Give up Western Chess – play Chinese Chess instead!
H. Li is a master of Kung Fu on the chess board: the retired professor
is one of the leading authors, at least outside the boundaries of the People's
Republic, of the fast and aggressive game of XiangQi (Chinese: 象棋).
Born in Ningbo, China, in 1928, Li moved to the USA in 1949. He specialized
in accountancy and started an academic career, giving lectures at the University
of Washington, Seattle, and as a Ford Foundation Visiting Professor at the
Chinese University of Hong Kong. Later he joined the World Bank Group. Today
the outspoken and vigorous 76-year-old lives in Bethesda, Maryland.
After retirement Professor Li started publishing books with the declared purpose
of making Chinese culture more accessible to English-speaking readers. He translated
and published three Chinese classics: Confucius's Analects, Sun Tzu's Art of
War, and Dao De Jing. But his main focus has been on XiangQi as the Asian contribution
to the world heritage of chess. His book "The Genealogy of Chess", an unconventional
view on the origins of the game, has earned him the Book of the Year 1998 award
from the editors of "Games" magazine. His fifth book on Chinese Chess – "Syllabus
on Horse" – has just been released, right on time for the first World Championship
year in the long history of XiangQi that will be held outside Asia. It will
take place in Paris from July 31st to August 6th, 2005. In anticipation of
that memorable event Dr. René Gralla of Hamburg, Germany, spoke to Professor
Dr. René Gralla: Professor Li, you do not like
Western Chess too much. You are even proposing a new name for it:“Queen-Qi”,
meaning: “The Queen’s Strategic Game”. Why's that?
David H. Li: Western Chess pays too much attention to the Queen, as
the most powerful piece on the board. Even worse: since a Pawn can be promoted
to be a Queen, Western Chess pays too much attention to the Pawn as well. Neither
rule makes any sense, if one views chess as a kind of war simulation game.
There has been one game, dubbed the “Game of the Century” (that is to say:
the 20th century), featuring Bobby Fischer who commands the black army and
who is battling Donald Byrne at the 1956 U.S. Open. During that very encounter
Fischer sacrifices his Queen, allowing himself to gain tempo as well as positional
advantage to produce a mate in due course. I do suspect that the Queen sacrifice
has been the sole reason for this game having gained that much fame. In honour
of that single-minded focus on the Queen on the part of Western Chess, I am
proposing a new name for Western Chess: “Queen-Qi”, thereby corresponding to
the Chinese version of chess, “XiangQi”.
Dr. Gralla: A provocative proposal; we’ll have
to wait and see how the very sensitive chess public will react to it. Speaking
of XiangQi: you have published a series of books explaining Chinese Chess to
readers outside Asia; the latest edition, entitled: “XiangQi Syllabus on Horse”,
has just been released in book-stores. Already in the preface of your first
book – “First Syllabus on XiangQi” – you told us why you think that it should
be a good idea to turn to Chinese Chess: "If you are disillusioned [with Western
Chess] let XiangQi come to your rescue". What do you mean by that? Do you really
think that XiangQi is the better version of chess?
Professor Li: One of my major frustrations with Western Chess
– or QueenQi, if this name that I am proposing will gain currency – is the
so-called "Grandmaster draw". One striking example is the first game of the
first PCA Western Chess World Championship, in 1995, between Garry Kasparov
and Viswanathan Anand, a game I witnessed at New York's no longer standing
World Trade Center. After three hours and 24 minutes of playing time, after
27 moves, spectators were treated to two Pawn exchanges, one Knight exchange,
one Bishop excursion into enemy territory lasting three moves, no checks to
either King – both were voluntarily evacuated to their country palaces through
castling – and no threats to any of the other major pieces – all four Rooks
and both Queens stayed on the last two ranks, well shielded by other pieces.
But the foregoing notwithstanding, the two grandmasters shook hands, agreeing
to a draw, and called it a day.
