Origins of Xiangqi (Chinese Chess) 05: Spring and Autumn Period

Palace architecture in Henan 07In the previous article, Bo was introduced in the Western Zhou Period. Although China was still theoretically under the Zhou Dynasty rule, there were power struggles, and local factions gained power and destabilizing the emperors of the Zhou Dynasty so much so that vassal states were formed. What followed was the Spring and Autumn Period, which was one of the most colorful and complicated periods of history in China.

The Spring and Autumn Period is perhaps the first period in China's history, where many references to Liubo and other suspected prototypes of Xiangqi were mentioned. There was also a direct reference to Weiqi and Liubo; two games suggested to be the same in texts by the early Western historians.

During this period, the texts mentioned served as sources whereby Xiangqi's etymology was discussed, scrutinized, and studied. It was also of great interest to both the Chinese and Western historians. Unfortunately, there were different interpretations of the same texts, and these discrepancies would perhaps explain why the views towards the origins of Xiangqi have been so polarized.  

There were also other less studied hypotheses regarding Xiangqi's origins, which could be traced back to the Spring and Autumn Period.

Indeed, the Spring and Autumn Period and the Warring States Period would mark perhaps the definitive stage in Xiangqi's development.

This article would be an in-depth analysis of the various texts that originated from the Spring and Autumn Period, which was about a thousand years earlier than the time of Emperor Wu of Northern Zhou. Emperor Wu of the Northern Zhou Dynasty is not to be confused with the Zhou Dynasty mentioned in the previous article. It was also this time that Xiangqi was supposed to have spread into China, as suggested by HJR Murray and other Western scholars.  

The following would be a discussion on the various findings relevant to the Spring and Autumn Period. It would be discussed in the following sections:


Some background history

A short review is necessary to put things into perspective. The history of the Zhou Dynasty has been divided into three periods for study:

  • Western Zhou (c. 1045- c. 771 BC),
  • Spring and Autumn Period (c. 771 – 476 BC), and
  • Warring States Period (c. 476 – 221 BC).

The Spring and Autumn Period and the Warring States Period have been collectively discussed as the Eastern Zhou. There has been some overlap and the transition from one period was not clear and distinct, but the Partition of Jin has been used to mark the end of the Spring and Autumn Period to the Warring States Period. (1) (2)  

The Spring and Autumn Period was very important to the Chinese culture because important bureaucrats, influential scholars, kings, politicians, et cetera lived during this period. The Hundred Schools of Thought (诸子百家 zhū zǐ bǎi jiā) era started during the Spring and Autumn Period and ended in the Warring States Period. It would have a profound effect on the philosophy, history, and culture of the Chinese.   (3) 

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Important people and their influence on Xiangqi

Lao Zi 老子

Chinese Thought from Confucius to Cook DingAbout philosophy and religion, Lao Zi ( 老子 Lǎo zǐ, c. 6th century -4th century) wrote the Tao Te Ching, which is one of the most important books in Taoism in China. Lao Zi has also been translated as Lao Tzu, Lao-Tze et cetera. He is thought to be an older contemporary of Confucius, but some ancient texts believe that he had lived during the Warring States Period. Although the concept of Yin and Yang was already present before Lao Zi's time, his Tao Te Ching would serve as the basis of Taoism.   (4)  (5)

Why mention Taoism? Many Chinese scholars believe that Xiangqi was based on the principles of the Yin and Yang, which can be seen from the invention of Weiqi. Pavel Bidev's suggestion that the magic square or Luoshu Square had something to do with Xiangqi's invention could be traced back to the Tao Te Ching. Sinologist Professor Joseph Needham had a similar view, which has been covered in the previous article.   

Confucius 孔子

Another important and world-renowned person was Confucius (孔子 Kǒng zǐ,c. 551-479 BC ) who is known as the Great Sage. The Analects of Confucius has been studied by both the Chinese and the West alike.

Sun Zi 孙子

Sun Zi (孙子 Sūn zǐ, c. 544 – c. 496 BC) also lived during this turbulent period, which was perhaps a golden age to develop and refine military strategy and thoughts. Sun Zi's Art of War needs no further introduction. (6)

The Webmaster deliberately mentioned Sun Zi. Since Jiang Taigong's time (see the previous article), the military strategy had evolved considerably. It would seem to provide the environment that would be favorable for Xiangqi to develop as a game of warfare. Indeed, the principles of the opening phase, midgame phase, and endgame phase in Xiangqi can often be explained with Sun Zi's Art of War. Zhou Jiasen also suggested the advancements in military thought to be one of the hypotheses of Xiangqi's origins.

