origins of Xiangqi (Chinese Chess) during this period. It will also discuss the identity of the River on the Xiangqi board. 

The history of the possible origins of Xiangqi prior to the Qin Dynasty has already been covered in earlier articles which can be found on the website under the section of the history of Xiangqi.

In this article, the contents will be as follows:

Qin Dynasty (221-206BC)

The State of Qin managed to unify China for the first time in history, under the rule of Emperor Ying Zheng (瀛政 yíng zhèng, 259-210BC) or Qin Shi Huang (秦始皇 qín shǐ huáng) as he is more well known. By this time, China had already undergone a thousand years of war and strife. Games like Liubo and Weiqi were still played during the Qin Dynasty, but the general public was more worried about their lives than gaming. During this time, several other games were played in China. These games included Tanqi, Sai, et cetera. As mentioned in earlier articles, Sai is also known as Ge Wu.

One of the most important events during Emperor Ying Zheng’s rule was the burning of books and other important literature during that time. It was the emperor’s attempt at quelling opposition as he prosecuted followers of Confucius’s style of government. Many important books were burned, and the valuable information they contained about China before the Qin Dynasty was lost forever. The author believes that it may be the reason why there is such limited information about Xiangqi from the Warring States or earlier.

But Emperor Ying Zheng was not without his merits. Under his rule, currency was unified. So was a system of weights and measurements, and perhaps most importantly, there was a uniform writing system. To protect China from foreign invasion, a bold but ruthless plan was carried out, which resulted in the erection of the Great Wall of China at the expense of deaths of millions.

There was substantial trade by China with her neighboring countries by this time which can help explain the spread of chess into or out of China.

Emperor Qin was tyrannical, and soon his subjects rebelled. The first dynasty in China lasted for less than two decades before civil war broke out again.

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206-202 BC The Chu-Han Contention

Towards the end of the Qin Dynasty, there were rebellions everywhere as the rule of Qin was simply too oppressive. One uprising led to another, and soon wars and revolutions started everywhere. These events eventually led to the fall of Qin.

Two important people emerged after the Qin Dynasty fell: the Chu general Xiang Yu (项羽 Xiàng Yǔ 232-202 BC) and Liu Bang (刘邦 Liú Bāng, pronounced Liew Bung, c. 256 – 195 BC).

In a nutshell, as French sinologist Jacques Gernet summarized:

“Liu Pang, a minor Ch’in official of lowly birth, found his authority as head of the insurgent bands growing. He was at first under the orders of Hsiang Yü (232-202), who had made him the prince of Han, but he soon quarreled with his associate. In 207 BC, he led his troops across the Ch’in-ling and in the following year, 206, the theoretical date of the foundation of the new Han empire, crushed the Ch’in army in the valley of the Wei. In 202, Liu Pang eliminated his rival, proclaimed himself emperor and fixed his capital at Ch’ang-an (the present-day Sian), to the south-east of Hsien-yang. Like Hsiang Yü before him, Liu Pang distributed titles of nobility and fiefs to his old companions-in-arms.” (1 pp. 109-110)

The two would later battle each other for the supremacy of China, and Liu Bang, the underdog, would come up on top to unify China and establish the mighty Han Dynasty.

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The Two Hypotheses related to this period

The period where Xiang Yu battled Liu Bang was known as the Chu-Han Contention (楚汉相争Chǔ Hàn Xiāng Zhēng), which lasted from 206 to 202 BC. It is one of the most colorful periods in the history of China and is also very important to the origins of Xiangqi. There are two major hypotheses that suggest that Xiangqi was invented during this period.

  • Hypothesis No. 10: Xiangqi was invented during the Qin or Han Dynasty by Zhang Liang.
  • Hypothesis No. 11: Xiangqi was invented around the same time by Han Xin.

Xiangqi historian Zhou Jiasen wrote in his Xiangqi and Xiangqi Sayings that one of the hypotheses for the origins of Xiangqi was that it was invented during the Qin or Han Dynasty. The proof that he gave was Zhang Liang using a form of chess that had twelve pieces for divination. Zhang Liang learned this method of divination from a hermit called Huang Shigong (黄石公 Huáng Shí gōng), who was a deity apparently. Zhang Liang used the form of divination and was successful in his military campaigns. Huang Shigong was also recorded to have appeared again a few centuries later to pass on the divination method. There was also a mantra called Ling Qi Jing (灵棋经 líng qí jīng). Zhou Jiasen even gave a time frame of 206 BC to 207 BC. His original writings are given below.

