Origins of Xiangqi (Chinese Chess) 08: Warring States Period Part 3

In the previous article, the mention of the phrase 'Xiangqi 'from the Elegies of Chu was discussed and examined. There was also mention of King Wuling of Zhao.

This article would be a continuation of the previous article and continue to examine the final relevant parts of Xiangqi's history during the Period of the Warring States (c. 476 – 221 BC). It would focus on another widely discussed passage that has been addressed by both Chinese and Western historians alike.

In this article, the contents will be as follows:

C. ?- C. 279 BC Meng Changjun playing Xiangqi

C. ? – 273 BC The assassin Jing Ke fled for his life after an argument over Liubo

C. ? – 243 BC Neglecting the state affairs over Liubo


C. ?- C. 279 BC Meng Changjun playing Xiangqi

Another one of the earliest mentions of the phrase 'Xiangqi' (象棋) was noted not long after the Elegies of Chu. It was from Shuo Yuan (《说苑》shuō yuan). A similar passage from Zhan Guo Ce (《战国策》 zhàn guó cè) also mentioned the same incident. Both passages mentioned Meng Changjun (孟尝君 Mèng cháng jūn;? – 279BC ) playing Xiangqi. Meng Changjun has been translated as Lord Mengchang in some Western literature. It would be beyond the scope of this text to discuss the life of Meng Changjun. For the interested reader, the Wikipedia entry would provide basic knowledge.  (1)

Introduction to Liu Xiang and Shuo Yuan

Shuo Yuan was written by Eastern Han scholar Liu Xiang (刘向 Liú Xiàng 77BC - 6 B.C.). Liu Xiang was an outstanding scholar who lived in the Western Han dynasty. Liu's ancestry was also prominent. One of Liu Bang's (who founded the Han dynasty) brothers was Liu Xiang's great-great-grandfather.

Amongst his many works (most of which were lost) were Shuo Yuan (《說苑》·shuō yuan) and Zhan Guo Ce (《战国策》 zhàn guó cè). (2)

Shuo Yuan was a collection of historical essays and was finished in 17BC. There were twenty scrolls to the book.

In Shuo Yuan, it was written that (author's translation),

Liu Xiang's Shuo Yuan, Chapter on Shan Shuo:

"At Yan, he played Xiangqi and danced with the Women of Zheng."

刘向《说苑•善说》:「燕则斗象棋而舞郑女。」). (3)

The chapter described the Period of the Warring States.

Parallel verses could be found in other scriptures:

《艺文类聚·琴》: "斗象旗,舞郑妾"

《太平御览·琴下》: "斗象旗,舞郑妾" (4)

Liu Xiang had also mentioned Liubo in his Zhan Guo Ce. In the chapter regarding the country of Qi in Zhan Guo Ce, Liu Xiang wrote that the country's prosperity allowed the civilians to pursue leisurely activities like music, cock-fighting…, Liubo et cetera.  

In both, the passages from Yi Wen Lei Ju and Tai Ping Yu Lan, the Chinese character for flag '旗' was given instead of '棋' for chess. These two Chinese characters would be homonyms of each other. And instead of '女' for women, '妾' for concubine or mistress was given. However, they should mean the same thing.

There would be more mention of Meng Changjun and Xiangqi.

Qian Que Ju Lei Shu's version

Perhaps the most interesting proof of the validity of the passage in Shuo Yuan would be given in another ancient encyclopedia called Qian Que Ju Lei Shu (《潜确居类书》qián què jū lèi shū.). The book was compiled by Chen Renxi (陈仁锡Chén Rénxī, 1581-1636AD) who lived during the Ming Dynasty.

With regards to Xiangqi, it was mentioned in his book, under the entry of Xiangqi (author's translation):

"Xiang Ji. Shuo Yuan stated that Yong Mengzhou said to Meng Changjun that if you are free during your stay in Yan, you can play Xiang Ji. It is based on the affairs of the Warring States. During the times of war, Xiang Ji was created based on the wars fought. The Secret Xiangqi Manual is now lost, only extant is Jin Teng Qi Zhao. The chariot has the capability to create collisions while the horse is arranged into formations. The advisors are in charge of protecting the internal, while the pawn(s) has the power to attack the enemy. Even the common-folk can discuss military warfare.'

