The Biggest Bet in Xiangqi (Chinese Chess) History Part 1

Author: Jim from

Note: This article first appeared on

With its long history, there have been many exciting tales in Xiangqi (Chinese Chess). Some have been lost in the sands of time, but other myths have been passed down through the generations. But, perhaps the most frequently discussed 'tale' would be the tale of Zhao Kuangyin losing a monumental bet when playing Xiangqi. In fact, the bet was so big that there would probably not be any bigger bet in the history of Xiangqi: the entire Mount Hua in China. In the best of three matches, the winner of the bet was Chen Tuan, a Taoist priest who lived the last years of his life as a hermit in Mount Hua, which he 'won.'

This 'incident' has been deemed as a story by the author because Chinese Xiangqi historians generally agree that the current form of Xiangqi that is played nowadays took form earliest by the Southern Song Dynasty, which would be the second part of the Song Dynasty. Zhao Kuangyin was the founder of the Song dynasty, which would mean that if he had indeed played and lost the bet, the origins of the current day form of Xiangqi would have been pushed back a few hundred years towards the end of the Tang Dynasty.

However, since the tale of Zhao Kuangyin losing the bet is so well established, an inspection of the early texts is necessary.

This article would retell the tale of the biggest bet in Xiangqi history and examine the details, and most importantly, the story's validity based on the author's research.

Disclaimer: The author is not a historian by profession but a Xiangqi enthusiast.

This article would be presented in the following sections:

Who was Zhao Kuangyin?

Zhao Kuangyin (赵匡胤 Zhào Kuāng yìn  927-976AD) is perhaps better known as Emperor Taizu of Song. He was the founding Emperor of the Song Dynasty, one of the longest and strongest dynasties in China's history. Under Emperor Taizu of Song's leadership, a fragmented China that resulted from the Tang dynasty's fall in 907AD was mostly reunited. Perhaps the most important famous incident regarding Emperor Taizu of Song was the Coup at Chen Bridge (陈桥兵变 Chén qiáo bīng biàn) (1)

Who was Chen Tuan?

Chen Tuan (陈抟 Chén Tuán, 871? – 989? AD ) was one of the most important Taoist sages in the history of China. He is often respectively referred to as "Aged Ancestor Chen Tuan" (陳摶老祖 Chén Tuán Lǎo zǔ) or "Ancestral Teacher Xiyi" (希夷祖師 Xī yí Zǔ shī). There have been many different opinions of his age. Some claim he has lived 118 years and other claims suggest that he lived 180 years or longer. Chen Tuan was also well known for the fact that he loved sleeping and has been dubbed by some as the Sleeping Immortal. He was believed to have been enlightened in his sleep. (2) Chen Xi Yi Asleep by Hasegawa Tohaku Ishikawa Nanao Art Museum. By Hasegawa Tōhaku -, Public Domain,

Chen Tuan was also an expert at reading people's fortunes by inspecting their faces. It is a form of Chinese physiognomy that has been present since ancient times. Experts were allegedly able to tell a person's fortunes just by looking at the faces. It would be akin to palmistry. Chen Tuan used this gift in specific versions of the story to see that Zhao Kuangyin was no ordinary man. (3)  

Shown on the right is a reproduction of Chen Tuan by a Japanese painter. Hasegawa Tōhaku -, Public Domain,


More about The Bet

Mount Hua (华山Huà Shān) is a mountain located near the city of Huayin in Shaanxi Province, about 120 kilometers east of Xi'an. It is the "Western Mountain" of the Five Great Mountains of China and has a long history of religious significance. It has also been portrayed in many martial arts novels. Originally classified as having three peaks, the mountain is classified as five main peaks in modern times, the highest of which is the South Peak at 2154.9m.  (4)

Of significant interest is the Chess Pavilion which is located at the top of the East Peak (2100m), where it was supposed that Zhao Kuangyin and Chen Tuan played Xiangqi. A picture that can be found on Wikipedia of the place at the following link shows how rugged, immense, and yet picturesque the terrain was.

