The Chinese secret to success

by ChessBase
7/13/2005 – What is the reason for the remarkable success of Chinese players in the international chess circuit? According to Prof. David H. Li it is entirely due to the fact that they are all weaned on XiangQi, the fast and combative Chinese version of the game. The outspoken academic elucidates in part two of his interview with René Gralla.

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“Better Chess the Chinese Way”

Dr René Gralla interviews Prof. David H. Li

A 15-years-old boy from China wins one of the toughest tournaments of 2005: Wang “Who?” Hao, not even a title-holder, marched through at the Dubai Open earlier this year, displaying a performance of 2731 Elo, without even being an IM. And then there was the national youth team of the People’s Republic smashing its challenger from France by the margin of 19:13 at the beginning of July 2005 in Sheng Zhen. The Chinese girls have dominated the Olympics several years already.

The stunned experts are asking themselves: how in Dragon’s name did the Chinese become so strong in chess? Here is the answer, given to us by Professor David H. Li from Bethesda, Maryland/USA. The rising stars from the Far East started by applying a special home-spun trick – namely, by playing Chinese Chess. What is that? If you want to find out how that ominous “XiangQi” looks like on the board, then you should be present at Paris on July 31st, 2005, when the 9th World Championship of XiangQi will start at the Hotel “Chinagora”. If you want to know how a novice can learn the fast and combative Chinese version of chess you can do so by reading Part II of the interview that Dr. René Gralla conducted with XiangQi expert Professor David H. Li.

Dr. R. Gralla: Professor Li, in your introductory book on XiangQi, "First Syllabus on XiangQi", you tell us that "playing XiangQi makes you ... a stronger player of Western Chess". How would that work out in practical play? XiangQi pieces move in a different way, the rules on the board are different. So assuming a newcomer who already plays Western Chess is trying to learn all these extra rules of XiangQi – how would he gain a benefit for his skills in Western Chess?!

Professor Li: There is no question that XiangQi and Western Chess are different. Clearly, there are different moves and rules, but their underlying structure is similar - which is to grasp the spatial relationship. Spatial relationship, that is another way of talking about the “manoeuvrability ratio”. In relationship to the degree a game's spatial manoeuvrability increases, its difficulty increases proportionately, perhaps geometrically or even exponentially. Between XiangQi and Western Chess, the former has a higher manoeuvrability ratio, thus it is more difficult. Consequence: When one is accustomed to playing a game with a higher maneuverability ratio, one has an advantage in playing a game with a lower manoeuvrability ratio. Moreover XiangQi introduces synergy into your thinking process and playing style. By broadening your horizon, you start to think more creatively; by improving your grasp of spatial relationship, you are visualizing more dynamically; and by deepening your analytical skill, you play more imaginatively.

XiangQi has made them tick: Xie Jun and Xu Yuhua

For empiric evidence: Just a few years after China's late entry into the international arena of Western Chess, Xie Jun from China became the Women's World Western Chess Champion, dethroning Maia Grigorievna Chiburdanidze from Russia. Indeed, during that very tournament, six of the eight candidates competing for the right to play Chiburdanidze came from China. And Xie Jun was once an Under-10 XiangQi Champion of Beijing. Since then, the play of junior men from China has also shown great promise. Like Xie Jun, many of these players have experience in playing XiangQi before moving to Western Chess.

Dr. R. Gralla: Considering all the special rules of XiangQi which a novice is forced to learn: don't you see the risk that a novice of XiangQi – having a background of knowledge in Western Chess – will be mixing up the different rules, both of Western Chess and XiangQi? So that the novice will be running danger of getting worse in Western Chess by playing XiangQi – rather than getting better?

Professor Li: I certainly see your point. But one's mind is not a single-track one. Your mother tongue is German, but you are expressing yourself in English too. German rules of grammar and of expression are certainly different from their English counterparts; so that is suggesting that you are thinking in German when speaking German, and you are thinking in English when speaking English. By the same token, when a player plays Western Chess, she or he thinks in terms of Western Chess moves and Western Chess rules. When she or he plays XiangQi, her or his mind set is similarly set.

