Origins of Xiangqi (Chinese Chess) 12a General Han Xin

Author: Jim Png of

Note: This article first appeared on

With regards to the origins of Xiangqi, one of the most important cited hypotheses is that Han Xin (韩信 Hán Xìn) invented Xiangqi. In fact, there are two hypotheses where it is believed that Han Xin invented Xiangqi. These hypotheses are very controversial with their fair share of supporters and cynics. In this article, the author will introduce who Han Xin was, why some people believe that he was the inventor of Xiangqi, the hypotheses themselves, opinions and criticisms of this hypothesis by different people on the subject, and the legacy for Xiangqi that he has left behind.

Statue of Han Xin 01. Reproduced from the internet.

Diagram 1 Statue of Han Xin in China. Reproduced from the internet.

The author will present the article in the following format:

As the article is too long, it has been divided into three portions which will be uploaded weekly.

Who was Han Xin?

To discuss the hypotheses that Han Xin invented Xiangqi, a short introduction to his life is mandatory. The material given below is based mainly on the Records of the Grand Historian. There was a chapter devoted to him and many mentions of him in other relevant chapters. Wikipedia translations have been used. He has been mentioned in many other passages. (1) (2) (3) (4)

Han Xin (韩信, 231?-196BC) was one of the greatest Chinese generals in the history of China. He was also a politician and master strategist, as evidenced by his undefeated record in battles. Han Xin was instrumental in helping Liu Bang establish the Han Dynasty (202BC-220AD), one of the strongest dynasties in the history of China.

Han Xin was born in Huaiyin (淮阴Huái yīn) in modern-day northern Jiangsu Province. Together with the late Chinese premier Zhou Enlai (周恩来 1898-1976, Zhōu ēn lái), the two are perhaps the most influential men to have come from Huaiyin. The author visited Huaiyin in 2018, and the traces of these two men can be found everywhere. The link below shows the alleged hometown of Han Xin in Huaiyin County, Jiangsu. There are a few photos that include a temple dedicated to him.

Han Xin grew up destitute in his childhood as his father died early, and he had to depend on different people to provide for food. Once a woman gave him some food, and he promised to repay her when he became successful. When he returned a war hero, he kept his word and rewarded her with 1000 taels of gold.

Another life event of Han Xin was the incident of him crawling between the legs of a hooligan who challenged him to a fight. He could have killed the hooligan but chose to accept humiliation instead of claiming an innocent man’s life. Later, when he returned to Huaiyin in glory, he found the hooligan. Han Xin promoted the terrified man to a military post instead of exacting revenge, repaying humiliation with gratitude. This story has become one of the inspirational stories that parents teach children on the virtue of enduring hardships and humiliation for the greater good. There are simply too many stories about Han Xin that cannot be fully recorded in this short article.

From Kuniyoshi Utagawa Suikoden Triptych The Fishermen. Public Domain. Please refer to Reference Section for more details.

Diagram 2 Ukiyo-e print of Han Xin crawling under a hooligan's crotch. Public Domain. Reproduced from Wiki page on Han Xin. (5)


Indeed, his life has been very influential to the culture of China. Many Chinese idioms have something to do with Han Xin, and they are still used in every Chinese in modern times, which is over two thousand years after his death.

When Han Xin was young, he would take the opportunity to learn the military strategy and master the sword. The hard work paid off as these skills would lay the foundation for his military success.

Initially, Han Xin joined Xiang Yu’s (项羽 232-202BC, Xiàng Yǔ) army, but he was not taken seriously. Xiang Yu was the Hegemon-King of Chu who overthrew the Qin Dynasty and was on course to become the next ruler of China. A dejected Han Xin eventually left Xiang Yu.

Han Xin’s military genius and abilities did catch the eye of Xiao He (萧何 257-193 BC, Xiāo Hé) and Xiao He introduced Han Xin to Liu Bang (刘邦 256-195BC, Liú Bāng). Liu Bang was Xiang Yu’s arch-enemy at that time.

Liu Bang was able to appreciate Han Xin’s abilities and used Han Xin to fight his battles. Eventually, Han Xin would lead Liu Bang’s army to many victories over Xiang Yu! The battles that have been fought have been well documented in the ancient texts as they paved the way for the establishment of the Han Dynasty. Indeed, many of these incidents were later made into Xiangqi endgame compositions commemorating Han Xin. Han Xin has also been deified as the Deity of the Military (兵仙 bīng xiān, author’s translation), and there are still temples that worship and revere him in China.