周嘉森 《象棋與棋話》

象棋始於秦漢,<<異苑>>謂 :十二棋卜出張良,受法於 黃石公,蓋靈棋法也, 以十二子分上中下擲 之, 據所得按法 擲之,以考吉凶,行師用兵,萬不失一,黃石公行軍,以棋為卜,遺書張良,佐漢高定天下,至東方朔密以占眾事,自此以後,祕而不傳.晉寧康初,襄城寺法味道人,忽遇一老,著黃皮衣,竹筒盛此書,以授法味,無何失所在,逐復流傳於世雲.按古蔔噬多用棋,演六壬課者所用之蔔具,與象棋子絕肖,數中亦有靈棋經. (西元以前二四六至二零七年) (2 p. 2)

The next hypothesis was that Han Xin invented Xiangqi.

According to Zhou Jiasen, when Han Xin was attacking the state of Zhao, his troops were disillusioned and homesick. They were in a state of despair, and morale was low. Han Xin invented a game, which was a type of Bo, whereby dice were thrown for his soldiers to play. They were engrossed in the game and eventually forgot about their homesickness. The Hong Canal was used to divide the opposing factions, and that is why the River on the Xiangqi board is divided called the Chu River and Han Border (楚河汉界 Chǔ hé Hàn jiè)

His original writings are given below.

周嘉森 《象棋與棋話》

漢韓信伐趙時,作象棋,及葉子戲以娛士卒,因年終士卒思鄉,一得博具,則相聚共戲,錢財賭盡而忘歸.又 漢畫鴻溝為界,故象棋亦有楚河漢界之分.(西元以前二零六至二零四年) (2 p. 2)

Author's travels to Hong Gou, Xingyang, He-nan Province, China. The Guangwu Mountains are shown here. In the distance, partly visible, is the Yellow River.

Diagram 1 Author's travels to Hong Gou, Xingyang, He-nan Province, China. The Guangwu Mountains are shown here. In the distance, partly visible, is the Yellow River.

Other historians like Professor Zhang Ru-an would also mention Han Xin and the hypothesis. The author of the Genealogy of Chess, David Li, is a firm believer that Han Xin was the inventor.

However, there has also been much dissent against this hypothesis.

The author will discuss the two hypotheses in detail in separate articles.

To understand these theories, the reader must know a bit of the history during Chu-Han Contention.

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Some Background Knowledge of the Chu-Han Contention

More background knowledge is required to explain and understand the incidents mentioned above fully. It is impossible to describe the entire history of this period. The author will only try to summarize the important events and people possible related to the origins of Xiangqi in this passage.

The two main characters during the Chu-Han Contention are Liu Bang and Xiang Yu. (3)

Xiang Yu gained early recognition after rebelling against the Qin dynasty to become a prominent warlord after restoring the Chu state in 208BC. He would then lead the Chu to victory in the Battle of Julu and was crowned as the Hegemon-King of Western Chu (西楚霸王 xī chǔ bà wáng).

Liu Bang, who later became Emperor Gaozu of Han (汉高祖 Hàn Gāozǔ) is one the most illustrious emperors of all time. He was also one of the few Emperors born into a peasant family. He initially served under the Qin dynasty as a minor law enforcement officer but rebelled to become an anti-Qin rebel leader.

Later, when Xiang Yu overthrew the Qin Dynasty, China was divided into eighteen kingdoms. Liu Bang was given control of one of the most remote kingdoms of that time, the Bashu region. Liu Bang would be given the title of King of Han, but he still served Xiang Yu.

Liu Bang bade his time, and when the time was right, he conquered the Three Qins and started the civil war, which we now know as the Chu-Han Contention against Xiang Yu.

The entire Chu-Han Contention was a highly complicated affair. Many battles were fought between Xiang Yu and Liu Bang. In a nutshell, Liu Bang was initially the underdog. Through a series of political maneuvering, Liu Bang was able to survive. His luck did not run out. Liu Bang was able to enlist the help of several generals, in particular, Xiao He (萧何 Xiāo Hé, 257BC – 193BC), Zhang Liang (张良 zhāng liáng, 262BC-186BC) and Han Xin (韩信 Hán Xìn, 231BC-196BC) who would later prove instrumental in establishing the Han Dynasty. The three were collectively known as the “Three Heroes of the early Han dynasty” (汉初三杰 hàn chū sān jié). (4) (5)

As mentioned earlier, both Zhang Liang and Han Xin have been implicated in the invention of Xiangqi.

