Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
I had to learn how to play “chess” twice: once from my grandfather, and once from my aunt.
And the reason I had to learn it twice is that I was learning two kinds of chess: Chinese chess and Western chess. The two share a common origin, and in considering them side by side, one can glean a hint of a history of the world.
(I’ve barely started writing and have already tied myself in linguistic knots. In Eurocentric English, “Western” chess is simply “chess,” while Chinese chess must be distinguished by that ethnic descriptor. In Chinese, “Chinese chess” is called xiang qi, which can be translated as either “elephant chess” or something like “symbolic chess.” The elephant connection will become important below. Chess of the European variety is instead called “xiyang qi,” meaning “Western chess,” or “guo ji xiang qi”: “international elephant/symbolic chess.”)
The first ancestor of both chess and xiang qi originated in the Gupta Empire (280-550 A.D.) of ancient India, and it was called “chaturanga” in Sanskrit. (The term “xiang qi” appears in Chinese sources as far back as the Warring States era (403-221 B.C.), but it likely referred to a different game where the pieces were carved from ivory.) “Chaturanga” meant “four divisions,” referring to the four parts of an Indian army at the time: infantry, cavalry, elephants, and chariots, which became pawns, knights, bishops, and rooks.
(Linguistic sidenote: c.f. “cha” for “four” with “chaar” in Hindi, “chahar” in Persian/Farsi, and variations on “chetyre” in Slavic languages.)
Chaturanga traveled the Silk Road in both directions. In Persia, it became chatrang and then shatranj. The cha-sha change turned out to be significant: “shah” means “king” in Persian. The change gave rise to the modern name for the game in several languages such as German (Schach), Russian (shakhmaty, c.f. “checkmate”), and English.
From the Middle East, the game migrated to Spain and Italy, where in the late-Middle Ages it took more or less its modern shape. First of all, the game now had a queen, something it didn’t have back east, where the predecessor piece for the queen had been the vizier (“vizier,” from Arabic “wazir”). Perhaps only European circumstances would have led to the most powerful piece on the board being named the queen.
The chariot in Persian was called “rukh.” After chess entered Europe, this word came to be confused with French “roc” and Italian “rocca,” meaning “rock” or “castle.” This is why a European rook is carved in a form of a castle but moves in the straight lines of a chariot. Tamerlane, who ruled a vast Central Asian empire centered on today’s Uzbekistan in the 14th and 15th centuries, is said to have named his son and heir Rukh because he happened to have been playing chess when Rukh was born. According to some, Shah Rukh later invented the castling move. (How does a king invent a new move? I imagine that he just did it and dared anyone to argue to him.)
The Indian elephants would have seemed unnatural in Europe, despite Hannibal’s legendary attack on Rome with elephants. The elephant pieces in shatranj were carved with two pointy bits representing tusks. In Europe these were mistaken for the bishop’s mitre. Thus elephants became bishops.
In contrast, the Chinese descendant of chaturanga, xiang qi, perhaps never had a chance to go “international” as chess has done. One major reason for that must be that the Chinese didn’t carve their pieces into shapes resembling what they were supposed to represent. Instead, xiang qi pieces are simple disks with the Chinese characters of their names carved on top. To play xiang qi, first you have to learn to read Chinese. An entry barrier if there ever was one.
But this practice dovetails with the vast array of homonyms and synonyms in the Chinese language and allows suggestive wordplay. The equivalent pieces on the two sides of the game are never carved with the same characters. The “xiang” itself, after which xiang qi is named, on one side is written as 象, “the elephant.” On the other side it is 相, pronounced identically, meaning “the minister” or “the vizier,” almost like the bishop.
As the Chinese were the first people to invent gunpowder, so in xiangqi they came to add a fifth division of the army that the ancient Indians couldn’t have imagined. The artillery, written as 炮 on one side and 砲 on the other, both pronounced “pao” but one suggesting a fiery projectile and the other a rocky one, can only attack by skipping over another piece.
The chariots remain the chariots and the cavalry are still the cavalry. But there is nothing comparable to a queen, leaving the chariots as the most powerful pieces on the board. Instead, a pair of guards move diagonally around the king as his protection. Both the king and his guards are confined to the “palace,” a small portion of the board from which they can never leave.
Did I say king? It’s not a king, even though it has a palace. Xiang qi demotes the central character in the drama and reduces the stake from a war to a battle. Instead of a king, on one side it’s a 將, jiang, a general. On the other side it’s a 帥, shuai, a marshal. One wants to speculate that the demotion had something to do with the imperial system of government, under which it might have been politically uncomfortable to be seen playing a game symbolizing the death of an emperor.
In public parks from Boston to Berlin to Buenos Aires, you can find chess enthusiasts bringing their pieces out to play. On street corners across China, you can just as easily find people playing xiang qi as their ever-opinionated friends watch. These began as the same game, and they remain very similar now. You can say much the same thing for the people playing them, from east to west.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."