Han Xin was given the title of the King of the Chu for his contributions and success on the battlefield.

Together with Xiao He and Zhang Liang (张良 zhāng liáng, BC 262? -186 BC), the three were known as the “Three Heroes of the early Han dynasty (汉初三杰hàn chū sān jié).” Zhang Liang has also been implicated as one of the inventors of Xiangqi, and that hypothesis has been inspected in another article.

However, after establishing the Han Dynasty, Liu Bang became suspicious and jealous of Han Xin and his abilities, despite Han Xin being loyal to Liu Bang throughout his entire career. Word of Han Xin planning a rebellion reached Liu Bang’s ears, and he was arrested and demoted to the Marquis of Huaiyin (淮阴侯 Huái yīn hóu) after Liu Bang pardoned him. Another commonly used translation would be the Duke of Huaiyin. Han Xin was initially crowned the King of Chu before being demoted to the Duke of Huaiyin.

Han Xin’s death has been subjected to much controversy as different versions of the Records of the Grand Historian have different records leading to his death. One version was that Empress Lü Zhi (吕雉 241-180 BC) plotted with Xiao He to lure Han Xin into a trap, capture Han Xin, throw him into jail, and execute him. Debate is still going on as to whether Han Xin planned a rebellion or not. However, it would be beyond the scope of this article. (1)

The author managed to find a lovely Youtube video introducing Han Xin.



Note: At around Han Xin’s time, there was another general who was also called Han Xin with precisely the same Chinese characters. To differentiate the two, this general was called Han Wang Xin (韩王信 ? -196 BC, Hán wáng xìn) whose exploits were also listed in the Records of the Grand Historian. Both died in 196BC. Han Wang Xin would also raise the ire of Liu Bang, and he even led a rebellion.

Pertaining to Xiangqi, the Han Xin mentioned in this article refers to the Marquis/Duke of Huaiyin. And to the author’s knowledge, Han Wang Xin did not have anything to do with Xiangqi.

As mentioned earlier, Han Xin has been implicated as the inventor of Xiangqi. Two major hypotheses claim that Han Xin was the inventor of Xiangqi. The next section of the article will examine these two hypotheses. 

Hypothesis 11a: Han Xin invented Xiangqi as a means to end boredom during battle

Modern-day Xiangqi historian Zhang Ru-an noted that there was mention of Han Xin as the inventor in the ancient Xiangqi manual, Fathomless Ocean. There was a passage stating that Xiangqi was supposed to have been invented by Han Xin. Fathomless Ocean was published in 1808AD. It remains one of the earliest claims to this hypothesis that is still extant. As quoted from Zhang Ru-an’s book, the original passage is given below with a translation by the author.


“It was believed that Xiangqi originated from Han Xin, as Zhu Zi called it Boxi (Game of Bo).” (6 p. 5)

This hypothesis was further elaborated by Zhou Jiasen (周家森 ?-? zhōu jiā sēn) from the last century. In his book, Xiangqi and Xiangqi Sayings (《象棋与棋话》), he wrote the following (the author has taken the liberty to change his original writings in traditional Chinese to simplified Chinese):


汉韩信伐赵时,作象棋,及叶子戏以娱士卒,因年终士卒思乡,一得博具,则相聚共戏,钱财赌尽而忘归.又 汉画鸿沟为界,故象棋亦有楚河汉界之分.(公元以前二零六至二零四年)  (7 p. 2)

A translation by the author is given below.

“When Han Xin was attacking the State of Zhao, he created Xiangqi and a game of leaves to entertain his troops, as they were homesick after years of being away from home. Once his troops got hold of Han Xin’s invention, they gathered together and had fun, losing all their money, and were so happy that they forgot about being homesick. Another supporting evidence was when the Hong Canal was used as a border to separate the two factions. That is why Xiangqi can be divided into the territories of Chu and Han. (206 BV – 204 BC).”

In a nutshell, the first hypothesis would be:

During the war to conquer the state of Zhao, Han Xin’s troops became homesick, and morale was low. To pacify his troops, Han Xin invented a game that dissipated his soldier’s homesick longings. The game was Xiangqi.

