Chinese Chess

by Steve Whan

"A pawn is as powerful as a rook after it crosses the river. " -- Chinese Proverb

River? My chessboard doesn’t have a river you say! Welcome to Xiangqi (Xiang = elephant, Qi= game), the Chinese version of chess. Xiangqi in fact, may be the most popular board game on the planet. It is China's adaptation of Shatranj, and so is very similar to Chess. It is a great game, but it is virtually unknown outside of China.

If you undertook the task of designing equipment for Xiangqi with the sole objective of discouraging Chess players from wanting to learn it, it would be hard to improve on the traditional Xiangqi equipment. The Chinese have had a thousand years to get used to it.

It is played on a 9 by 10 uncheckered board. Xiangqi is played with flat round pieces that are placed on the corners (as in Go), not in centers of the squares. Each piece has a Chinese character written on it, identifying the piece. The characters may be different for the two sides. A new player must learn to read several Chinese characters, right side up and up side down.

Xiangqi is a much livelier game than Chess. The game starts with the pawns advanced and spread out. The kings are already confined to the Palace, which quickens the endgame. The kings are not allowed to see each other, which gives them a rook-like power. And the jumping ability of the cannons provides great excitement. A river running horizontally through the center of the board separates the board into two territories. Bishops are unable to cross the river. Pawns gain the ability to move horizontally when they cross the river. Each of the territories has a 3 by 3 area called the Palace. The kings and queens are never permitted to leave the Palace.

The object of the game is to checkmate or stalemate the opponent. This is accomplished by:

1.    Placing the opponent in check so that he has no legal move to get out of the check.

2.    Stalemating your opponent so that he has no legal move (when you stalemate your opponent, you win--it is not a draw as in chess).

If you want to learn more about Xiangqi, head down to Chinatown to pick up a Xiangqi set and then check out these great resources: