Store Digital Issue Subscribe now

How to Play Chinese Chess

Study these rules, muster your courage, then challenge the grizzled old pros at their favorite game


Chinese chess is never going to suddenly make the transition into becoming a cool pastime, but take it from us: Chinese chess is a lot more fun than its moniker at first lets on. Forget all about those boring queens and bishops; in China you get war elephants and flying cannons. The game represents a battle between two armies, one red and one black, facing off on opposite sides of a river. The object is to capture the enemy’s general (king). If you’re in China, check out the rules below before heading down to your local square, underpass or outside seating area and look for the huddles of people surrounding a board to find an interesting game. Observe until you think you’ve got the hang of it, then challenge an old pro and realize the depth of your ignorance. However, you should learn enough tricks so that when you challenge a friend, you can beat them a few times before they catch up!

The rules

The Chinese name xiangqi  (象棋) means “elephant game,” referring to the elephant pieces. These are played on the intersections of the lines that criss-cross the chessboard. Players make one move at a time and generally capture other pieces using the same moves as in the Western chess game. Only the cannon has a special capture move, as described below.

The game ends when one player captures the other’s general. Just like in Western Chess, a check should be announced. If the player’s general can make no move to prevent its capture, the situation is called ‘checkmate’, known as jiangsi  (将死).

How the pieces move

The pieces are all flat circular discs with a black side and a red side, and they’re differentiated by the character on their top side.

The general, 将 (jiàng) on the black side and 帅 (shuài) on the red side starts the game at the midpoint of the back edge (within the square “palace” with the diagonal lines). The general may move and capture one point horizontally, vertically or diagonally.

The advisors, 士 (shì) on the black side and 仕 (shì) on the red begin on either side of the general and can only move and capture one point diagonally within the palace.

The elephants, 象 (xiàng) on the black side and 相 (xiàng) on the red, are located next to the advisors. These pieces move and capture exactly two points diagonally and may not jump over intervening pieces. Their range of movement is described as being similarto the character田 (Tián, field) when played out on the game board. Elephants are classified as defensive pieces and cannot cross the river.

The horses, 马 (mǎ) for both colors, are located next to the elephants. A horse moves andcaptures one point either horizontally or vertically and then one point diagonally away from its former position. This move is often described as making the character 日 (rì) on the game board. The horse does not jump over pieces like the knight does in Western chess. Thus, if there is a piece lying one point horizontally or vertically from the horse, then the horse’s path of movement is blocked, and it is unable to movein that direction.

The chariots are the same, 车 (chē) for both colors. The chariot moves and captures any distance either horizontally or vertically, but cannot move diagonally. They are very similar to the rook in Western chess and are seen as the strongest pieces in the game.

The cannons, 砲 (pào) on the black side and炮 (pào) on the red, start on the row behind the soldiers, two points in front of the horses (these points are marked on the board). Cannons move like the chariots—any distance horizontally or vertically without jumping—but can only capture by jumping a single piece (friendly or enemy) along their path. The cannon cannot jump over intervening pieces if it is not taking another piece, and it cannot take a piece without jumping. Cannons are powerful pieces at the beginning of the game when pieces are plentiful.

The soldiers, 卒 (zú) on the black side and 兵 (bīng) on the red, are placed on the five alternating points one row back from the edge of the river (these points are individually marked on the board).  They move and take pieces by advancing forward one point. Once they have crossed the river, they may also move (and capture) one point horizontally. Soldiers cannot move backwards.

Good luck and have fun!

Content courtesy of that’s China (Zhejiang).


Follow us

Subscribe to out newsletter

  • Ad
  • Ad
  • The World of Chinese, Nov-Dec 2017: Cloud Country
    Current Issue
    The World of Chinese, Nov-Dec 2017: Cloud Country
    Subscribe Buy it now
    Related Article

    Chinese Chess for Dummies

    Chinese Seniors' Workout Challenge

    The Alpha and Omega of Go