Dr. R. Gralla: There seems to be one more benefit of XiangQi: Since the board is not as packed with pieces as the board of Western Chess, and because of the often devastating power of the rather modern Cannons, matches of XiangQi seem to be faster than encounters in Western Chess. So, considering the fact that we live in a fast digital age one could say: since XiangQi is so fast Chinese Chess must be the ideal version of chess for the fast digital age?! The most ancient version of chess turns out to be the most modern version?!

Professor Li: The absence of action in Western Chess that is deplorable. XiangQi is different. XiangQi was invented to allow the troops to gain some insight into war planning and at the same time not to be too time-consuming. The main mission of the troops is to keep fit physically, after all; slowness of play is not desirable, for sure.

Rising stars from the East: China’s future in Chess

Dr. R. Gralla: If someone who was brought up learning Western Chess wants to derive benefit from the knowledge of XiangQi and starts to learn the Chinese version of that eternal game, she or he has to get used to the first peculiarity of the board from the Far East. Whilst all the other versions of Chess, apart from the Korean Changgi, place the pieces on the squares of the board – the Japanese Shogi included - , the pieces of XiangQi are positioned on the intersections of the laterals and verticals that form the squares plus the central river. Why is that?

Professor Li: XiangQi follows WeiQi – that is to say Go – in some ways. Weiqi is played on intersections, so XiangQi is played on the intersections too. In the past, there were attempts to modify XiangQi, such as its board size, its dimension - or the placement of the pieces; but none survived

Threesome at the XiangQi-board: Restaurant “Bac Ho”, Hamburg/Germany

Dr. R. Gralla: There is one more big difference between Western Chess and XiangQi. Western Chess – as well as Mak Rook, the Siam version of that game – uses pieces. In XiangQi there are so many great pieces with interesting names that stir ones imagination: the “Generals”, the “Advisors”, the “Elephants”, the “Cannons” and so on; yet XiangQi just uses flat discs with the Chinese character of that unit inscribed on them. Why does XiangQi miss the big chance of using figurine pieces for all those great pieces on the board?

Professor Li: Well, are we playing a game or are we looking at pieces? Weiqi – alias Go – , the most difficult of all board games, has only black and white stones. There is no distraction from the essence of the game. Why? Simply to allow a player to focus her or his attention on the play, not on the playing pieces.

Dr. R. Gralla: Some scholars of XiangQi suggest that figurine pieces were indeed used on the board of Proto-XiangQi originally, but that design was dropped. If so: why?

Professor Li: Once there was an emperor who played XiangQi with three-dimensional pieces when his kingdom was in danger. The tingling sound of the pieces bothered the soldiers guarding him and his staff, thus forcing the prime minister to suggest that more simple pieces might be used. In the West the use of figurine pieces has diverted into paying attention to the artistry of the pieces – and not the artistry of the game which, as it seems to me, is a shame as well. Why use fancy figurines? It takes about five minutes to produce a set of pieces to play XiangQi: writing 32 characters on a piece of paper, clipping them out, drawing a board, presto, you can start to play. XiangQi is a simple game for the masses; using elaborate pieces defeats the purpose.

Dr. R. Gralla: You are serious about that - calling chess “a simple game for the masses“?! Until today we thought that chess is a difficult game.

Professor Li: One can learn how to play XiangQi by just observing others' playing. For most people, it is a way of exercising one's mind - the way Confucius wanted everyone to do it. Taking that into account one must be realistic in order not be drawn into XiangQi at the expense of other activities. Unless one is a professional - and there are much fewer professional XiangQi players than professional Western Chess players - one should not take a win or loss too seriously. The purpose is to exercise one’s mind, not to score a win; recognizing that regardless of how good one is, there are always others who are better. Most of us are not professional players of XiangQi. We want to enjoy the game, we want to exercise our mind; but we have other pursuits to which our dedication and our professionalism must be directed.

Dr. R. Gralla: We do certainly see the point you are making. Anyway: getting to the bottom of the mysteries of chess that can be the task of a life-time. The current World Champion of Classical Western Chess, Vladimir Kramnik from Russia, has complained in a recent interview that chess is so deep, sometimes he is afraid to drown in it. And you, Professor Li, are saying that the Chinese version of China is a "simple game for the masses“?! Are Asians smarter than Western people, since they consider chess to be a "simple" game?! Is that the secret of the success story of Asia? And: Is that the harbinger for the rise of Asia - that the 21st century will be, as Marshall McLuhan has said, the century of Asia?

Classic World Champion Vladimir Kramnik trying out another variant of Asian chess: Mak Rook from Thailand (together with the author Dr. René Gralla, left). Photo: Christoph Harder

Professor Li: As I mentioned earlier, in China, and perhaps in other parts of Asia whose culture is influenced by that of China, a person is expected to play a board game, it is one of four performing arts with which a person is to be conversant. Working hard - the dedication I talked about - is also to be expected. One can always improve oneself by applying that to oneself, whether in a professional pursuit or in a recreational activity such as XiangQi or Western Chess.

Dr. R. Gralla: In fact chess is a mass phenomenon in the Chinese society - with over 100 million players, the big majority of them of Asian origin, around the globe. In a society like ours - in the West - , chess is definitely not a mass phenomenon. Again: are Asian people, in particular the people from China, smarter than the rest of the world?

Professor Li: As I have said before, Chinese culture values activities such as playing a board game -it is to be encouraged, since it exercises one's mind. For the last two years I have been doing - and I am still doing - research on the interaction between Confucian thought and Western religion. If I might hazard a guess: western religion, at least in its olden days, frowned upon activities such as playing a board game. In my book “Genealogy of Chess”, I have stated that the earliest mention of Western Chess was in the 13th century - some 1800 years after Confucius encouraged playing a board game - by a monk, Jacobus de Cessolis, in his sermons that mixed the game with morality. Well received by followers of the faith, he was encouraged to publish these sermons - or, rather, writings on chess - under a curious title, which, when translated from Latin into English, is something like: "On Human Morals and Noblemen's Duties". Thus, in my humble opinion, it is Western religion, at least in olden days, that prevented a mass following of the game. Indeed, even in 1694, another four hundred years later, when Thomas Hyde published his work on Games of the East, he had to apologize, profusely, saying he had conducted his research and done his writing in his own leisure time. So, I do think: yes, indeed, it is a cultural thing.

Chess craze in a Chinese park

Dr. R. Gralla: So many people play XiangQi in daily life in China, hoping to train their minds. Maybe that is one more reason for the fact that children from Asian countries are succeeding much better at the famous PISA Studies than children from the West?

Professor Li: Being a retired university professor, I am interested in matters related to education. Recently there was an International Assessment of Achievements in Mathematics in Elementary Schools. If I recall correctly, youngsters in Hong Kong, Singapore, and South Korea were at the top. Just last week, the latest results of the annual Intel Talent Search among high students in USA were announced. Starting from an initial round with over half a million entries, there are 40 finalists - each one of them is eligible for a college scholarship ranging from a minimum of US $5.000 up to US $100,000 for the best entry. They will congregate at Washington D.C. for the final round, and they will later exhibit their entries at a local college. I attended some of these exhibits in the past and I must say that I was impressed. In any case, the point I want to make is that, speaking of this year, out of the 40 finalists there were eleven with Chinese ancestry. I don't know whether these youngsters have been exposed to XiangQi, but they certainly have good family environments where education is encouraged. After all, no country values education higher than China.

Dr. R. Gralla: Getting back to the question of figurine pieces in XiangQi. The late President of Singapore, Mr. Ong Teng Cheong, already suggested in 1990, on the occasion of the opening address of the 1st World Championship in 1990, that we should have figurine pieces in XiangQi, in order to attract more people to the game. A prototype was developed, and in 1994 a special tournament was staged in Beijing, in order to promote the figurine XianQi set. Unfortunately that idea has been dropped. Why?