Where was the action? Why was that a draw? As a member of the audience who
paid 75 US-Dollars for the privilege of seeing world-class Western Chess in
action, I asked myself at that time: is this a goodwill game? It is certainly
not a championship calibre contest. Especially because of that experience I
am equating the so-called “Grandmaster draw” to two tennis champions playing
a title match and calling it a tie when the score is 4:4 in the first set.
Of course that would never happen in tennis – nor would that happen in XiangQi.
A XiangQi chess set
Dr. Gralla: There are supposed to be fewer draws
in XiangQi than in Western Chess. Maybe that has something to do with different
cultural patterns too: Maybe there is more fighting spirit among players of
XiangQi – in comparison to players of Western Chess?
Professor Li: Well, first of all: At Chinese Chess tournaments
spectators demand that games should be concluded in a manner that is appealing
to reason. They accept a draw only when the two sides do not have enough firepower
to force a win by either side. Secondly, the structural differences between
XiangQi and Western Chess should not be disregarded. Draws are a function of
spatial manoeuvrability. Between XiangQi and Western Chess – that is to say:
QueenQi – the former has greater manoeuvrability and therefore less occasions
for a draw.
Everyone plays this game in China – even bronze statues
But clearly, you are right, courage and fighting spirit are the key: In Western
Chess – sorry: QueenQi – a player is doomed if her or his Pawn structure is
weak, if there is a doubled Pawn and such. When she or he is behind by a Pawn,
it is time to resign, unless it is part of a Gambit. In this kind of environment
the best strategy is to play safe, to wait for the opponent to make a weak
move. Fighting is simply to outwait the opponent. Thus, in a case where the
Queen is sacrificed the game is praised for its brilliancy, usually becoming
the pearl of a tournament, and it may even become “The Game of the Century”.
This is not the case in XiangQi, where offering a Rook or two – the Rook is
the most powerful piece in Chinese Chess – is almost commonplace and can be
observed in one out of two games, approximately.
Dr. Gralla: During the whole game of XiangQi
the King is forced to remain in the centre of the board. There is no castling
– a scenario that would be deadly in Western Chess. So it is highly probable
that there will be a clear decision as the result of a duel of XiangQi – rather
than a draw?!
Professor Li: In war, should the commander-in-chief be able
to flee just a few moves after the fighting has started? Well, this is what
castling is all about in Western Chess. If one wants to wage a war, one should
be brave enough to remain put – be it for no other reason than to show that
one has confidence in one’s troops.
Open air XiangQi in a park
Dr. Gralla: Can the lesser margin of draws in
XiangQi be attributed to the specific relation between more room to manoeuvre
and the balance of the value of the different playing pieces? On one hand the
XiangQi theatre of operations is more spacious than the board of Western Chess;
there are 30 per cent more positions that can be occupied or lost, so Chinese
Chess is ideal for open warfare, and it is more likely that the King will be
hunted down. On the other hand there is the absence of that mega-unit of the
Queen, a factor that you have already mentioned, so that the course of battle
in XiangQi is more fluid – and not as distorted as Western Chess by that monster
piece of “Queen”?!
Professor Li: Your examples are only underscoring the pretence
that Western Chess – or QueenQi – is supposed to be a war-simulation game.
Conforming to a recent book, “Birth of the Chess Queen” by Marilyn Yalom of
Stanford University, the special power given to the Queen in Western Chess
was mainly due to Queen Isabella, who ruled Spain in the Middle Ages. With
a few exceptions in the several millennia when wars were fought: How many times
do you see a female commander-in-chief?!
The feeble monarch and the all-powerful Queen in Western chess
Assuming Western Chess will indeed be renamed “QueenQi” – thereby acknowledging
the Queen as being the most powerful piece to which the game is directed –
I think the game will be more interesting if at least one important change
of rules will be made: one must no long count castling as a single move. If
the King wants to flee, by all means do so, but don't drag the Rook out as
a bonus; if an additional Rook move is needed to complete castling, please
count it as another move!
Dr. Gralla: Maybe it would be a good idea to
change one more rule of Western Chess – that a stalemate is a draw?
Professor Li: A stalemate should be a win for the player
giving the siege, as it is the rule in XiangQi. The current rule of Western
Chess – alias QueenQi – declares stalemate to be a draw. Is that realistic?!