《潜确居类书》: “象棊 说苑 雍门周谓孟尝君。足下燕则鬪象棊.亦战国之事乎.盖战国用兵.故时人用战争之象为棊势也. 象棋神机集不见传。惟有金縢七着以今观之。车有冲突之用.马有编列之势.士有护内之功.卒有犯前之力.斯可以论兵矣。” (5) 

The passage has been deliberately left in traditional Chinese to stress that "鬪象棊" was written. If it were to be translated into simplified Chinese, '斗象棋' would be given.

Hence, Xiang Ji was the game given, and Xiangqi was not known back then. In ancient times, 棊 was given for a game and would probably be an old Xiangqi prototype.

German chess historian Peter Banaschak would give his translation as follows:

"Yong Menzhou 雍門周 said to Mengchangjun 孟嘗君: My lord if you are at leisure, play Xiangqi; thus it was a thing from the time of the contending realms. Because in the strategy of the contending realms the people of this time used elephants just as in the board game strategy (qishi 棋勢)." (6)

It would be an excellent translation.

There is an interesting thing to note about the passage from Qian Que Ju Lei Shu. It was mentioned that people during the Period of the Warring States used the situation on the Xiang Ji or Xiangqi board to mimic actual wars.

Shi Wu Ji Yuan was an encyclopedia that was written by Gao Cheng (高承 gāo chéng, ? -?) from the Song Dynasty. The passage that was quoted is given below. It was also used by K. Himly to suggest that the text was the earliest text that mentioned 象棋.

K. Himly had a translation of the passage that he quoted, and he also gave the original Chinese transcript. The material in K. Himly's paper is provided below. The author has also double-checked K. Himly's passage, and it would indeed be the same passage from Shi Wu Ji Yuan that was collected in Si Ku Quan Shu.

"Yung Mön Chow told Möng Ch'ang Chün:' My lord if you be at leisure, play at elephant chess.' Query, --was there already such a thing at the time of the contending realms?"


雍门周谓 孟尝君足下燕则斗象棋疑战国时期已有此

(7) (8)

K. Himly seemed to have trouble with this passage.

"… it is obvious, why the author of Shǐ wu chi yuan draws the conclusion, that, if the above utterance of Yung Mön Chow's was a matter of fact, the elephant chess ought to have existed already at the time of the 战国 Chan Kuo or 'contending realms.' Unfortunately we do not know, from whence the passage was originally quoted; and as it could have been possibly quoted from a novel, it can hardly be taken for a historical proof. So, until we can trace it back to a more reliable source, we must be content with fixing the period of the invention before the year 100 A.D on the more conclusive authority of the Shuo Wön, which was published during this year."


The contending realms would be another name for the Period of the Warring States. Shuo Wön would be Shuo Yuan.

K. Himly did not know where the passage was quoted from and questioned the validity of the passage. However, since Zhan Guo Ce, a history annal, had also mentioned it, there should not be any doubt of the validity of the passage and should be counted as historical proof. 

Moreover, as discussed earlier, the earliest mention of the term Xiangqi would be from the Elegies of Chu, not the passage on Meng Changjun or Shuo Yuan. Hence, the term Xiangqi would have appeared several centuries earlier than what K. Himly had suggested.

The form of 'Xiangqi' that was played during the Period of the Warring States was definitely not the modern-day form that we have. Instead, the form of Xiangqi during the Period of the Warring States would, instead, be considered to be a prototype of Xiangqi.

Hence the answer to K. Himly's question of whether elephant chess had already existed during the Period of the Warring States would be a resounding yes. However, it would not be the form of chess that we know or that was played in the modern-day.

From the above passages, we can safely assume that there was a game that could be the prototype of Xiangqi that was already present several centuries before Christ. Unfortunately, the ancient texts only provided foggy details.

Li Songfu claimed the game to be Liubo. (9 页 9-10)

C. ? – 273 BC The assassin Jing Ke fled for his life after an argument over Liubo

Jing Ke (荆轲, Jīng Kē c.? -273BC) once had an argument with Lu Goujian (鲁句践 lǔ gōu jiàn) over a game of Liubo and had to flee for his life. Jing Ke was best known for being the assassin who failed in his attempt to kill Emperor Qin Shihuang.

