Origins of Xiangqi Chinese Chess 11 Zhang Liang?

Author: Jim Png

Note: This article first appeared on

One of the lesser cited hypotheses regarding the origins of Xiangqi was that Zhang Liang (张良 zhāng liáng, BC 262? -186 BC) invented the game. This hypothesis is implausible, involves divination and the occult. But there are still many interesting bits of history that come with this hypothesis. The author will examine the ‘evidence’ supporting this claim.

The author will present the article in the following format:

Who was Zhang Liang?

Zhang Liang (张良 zhāng liáng, BC 262? -186 BC) was a Chinese military strategist and politician. His biggest claim to fame was being known as one of the “Three Heroes of the early Han dynasty (汉初三杰hàn chū sān jié)” which included Xiao He (萧何 XiāoHé, ? – 193 BC)  and Han Xin (韩信 Hán Xìn, 231 BC – 196 BC). Together, the three helped Liu Bang (刘邦 Liú Bāng ) establish the Han dynasty (202BC – 220 AD). (1) (2) (3) (4)


Picture of Zhang Liang which was carried on the book which is called "Wan hsiao tang-Chu chuang -Hua chuan(晩笑堂竹荘畫傳) " which was published in 1921(民国十年)

Diagram 1 Picture of Zhang Liang which was carried on the book which is called "Wan hsiao tang-Chu chuang -Hua chuan(晩笑堂竹荘畫傳) " which was published in 1921(民国十年). (5)

Zhang Liang’s ancestors were aristocrats in the State of Han (韩国Hán guó). (Note: The State of Han does not refer to Korea, although the Chinese characters are the same).

When the State of Qin annihilated the State of Han, he became a fugitive and even attempted to assassinate the Emperor of Qin after the unification of China. He tried many attempts to hire assassins, but unfortunately, his assassination attempts all failed.

He was wanted by the Qin government and had to run to Xiapi (下邳 xià pī), which is modern-day Pizhou (邳州 Pī zhōu) in Jiangsu province.

The following is the original text from the Records of the Grand Historian.


良嘗學禮淮陽。東見倉海君。得力士,為鐵椎重百二十斤。秦皇帝東游,良與客狙擊秦皇帝博浪沙中,誤中副車。秦皇帝大怒,大索天下,求賊甚急,為張良故也。良乃更名姓,亡匿下邳。 (6)

It was at Xiapi that he met Huang Shigong (黄石公 Huáng Shí gōng) who changed his life. (7)

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The Eccentric Huang Shigong

One day, a down and dejected Zhang Liang took a stroll at Yishui Bridge (圯水桥 yí shuǐ qiáo) near Xiapi.

One fateful day, Zhang took a stroll on the Yishui Bridge near Xiapi. There he met an old man wearing rough clothes. Zhang minded his own business when the old man walked up to him, threw one of his shoes into the river purposefully, and yelled at Zhang, “Hey, you, go down and fetch me my shoe!”

Zhang was astonished and annoyed by the old man’s rude behavior. However, because he was an old man, Zhang Liang kept his temperament and decided to do as he was taught to respect the elderly.

Zhang Liang fetched the shoe from the river and returned it to the old man. The old man did not thank him, but instead, he barked at Zhang Liang again, demanding that Zhang Liang put on his shoe for him. Zhang Liang thought that since he had helped the old man once, he might as well do it a second time. He did what he was told, and the old man left laughing, without expressing any gratitude.

Not long after, the old man returned and said that “Young man, you are worthy of teaching! Return to this place at dawn in five days, and we will meet again.“ Zhang Liang was astonished and did not know what to make of the situation, but he agreed anyway.

Five days later, Zhang Liang kept his appointment and returned to the meeting place at dawn. The old man was already there waiting for him! The old man berated him for being late, yelling, “How can you be late for a meeting with an old man?! Come back five days later!”

The second time, Zhang Liang went back to the venue when the rooster crowed before dawn. Again, the old man was earlier than Zhang Liang and chided Zhang again for being late.

For their third meeting, Zhang Liang decided to be at the venue the night before the meeting. Zhang Liang was earlier than the ecstatic old man who exclaimed: “This is how it should be!”

The old man then pulled out a book from his clothes and told Zhang that he could counsel future emperors after mastering the contents. He even prophesied that Zhang Liang would prosper ten years later. Finally, the old man told Zhang Liang that “Thirteen years later we will meet again at the foot of Mount Gucheng (谷城山Gǔchéng shān). I will be the yellow rock there.” Then the old man left and vanished, never to be seen again.

