I grew up playing the occasional game of chess as a child. I wasn’t particularly good, as I usually had a hard time visualizing a strategy several moves ahead. However, my parents encouraged me to try and get better, even taking me once to a chess club meeting (I got destroyed). Still, I learned to respect the game and its challenges, and I feel a little bit better about my own gameplay as a result. Since then, I have been introduced to another type of chess, a version popular in Asia, specifically in China and Vietnam. Called Xiangqi (pronounced “sheang-chi”), and sometimes referred to as Chinese chess, this game fairly easy to learn but incredibly difficult to master. Here is a quick introduction to the fantastic world of Xiangqi.
First off, the origins of Xiangqi are somewhat murky. It is known that it (or a variation) was played in the 4thcentury BC, and was used by Chinese military tacticians and generals. Throughout the ages the game has changed, resulting in the final version played today.
Xiangqi is similar to the game of chess most people are familiar with in several ways. First, both games have rook/castle pieces, termed “chariots” in xiangqi and positioned in the same starting locations. Both games have similar bishop/adivser pieces, moving in the same method. However, xiangqi’s advisers are more limited in their movement range. Both games have pawn/infantry troops with limited usefulness and both games are aimed at getting the opponent in a checkmate.
However, the key similarities end there. Xiangqi is played on a board with pieces moving on the intersection points of lines, not on squares as in Western chess. In the middle of the board is an area designated as the “river.” Certain pieces may not cross this, including the king/general, his bodyguards and his advisers. The king (and his two bodyguards) are further restricted by only being able to move within a small section of the starting area. Another major difference is the presence in Xiangiq of two pieces per side that are cannons (Zhongpao). These are able to jump, or “fire” over any other piece, in a straight line, hitting targets along the same straight line only if there is something to “fire” over (another piece). Somewhat confusing, but fairly straightforward in the game. Finally, the pawn pieces may move across the river, at which time they are allowed to move not only forwards, but also side ways.
Most games follow a general starting set of moves, then deviate from there. Usually, cannons are used to control the center board, with a horse/cavalry piece (another similarity I forgot to mention) protecting the cannon from counterattack. Games can be over very quickly, especially in the hands of capable players, but most games take at least 30 minutes. Tactical decisions and intense planning is a necessity for survival in this game, just like in Western chess.
Xiangqi is a fantastic game with similarities and differences to Western chess. All fans of chess should at least try out Xiangqi and see for themselves what makes this game so popular in Asia.