From the chapter on assassins in the Records of the Grand Historian (author's translation):

"Jing Ke was traveling in Han Dan where he had a game of Liubo with Lu Jugou (鲁句践 lǔ jù jiàn). Somehow, Lu Jugou became angry, and there was a scuffle, where an incensed Lu screamed at Jing Ke. Jing Ke made his escape and would never meet Lu Jugou again. "

《史记·刺客列传》: "荆轲游于邯郸,鲁句践与荆轲博,争道,鲁句践怒而叱之,荆轲嘿而逃去,遂不复会。" (10)

C. ? – 243 BC Neglecting the state affairs over Liubo

There was also an account of Liubo being so entertaining that affairs of the state were neglected.

King Anxi of Wei (魏安禧王 wèi ān xǐ wáng, ? – 243 BC) played Liubo with his half-brother Lord Xinling of Wei (信陵君 xìn líng jūn ? – 243 BC). During one of their games, the alarm beacons sounded at the northern border. King Anxi wanted to stop their game to consult his officers, but his brother would not let him do so and said that there was nothing to be worried about. It was probably the King of Zhao going on a hunting trip. King Anxi was worried and distracted and played poorly. True enough, it was the King of Zhao going on a hunting trip.

An account of King Anxi of Wei playing Liubo when the alarms rang.

《史记。魏公子列传》: 公子与魏王博,而北境传举烽,言「赵寇至,且入界」。魏王释博,欲召大臣谋。公子止王曰:「赵王田猎耳,非为寇也。」复博如故。王恐,心不在博。居顷,复从北方来传言曰:「赵王猎耳,非为寇也。」魏王大惊,曰:「公子何以知之?」公子曰:「臣之客有能深得赵王阴事者,赵王所为,客辄以报臣,臣以此知之。」是后魏王畏公子之贤能,不敢任公子以国政。 (11)


This article would mark be the last article about the Period of the Warring States. Xiangqi has been mentioned in several various sources from this period.

Unfortunately, the way the game was played or its identity was not known. It is not believed to be the same as the present-day Xiangqi, and some scholars have dismissed the Xiangqi from this period to be an entity that had the same name but had nothing related to the Xiangqi that we know.

The passages given above would suggest a strong link to Liubo, and indeed, some Chinese historians like Li Songfu have made direct links.

There are a lot of unanswered questions about Liubo. Indeed, many scholars have questioned its link to modern-day Xiangqi.

There have been archeological finds of Liubo sets from the Warring States Period but no archeological findings of Xiangqi. The link between Liubo and Xiangqi, if any, remains one of the biggest points of contention.


1. contributors, Wikipedia. Lord Mengchang. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. [Online] Page Version ID: 999459679, Jan 10, 2021. [Cited: Feb 19, 2021.]

2. 百度百科编者. 刘向 (西汉文学家). 百度百科. [联机] 2019年Nov月1日.

3. Pre-Qin and Han -> Confucianism -> Shuo Yuan -> 善说. 诸子百家 Chinese Text Project. [Online] [Cited: Sep 29, 2020.]

4. (西汉)刘向. Confucianism -> Shuo Yuan -> 善说 -> 14 - Parallel passages. Chinese Text Project. [Online] Nov 1, 2019.

5. (明)陈仁锡. Library -> 潛確居類書 -> 潛確居類書 1067/1397. 诸子百家 Chinese Text Project. [Online] Nov 8, 2019.

6. Banaschak, Peter. FACTS ON THE ORIGIN OF CHINESE CHESS (XIANGQI 象棋). [Online] No date given. [Cited: Mar 15, 2020.]

7. Himly, K. The Chinese Game of Chess as Compared with that Practised by Western Nations. Journal of the North-China Brance of the Royal Asiatic Society. 1869 & 1870, New Series No. VI, pp. 105-122.

8. Wikisource贡献者. 格致鏡原 (四庫全書本)/卷059. Wikisource,。. [Online] 页面版本ID:787207, Oct 27, 2016. [Cited: Feb 8, 2020.] -{R|}-.

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

10. (西汉)司马迁. Pre-Qin and Han -> Histories -> Shiji -> 列传 -> 刺客列传. 诸子百家 Chinese Text Project. [Online] [Cited: Dec 14, 2019.]

11. —. (西汉)司马迁. 诸子百家 Chinese Text Project. [Online] [Cited: Dec 15, 2019.]

12. 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.

13. Li, David H. The Genealogy of Chess. s.l. : Premier publishing, 1998. 0-9637852-2-2.

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