As discussed in an earlier article, the Chu-Han Contention has also been implicated in the origins of Xiangqi.

We shall inspect Zhou Jiasen’s hypothesis in detail.

There was mention of winter in Zhou Jiasen’s writings. His writings are validated from a passage found in Yu Pi Zi Zhi Tong Jian Gang Mu (《御批資治通鑑綱目》) by Southern Song scholar Zhu Xi (朱熹 1130-1200, Zhū Xī). It is more well-known as Zi Zhi Tong Jian. The version that the author has managed to find was collected in a much later encyclopedia, Si Ku Quan Shu (《四库全书》Sì kù Quán shū), which is the most giant encyclopedia in Chinese history. The original passage is given below (paragraph 141-142).


丁西楚三年汉三年○是岁赵代九江三国亡酉二大国并衡山临江燕齐韩五小国凡七国冬十月韩信大破赵军禽王歇斩代王余遣使下燕  (8)

Another independent passage was from the Book of Han, mentioning that the event happened in the tenth month, during winter.


三年冬十月,韓信、張耳東下井陘擊趙,斬陳餘,獲趙王歇。置常山、代郡。 (9)

Zhou Jiasen’s given date, and the mention of winter are accurate as Han Xin attacked and conquered the Zhao Kingdom in winter. As for the extermination of the Zhao Kingdom, this piece of history would refer to the Battle of Jingxing (井陉之战 Jǐng xíng zhī zhàn). The Battle of Jingxing is also known as the Battle of Tao River (洮水之战 táo shuǐ zhī zhàn). It happened in 205 BC where Han Xin was pit against the Zhao army. It was also the battle where Han Xin used the strategy of severing the escape routes of his troops to force them into a do-or-die situation. It is well known as "fighting a battle with one's back facing a river" 背水一战 (bèi shuǐ yī zhàn) in Chinese. (10)

Mural depicting the Battle of Jingxing. Reproduced from the Internet

Diagram 3 Photo of a mural depicting Han Xin's famous battle. Source unknown

So, what were the detailed original historical writings on the topic? Was there mention of Xiangqi or the invention of any game? The following is a translation by Burton Watson of the relevant passage. 

Thus he refused to listen to the lord of Kuang-wu’s plan, and the suggestion went unheeded. Han Hsin sent men to spy in secret, and when they learned that the lord of Kuang-Wu’s plan was not being followed, they returned and reported to Han Hsin. He was overjoyed and proceeded without fear to lead his troops down the gorge. When there were still thirty li from the mouth of the gorge, he halted and made camp. During the night he sent an order through the camp to dispatch a force of two thousand light cavalry. Each man was to carry a red flag and, proceeding along a secret route, to conceal himself in the mountains and observe the Chao army. “When the Chao forces see me marking out, they are sure to abandon their fortification and come in pursuit. Then you must enter their walls with all speed, tear down the Chao flags and set up the red flags of Han in their place,” he instructed them. Then he ordered his lieutenant generals to distribute a light meal to the army, saying, “This day we shall defeat Chao and feast tighter!” None of his generals believed that the plan would work, but they feigned agreement and answered “Very well.”

Han Hsin addressed his officers, saying, “The Chao forces have already constructed their fortifications in an advantageous position. Moreover, until they see the flags and drums of our commanding general, they will be unwilling to attack our advance column for fear that I will see the difficulty of the position and retreat back up the gorge.” Han Hsin therefore sent ten thousand men to march ahead out of the gorge and draw up ranks with their backs to the river that ran through the gorge. The Chao army, observing this from afar, roared with laughter. (It was an axion of Chinese military art that one should never fight with his back to a river.)

At dawn Han Hsin raised the flags of the commanding general, set his drums to sounding, and marched out of the mouth of the Ching Gorge. The Chao army opened their gates and poured out to attack, and for a long time the two armies fought together fiercely. At this point, Han Hsin and Chang Erh deceptively abandoned their flags and drums and fled to the forces drawn up along the river. The columns along the river opened to receive them, and the battle continued to rage. As Han Hsin had anticipated, the Chao forces finally abandoned their fortifications completely in their eagerness to contend for the Han flags and pursue Han Hsin and Chang Erh. With Han Hsin and Chang Erh in their ranks, however, the army along the river determined to fight to the death and could not be defeated.