For interested readers, the Five Great Mountains of China are (5):

  • East Great Mountain: Mount Tai (泰山 Tài Shān)
  • West Great Mountain: Mount Hua (华山Huà Shān)
  • South Great Mountain: Mount Heng in Hu-nan (衡山 Héng Shān)
  • North Great Mountain: Mount Heng in Shanxi (恒山 Héng Shān)
  • Center Great Mountain: Mount Song (松山 Sōng Shān)

Perhaps the earliest mention of the incident

There was a poet cum author called Lv Liuliang (吕留良 1629-1683AD) who was fiercely patriotic. He lived in the time when the Ming Dynasty fell, and the Qing Dynasty was established. Although he was most famous for his anti-Qing poems, he had also written about Xiangqi. He called his work on Xiangqi 《象棋语》, which can be translated as Statements About Xiangqi. The date the story was written is unknown, but it should have been in the mid-17th century judging from Lv Liu Liang's life.  (6) (7 p. 80)

The author of this article has not been able to find the original passage by Lv Liuliang. Instead, the following passage was found in other books like Professor Zhang Ru-an's History of Xiangqi and Li Songfu's book on Xiangqi, quoted from Lv Liuliang.

The relevant passage from Lv Liuliang's books is given below with a translation by the author.

According to the Annals of Huayin County:

"When Emperor Taizu of Song was still down and out, he had traveled to Mount Hua and had played Xiangqi against Xiwu the Sage (希夷老人). Taizu lost to Chen, and when he ascended the throne, he decreed that Mount Hua and the areas near it were exempted from tax. It was to fulfill the promise that he made towards Xiwu the Sage. There are still relics that are present to prove this."



1. Xiwu the Sage is another name for Chen Tuan that Zhao Kuangyin bestowed when he became Emperor. It leaves no ambiguity to the identity of the person.

2. Huayin county is located in Shanxi (陕西) province. Mount Hua is located in Huayin county.

3. Although Lv Liuliang mentioned this incident is recorded in the Annals of Huayin County, it proved that such an incident had happened way before he wrote his book. However, the original text or the original Annals of Huayin County cannot be found by the author of this article to date.

4.This was the argument that Professor Zhang Ru-an gave to refute the statement that another historian, Li Songfu (李松福 lǐ sōng fú), had claimed that the earliest mention of the incident was from during the early Qing dynasty.

5. The author of this article cannot identify the relic mentioned in the annals. Perhaps an educated guess would be the chess pavilion, as mentioned earlier.

6. There were no details of the games or records of the matches that were played.

7.On the topic of tax exemption, the author of this article has not been able to find more historical mentions to date.

A Tall Tale  

The following account was from the novel General Yue Fei (《说岳全专》) which was cited in Professor Zhan Ru-an's (张如安) History of Chinese Chess. It is perhaps the most trustworthy version of the story. (7 pp. 79-82).

The author managed to find the original passage.  General Yue Fei was written by Qian Cai (錢彩qián cǎi), who was supposed to have lived in the Qing dynasty. The time frame given for Qian Cai's life is believed to be 1661-1735AD. So, the novel mentioning this exciting story was written about 700+ years after the founding of the Song Dynasty. (8) . There was an English translation of the novel in the 1990s, but the author has not been able to locate the translation. It was by a Hong Konger who translated the novel as General Yue Fei.

The author did the following translation. The original text that the author could find is given below for bilingual people reading this article.

From General Yue Fei

Chen Tuan, the Taoist priest, was sleeping again. He loved to sleep all his life and was known to have become enlightened in his sleep, where he was deified. The ordinary people do not know that and only say that a nap by Chen Tuan could last for a thousand years.

One day, Chen Tuan started sleeping again. His disciples, Gentle Breeze (清风 qīng fēng) and Bright Moon (明月míng yuè) were bored but could do nothing. Gentle Breeze started a conversation with Bright Moon.

Gentle Breeze: "My dear younger colleague, our Master just started sleeping again. We do not know when he will wake up. Are you game for a short trip into the mountains for some fun?"

Bright Moon agreed immediately, and both young boys left the cave where they resided and started making their way into the mountain. Tranquility was everywhere. The pine trees quietly stood by the paths, and the bamboo forests provided coverage. Soon, they made their way past a rock where they saw the remains of a Xiangqi endgame.

Gentle Breeze: "My dear younger colleague, who were the players of this game of Xiangqi? Do you still remember?"

Bright Moon: "How can one forget? When Zhao Kuangyin, later Emperor Taizu of Song was on his way to Guanxi (关西 Guān xī), he passed by Mount Hua. At that time, he was but a small general serving Chai Rong (柴荣 chái róng), the Emperor Shizong of Later Zhou. Our Master felt that he was no ordinary person and brought him up to Mount Hua to play Xiangqi. Zhao could not refuse our Master, and the two eventually played three games of Xiangqi.