Dr. Gralla: Apart from those pieces on the board
of Xiangqi that have more or less direct counterparts on the board of Western
Chess there is one special unit in Chinese Chess that has the ability to execute
surprising long-distance strikes: the Cannon. The XiangQi artillery may be
one more factor that reduces the probability of draws in XiangQi; at least
the Cannon is a rather modern piece in that tradition-loaded environment of
Modern armour in Chinese Chess: the Cannon. This long-range weapon is decisive
in many matches, often striking out of the blue – as in the picture shown above.
The Northern Army has overwhelmed the Southern defence, after having occupied
the position a1 during a match of the German XiangQi League between Reinhard
Knab ("Stoßzahn Franken", Red) and Nguyen Hoai An ("CSV Mannheim", blue, which
is the traditional colour of the defending side on the board) in Hamburg, May
3rd, 2003 . The blitzkrieg encounter of less than ten moves has been reconstructed
with figurine pieces. Photo: C. Harder
Professor Li: The Cannon was incorporated into XiangQi around
840 A.D.; it has certainly opened up the game. By the way, there have been
no other modifications of the rules since then; the game has stayed stable
over 11 or 12 centuries.
Dr. Gralla: So the rules of modern XiangQi seem
to be more ancient than the rules of modern Western Chess, since Western Chess
is the result of the great reform of the Arab Chess "Shatranj" round about
500 years ago, whereas the latest change of rules in XiangQi already date back
to 840 A.D., as we have just heard from you. And not just that, Professor Li.
You go even further. Whilst the majority of historians keep telling us that
chess was invented in India sometimes during 400 and 500 A.D., you are convinced
of a different origin of chess – roughly 2200 year ago. In your “Syllabus”-series
on XiangQi you claim that XiangQi was invented in 203 B.C. by the commander-in-chief
of the Kingdom of Han, the general Hán Xin. Do you have any proof for that?
Li: The date of the invention of XiangQi is 203 B.C.; so proto-chess,
meaning: an early version of chess, originated in China. My thesis is the result
of 18 months of research at the Library of Congress in Washington DC. In my
book “The Genealogy of Chess”, which was published in 1998, I cite over 125
references in Western languages such as Latin, German, Spanish, and English;
plus more than 50 references in Chinese and a few in Japanese as well.
Dr. Gralla: The majority of historians are not
impressed, however, and contradict you. They claim that chess wandered, after
its invention in India, to the West, having been changed into Arab Chess first
and then into the Western Chess of today much later. Parallel to that migration
chess is supposed to have wandered to the North-East as well, turning into
Chinese XiangQi and into Korean Changgi; to the Far East, turning into the
Japanese Shogi; and to the South-East, turning into Mak Rook Thai and Ouk Chatrang
in Cambodia. What is your comment on that?
Professor Li: The “Chess-was-invented-in-India“ theory has
been with us for at least 300 years, so it is difficult to dislodge it in just
a few years’ time. In my book “The Genealogy of Chess” there is an extensive
discussion of the Arab “Shatranj”. With the help of diagrams I have demonstrated
that “Shatranj ul-Kebir”, the 112-square version, is derived from an 11x11
version of XiangQi. Similarly, “Shatranj ul-Seghir”, the simplified 8x8 version,
is derived from a 8x8 version of XiangQi. I have proven the dissemination of
XiangQi to Persia and India via the Silk Road. Additionally, using diagrams
from Japanese sources, I have also traced Shogi from its early versions with
an 8x8-board to the 9x9-board – which has survived until today – and beyond.
The result of my research: I can not find any support for the “Chess-is-an-Indian-invention“
Dr. Gralla: The German historian Peter Banaschak
doubts your arguments – that General Hán Xin invented XiangQi during the campaign
of the winter of 204 to 203 B.C., whilst his troops were waiting for spring
at the camp at the borders of the River Mian-Miàn. In Banaschak’s book “Schachspiele
in Ostasien” he wants to convince us that your thesis is supposed to be based
not on first-hand sources but only on hear-say and on secondary sources.