Professor Li: Why cater to a few hundred at the expense of more than 100 million players who can follow Chinese characters? It takes less than one hour to learn the ten characters of various XiangQi pieces - seven officially, add three for variations between pieces on the two sides. Is this asking too much?

Photo: Christoph Harder

Dr. R. Gralla: I think you are missing the point. The idea is not to cater to those few players of non-Chinese origin who already play XiangQi. No, the idea of figurine pieces is to attract people who do not know of the very existence of XiangQi, and who are intimidated by the pieces with Chinese characters. Those people could easily be won over by introducing figurine pieces into XiangQi, and there could be many millions of them. So why miss this great chance?

Professor Li: There are several advantages when one learns XiangQi with Chinese characters. One, this is the way the game is played. Shogi uses Chinese characters - far more difficult and far more numerous -- for its board. I do not hear anyone propose using figurines for that game. Two, playing XiangQi in Chinese characters is the international standard. If one wants to play regional or international tournaments, it would be wise to play the game according to international standards. True, the World XiangQi Federation toyed with the three-dimensional pieces, in Singapore, and I was there. But this proposal was tabled. Who wants to play a game that has not been recognized? I would like to add one more aspect: I would consider tampering with XiangQi a form of Western cultural imperialism that must be resisted.

Photo: Christoph Harder

Dr. R. Gralla: Do you really think that the value of XiangQi tournaments change if you are using figurine pieces?

Professor Li: Were this ever to happen, I would not even bother to watch it. It would no longer be XiangQi, and I have no interest in knowing how it fares. It would simply be one more foreign game.

Dr. R. Gralla: But a piece is a piece - the fighting value on the board does not change if one is using a figurine piece or just a flat disc with the name written on it.

Professor Li: Anyone who is interested in preserving the integrity of XiangQi would not think about changing anything. After all, XiangQi has survived, unchanged, since 840 A.D. If someone in the West is keen on changing it by introducing figurines, she or he does not have XiangQi's best interest at heart. Of course, they can do whatever they want - but, please, do not call it XiangQi! Let me be presumptuous and offer a suggestion. For that someone keen on change, a better venue might be to change Western Chess. One must just look at the basic structure of the game, which, as I have stated before, has no resemblance anymore to a war-simulation game. So let the King be more actively involved - and not just hide, after castling. Let a stalemate be declared a win - instead of a draw!

Dr. R. Gralla: The topic of your new book on XiangQi is the piece of “Horse”. Why have you chosen that unit right now - whilst the most powerful piece on the board of XiangQi, the Chariot – which corresponds to our “Rook” and has, interestingly, the same fighting power in all variants of chess, be it XiangQi, Western Chess, Mak Rook Thai or Shogi - is still waiting for being analysed by you?

Professor Li: Publishing my second volume, I have decided that the piece selected for emphasis in each volume is to be dictated by that piece which played a key role in the just concluded World XiangQi Championship (WXC). In WXC5, Hong Kong 1997, the critical playing piece was Cannon; so Cannon was featured. In WXC6, Shanghai 1999, the championship-deciding game opened with an Elephant move, so the third volume was entitled „XiangQi Syllabus on Elephant - Chinese Chess 3”. In WXC7, Macao 2001 – by the way I was there - two critical moves by the defending champion in two games both involved the Pawn, so “XiangQi Syllabus on Pawn - Chinese Chess 4” came into being in 2002. In WXC8, Hong Kong 2003 - I was there too - the front-runner for the championship was forced into a draw in a Horse-opening game in the 8th round; and it prevented him from becoming the new champion. So this is how the 5th volume featuring the Horse came into existence.