Zhang Liang took a look at the book and found that it was The Art of War by Taigong (who has been mentioned in an earlier article by the author). Zhang Liang was pleasantly surprised and immersed himself in the book.

Zhang Liang late for his meeting.

Diagram 2 Zhang Liang is late for his meeting. Picture reprinted from article mentioned below. (8)

The original passage from the Records of the Grand Historian is given below.

良嘗閒從容步游下邳圯上,有一老父,衣褐,至良所,直墮其履圯下,顧謂良曰:「孺子,下取履!」良鄂然,欲毆之。為其老,彊忍,下取履。父曰:「履我!」良業為取履,因長跪履之。父以足受,笑而去。良殊大驚,隨目之。父去里所,復還,曰:「孺子可教矣。後五日平明,與我會此。」良因怪之,跪曰:「諾。」五日平明,良往。父已先在,怒曰:「與老人期,後,何也?」去,曰:「後五日早會。」五日雞鳴,良往。父又先在,復怒曰:「後,何也?」去,曰:「後五日復早來。」五日,良夜未半往。有頃,父亦來,喜曰:「當如是。」出一編書,曰:「讀此則為王者師矣。後十年興。十三年孺子見我濟北,穀城山下黃石即我矣。」遂去,無他言,不復見。旦日視其書,乃太公兵法也。良因異之,常習誦讀之。 (6)

A similar passage can be found in the Book of Han (汉书).

Because the old man said that he would be the yellow rock at the bottom of Mount Gucheng, he was later known as (黄石公 Huáng Shí gōng) which is translated as the “Yellow Rock/Stone Old Man.” Huang Shigong is worshipped as a deity in Chinese folk religion and Taoism.

A decade past and Zhang Liang found himself helping Liu Bang, serving as his strategist to defeat Xiang Yu and establish the Han Dynasty. As they say, the rest is history.

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What is the hypothesis that claimed Zhang Liang invented Xiangqi?

Historian Zhou Jiasen (周家森zhōu jiā sēn) stated that Zhang Liang was the inventor of Xiangqi in his book Xiangqi and Xiangqi Sayings (Hypothesis 8 in his book). The following is the author’s translation.

Xiangqi was invented during the time of the Qin Dynasty or Han dynasty. The technique of using twelve chess pieces for divination was from Zhang Liang, who learned the technique from Huang Shigong. The technique was known as the Ling Qi Method (灵棋法 líng qí fǎ). Twelve chess pieces were used for divination. These twelve pieces were thrown in three different ways for divination: upper throw, middle throw, and lower throw. After throwing the twelve pieces, the medium would interpret the pieces from how the pieces landed using the Ling Qi Method to determine whether a course of action will be successful or fail. The divination technique never failed. It was especially effective when fighting wars and deploying troops.

When Huang Shigong deployed his troops, he used chess pieces as the divining pieces. Later, he would pass this divination method to Zhang Liang, who used it to help Emperor Gaozu of Han (Liu Bang) unify China.

Later, Dongfang Su would use the same divination technique for various matters. The technique would be kept secret and never taught to others.

During the early years of the Tai Kang era of the Jin Dynasty (280 – 289 AD), the Taoist priest Fa Wei (法味道人 fǎ wèi dào rén) from a temple in the City of Xiang (襄城Xiāng chéng), suddenly met an old man dressed in yellow clothes (Huang Shigong). The old man gave him a bamboo scroll that contained a book, and the old man taught Fa Wei the techniques of divination. The method of divination or how it was passed down through the generations is not known, but this fable had been passed down from that time.

Accordingly, the ancient methods of divination often used chess pieces. The method of divination involved chess pieces and applied the techniques of Liu Ren (六壬课 liù rén kè) [Note: an ancient method of divination]. The pieces used are identical to the Xiangqi pieces that we have today! Among the numbers/divination (?) is the Ling Qi Jing (灵棋经). (BC 246-207)

In his passage, Zhou Jiasen used ‘绝肖’ which would be the Chinese for identical, and said that the material used by Zhang Liang was the Xiangqi pieces of modern-day!

Zhou’s original passage is given below.

