Thursday, 24 July 2008

Tangut Chess

As I hinted at in my previous post, the history of Chinese Chess (Xiangqi 象棋) does not go back nearly as far as that of Go or even Backgammon. There is no convincing evidence that any form of chess was played in China before the Tang dynasty (618-907), and even during the Tang dynasty there is only very limited documentary evidence for the game, and no certain archeological evidence, so it does not seem to have been widely played before the Song dynasty (960-1279).

However, by the end of the Northern Song (960-1127) Chinese Chess had become extremely popular, and not only is there unambiguous documentary evidence for the game, but large numbers of Chinese Chess pieces in a variety of materials (pottery, porcelain, wood and bronze), dating from both the Northern Song (960-1127) and the Southern Song (1127-1279), as well as the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368), have been found, including several complete sets of bronze Chinese Chess pieces. The complete set of thirty-two bronze Chinese Chess pieces shown below were found in Inner Mongolia, and date to the Northern Song period.

Set of Northern Song Bronze Chinese Chess Pieces

Source : 中国文物收藏交易网

Each piece is about 2.5 cm in diameter (although the Generals are a little bigger), and has a Chinese character on one side and a picture on the other, which is typical of Song dynasty bronze Chinese Chess pieces. What is less typical is the fact that the Chinese characters are the same for both players (the general which is face down in the picture above is also a jiàng 將), which may indicate that differentiated characters for black and red were a later development.

The other interesting fact about this set is that it was found in Inner Mongolia, on or beyond the borders of the Song empire. In fact, quite a few examples of Chinese chess pieces have been found in peripheral parts of China, such as this beautiful example of a Catapult (pào 砲) piece that was found in the ruins of the Silk Road oasis city of Gaochang 高昌 by Albert von Le Coq (1860-1930) during his expedition of 1904-1905.

"Catapult" piece found at Gaochang

Source : Chotscho [Facsimile Reproduction of Important Findings of the First Royal Prussian Expedition to Turfan in East Turkistan] (1913) vol.1 page 218

It seems likely from finds such as these that Chinese Chess was played not only in China but also in neighbouring territories, such as those under the control of the Khitans, Jurchens, and Tanguts, but until now there has been no evidence of specific Jurchen, Khitan or Tangut versions of Chinese Chess. However, in March of this year a find of great interest to me, both as an amateur historian of Chinese games and as a student Tangutologist, was reported : in October 2002 a coin collector had bought some old coins from some peasants at a coin market in the city of Wuwei 武威 in Gansu province, and when he recently took them to the Wuwei Museum for identification and valuation it was found that among the Song and and Western Xia coins there was also a single bronze Chinese Chess piece with a Chinese inscription on one side and a Tangut inscription on the other (the reports state that this is the first ever Chinese Chess piece with a Tangut inscription to have been found within China, which suggests the possibility that other examples have been found outside of China, but I do not know of any other examples) :

Chinese Chess Piece with Chinese and Tangut Inscriptions

The diameter of this piece is 2.5 cm, which is the same as the Northern Song bronze Chinese Chess pieces shown above. But unlike those pieces it has a Tangut character on the opposite side to the Chinese character, not a pictorial representation of the piece. According to the Chinese character on one side this piece is a shì 士, one of a pair of weak pieces that defend the General in his palace. The Chinese character does not have a clear and definite meaning in isolation, and so it is difficult to translate, being variously called "advisor", "guard", "minister", "assistant", "mandarin" or "warrior" in English. So it is interesting to see what the Tangut equivalent of a shì 士 is. Well, the Tangut character is relatively clear, and can be identified as


Li Fanwen 0624, Kychanov 5582

which has a reconstructed reading of [rẹ], and by itself means "strip" 條 (Li Fanwen 1997) or "branch, row, file, formation, chief of a formation, chapter, strip" 挑 列 數號 隊形 隊形長 卷 條 (Kychanov 2006). Like many Tangut characters, its meaning is reflected in its structural composition. The left part of the character is the left part of a character that means "long", and the right part of the character is by itself a character that means "narrow", so "long and narrow" equals "strip" :