Dr. R. Gralla: The Horse is a very realistic piece. Its typical movements are the simulation of the movements of squadrons of cavalry on the board; so, if one is playing with the piece of Horse, one even gets an emotional feeling of moving a miniaturized horse for real. So the Horse of XiangQi is possibly the ideal piece to demonstrate to novices of Chinese Chess that the pieces become "alive", virtually, during a match of XiangQi...

Professor Li: XiangQi was invented to illustrate Sun Tzu's teachings in his book “The Art of War”. All games are played to illustrate these various teachings – some moves more so than the others.

Dr. R. Gralla: The Horse could be considered a link between XiangQi and Western Chess. Its way to move is nearly the same in both game.– with one important exception: The horse of XiangQi can not jump. Why is that?

Professor Li: In Western Chess, the Horse plays a role that is unique: to break open a game that is generally very congested. In XiangQi, this role is played by the Cannon, which is even better than the Horse in doing that job; since the Cannon not only opens up the game, but it has a longer reach, in addition.

Dr. R. Gralla: Some sources claim that originally the Chinese Horse could leap too; but that rule is supposed to have been changed over time. One expert has assumed a historic background: during one battle during civil wars in China the defenders against an army that had been heavily relying on its cavalry found out that the cavalry could not actually jump in real battle. The defenders had trapped the cavalry of the enemy between their infantry units and then stopped the horses by attacking their legs. After that bloody experience the rule that the Horse could leap on the board of Xiangqi was abolished. Legend or historical fact?

Professor Li: I am unaware of that. However, Hán Xin, both being the inventor of XiangQi plus being commander-in-chief in real life, realized that on the battlefield the cavalry was not completely free of restraints. After playing his invention himself, Hán Xin decided that the Horse, if unrestrained, would be too strong in relation to other pieces, thus defeating the purpose of XiangQi, which calls for cooperation, team play and balance.

Dr. R. Gralla: Is this one more proof for the quasi-realistic dimension of the game of XiangQi in simulating real life battles, unlike the rather abstract Western version of chess? So some authors of XiangQi - like Zhu Baowei in his book "Basic Checkmate Methods" - even argue: "The game of XiangQi is similar to the deployment of forces for military operation". Consequence: one should look at the board - whilst calculating moves too, of course - like a real commander. That is to say: “Should my horses patrol the river-bank, should an advance force of Chariot roll direction Black Palace by rumbling on that lane that is closest to the Forbidden City of the Northern Kingdom?”

Professor Li: For the last few years, I have collected some samples to illustrate these teachings. Time permitting, I might write them up as another book of my series on XiangQi.

Photo: Christoph Harder

Dr. R. Gralla: Professor Li, at what age did you learn to play XiangQi?

Professor Li: I have no recollection. Perhaps as a youngster.

Dr. R. Gralla: Who taught you to play, your father maybe?

Professor Li: In China, one learns XiangQi by simply looking around. It is a game that can be self-taught. This also applies to me.

Dr. R. Gralla: Your greatest achievement at tournaments of XiangQi?

Professor Li: I was - and still I am - a nobody in XiangQi as such. I seldom play, and I have no recollection of having played in tournaments.

Dr. R. Gralla: Do you sometimes dream of playing at a World Championship one day?

Professor Li: I enjoyed having played against several World Champions. I do not expect to play against them in official tournaments.

Dr. R. Gralla: Does your wife play XiangQi?

Professor Li: No.

Dr. R. Gralla: What does your wife say with regard to your enthusiasm for promoting XiangQi?

Professor Li: Again, as I have stated earlier, playing or promoting XiangQi is not an idle pursuit, but a brain-exercising device.

Are you dying to become a Master of XiangQi yourself after reading the above? Then watch out for Part III: “Do the General Giap!” You can also order the 5th volume of Professor David H. Li’s oeuvre on Chinese Chess – “XiangQi Syllabus on Horse” (David H. Li, P O Box 6206, Silver Spring MD 20916 USA. Tel: 301-598-2080, Fax: 301-598-2081; e-mail: davidli(at)

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