Living Chess in Xiangqi (Chinese Chess)

Author: Jim Png

Note: This article first appeared on

One of the more spectacular ways of playing Xiangqi (Chinese Chess) is to use human beings to act as the chess pieces. Two players would then play a game of Xiangqi whereby the human beings are moved as in an actual game. The Chinese name for such a competition is known as 人棋 (rén qí) where the first Chinese character is used to refer to men and the second Chinese character is used to mean ‘chess’. There have been many recorded incidences of living chess being played in the history of China.  (1 pp. 233-236)

Living Chess has always been interesting phenomena to watch. The term ‘Live Chess’ was found in Victor Keats’ translation of Thomas Hyde’s De Ludus Orientabilus mentioning a similar incident. (2)

In Living Chess, the Xiangqi chess pieces are represented by human beings wearing uniforms with Chinese inscriptions to represent the various chess pieces. A gigantic chess board is drawn on the ground. Sometimes, in more fanciful versions, weapons are brought. The two players would sit on high ground and play chess as they would over the board. A move is made by announcing it loudly over a loudspeaker or a microphone so that the human being representing the piece would get up and move to their designated positions. If that move constituted a capture, sometimes there would be a make-believe show of actually ‘killing’ or capturing the piece.

Given below is a short video of living chess used to promote Xiangqi in 2014 in China.



This article is a short introduction to Living Chess.

719 AD – 756 AD Emperor Xuanzong of Tang had fun with his Consort Yang when playing Living Chess

History has it that during the Tang Dynasty, in the first year of Tang Bao, Emperor Xuanzong of Tang (唐玄宗Táng Xuánzōng, 685-762AD), was a Xiangqi fanatic. His favourite consort was Consort Yang (杨贵妃Yáng Guìfēi, 719 AD -756 AD), who was also known as Yang Yuhuan (杨玉环Yáng Yù huán).

The Emperor used thirty-two maidens to represent the pieces and the game was carried out as it would be in over-the-board play. This passage had been given in Zhou Jiasen’s book and also by Zhang Ru-an. Zhang Ru-an would further say that the chess played contained Chinese characters ‘香車’, ’桂馬’, ‘銀將’, ‘金將’ et cetera. The names of these pieces would later be introduced into China to become Shogi. Unfortunately, there was no further information to validate the living chess played here and shogi.

However, the form of chess that he played might not be the form of Xiangqi that we know today for Xiangqi was believed to have taken its current form no later than the Southern Song Dynasty which was about four centuries later than Emperor Xuanzong of Tang’s time.  (1 pp. 233-234) (3 p. 3)

Earliest record of Xiangqi Living Chess

Rather, according to Zhang Ru-an, the earliest account of Living Chess happened was Yan Shifan (严世蕃 yán shì fān, ?-1565AD) playing Living Chess with his wife. Yan Shifan’s father, Yan Song (严嵩 yán sōng) (1480-1569AD), was the prime minister during the Jia Jing era who has been depicted as a villain. Zhang Ru-an quoted an ancient passage. Qian Jingfang’s (钱静方 qián jìng fāng) , Xiao Shuo Cong Kao(《小说丛考》) had this to say: 

“The play Wu Cai Yu (五彩与 wǔ cǎi yú) is rooted in facts. Yan Shi Fan drew a chess board on the carpet and played Xiangqi against his wife. This passage could be found in Mei Xin (another passage). The carpet and the thirty-two maidens were a gift from Wang Tianhua.” (1 pp. 233-236)


Yan Shi Fan was also have said to played Prasaka in a similar fashion. Zhao Shanzheng (赵善政 zhào shàn zhèng) wrote in Bin Tui Lu (《宾退录》bīn tuì lù) that Yan Shifan played Prasaka where the chess pieces consisted of thirty maidens which were divided in to two groups of fifteen each. They were differentiated by the color of their costume which was Red and White. When one of the pieces was captured, the captured piece was carried out of the board. (3 p. 8)

明 赵善政《宾退录》:


(Author’s note: there were two ancient books called 《宾退录》, one was written by a Ming Dynasty official Zhao Shanzheng (趙善政 zhào shàn zhèng, ? -929 AD), while the other was written by another person with the same surname from the Southern Song Dynasty called Zhao Yushi (赵与时. zhào yǔ shí, 1172-1228 AD) With regards to the passage mentioned above, it could not be found in or wiki)

(1 pp. 234-235)

Zhou Jiasen also mentioned of this incident in his book.

Xie Xiaxun used living chess for fundraising

The great centenarian Xiangqi King, Xie Xiaxun, had also used playing Living Chess as a means of fundraising in 1938 during one of his trips to South East Asia. Thirty-two young men and women represented the pieces whereby local Xiangqi experts pit their skills against Xie. Unfortunately, the author has not been able to find any photos of the event. (1 p. 236)

There have been many other instances of playing Living Chess. In China today, this form of entertainment is still seen. Usually, experts, masters or grandmasters play Living Chess in this manner for various purposes.

Mention of Living Chess in the West as early as 1694AD

Incidentally, the concept of Living Chess was not alien to the early Europeans. As Thomas Hyde mentioned in De Ludis Orientalibus (1694AD):

“And I have heard from a relation of D. Reimberg from the city of Viborg that the boys of that town go out to an open field and make a chessboard from digging the earth so that it forms sufficiently large squares; after they have done that they dress up in white or black clothes, and move on the nod or word of the two directors until one side has beaten the other.” (2 页 99)

Zhang Ru-an also mentioned Living Chess in another Italian city called Marostica. It was a biennial event where live International Chess was played as part of the festive celebrations. More information can be found on Wikipedia. (1 p. 233)  (4)

In the recent years, Living Chess has been used as a means of promoting Xiangqi. There are many more such occurrences.

Living Chess and traditional Chinese Opera

In 2014, Xiangqi was combined with traditional Chinese opera as an artform in a performance that was delivered in Yilan County in Taiwan. It was quite an impressive performance according to the interviewers. There is a short video clip of the actual performance available on the link.  (5)



An example of living chess in Taiwan’s Yonghe Junior High School.

Using Living Chess to promote Xiangqi is not unique to China. There are many other incidences of such Xiangqi activity in the world. Given below is a short clip of playing Xiangqi at a junior elementary school at Yonghe in New Taipei City. (6)


Wechat link to Chinese soldiers playing Xiangqi in snow

The author recently saw a short video of Chinese soldiers playing live Xiangqi as part of their training.

Some thoughts

Living chess is an interesting way of promoting Xiangqi to the world. There are many more examples that can be found and it remains one of the more interesting aspects of Xiangqi.


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

2. Keats, Victor. Chess Its Origin Vol. II A Translation with commentary of the Latin and the Hebrew in Thomas Hyde's De Ludis Orientalibus (Oxford, 1694). Oxford : Oxford Academia Publisher, 1994. 1899237011.

3. 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.

4. contributors, Wikipedia. Marostica. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. [Online] Page Version ID: 981138447, Sep 30, 2020. [Cited: Jan 19, 2021.]

5. 黃訢瑜 吳富國. 宜蘭人棋賽 融入傳統戲曲與武術. 新唐人亚太台. [線上] 2014年Oct月2日. [引用日期: 2021年Feb月13日.]

6. 新視波有線電視. 象棋對弈爭霸賽 人體棋子比拼鬥智. Youtube. [線上] 2017年Nov月15日. [引用日期: 2021年Feb月16日.]

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