In the meantime, the surprise force of two thousand cavalry which Han Hsin had sent out, waiting until the Chao forces had abandoned their camp in order to follow their advantage, rushed into the Chao fortifications, tore down the Chao flags, and set up two thousand red flags of Han in their place. The Chao forces, unable to receive a victory and capture Han Hsin and the others, were about to return to their fortifications when they discovered that the walls were lined with red flags of Han. The soldiers were filled with alarm and, concluding that the Han army had already captured the generals of the King of Chao, fled in panic in all directions. Though the Chao generals cut them down on the spot, they could not stop the rout. With this the Han forces closed in from both sides, defeated and captured the Chao army, executed Ch’en Yü on the banks of the Ch’ih River, and took Hsieh, the King of Chao, prisoner.  (11 pp. 183-184)


There is a short video depicting the Battle of Jingxing that can be found on Youtube.


The original passage from the Records of the Grand Historian regarding the battle can be found in the link given (paragraphs 9 and 10). If the reader were to study the passage, there was no mention of homesick soldiers or Han Xin inventing games to appease them.

Game of Leaves

Another thing that was mentioned in Zhou Jiasen’s work was a gambling game known as leaves or games of the leaves 叶子戏 (yè zi xì). The first two Chinese characters refer to leaves, while the third Chinese character refers to a game. Zhou Jiasen continued to mention that Han Xin’s invention was something similar to a gambling game as he said the soldiers lost money after obtaining the inventions which, very interestingly, Zhou Jiasen used the term “博具”(bó jù).

Translation of this phrase can be tricky. On the surface, it can be translated as a gambling game as “博具“ can be the short form for “赌博器具.” However, as mentioned in the earlier articles examining the possible history of Xiangqi, Bo 博 alone can also refer to a type of gambling game that was prevalent centuries before Han Xin. It would refer to a series of games whereby dice were use and the most significant representative being Liubo (六博).

And the mention of Bo would coincide with the short sentence in Fathomless Ocean, which said that Xiangqi was a game of Bo.

According to Zhou Jiasen, Han Xin invented BOTH Xiangqi and the Game of Leaves (作象棋,及叶子戏). The author did more research and found a passage from Ge Zhi Jing Yuan (《格致镜原》gé zhì jìng yuán) that mentioned the Game of Leaves. Ge Zhi Jing Yuan was an encyclopedia written in the Qing Dynasty, about one thousand and eight hundred years after Han Xin’s time. It was written by Chen Yuanlong (陈元龙1652-1736AD, chén yuan lóng) who was a scholar and politician in his time. Ge Zhi Jing Yuan has also been used substantially by early German historians like K. Himly when discussing the origins of Xiangqi. Unfortunately, Zhou Jiasen had never revealed the source or references in his book. (12)

An entire section was devoted to the Game of Leaves in Ge Zhi Jing Yuan. The original passage from Ge Zhi Jing Yuan discussing the Game of Leaves has been preserved at Wiki at the link given. The reader will have to move the left arrow key on the bottom to read the entire passage as the screen only shows part of the information.

According to Chen Yuanlong, the inventor of the Game of Leaves is not known. Neither was the time of the invention available. Chen Yuanlong mentioned that the game was popular during the Period of the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period (c. 874-979 AD), which would be about one thousand years after Han Xin’s death. Chen Yuanlong also mentioned that the game was played with dice, but how the game was actually played is not known. And it would seem that there were several versions of the game too.

Unfortunately, Han Xin’s invention of “Xiangqi” or “Game of Leaves” was not described in detail by Zhou Jiasen or Chen Yuanlong.


Hypothesis 11b: Han Xin taught his prison guard to preserve his military knowledge and wisdom

The last few years of Han Xin’s life were a tragedy. There were several different accounts where he was eventually put to death for suspected treason and plotted a rebellion against Liu Bang, the Founding Emperor of the Han Dynasty, by then. Had Han Xin revolted against Liu Bang? So far, there are several different versions of what happened in the history books, and there is still debate that is beyond the scope of this passage. We can be sure that Han Xin was eventually executed.


春正月,淮陰侯韓信謀反長安,夷三族。 (9)

There is another hypothesis that Han Xin invented Xiangqi towards the end of his life. This hypothesis can be found in two different books, one by journalist Zhang Zhan and another modern-day author Chen Xianling. It appears to be more of a story circulated in the masses, passed down from generation to generation. The author has not been able to locate the passage in the ancient scrolls.

