Traditional Board Games

Games Around the World: Historical China

Temple of Heaven in the Forbidden City
Temple of Heaven in the Forbidden City

Saturday, 14th March 2015

Last month we took a tour of the games of India, and there were a great many of them. This month we have travelled further eastwards, and arrive in China.

Sometimes it's easy to imagine that China invented everything. The compass, spectacles, gunpowder and fireworks, and a whole host of technological advancements used by people around the world came from China. And in the field of board games, China has been equally inventive.

There is a very ancient game called liubo. Lots of liubo boards and pieces have survived, but sadly the rules have not. It appears to have been a race game, but the board doesn't present a straightforward course for the pieces to follow. Some people have tried to reconstruct the game, though, as its basic objective is known.

In China was invented what is probably the purest strategy game of them all: go. Called wei-qi by the Chinese, this game is played on a board of 19 rows of 19 points. There is only one type of piece, each player having a set of their own colour. Pieces are placed on the board and do not move. The aim of the game is to claim territory by surrounding it in a manner that prevents occupation by the opponent. A key element in the game is that pieces need "liberties" to survive, that is, a group of pieces needs at least one empty space adjacent to it. If the opponent can constrict the group and remove that liberty, or breathing space, then the group of pieces will die and the opponent claims the territory. This game spread to Japan where the level of play exceeded that of the ancient Chinese.

The Chinese had an interesting game with a passing resemblance to backgammon. Called koan qi, it is sometimes known as "the bottle game" due to the traditional shape of the pieces. It was mentioned by the English orientalist Edward Hyde in 1694, but the rules were recorded imperfectly. Still, the account gives us more to go on than we have for liubo, and a reconstruction of the game is given in the book "The World of Games" (see bibliography).

There is a class of games of unknown antiquity called "rebel games". Two of them have names that are difficult to remember: shap luk kon tseung kwan with 16 rebel soldiers, and yeung luk sz'kon tseung kwan, with 26 rebel soldiers. The 16-soldier game is played on an alquerque board with a triangular extension; soldiers capture the general by surrounding him on two opposite sides, while the general captures two soldiers at a time by interposing himself between them. The 26-soldier game is not as clear: the same rules would not work properly with it, but the general may capture by jumping as in many other hunt games around the world.

There is one glaring omission from Chinese games so far: chinese chess, or xiang qi. This Indian game was imported into China, and modified a great deal by the Chinese so as to resemble a battle even more closely than the Indian game. In China a river was introduced, and two fortresses.

These are some of the historical board games to be played in China, though the country has continued to invent games of a similar style right up to modern times. Our next stop will be just a short hop: next month we'll be virtually visiting Korea, where a number of interesting games were invented.


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