At the start of the Chu-Han Contentions, Xiang Yu was victorious and much more successful than Liu Bang. He was also viewed as the most probable successor to reigning China after the fall of the Qin Dynasty. His initial campaigns were so successful that many kings and local warlords would switch allegiance to Xiang Yu and betray Liu Bang.

Liu Bang would rebound from his initial underdog status and eventually win some battles that led to a showdown at the Hong Canal (鸿沟 hóng gōu) located in Xingyang, He-nan. The battle lasted for four years where neither could get the upper hand.

Finally, a treaty was signed that led to a ceasefire. The treaty is known as the Treaty of Hong Canal, which divided China into two domains: the East represented by the Chu (Xiang Yu) and the West represented by the Han (Liu Bang).  

The author has added the passage from the Records of the Grand Historian below. It is from the Chapter on Xiang Yu.



The Hong Canal is thought to be the River on the Xiangqi board that differentiated these two opposing factions. The Hong Canal has dried up, but it has been turned into an important site to commemorate this bit of history. The Hong Canal is located in the Guang Wu Mountains (广武山 guǎng wǔ shān) at Xingyang, He-nan Province, China. It can be seen on Google Map at the following URL link: Google Map of Hong Gou. Note that it is in very close proximity to the Yellow River if you decrease the size of the magnification on the map.

Stone monument of Hong Gou (鴻溝traditional Chinese) at Xingyang, He-nan Province, China

Diagram 2 Stone monument of Hong Gou (鴻溝traditional Chinese) at Xingyang, He-nan Province, China

As Zhou Jiasen mentioned in Hypothesis 11 above, Xiangqi was thought to have modeled after the situation during the ceasefire, where Chu and Han each commanded one side of the Canal.

The tides turned after the Treaty at the Hong Canal. Liu Bang would break the ceasefire when Xiang Yu was busy with other rebellions to attack Xiang Yu. Liu Bang would grow from strength to strength, forcing Xiang Yu to commit suicide eventually. Liu Bang thus established the Han Dynasty, whereby a unified China prospered for four centuries.

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The implications of the Chu-Han Contention

Many people believe that Xiangqi was indeed invented to mirror the Battle at the Hong Canal. Indeed, many of Xiangqi’s interesting rules are explained using the history of the battles fought during the Chu-Han Battle.

For example, the colors Red and Black are explained using the colors that represented Liu Bang (Red) and Xiangqi Yu (Black).

The fact that Red moves first was based on the fact that Liu Bang was faster in conquering Guanzhong (关中Guān zhōng). 

The Royal Rule or Rule of the Flying Kings is based on an encounter between Liu Bang and Xiang Yu.

As mentioned above, the River on the Xiangqi board is believed to be the Hong Canal where the Treaty of the Hong Canal was signed as neither side could defeat their archenemies.

There are many more anecdotes that originated from the Chu-Han Contention. Indeed, this period of history was so inspiring that many Xiangqi endgame compositions found in the Ming Dynasty ancient manual, Elegant Pastime Manual, had references or were simply inspired by the various events that happened during this time.

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Is the River on the Xiangqi Board really the Hong Canal?

Many Chinese attribute the River on the Xiangqi boards to the Hong Canal. However, there have been some opposing voices too.

The hypothesis of Xiangqi being modeled after the war between Xiang Yu and Liu Bang is one of the widely accepted theories in China. ‘Proof’ was suggested to be River in the middle of the board.

To early Western historians, the River was an enigma. Hiram Cox felt that it was not a river but a trench. Sir William Jones questioned the presence of a river in a game without boats. Although Thomas Hyde acknowledged the presence of a river, he felt that it was the Yellow River. Incidentally, the Hong Canal does empty into the Yellow River (see Google Map above). (6) (7) (8)

Modern-day Xiangqi journalist Zhang Zhan (张展 zhāng zhǎn) mentioned in one of his many essays, that while the River on the Xiangqi board was indeed Hong Gou, the inscriptions of Chu River and Han Border only started to appear on Xiangqi boards in the 1930s. He quoted Xiangqi manual collector Liu Guobin (刘国斌 liú guó bīn) on this. Liu Guobin is alleged to have over twenty thousand Xiangqi books in his collection. He said that the Chu River and Han Border inscriptions had not been seen in the ancient literati but that the inscriptions only started appearing on Xiangqi boards in the 1930s. (9 页 14-17)

If Liu Guobin’s views were correct, then using the Chu and Han River as proof that Xiangqi originated from Xingyang would seem invalid.