Zhao thought far and deep when he made his moves, and he was very proactive. He did not give Lao Zu (Chen Tuan's courtesy name) any chance of a breather, and by the midgame phase, Lao Zu was in deep trouble.

It would seem that Zhao was about to win when Lao Zu started making a series of brilliant moves that turned the tables, defeated Zhao, and won 200 taels of silver.

Zhao Kuangyin was upset with himself. He tried to bluff his way of losing the bet, saying that he had critical military matters to attend and did not have so much money on this trip. Zhao was on the verge of leaving, but Lao Zu appealed and managed to get the Green Dragon, Chai Shizong (柴世宗 chái Shì zōng), and the Hungry Tiger, Zheng Ziming (郑子明 Zhèng zǐ míng) to act as witnesses. Lao Zu forced Zhao to sign an agreement whereby Zhao would forsake Mount Hua and gift Mount Hua to himself.

Later, when Zhao became the Emperor, Lao Zu brought the agreement as he traveled to the capital.

Zhao did not go back on his words and promptly gave Mount Hua to Lao Zu. As a token of appreciation for Lao Zu, the Emperor even decreed that citizens and inhabitants of Mount Hua would not have to pay taxes.

The endgame you see was the remains of their battle. "

《说岳全专。第一回天遣赤须龙下界 佛谪金翅鸟降凡》

再说那陈抟老祖一生好睡。他本是在睡中得道的神仙,世人不晓得,祇说是「陈抟●一困千年」。那一日,老祖正睡在云床之上,有两个仙童,一个名唤清风,一个叫做明月。两个无事,清风便对明月道:「贤弟,师父方才睡去,又不知几时方醒,我和你往前山去,游玩片时如何?」明月道:「使得。」他二人就手搀著手,出洞门来闲步寻欢。但见松径清幽,竹阴逸趣,行到盘院石边,猛见摆著一副残棋。清风道:「贤弟,何人在此下棋,留到如今,你可记得吗?」明月道:「小弟记得当年赵太祖去关西之时,在此地经过,被我师父将神风摄上山来下棋,赢了太祖二百两银子,逼他写卖华山文契,却是小青龙柴世宗、饿虎星郑子明做中保。后来太祖登了基,我师父带了文契下山,到京贺喜,求他免了钱粮,这盘棋就是他的残局。」 (9)

Please note that this was found in a NOVEL that was written in the early Qing dynasty, approximately 700+ years after Zhao Kuangyin founded the Song Dynasty.

Note: Article to be continued with Part 2.


Works Cited

1. contributors, Wikipedia. Emperor Taizu of Song. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. [Online] Mar 19, 2021. [Cited: Apr 9, 2021.]

2. —. Chen Tuan. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. [Online] Mar 9, 2021. [Cited: Apr 9, 2021.]

3. 宗家秀. 皇帝身邊的賢人 他與皇帝賭棋 贏得華山永不賦稅. 大紀元 Epochtimes. [線上] 2019年May月28日. [引用日期: 2021年Apr月11日.]

4. contributors, Wikipedia. Mount Hua. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. [Online] Feb 20, 2021. [Cited: Apr 9, 2021.]

5. —. Sacred Mountains of China. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. [Online] Dec 26, 2020. [Cited: Apr 9, 2021.]

6. —. Lü Liuliang. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. [Online] Feb 9, 2021. [Cited: Apr 11, 2021.]

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

8. contributors, Wikipedia. General Yue Fei. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. [Online] Dec 24, 2020. [Cited: Apr 9, 2021.]

9. , . 維基 -> 說岳全傳 -> 第一回天遣赤鬚龍下界 佛謫金翅鳥降凡. 诸子百家. [Online] [Cited: Apr 10, 2021.]

10. Wikisource贡献者. 太華希夷志. Wikisource,。. [联机] 2017年Sep月18日. [引用日期: 2021年Apr月11日.] -{R|}-.

11. Wikisource贡献者 朱熹. 五朝名臣言行錄 (四部叢刊本)/卷第十之一. Wikisource,。. [联机] 2018年May月25日. [引用日期: 2021年Apr月11日.] -{R|}-.

12. 智慧陝西. 皇帝與華山的那些事(三)--趙匡胤. 每日头条. [联机] 2016年July月27日. [引用日期: 2021年Apr月9日.]

13. 穿越君聊歷史. 高手過招!趙匡胤只五步棋輸掉整座華山. 每日头条. [联机] 2017年Jun月27日. [引用日期: 2021年Apr月9日.]

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