Xiangqi (Chinese: 象棋), or Chinese chess, is a traditional Chinese strategy board game that is related to chess. It has the largest number of players among chess variants, and is a very popular game in China, Vietnam, and overseas Chinese communities around the world.
Traditional Chinese accounts date the game to the Warring States period (475-221 BC) in Chinese history. The earliest record of rules resembling anything like modern xiangqi, however, only date back to the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907). Due to the similarities to international chess, most Western historians believe that it probably shares the same origin in the Persian game of shatranj, which would have been brought to China by Persian traders via the silk road, and ultimately in the Indian game of chaturanga. In modern Chinese culture, the game is often seen as symbolising the war between Liu Bang and Xiang Yu at the end of the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC), which eventually resulted in Liu Bang’s victory and the establishment of the Han Dynasty (202 BC-AD 220).
Xiangqi is played on an 8×9 board. Unlike in chess, the pieces are not placed within the squares, but instead are placed on the intersections between lines. The row in the middle of the board with no lines going through it is known as the river, and the boxes at both ends with diagonal lines going through them are known as the palaces. Each player starts with 5 soldiers (兵 bīng / 卒 zú), 2 cannons (炮 pào / 砲 pào), 2 chariots (車 jū / 俥 jū), 2 horses (馬 mǎ / 傌 mǎ), 2 elephants (象 xiàng / 相 xiàng), 2 advisors (士 shì / 仕 shì) and 1 general (將 jiàng / 帥 shuài). In most modern games, the player in red generally starts first. The objective of the game is to capture the opponent’s general.
Like chess, each piece has its own specific moveset, and capturing an opponent’s piece is generally done by moving into the space occupied by that piece. The chariots may move any number of spaces horizontally or vertically, just as the rook in chess. The horses move similar to the knight in chess, which is one step horizontally or vertically followed by one step diagonally, but unlike the knight in chess, may not jump over intervening pieces. This movement is often said to be reminiscent of the Chinese character 日 (rì). The cannons may move any number of spaces horizontally or vertically just like the chariot, but must jump over exactly one intervening piece, friendly or otherwise, in order to capture. The cannons may not jump over intervening pieces when they are not capturing. The elephants move exactly 2 spaces diagonally, and may not jump over intervening pieces, which is often said to be reminiscent of the Chinese character 田 (tián). The elephants may not cross the river, thus making them primarily defensive pieces. The advisors can move one space diagonally, and are not allowed to leave the palace under any circumstances. The soldiers may move one space forward, and may also move one space horizontally after crossing the river, but never backwards. Unlike the pawns in chess, soldiers do not get promoted in xiangqi, and those that have reached the other end of the board may only move horizontally. The general can move one space horizontally or vertically, and under most circumstances may not leave the palace. The sole exception is when executing the “flying general” (飛將 fēijiàng) move, which may be done if the two generals are facing each other with no intervening pieces. When this happens, the general may “fly” across the board to capture the other general (hence making it illegal for the generals to face each other).
Like in the king in chess, the general in xiangqi may also be placed in check (將軍 jiāngjūn), and a player who has no legal moves left to prevent the general from being captured is said to be in checkmate (將死 jiāngsǐ). Unlike chess, xiangqi does not have a stalemate rule, and a player who has no legal moves left loses the game.
1 Cangshan Mountain Giant Chess Board (苍山棋盘), near Dali, Yunnan. A gigantic outdoor xiangqi set located in the mountains near the city of Dali.
2 Sunwu County Xiangqi Museum (孙吴县象棋博物馆), near Sunwu, Heilongjiang. A museum dedicated to xiangqi, with a collection of xiangqi sets and other memorabilia.
Xiangqi is a very popular game, and you can often see the elderly having games in public parks in China, Vietnam and areas with significant overseas Chinese communities. If you know how to play, this can be a good way of befriending and interacting with the locals.
There are numerous professional xiangqi tournaments in China and much of the Sinosphere. The Chinese National Xiangqi Individual Championship (全国象棋个人赛) is the premier tournament in China, which attracts the top professional players from around the country. Besides China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore also have their own national xiangqi championships, which are also generally of a high standard. The premier international tournament is the World Xiangqi Championship, and brings together the top players from China, Vietnam and across the world to compete for the world title.
Human Chess (cờ người), Vietnam. A Vietnamese tradition during the Vietnamese New Year (Tết), this game is played at many temple and village festivals throughout the country. As the name suggests, the pieces are played by people dressed in traditional Vietnamese costumes either carrying a sign with the Chinese character for that piece, or with the Chinese character painted onto their costume. Teenagers are typically called upon to play as the pieces, with the girls forming the pieces of one side, and the boys forming the pieces of the other. When pieces are captured, this is usually done through a choreographed traditional martial arts fight.