A short summary of this hypothesis (author’s translation of the text given in Zhang Zhan and Chen Xianling’s book) would be:

Han Xin was put in jail for suspected treason. The prison guard overseeing him was in awe of the great hero and begged Han Xin to teach him the finer aspects of warfare.

Touched by the prison guard’s sincerity, Han Xin proceeded to think of a way to teach what he had learned. It was impossible for the guard to go through hundreds of scrolls and books. So, Han Xin drew up a chessboard with a river in between, marking the river with the inscriptions of Chu River and Han Border. After more thinking, Han Xin asked for paper and a brush and wrote different characters for the King, Chariot, Pawn, Horse, Advisor, Elephant, and Cannon.

He then taught the guard how to play the game. He then proceeded to tell the guard that although his invention would seem simple, if the prison guard were able to master the intricacies of the pieces and game, the prison guard would become feared on the battleground. This was how Xiangqi was invented. (13 pp. 16-17) (14 页 16-17)

Two questions need to be answered:

  • Was Han Xin imprisoned, as mentioned?
  • To teach the prison guard his military wisdom, Han Xin would have to have something to teach in the first place. What abilities did Han Xin possess that the prison guard coveted that? This question would also examine the ‘credentials’ of Han Xin to see if he could invent Xiangqi.

But what did the historical records say about Han Xin and his death? (11)

The original passage of the imprisonment and eventual beheading of Han Xin is given below. It was one of several accounts in the Records of the Grand Historian. However, this passage is perhaps the most detailed description of the encounter. The original passage was:


其舍人得罪於信,信囚,欲殺之。舍人弟上變,告信欲反狀於呂后。呂后欲召,恐其黨不就,乃與蕭相國謀,詐令人從上所來,言豨已得死,列侯群臣皆賀。相國紿信曰:「雖疾,彊入賀。」信入,呂后使武士縛信,斬之長樂鐘室。信方斬,曰:「吾悔不用蒯通之計,乃為兒女子所詐,豈非天哉!」遂夷信三族。 (3)

The following is a translation by Burton Watson.

It happened that one of Han Hsin’s retainers had committed some fault against Han Hsin, who had imprisoned him and was about to execute him. The retainer’s younger brother reported Han Hsin’s disaffection to the capital, sending a letter to inform Empress Lü that he was planning to revolt. The empress thought of summoning him, but she was afraid that he would not come, so together with Hsiao Ho, the prime minister, she devised a scheme whereby they had a man pretend to come from the emperor with news that Ch’en His had already been captured and killed. When the nobles and ministers all appeared to offer their congratulations Hsiao Ho sent word to trick Han Hsin, saying, “Although you are ill, you must make and effort to come to the capital and present your congratulations.” Han Hsin came.

Empress Lü ordered the guards to bind Han Hsin and execute him in the bell-room of the Palace of Lasting Joy. When he was about to be beheaded, he said, “To my regret I did not listen to K’uai T’ung’s scheme. And now I have been tricked by this bitch and her lackey! Is it not fate? Han Hsin’s family, to the third degree of kinship, was exterminated.


As can be seen in the passage, there was no mention of Han Xin inventing Xiangqi. Nor was there any passage mentioning his encounter with the prison guard or Han Xin being thrown into prison for that matter.

It appears that Empress Lü put Han Xin to death as fast as possible. The author does not think that Han Xin, great as he was, would have the time to come up with the idea of Xiangqi and then teach it to any prison guard before he was executed.

As can be seen, the validity of such a hypothesis is highly questionable. n Zhang Zhan felt that this hypothesis was not credible and dismissed it. Chen Xianling only included it as part of the introduction. Professor Zhang Ru-an, considered the authority on the subject, did not even bother to include this ‘fable’ in his book.

However, an exciting idea is portrayed in this hypothesis. The concept that Xiangqi was invented as a means to teach warfare is not new. As mentioned earlier, the hypothesis that King Wu of Zhou invented Xiangqi to teach his troops the finer points of warfare is another example. The same concept is presented here. Could Xiangqi have been a game created to teach soldiers the principles, strategies, and warfare tactics?

Unfortunately, the author has not been able to find any more information about this aspect.

To be continued.

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