The River was also a source of criticism from Captain Hiram Cox and Professor Duncan Forbes. However, it would suffice to say that even Forbes did not see any inscriptions written on the River of the Xiangqi chessboard that he had seen. (10)

Hence, Liu Guobin’s observation would seem valid, and that using the River to serve as proof that Xiangqi was created to mirror the feud between Liu Bang and Xiang Yu would appear shaky.

However, the presence of an excavated ceramic board from 1108 AD would give support to the hypothesis that Xiangqi could have been modeled after the Chu-Han Contention. This Xiangqi board was discussed in a documentary from 2013 at the following link. Please refer to the video at about 47 seconds.  (11)

Is the River on the Xiangqi board really the Hong Gou? While the case for Hong Gou would seem to be a perfect fit as the River on the Xiangqi board, the author has not been able to find any quotes or passages that say so in the ancient texts. Yet, from the Xiangqi board from 1108AD, it does seem that the River did refer to the Hong Gou. There are still many unanswered questions.

The case for and against this hypothesis remains open…

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Modern-day commemoration by the Xingyang authorities

The author traveled to Hong Gou two times in 2016 and 2018. Shown below is the stone monument located at the site, which has now been turned into the venue for the Chu-River-Han-Border World King of Xiangqi tournament. Two selected participants, the World Xiangqi Federation) and the Chinese National Champion, meet to play for only one game. The winner would take away ONE MILLION Yuan while the runner-up will pocket THREE HUNDRED THOUSAND Yuan. It is a biannual event that has been held twice. It was supposed to have continued in 2020 but was canceled due to the global Covid pandemic.

2nd Chu River and Han Border World King of Xiangqi Tournament Banquet

Diagram 3 2nd Chu River and Han Border World King of Xiangqi Tournament Banquet

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One of the biggest regrets in the history of China was the burning of the books by Emperor Ying Zheng. There must have been so much more vital information that could shed much light on many of the controversial issues in China today. In particular, there might have been more clues with regards to the history of Xiangqi.

The Chu-Han Contention was a significant period in the history of China. Unfortunately, there lacks solid proof or archeological finds to support the hypothesis fully. The theory of Han Xin inventing Xiangqi also has its roots during this period. It has spawned one of the biggest debates regarding the origins of Xiangqi. The author will go over the discussions and evidence in another separate article.

While the origins of Xiangqi with regards to this period are ambiguous and debatable, its cultural influence or impact on Xiangqi is clear and distinct. There are hundreds of ancient endgame compositions from various ancient manuals that refer to multiple incidents from the Chu-Han Contention.

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1. Gernet, Jacques. A History of Chinese Civilization Second Edition. [trans.] J.R. Foster and Charles Hartman. s.l. : Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge, 1996. 0-521-49712-4.

2. 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.

3. contributors, Wikipedia. Chu–Han Contention. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. [Online] Page Version ID: 1027946672, June 10, 2021. [Cited: July 6th, 2021.]

4. —. Zhang Liang (Western Han). Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. [Online] Page Version ID: 1029851945, June 22, 2021. [Cited: July 7, 2021.]

5. —. Han Xin. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. [Online] Page Version ID: 1027791066, June 10, 2021. [Cited: July 6, 2021.]

6. Hyde, Thomas. De ludis Orientalibus. s.l. : e theatro Sheldoniano, 1694. p. 277. Vol. 2.

7. Cox, Hiram. Burmha Game of Chess compared with The Indian, Chinese, Persian Game of the Same Denomination. Asiatic Researches. 1807, Vol. VII, p. 486. Paper delivered 1799, published several times posthumously.

8. Jones, William. The Works of Sir William Jones in Six Volumes. London : s.n., 1799.

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

10. Forbes, Duncan. The History of Chess: From the Time of the Early Invention of the Game in India Till the Period of Ist Establishment in Europe. London : s.n., 1860.

11. 吕, 广新. 国家档案:中原瓷韵——北宋象棋盘 20131. [中央电视台中文国际频道]. [perf.] 志宏 任. [prod.] 彤云 李. 中央电视台中文国际频道, 2013.

12. 李, 松福. 象棋史话. 北京 : 新华书店北京发行所, 1981. 7015.1939.

13. 张, 如安. 中国象棋史. 北京 : 团结出版社, 1998. 7-80130-170-6.

14. 陈, 贤玲. 象棋方程 . [ed.] 跃中 李. 北京 : 中国社会出版社, 2009.2. 978-7-5087-2456-0.

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