周家森 《象棋与棋语》:

象棋始于秦漢,異苑謂 :十二棋卜出張良,受法于 黃石公,蓋靈棋法也, 以十二子分上中下擲 之, 據所得按法驗之,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,秘而不傳.晉甯康初,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,逐複流傳於世雲.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)  (9 p. 2)

Zhou Jiasen quoted from another book called Yi Yuan (《异苑》yì yuàn).

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Yi Yuan and Ling Qi Jing

The original contents of Yi Yuan are given below.

Scroll Five of Yi Yuan (author’s translation):

“The method of using twelve chess pieces for divination came from Zhang Wencheng (which was one of Zhang Liang’s names), who learned the skill from Huang Shigong. Zhang used it in battle and to deploy the troops. The technique never failed him. Later, Dongfang Su (東方塑 dōngfāng sù) would use the same divination method for various matters. From then on, the method of divination was never again taught to others.

During the early years of the Tai Kang era of the Jin Dynasty (280 – 289 AD), the Taoist priest Fa Wei (法味道人 fǎ wèi dào rén) from a temple in the City of Xiang (襄城Xiāng chéng), suddenly met an old man dressed in yellow clothes. The old man gave him a bamboo scroll and taught Fa Wei the method (of divination). The method of divination or how it was passed down through the generations is not known, but this fable had been passed down from that time.”


十二棋卜出自张文成,受法于黄石公,行师用兵,万不失一。逮至东方塑,审以占众事,自此以后,秘而不传。晋于康初,襄城寺法味道人忽遇一老公,着黄皮衣,竹筒盛此书以授法味,无何失所在,遂复传流于世云。  (10) 

The mention of Ling Qi Jing (《灵棋经》líng qí jīng) is another clue that must be examined. The book has been translated as the Classic of the Divine Chess on Wikipedia.

As the name suggests, divination was done with tokens such as Xiangqi pieces. Other traditional divination methods include the use of turtle shells or yarrow stalks in the I Ching.

Divination includes using twelve Xiangqi pieces with one character on one side with the other side unmarked. Four have the Chinese character for “up,” four have the Chinese character “middle,” and the last four Xiangqi pieces are marked with the Chinese character for “down.” Then the combinations of the Xiangqi pieces are interpreted based on the Ling Qi Jing for the medium to make a prophecy or divination. (11)

The Ling Qi Jing is still extant and can be accessed at this link. Interestingly, there was no mention of what the objects that were thrown were in the original text.

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Mistaken identities?

Even though the Records of Grand Historian stated that the gifted book was a manual on military strategy by Taigong, the book's identity remains controversial.

To put things in perspective, some more history is required.

The book was later ‘inducted’ into a group of seven books deemed as must-read material for officials by the Song Dynasty. These seven books are known as the Seven Military Classics, including Six Secret Teachings, Wei Liao Zi et cetera. The most famous military strategy book in that series is Sun Zi or Sun Zi’s Art of War which is renowned globally.

Yet, in the Seven Military Classics, Zhang Liang’s book was known as the Three Strategies of the Huang Shigong. Ralph Sawyer wrote in his Seven Military Classics of Ancient China that:

“General Chang Liang, who played a fundamental role in the overthrow of the tyrannical Ch’in dynasty and in the establishment of the Han, for example, supposedly had the sole copy of the Three Strategies of Huang Shi-kung, from which he had personally profited, buried with him in his casket. According to one tradition, however, the text resurfaced when his tomb was vandalized in the fourth century A.D. “ (12 p. 16)

The author of the Three Strategies of Huang Shigong remains controversial. Some scholars believe it to be Jiang Taigong. Some claim that it was Huang Shigong (a rock?) who wrote the book. There are also claims that it was written by an unknown person around the Former Han Dynasty, after Zhang Liang’s time! (13)

Therefore, what was the identity of the book that was gifted?

a) Six Secret Teachings of Taigong?

b) the Three Strategies of Huang Shigong?

c) Ling Qi Jing?

Could these three possible identities be reconciled, and do they have anything to do with Xiangqi? Could they validate Zhou Jiasen’s claim that Zhang Liang was a likely inventor of Xiangqi?

The original text to the Three Strategies of Huang Shigong can still be found at the following link.

The author tried to see if there was anything related to Xiangqi in the Three Strategies of Huang Shigong.

