If you’ve been to China, chances are that you have seen it: two old men hunched over opposite ends of a square board. They stare in a silence occasionally punctuated with a loud Clap!—and another move is made with a wooden disk slapped down on the board. A few bystanders are usually huddled around in quiet analysis, puffing away on their cigarettes.
The game of xiangqi (“elephant chess”) is better known in English as Chinese chess, and it becomes evident very early on that xiangqi and Western chess were once the same game, but, many moons ago, these common ancestors became two. Today these games, while sharing an essence, are differentiated by the little quirks and curiosities of the rule book.
A Xiangqi set dating from the Song Dynasty (960-1279)
Academic opinion is fairly unanimous in agreeing that the common ancestor of the games is Chaturanga, the “original chess” that first emerged in India in the middle of the first millennium of the common era. The version that passed through the Persian Empire into Europe became chess with its knights, rooks and bishops, while the version that headed eastward over the Himalayas became xiangqi. That there’s a piece in Chinese chess which is an elephant is one feature staying true to the game’s Indian origins that the Europeans couldn’t quite stomach.
After passing a set in the supermarket selling for what I considered a very reasonable 21 RMB, I endeavored to learn, my latest earnest attempt at assimilation into my adoptive society. I thought that if it wasn’t too dissimilar from its cross-continental cousin, then I shouldn’t have too hard a time at it.
True as this is, for those of us who are fairly novice at the Chinese language, there is the matter of characters to overcome. The pieces are not statuesque, rather they are short round disks with characters inscribed atop, one side being red and the other black. Unless it is very easy for you to quickly develop a fluency with characters, I would recommend some clever relabeling system.
The obvious similarities will pique any chess player’s interest
Before getting into how each piece moves across the board, a brief word on the board itself is necessary. As can be seen from the illustration, the board is similar to that of Western chess with only a few alterations. Firstly, there is the fortress, an enclosure on opposite ends of the board that houses the general (the equivalent of the king) and his two advisers; this is indicated by the lines running diagonal through the squares. The general and advisers are not allowed to stray from the enclosure of their fortress, though this doesn’t mean other pieces cannot enter–after all, the object of this game is not dissimilar to international chess: kill the general in order to win.
Second, there is the river running through the middle, bisecting the board into two definable opposing sides. The legend is that this is the River Chu, the dividing line between the Chu and Han peoples, who for several years struggled for supremacy after the end of the Qin Dynasty until the Han won out to establish a dynasty of their own in 202 BCE. I’ve heard that xiangqi dates from that time in history, but, given the course of events, this is highly unlikely.
On the smaller field of battle that is the chess board, the river is an important dividing line as it determines how a certain few of the different pieces can move. The soldiers (similar to pawns) line up along the vanguard of each side and can only move forward until they cross the river, after which point they are able to to move forward or to either side. The elephants have their movement restricted to their own side of the river, keeping a fair amount of pressure on the backboard.
At the outset of the game, the pieces themselves are lined up symmetrically on each opposing side, but instead of being inside the boxes, they are placed on the corners of the boxes, moving across the board according to these points and so marching along the box’s edges or crossing them diagonally but never landing inside of them.
The following is a list of the pieces and how they are arranged on the board. Starting at the exact middle of the back edge is the general, well ensconced in his fortress and the most valuable piece on the board. Heading out along the back edge in both directions are the advisers, elephants, horses and, at the ends, the chariots. Moving ahead two ranks are the cannons, singular pieces in xiangqi with capabilities unknown in the European counterpart; they are placed two spaces in front of where the horses lie. Then there are the soldiers, five in total, lined up at even intervals one rank before the river’s edge.
Without its bishops and queens, there is a more martial quality to this game. Every piece in play is for battle only and, as the woman who taught me to play advised, “If you want to win, you should always move forward.” I’ve tried to heed her words. Traditionally the red army makes the first move.
Now for the movement of the pieces:
General: in the West it is possible to find xiangqi with illustrations rather than characters
The general, as mentioned, is the king, and landing on him is the objective defining the movement of all else on the board. They can move orthogonally (up, down, left or right) in their boxed fortresses. The only occasion on which they are allowed to leave is if the two generals are staring each other down the same file with no pieces in between. In this situation the “flying general” move can be used–the general crossing the entire board to capture his adversary–a nice technique to trap your opponent in checkmate. Like in the West, it is customary to say “check” in all circumstances that call for it.
The advisers are confined to standing by their general in the fortress. Here they can move at a rate of one point diagonally, in contrast to the general’s perpendicularity. Often they are used as tools of sacrifice in the service of their leader.
The elephants move two spaces diagonally, so if four squares make a larger square, they move to its opposite corner. They cannot move those two spaces if there is an intervening piece, and to trap the elephant in such a manner is known as “blocking the elephant’s eye.” They do not cross the river and so are thought of primarily as defensive pieces.
The horse moves similarly to the knight in the West, going one space orthogonally and then the next space diagonally, though, like the elephant, it cannot move if another piece is blocking the midpoint of its path (unlike its jumping European counterpart), a technique known as “hobbling the horse’s leg.”
The chariot’s capabilities are exactly identical to the rook’s in every way, as many spaces forward, back, left and right as you like in one move.
Cannons’ move in the same straight lines as the chariots do. The one caveat is that, in order for them to land on and capture a piece, they must jump over another piece in their path; it doesn’t matter whether this piece is your own or not. Perhaps the cannon is the one that a Western player should be most wary of; notwithstanding, they are great additions to the board and can be used for tricky entrapments at the endgame.
The lowly soldier is every bit as sacrificial and insignificant as his pawn counterpart. As mentioned, they move forward in a straight line until crossing the river, after which point they can move sideways and forward. Unlike any other piece on the board, they must always advance and can never retreat, though they can move sideways along the opposite edge (their opponents’ base) of the board.
So there you have it: The rules of xiangqi. I could endeavor to write a book about strategy right now but I wont. That I’ll leave up to you. Like most games there will be the stuttering first steps, but by the third round, you’ll have got the hang of it. I’d recommend first playing with someone in the know. Checkmate!
Photo by Ryan Thomas Ang on Unsplash