Give up the sissy version – play Chinese chess!

by ChessBase
6/15/2005 – David H. Li is not too fond of chess – at least not the strange variety we play. The retired professor from Washington DC calls it Queen-Qi or the "Queen’s Game“. A much faster and more exciting version predates Western chess. It originated in ancient China and is called XiangQi, the Elephant Game.

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Give up Western Chess – play Chinese Chess instead!

David 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 Li.

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?

Professor 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 Chinese Chess.

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?

Professor 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“ thesis.

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 my findings.

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 destroyed.

The 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?

Liubo players

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 needed.

The 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 Chinese chess

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