Professor Li: Peter Banaschak seems to doubt whatever I have
said. He has also stated that my translation of a certain passage in the Analects
of Confucius that deals with WeiQi, also known as Go, was incorrect, and that
I needed the services of a Sinologist. At the time when Banaschak wrote his
book he was still a doctoral student in Chinese studies. Needless to say that
I was born in Ningbo, China; during my professional life I was a professor,
thus I am used to doing research. The research that I have done for my books
was quite extensive and I am proud of what I did. Until today there have been
several symposia on the history of chess. None of them has been able to disprove
Dr. Gralla: Have any original documents been
found? Maybe letters by General Hán Xin that are related to XiangQi? It should
be possible to find something like that since Hán Xin was an important person
in the history of China: He was responsible for the rise of the Han Dynasty,
though he was murdered later.
Professor Li: I must compliment you on your knowledge of
Hán Xin’s fate. This allows me to point out yet another reason why “first-hand
sources”, which critics of my findings demand, cannot be presented. On account
of Hán Xin’s treacherous intentions of overthrowing the throne of Han, he was
ordered to be put to death. Along with his death – and the extinction of his
family as well – all his belongings were burned. Hán Xin was known to have
written three volumes on the Art of War. You may like to call it an extension
of the work of Sun Tzu, the author of the classic book “The Art of War”. They
were destroyed too as the result. So Hán Xin’s work on XiangQi was similarly
game of Liubo
Dr. Gralla: Professor Li, it seems to be that
historians from China endorse your thesis – that the origins of chess can be
found in China. In summary: XiangQi originates from the mysterious game Liubo;
Liubo turned into GeWu, the latter has turned into Proto-XiangQi. The majority
of Western historians are part of the “Indian” school and contradict the Chinese
scholars. Peter Banaschak analysed the sources that the representatives of
the Chinese school cite, and he thinks that all those quotations from the past
can be references to some game, but not necessarily to the game of chess or
XiangQi. Your answer, Professor Li?
Professor Li: Chinese Historians have two advantages over
Indian-school historians. First, there are numerous literature references written
in Chinese; there are but a few in Sanskrit. Secondly, archaeological finds
from China are being added every year. There is precisely zero from India.
This is understandable: how can you find references or artefacts when an event
– the birth of chess – did not actually happen in that country?
Dr. Gralla: Taking into account the different
opinions with regard to the history of chess, is this debate another example
of the typical rivalry between scientists from the East and those from the
West? With regard to your critics from the West one could assume that it is
typical Western arrogance. So it could be fair to argue: who should know the
history of China better – the history of XiangQi included – than the Chinese?
Professor Li: Historical research is a matter of gathering
evidence to support the researcher's thesis. If there is but one view, say,
on researching astrophysics in antiquity, the researcher's job is relatively
straight-forward. If there are contending views, a third party has to evaluate
which side provides better evidence and then draws a conclusion accordingly.
The “Chess-is-an-Indian-invention“ theory is advanced, almost exclusively,
by – let me use a term coined by Willard Fiske, a researcher on the history
of chess in Iceland, in an article published in 1900 – “those who wield English
pens”. Aside from Cessolis, a 13th century Italian monk, who gave Babylonia
as the country of origin of proto-chess, the earliest view advocating the India-school
is Thomas Hyde, a professor of Arabic at Oxford, in a book “De Ludis Orientalibus”
published in 1694. It is that very book on which H.J.R. Murray, who wrote the
well known “A History of Chess”, published in Oxford in 1913, has relied heavily.
However, after one reads the Hyde book, one would be amused by the way this
“wielder of an English pen” – at the time of publication writing in Latin,
though – has done his research. With no knowledge of Sankrit or Persian, Hyde
boldly equated the Arab Chess “Shatranj” to “Satrangh” – which happens to be
mandrake plant, however. In another instance, based on Hyde’s talks with a
certain Mr. Boyle – a “reliable man” conforming to Hyde, but unfortunately
resting unidentified in the following –, Hyde boldly stated that “it is likely
that the Indians were the inventors of military artillery and gunpowder, and
that the Chinese (who are especially proud of it and claim it for themselves)
first took from them this terrible device. For the Indians are a people highly
intelligent by nature ...”.