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One of the hypotheses that Zhou Jiasen mentioned

Drums with Pawn inscribed 03As mentioned earlier, one of the theories put forward by Zhou Jiasen was that Xiangqi was invented during the Spring and Autumn Period.

  • Hypothesis Number 7: A game or prototype of Xiangqi was already present in this period.

He even mentioned that to mirror actual wars, the pawns were only allowed to advance and never retreat. Compared to Weiqi of the same period, Xiangqi, or a prototype of Xiangqi, showed more attacking and defending potential. That game was also complicated and had many possibilities. Zhou Jiasen gave the date as 722BC-403BC, but unfortunately, he did not specifically cite any ancient passages, nor did he cite the source from which he got the date. (7 p. 1)

Zhou Jiasen's writings (Traditional Chinese)

象棋一藝,策源于春秋,鼎盛於五代,因為是時猶重車戰,兵卒過界有進無退,為沉舟破釜之意,其機會變幻,雖視圍棋稍約,而攻守就應之妙,亦有千變萬化也. (西元以前七二二至四零三年)  . (7 p. 1)

The following is the Webmaster's translation:

"The game/art of Xiangqi probably started in the Spring and Autumn Period and became very popular during the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period (c 904-979AD). The proof is given in the fact that the Chariot was an important part of war, and soldiers, upon entering enemy territory, are not allowed to retreat. It would be like burning the boats and smashing the pans. There are uncountable opportunities in the game. Although it is less complex than Weiqi, the possibilities for attack and defense are countless.  (c 722 – 403 BC).

There were two 'proofs' cited:

  • the Chariot was an essential part of warfare,
  • Soldiers and Pawns were not allowed to cross the border into enemy territory and could not retreat.

Regarding these two 'proofs,' there were other texts from the ancient books that supported them.

Sun Zi's Art of War mentioned (Translation by Lionel Giles):

"He burns his boats and breaks his cooking-pots; like a shepherd driving a flock of sheep, he drives his men this way and that, and nothing knows whither he is going. " (8)

《孙子•九地》 "焚舟破釜,若驱群羊而往。" (9)  

A similar bit of history was mentioned in the Records of the Grand Historian. In the section on Xiang Yu (项羽 XiàngYǔ, 232-202BC), the Grand Historian Sima Qian wrote of Xiang Yu burning the boats and smashing the cooking utensils so that his troops knew that they were in a do or die situation when Xiang Yu went after his enemies. The original text is given below.  


“项羽乃悉引兵渡河,皆沉船,破釜甑,烧庐舍,持三日粮,以示士卒必死,无一还心。” (10)

Unfortunately, no other details were mentioned to support this hypothesis.

Xiang Yu was the Hegemon-King of the Western Chu during the Chu-Han Contention Period.


1) The 'XIANG' in Xiang Yu is a surname/family name, and while it is a homonym to the Xiang in Xiangqi, IT IS NOT RELATED TO THE XIANGQI IN XIANGQI.

2) There are another two hypotheses that Xiangqi was invented in the Chu-Han Contention or invented by General Han Xin, who fought Xiang Yu. These two hypotheses will be addressed in another article.

As for the validity of Zhou's hypothesis, it would be unconvincing as nothing else much was not mentioned. The Cannon, the Advisor, the Elephant, the Xiangqi board, et cetera, were not mentioned.

Perhaps, this hypothesis could only suggest that a game which was probably the precursor to Xiangqi could have existed by this time. The time frame that Zhou Jiasen gave would be accurate if it referred to Sun Zi's Art of War.

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 Nangong Wan went on a killing rampage because of Liubo

Nangong Changwan (南宫长万 Nángōng cháng wàn, ? – C. 682 BC) lived during the Spring and Autumn Period and was a politician of the State of Song. He was also known as Nangong Wan (南宫万 Nángōng wàn). He was also known to have been a man of great strength. (11)

Author's translation:

From the Chapter on Song Weizi, in Shiji (author's translation):

"In the autumn of the eleventh year, Duke Min of Song and Nangong Wan went on a hunting trip. They had a heated argument because of a game of Bo, and Duke Min of Song insulted Nangong Wan with: 'I have treated you with respect, but now, I will treat you as a captive!' Nangong Wan was a powerful man and was incensed with Duke Min of Song. In a moment of anger, Nangong Wan used the Bo board to kill Duke Min of Song."