軍讖曰:用兵之要,必先察敵情。視其倉庫,度其糧食,卜其強弱,察其天地,伺其空隙。 (14)

Ralph Sawyer translated this passage in his Seven Military Classics of Ancient China as:

The Military Pronouncements states: “The key to using the army is to first investigate the enemy’s situation. Look into his granaries and armories, estimate his food stocks, divine his strengths and weaknesses, search out his natural advantages, and seek out his vacuities and fissures. (12 pp. 297-298)

This passage is perhaps the only passage in the original text to suggest divination, and it is the only passage that the author can find that might have anything to do with the Ling Qi Jing as mentioned above. Even so, it is too far-fetched and has probably nothing to do with Xiangqi.

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Putting things in perspective

First of all, there was no direct mention of Zhang Liang inventing Xiangqi in the Records of the Grand Historian. The author has not come across other passages that state so.

Secondly, using Chess pieces to make divinations is possible. And Xiangqi has indeed been associated with divination by some historians. There are also several historical incidents of Xiangqi being used as a means of divination. Perhaps the most famous historical incident is Concubine Wei using Xiangqi to make a divination to see who the next Emperor was. Still, that historical incident happened centuries later after Zhang Liang’s time.

Besides, the identity of the pieces used remains a mystery. Were they REALLY XIANGQI PIECES? The author has not come across any archeological finds suggesting that the pieces used for divination are Xiangqi pieces or even an ancient prototype.

Thirdly, there does not seem to be any clear link between Zhang Liang and Xiangqi. Instead, we are thrown on the trail of ancient military books and divination methods. 

This hypothesis was also NOT mentioned in the modern Chinese history books by Zhang Ru-an or Liu Songfu. It was found only in Zhou Jiasen’s book.

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A short video explaining the life of Zhang Liang

The author managed to find a Youtube video introducing Zhang Liang. It is quite an excellent video that allows for easy digestion of otherwise dull historical stuff. It also covers some of the important historical incidents that are relevant to the hypothesis.


The author has jotted down the essential time stamps relevant to the history of Xiangqi.

3:36 Zhang Liang meets Huang Shigong.

5:45 Huang Shigong gifts the strategy book

8:22 Zhang Liang helps Liu Bang to establish the Han Dynasty

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Though colorful, the hypothesis that Zhang Liang invented is improbable, based on the research presented above. Although it does contain elements of divination and military strategy, which have been associated with Xiangqi, there is no clear link.

Instead, the author would treat this hypothesis as another example that can portray the rich culture associated with Xiangqi.

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

2. —. Xiao He. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. [Online] Page Version ID: 1027947204, Jun 10, 2021. [Cited: Aug 5, 2021.]

3. —. Han Xin. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. [Online] Page Version ID: 1034787416, Jul 21, 2021. [Cited: Aug 5, 2021.]

4. —. Emperor Gaozu of Han. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. [Online] Page Version ID: 1034492899, Jul 20, 2021. [Cited: Aug 5, 2021.]

5. contributors, Wikimedia Commons. File:Zhang Liang.jpg. Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository. [Online] Page Version ID: 146109582, Jan 11, 2015. [Cited: Aug 7, 2021.]

6. (西汉)司马迁. 先秦兩漢 -> 史書 -> 史記 -> 世家 -> 留侯世家. 诸子百家 Chinese Text Project. [联机] [引用日期: 2021年Aug月5日.]

7. contributors, Wikipedia. Huang Shigong. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. [Online] Page Version ID: 1033888305, Jul 16, 2021. [Cited: Aug 5, 2021.]

8. 優柔的青思. 真沒想到傳授給張良絕世兵法的黃石公,真實身份居然是他!. 今日头天. [線上] [引用日期: 2021年Aug月7日.]

9. 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.

10. (南朝宋)刘敬叔. Wiki -> 异苑 -> 卷五. 诸子百家 Chinese Text Project. [Online] [Cited: Jan 1, 2020.]

11. contributors, Wikipedia. Lingqijing. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. [Online] Page Version ID: 1017149218, Apr 11, 2021. [Cited: Aug 6, 2021.]

12. Sawyer, Ralph D. The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China Including the Art of War. Boulder : Westview Press Inc, 1993. p. 568. 0813312280.

13. contributors, Wikipedia. Three Strategies of Huang Shigong. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. [Online] Page Version ID: 995611451, Dec 22, 2020. [Cited: Aug 7, 2021.]

14. 黄石公?. 維基 -> 黃石公三略 -> 上略. 诸子百家 Chinese Text Project. [联机] [引用日期: 2021年Aug 月7日.]

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

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

17. 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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