Learning from Li – author Dr. René Gralla
You have just used the word “arrogance”. The flip side of this word, in my
view, is “ignorance”. To disguise one's ignorance, people in the West often
tend to use excessive power as compensation or even cover. So I would like
to make a point with regard to chess research: We are in a desperate need of
researchers conversant in three languages: Chinese, Sanskrit, and Persian.
Let me quote an Indian scholar versed in Sanskrit: Chakravarti Chintaharan,
in his “Sanskrit Works on the Game of Chess”, published in the Indian Historical
Quarterly in Calcutta 1938 – has stated unequivocally that “no early Indian
work on the subject [of the game of chess] is known”.
Before I will leave that subject I would like to cite one more thing – the
epilogue of my book “Genealogy of Chess” that I finished in 1997: “In 1997
so far, we have witnessed an event of historical importance …”; that is a reference
to the return of Hong Kong to China. “After 156 years, the opium warlords were
finally driven out of China. Shall we make it two in a row? Shall we make the
year 1997, the year when the manuscript of my “Genealogy of Chess” was finished,
the year in which, after more than 300 years, the truth about the origin of
chess was finally told?!
Dr. Gralla: Professor Li, you are the only person
who has published a proper teaching series on XiangQi in English. Are you feeling
a little bit lonely in doing so?
Professor Li: I am happy to be able to make a contribution
to the advancement of Chinese culture. I do not feel “lonely” at all. On the
contrary, I feel that I have an obligation to do what I am doing.
Dr. Gralla: The idea of your work – as you
have stated in one of your publications – is to make the great Chinese culture
better known outside China. While working to this end you are not publishing
anything on the theatre, on the arts or on literature. You are publishing material
on chess, that is to say: on XiangQi. But XiangQi is just a game. So why did
you choose just a game in order to promote Chinese culture and the heritage
of Chinese culture outside China?
Professor Li: Let me correct a misconception of yours, which
is that board games such as chess or XiangQi are unworthy of being classified
as culture. In China this is not the case. In China, a learned person was and
is expected to be conversant in four areas of performing arts: playing a musical
instrument, playing a board game, doing calligraphy, and doing painting. Incidentally,
this is another reason why chess is a Chinese invention: the cultural environment
in China was and is conducive to such activities, while in India it was not.
Dr. Gralla: You have published not just one
book on XiangQi but a whole series, of which number five has just been released:
the “Syllabus on Horse”…
Professor Li: While my “First Syllabus on XiangQi” was still
in press, I happened to be in Beijing as a consultant to the World Bank. When
the book was published, I asked that copies be airmailed to Beijing so that
I could hand-deliver copies to the executive vice president of the World XiangQi
Federation, whom I first met in Singapore. I was well received; he also urged
me to continue the good work, since more English books on XiangQi were sorely
writer of the first and classic treatise on military strategy: Sun Tzu
Dr. Gralla: Is it possible to say that playing
XiangQi is like getting through a side-door straight into the heart of Chinese
culture? Since Asian people like to play, XiangQi could provide a very special
tool to understand the culture of China. And to learn something about the history
of China – like learning about the rise and fall of that famous General Hán
Xin, who supposedly is the inventor of XiangQi?
Professor Li: Again, it is a misconception to consider playing
board games as unproductive. On the contrary, it is an excellent device to
test one's ability to plan and to execute. General Hán Xin invented XiangQi
not merely to amuse his troops, but to train them in their ability to look
ahead, to plan for contingencies, and to seek the best route of action. Hán
Xin was a student of Sun Tzu, the famous author of the classic work on military
strategy “The Art of War”. So XiangQi was invented precisely to allow Hán Xin
to teach his troops how to apply various teachings of Sun Tzu, which are fairly
abstract – they consider timing, coordination, avoiding attacking the opponent's
strength but focusing on his or her weakness, etc. – by means of the board
game as a simulation.
Coming soon Part II: How to improve your chess (Western style) by playing