十一年秋,泯公与南宫万猎,因博争行,泯公怒,辱之,曰: "始吾敬若;今若,鲁虏也。" 万有力,病此言,遂以局杀泯公于蒙泽。 (12)

In a later part of the passage, it was said that Nangong Wan killed another few more people as a result of this incident. As it is not relevant to Liubo, it will not be discussed.

A parallel passage was later collected in Tai Ping Yu Lan. The translation above can be used.


《史记》曰:宋闵公与南宫长万博,争。公怒辱之,曰:「吾始敬若,今子鲁虏也!」长万病此言,遂以局杀闵公。 (13)

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The earliest mention of Weiqi to date

According to Zhang Ru-an, records of Weiqi before the Spring and Autumn Period could not be found.

Perhaps the earliest mention of Weiqi was from the Commentary of Zuo. The book was an ancient Chinese narrative history. The original passage is given below with a translation by James Legge.

Translation by James Legge:

"The twenty-fifth year from Chapter on Duke Seang, Commentary of Zuo."

"Ning-tsze is now dealing with his ruler not so carefully as if he were playing at chess. How is it possible for him to escape disaster? If a chess-player lifts his man without a definite object, he will not conquer his opponent…" (14)


“今甯(níng)子视君,不如弈棋,其何,以免乎,弈者举棋不定,不胜其耦(ǒu)” (15)

The Commentary of Zuo contained thirty-five scrolls and was supposedly written by Zuo Qiuming (左丘明 Zuǒ Qiū míng, 556-451 BC), an officer serving the Kingdom of Lu. However, some other scholars believed that it was written by other people from the Period of the Warring States.

Zuo Qiuming was also a contemporary of Confucius. The Commentary of Zuo has been translated into several names, one of which would be its Hanyu Pinyin Zuo Zhuan (《左传》).

The significance of this passage was to prove that Weiqi and Xiangqi, or rather, in the form of a game of Bo (possibly Liubo), were different entities. It would also denounce some claims by historians who mistook Xiangqi for Weiqi.

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Confucius and Boyi

The Analects of Confucius has also been quoted very often with regards to the History of Xiangqi. Although the Great Sage DID NOT mention Xiangqi directly, he has been quoted to have mentioned Boyi.

From the Analects of Confucius, on the Book of Yang Huo:

《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." (16) 

"Gamesters" in the text are different from the chess-players. The game specially intended was one played with twelve dice, the invention of which is ascribed to the time of one or other of the tyrants, with whom the dynasties of Hea and Shang terminated. I have also seen it referred to a much later date and said to have been imported from India. Commentators are much concerned to defend him from the suspicion in this chapter any sanction to gambling. He certainly expresses his detestation of the idle glutton very strongly.'

German historian H.F.W Holt also discussed this passage and presented a translation of his own, given below:

"The Master said, 'To do nothing but gorge one's self all day without having any occupation for the mind, is indeed a difficult task. For there is not at least chess-playing? for a striving to attain is surely a worthy object?" (17)

The Webmaster has also found several other English translations by both Chinese and Western scholars. Generally speaking, the translations were similar and would not be included in this chapter.

Bo has been mentioned before in an earlier article.

The significance of the games of Bo being mentioned in the Analects is that whatever the game mentioned was, and it was already very popular and well-known in Confucius's time.

Another thing to know would be that these early game(s) seemed to have a bad reputation and often led people to equate Xiangqi and gambling. Interestingly, the great Sage did NOT play the Bo himself.

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By the Spring and Autumn Period, a prototype of a game of Xiangqi was already popular. While there were several forms of the games of Bo in ancient times, Liubo remains the most probable and highly touted form of a game that Chinese historians believe to be the original prototype of Xiangqi.

There is a section on the Buddha and forbidden games that may be related to Xiangqi's history that is not mentioned here. The author has chosen to write about this topic in a later article because of the sheer volume and information that leaves much room for discussion.

In the next article, the history of Xiangqi during the Period of the Warring States will be discussed.

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