Generals on the board: a guide to playing chess in the Orient

In Italian language, the word for “chess” is “scacchi” which descends from the Persian word “shah (king)”. While it has been long believed that this historical two-player strategy board game took origin in Eastern India under the Sanskrit name of “chaturanga” (comes from a battle formation mentioned in the Indian epic Mahabharata, referring to four divisions of an army, namely elephantry, chariotry, cavalry and infantry), archeological evidence indicates that chess firstly appeared nearby Sassanid Persia around 600 AD, from where it spread westward along the Silk Road later.

However, no matter the “chaturanga” of Indians or the “Shatranj” of Persians came first, both of those two ancient games have already been replaced by its modern and standardized version in their respective birthplaces. But in the Far Orient, despite the strong influence of “international chess”, traditional variations of this game are still undeniably popular board games even to this day.

Among them, the most world-famous one is Xiangqi (象棋) which means either “elephant game” or “figure game” in Chinese language. Given the ambiguity of that character, various hypotheses have been raised to demonstrate its origins, while no convincing results are achieved so far. The earliest description of the game’s rules appears in the story “Cén Shùn” (岑順) in the collection Xuanguai lu (玄怪錄), written in the middle part of the Tang dynasty. Xiangqi is played on a board nine lines wide and ten lines long, representing a battle between two armies (16 pieces for each player), with the object of capturing the enemy’s general (king). Distinctive features of xiangqi include the cannon (pao) , which must jump to capture; areas on the board called the river and palace, which restrict the movement of some pieces (but enhance that of others); and placement of the pieces on the intersections of the board lines, rather than within the squares. Unlike in chess, in which stalemate is a draw, in xiangqi, it is a loss for the stalemated player. Nowadays in China, visitors can easily catch a glimpse of this ancient game in the tea houses, park or simply along the streets, where uncles and aunties are absorbed in the forethoughts of winning a battle just like those generals thousands of years ago. Besides China and areas with significant ethnic Chinese communities, xiangqi is also a popular pastime in Vietnam, where it is known as cờ tướng.

On an old shipwreck sunk in the waters of Mado (South Korea) at the end of the Goryeo period (between 1265 and 1268), stones with rounded edges with Chinese signs painted with ink on the surface are discovered — they are the oldest pieces of janggi, known as “the Korean chess”. Originated from the Chinese Xiangqi, the janggi gameboard has nearly the same layout as that used in its Chinese counterpart and the rules of those two games are also very similar except some small differences. For example, on one hand, unlike xiangqi, which confines elephants to one side of the board behind a “river”, in janggi there is no river that divides the board horizontally in the middle and elephants are not limited to one side of the board. Therefore, the janggi “elephant” can be used more aggressively. On the other hand, janggi requires cannons to jump in order to move, as well as capture, and it may also not capture another cannon. This means in the starting position, there are no valid moves available for the cannon. According to Wikipedia, In South Korea one will often see older men crowding around a single janggi board while two men play for small amounts of money, but it is currently less popular in South Korea than the strategy game Baduk (Go).

Sometime in the 10th to 12th centuries, ‘chess’ crossed the channel to Japan where it spawned a number of interesting variants under the name of “Shogi” , which also means “general’s (shō 将) board game (gi 棋)” as janggi in Korean. It is certain that Shogi in its present form was played in Japan as early as the 16th century and it has several distinctive features. By comparison with chess, Shogi has three additional pieces: “golden general”, “silver general” and “lance” but doesn’t have “queen”. All pieces except the gold general and the king can promote, but only to one kind of piece. Promotion is also easier in shogi because the promotion zone (consists of the furthest one-third of the board – the three ranks occupied by the opponent’s pieces at setup) is closer to the starting position of the pieces (especially pawns). What’s more, captured pieces in Shogi become the property of the capturer and can re-enter play by being dropped onto almost any vacant square, which makes the game even more complicated and exciting to watch. Today, it remains one of the most popular pastimes in Japan, with an estimated 20 million people able to play and a professional association (JSA) running major tournaments throughout the year.

All those three oriental chess variations have been actively trying to expand their influence both home and abroad. Xiangqi leagues and clubs are all over the world and the World Xiangqi Federation (WXF) has been organizing The World Xiangqi Championship event every two years since 1991. Each European nation generally has its own governing league; for example, in Britain, xiangqi is regulated by the United Kingdom Chinese Chess Association. Shogi has also grown in popularity outside Japan since the 1990s, particularly in the Chinese city of Shanghai. The January 2006 edition of Kindai Shogi (近代将棋) stated that there were 120,000 shogi players in Shanghai. The spread of the game to countries where Chinese characters are not in common use, however, has been slower. As of November 2017, in Europe there are currently over 1,200 active players. Despite being less well-known than the other two types of chess, Korean janggi has made great progress in gaining international awareness. In 2009, the first world janggi tournament was held in Harbin, China. Ten years later, in the October of 2019, the 1st European Janggi Championship was held in Hamburg which attracted players from approximately 8 countries.

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