𘙶 = 𘙲 + 𗇅

At first sight this is rather an odd name for a chess piece, and seems to bear no relationship to the Chinese character on the other side. But as an extension of its basic meaning "strip" the character also means "formation" or "column" of soldiers, and in this sense it combines with a character meaning "chief" (Li Fanwen 3266, Kychanov 0198) to form a compound word meaning a "general" :


[rẹ ndzi̯u] "general" 將

Then, a semantic shift appears to have taken place, and the character takes on the meaning of "general" when it occurs as the first element in the following two compound words, modified by the adjectives "main" (Li Fanwen 1836, Kychanov 1911) and "assistant" or "deputy" (Li Fanwen 2705, Kychanov 4219) respectively :


[rẹ tśi̯e] "main general" 正將


[rẹ mbi̯ẹ] "lieutenant general" 副將

Therefore we can assume that the Tangut character shown on this chess piece is an abbreviation for one of these compound words, meaning either "general" or "lieutenant general". This seems somewhat distant from the possible range of meanings of the Chinese word shì 士, but does immediately make me think of Japanese Chess (shōgi 将棋) where the place of the shì 士 of Chinese Chess is taken by a Gold General (kinshō 金将). Is it just possible that the Tangut version of Chess was perhaps intermediate between Chinese Chess and Japanese Chess ?

What else do we know about Tangut chess ? Well, from the dictionaries we learn that the Tangut word for Chinese Chess and/or a Chess piece (Li Fanwen 5445, Kychanov 3781) is


[ri̯ẹ] "chess-game, chessman, chess-horse" (Kychanov 2006)

This character is also easy to analyse. The lefthand element occurs in a number of characters that have meanings related to chess or gaming (Li Fanwen 5216, 1792, 4227, and Kychanov 3667, 3192, 5000), and in particular it is also the lefthand element in the following character meaning "to play chess" (Li Fanwen 5216, Kychanov 3667) that together with the above character forms a compound word meaning "Chinese (?) Chess" [li̯u ri̯ẹ] :


[li̯u] "chess" (Kychanov 2006)

The righthand element is simply the character meaning "horse" (Li Fanwen 0764, Kychanov 3772) :


[ri̯ẹ] "horse"

And as the character on the chess piece also shares exactly the same reading as the word for "horse" [ri̯ẹ] we can assume that the two words are etymologically the same, and that the Tangut word for "Chinese Chess" is not Elephant Chess (xiàngqí 象棋) as it is in Chinese, but Horse Chess. So perhaps the Tangut version of the game does not have an elephant piece, but puts more emphasis on the horse piece. But this is all just speculation, and I await the hopeful discovery of a complete set of Tangut Chess pieces one day ...

Last modified: 2017-01-01 (updated with Unicode Tangut characters)

If Tangut characters do not display correctly, please download and install the Tangut Yinchuan font.

Saturday, 12 July 2008

Playing Go on a Chinese Chess Board

Despite the large number of Song (960-1279) and Yuan (1271-1368) dynasty Chinese Chess pieces that have been discovered, there are few early depictions of Chinese Chess (Xiangqi 象棋) being played, and I do not know of any examples of Chinese Chess boards predating the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). One of the few examples of a Yuan dynasty painting relating to Chinese Chess is this mural, believed to have been painted in about 1319-1324, at the Lower Guangsheng Temple in Hongdong county of Shanxi province (in northern China, in an area that was previously under the rule of Jin regime, and close to the eastern border of the Western Xia regime and near the southern border of the Liao regime) :

Yuan Dynasty Mural at the Lower Guangsheng Temple


Source : Zhongguo Meishu Quanji 中國美術全集 (繪畫編) vol.13 plate 83

This is a wonderful picture, which as far as I can tell is rarely mentioned, and deserves far more attention than it has hitherto received. At first glance it appears to depict a game of Chinese Chess, with the broad river separating the two sides of the board, upon which are arrayed the black and red forces (Chinese Chess pieces typically being coloured black and red). But on closer inspection we find that all is not what it seems. Firstly, the board is not quite the right dimensions, being a grid of 9 x 12 lines rather than the expected 9 x 10 lines of the standard Chinese Chess board. Then when we look at the players, we see that the player on the left is about to place a piece onto the board, holding it with his middle finger and forefinger in the traditional way that Go stones are held; and at the same time the player on the right seems to be dipping his right hand into a bowl to get the next piece to play. And sure enough if you look closely at the board it is obvious that the black and red marks on the intersections of the board grid are not Chinese Chess pieces but Go stones :

Game Diagram for a Game of Go on a 9x12 Chinese Chess Board

This must surely be the one and only record ever of a game of Go (Weiqi 圍棋) played on a 9 x 12 grid. What is fascinating about the picture is that the pieces have not been randomly dotted about the board by the artist, but do seem to represent a real game at one particular moment in time. With 38 black stones visible but only 20 red stones, it is clear that the red player (on the left) is not doing so well. It looks to me as if black has just played the ko in the middle of the right side of the board, and red is playing a ko threat, in which case I can only assume that his hand is obscuring two red stones (marked as hollow red circles in the diagram above), so that the stone he is putting down (marked as a red fish-eye in the diagram) threatens the entire bottom left corner.

There are perhaps several other points of interest in this game from a Go perspective, not least the use of black and red stones rather than the traditional black and white stones, but from the perspective of Chinese Chess the main interest is obviously the board. Given that the artist seems to have faithfully represented the exact layout of a game of Go in progress, we can hardly assume that the two extra gridlines are artistic error, and so it would seem that the board must have been as it is drawn. As the dividing river across the centre of the board is a feature exclusive to Chinese Chess, I think that the most likely explanation is that this board was intended for playing a lost variant form of Chinese Chess (when not being borrowed by some pretty desperate Go-players) which would have had a greater number of pieces than standard Chinese Chess (something more closely related to Japanese Shōgi 将棋 perhaps). The other interesting feature is the simple fact that substantial wooden Chinese Chess boards were in use, and that the game was not just played on ephemeral paper boards as it normally is nowadays. So perhaps one day an actual example of one of these unusual Chinese Chess boards will be unearthed.

Addendum [2008-07-14]

For comparison with the above game diagram, here is my best attempt at a game diagram for the game of Go depicted in the famous Tang dynasty (618-907) silk painting that was excavated from Tomb #187 at Astana in Xinjiang (in the nearby Tomb #206 both a 19 x 19 Go board and a Backgammon board were recovered).

Tang Dynasty Silk painting of a Go player

Source : Zhongguo Meishu Quanji 中國美術全集 (繪畫編) vol.2 plate 9

The stones are not very clearly marked in all cases, so it is only an approximation of what the artist actually painted, but nevertheless it is obviously not an acurate representation of a real game. Note also that the board has been painted as a 16 x 17 grid, which is almost certainly an error for a 17 x 17 grid.

Game Diagram for Tang Dynasty Silk Painting

I have also found a game diagram for a 13 x 13 grid Go board (40 x 40 cm in size, with a 30 x 30 cm playing area) that was discovered in 1977 in a Liao dynasty (907-1125) tomb from Aohan in Inner Mongolia (敖漢旗白塔子遼墓). When the tomb was excavated it was found that although the board had partially decomposed, 79 black stones and 76 white stones (155 in total, 14 short of the expected 169 stones for a 13 x 13 board) were still laid out on it. I have retranscribed the game diagram below (the 14 spaces in the bottom right corner are where the 14 missing stones should have been, and the other spaces are where some of the stones have been misplaced from their original positions on the board). In this case the stones do not represent a game position, but appear to have just been laid out on the board for display.

Game Diagram for a Go Board from a Liao Dynasty Tomb

I don't have a picture of this Go board, but I do have a good picture of a game of Go on a mural from a different Liao dynasty tomb (at least I think it is a different tomb ... somewhere along the line I lost the source and description for this picture). It appears to show a Han Chinese player on the left and a Khitan nationality player on the right, with someone wearing an official's hat watching or adjudicating. It is difficult to be sure, but by my reckoning this is also a 13 x 13 board, which makes you wonder, did anyone in the peripheral areas of China play on a standard 19 x 19 board ?

Liao Dynasty Tomb Mural

(Click for a high resolution picture)