Traditional Board Games

Xiang Qi

Xiang Qi set close up
Xiang Qi set close up

The Chinese have their own game of chess, called xiang qi, pronounced "shyang chee". It differs from the European game in a number of ways. The board is a lattice grid of ten ranks nine points each. A river divides the two sides, and at each end is a marked 'castle', to which the generals (kings) and ministers (queens) are confined.

Featured in A Book of Historic Board Games

This game is featured in A Book of Historic Board Games, by Damian Gareth Walker.  That volume, available as a hardback or paperback, covers twelve games in depth.  For each game there is an entertaining history, full rules, and a discussion of strategy, all in more detail than you'll see on this site.

The pieces sit on the points, not in the squares. The moves of the pieces are similar to mediaeval chess, with short moves for the elephants (bishops) and ministers. A cannon piece moves like a rook but has an unusual jumping capture.

Though each side still has sixteen pieces, there are fewer pawns than in the western game, and they do not play such an important part in the game.

History of Xiang Qi

Xiang Qi was probably descended from the same Indian game as modern European chess. It was first recorded in the 8th century, though the name xiangqi had been applied to other games before that date.

As in Europe, chess in China underwent changes, and the current game was formed some time after the 13th century. It is now reputedly the most widely played form of chess in the world, a fact partly due to the vast population of its native country.

Rules for Xiang Qi

Rules for Xiang Qi
The rules of xiang qi are highly standardised and widely published as given here, with no widespread variations known.

1. Xiang qi is played on the intersections of a board of 9 lines by 10. A river divides the two halves, and at each end of the board is marked a palace, as shown in the diagram.

2. There are two players, one black and one red.

3. Each player has 16 pieces: a general, two counsellors, two elephants, two horses, two chariots, two cannons and five pawns.

4. As red is considered a lucky colour, black is given the first turn. Then red plays, turns alternating thereafter.

5. A player in his turn moves one of his pieces, according to their several rules of movement, described here.

(i). The general may move one square horizontally or vertically, but may not leave the palace.

(ii). The counsellors may move one square diagonally, but are similarly confined to the palace.

(iii). The elephant moves two square diagonally, but may not cross the river. Neither may it jump over another piece.

(iv). The horse moves one square horizontally or vertically, then one square diagonally further. It may not jump over other pieces.

(v). The chariot and cannon move any distance horizontally or vertically. The chariot never jumps over other pieces, and the cannon may not jump unless it is making a capture, as described in rule 7.

(vi). Soldiers move one step forwards. Once over the river, they may move one step forwards or sideways.

6. Pieces other than the cannon capture in the same way they move, by landing on the enemy piece and removing it from the board.

7. The cannon captures as it moves, except that it must jump over exactly one piece, of either colour, between its own position and the piece it is capturing.

8. If the general is threatened with capture, it is in check, and the threat must immediately be averted, by moving the general, interposing a piece between it and its attacker, or capturing its attacker.

9. If the two generals are on the same line, or file, a player may put his opponent in check by moving a piece from between them such that the generals face each other across the otherwise empty file. The opponent must move out of check as in rule 8, and generals may not otherwise face each other on an empty file.

10. A player cannot voluntarily put himself in check; the generals are never captured.

11. Perpetual check is not permitted; if positions are repeated then the aggressor must vary his move.

12. The game is over when his general is in check, and he can do nothing to rectify this. His opponent is declared the winner.

13. If a player otherwise has no legal move, the game is similarly over and his opponent is the winner.

14. The game is drawn if neither side can engage the enemy.

Strategy in Xiang Qi

Xiang qi uses the mediaeval moves for the pieces. But despite this, forces can come into contact quickly, because of the sparseness of the soldiers, the open files between them allowing chariots and cannons to come out quickly. The sparseness of the soldiers works against them, though, and xiang qi soldiers do not support each other in the way that chess pawns do.

As the general is confined to his palace, the planning for the attacker is easier than in other versions of chess - you always know where your target will be. As the counsellors are limited in move and range, they are forced to stick to their original role - to defend the general, interposing themselves when he is threatened.

The cannon is the most interesting piece, though not the strongest. The chariot is the strongest piece in the game. The cannon starts nearly as strong, but as pieces are captured and the board becomes more open, its power wanes: fewer pieces on the board make it more difficult to arrange a screen over which it can jump to capture. But two cannons on the same rank or file can work together very well, having the option of using each other as screens.

Xiang qi appears to be a quicker, more tactical game than western chess. It is easier to become competent in the game, the only obstacle for western players being the Chinese characters representing the pieces. However, this difficulty is more perceived than real: the characters are no more difficult to learn than the arbitrary shapes and moves of the western pieces.

Xiang qi: try it out!


I prefer western pieces to xiang qi, more difficult are the chinese characters, I save double thinking: about the piece and the tactic movement. Only one thinking about the movementt and movement tactic.

Ricardo - 01:34, 31/03/2015

I started out with the Western pieces, but once I started to look at xiang qi problems and books about strategy, I needed to learn the Chinese characters pretty quickly. I've found nice looking sets to be cheaper with Chinese characters than with Western equivalents or with figures.

Damian Walker - 08:09, 31/03/2015

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