Weiqi in Chinese Culture

Weiqi is the Chinese name for the classic board game usually known in English as Go (from the Japanese igo). The game has a long history in China, certainly predating Chess in any of its versions. It has never been as popular in terms of mass support as xiangqi (Chinese Chess), which continues to be the game particularly of the overseas Chinese; but it was always favoured by the scholar class. In recent years professional players have emerged in China able to challenge the top Japanese masters, and from about 1970 onwards a corresponding public interest in weiqi has grown in mainland China; there are also some professionals in Taiwan.

The basic rules of weiqi are charmingly simple, and are easy to learn. The object of the game is to gain control of territory on a board ruled into a 19×19 grid. Two players take it in turn to place pieces on the grid intersections. These pieces, traditionally called “stones”, are not moved; but they may be captured, singly or in groups, by surrounding them along the lines. The winner is the player holding more of the board at the end of the game (which comes when both players agree that it is over).

It is generally thought that the equipment for weiqi – a ruled flat surface, and black and white pebbles – was in existence before the game rules were hit upon, for purposes of divination; and that some form of the game has been around for 3000 years. It is also theorised that the geographical origin may well have been in Central Asia. There is no documentary evidence for these ideas. What is certain is that in Confucian period the game was familiar enough to be alluded to casually: “it would be better to be a gambler or weiqi-player than not to use the mind at all and do nothing all day but eat or drink”, from Analects Book XVII.

Later on, in the Three Kingdoms period, it seems that weiqi experienced one of its times of high fashion, as usual coinciding with state support. Cao Cao, the anti-hero of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, was reputed to be on a par with the four top players of his time. The game itself is not (as far as I can tell) mentioned in the book, which was of course written up to 1000 years after the epoch in which it is set (about 200 AD), and for a popular audience.

What is interesting is the extent to which weiqi was thought to illustrate the concepts of the Chinese military classics, from Sun Zi onwards. One of the first books in English on weiqi was “The Protracted Game” by Scott Boorman, purporting to find relevant connections between the game and the military doctrine and practice of Mao Zedong (a weiqi player). What seems to be much closer to the case is that Mao was soaked in the Three Kingdoms, and imbibed the sort of relationship between weiqi and military thought which was a commonplace. For non-players, a simple version of the line of argument starts with the idea that weiqi is a campaign game, where all the games of the Chess family simulate a single battle; and goes on to account for proverbial wisdom such as “feint to the left if you want to attack on the right” in weiqi terms. Good play in a game with several battles going on at once requires an indirect way of thinking.

In the Sung age, according to Jacques Gernet’s A History of Chinese Civilization, all things military lost prestige, and “… the lettered Chinese … was to be a pure intellectual who thought that games of skill and athletic competitions were things for the lower classes”. One quite often finds it asserted that poetry, calligraphy, music and weiqi were the four classic accomplishments of the scholar. Perhaps at this later era (about the year 1000AD) weiqi was losing its linkage to military thought. In any case The Weiqi Classic, published around 1050, was written by an official of the Northern Sung. The game also crops up in poetry of the time.

Moving forward to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the large amount of surviving material in the form of games and problem positions shows quite clearly that weiqi was played at a level of proficiency beyond today’s amateurs, and with technical insight only to be accumulated by generations of study. Matteo Ricci, the Jesuit missionary, thought the game worth remarking upon in his writings, and it was first made known to the West through them.

Weiqi was taken to Japan before the year 1000, and was cultivated at court and by particular Buddhist sects. In the Tokugawa era (from 1600 on) it received state backing on a scale not seen until the Soviet development of Chess; and the main stream story of weiqi/Go then moves to the masters of the four “houses” of that system.

Two of this century’s outstanding players, Wu Qingyuan (called Go Seigen by the Japanese) and Lin Haifeng (Rin Kaiho), are of Chinese origin but have spent their whole playing career in Japan. The first home-grown Chinese player to come up to world class was Nie Weiping, who broke through in the 1970’s. He had to contend with savage attacks on weiqi during the Cultural Revolution, because of its connection with traditional Confucian culture. In a book of his recently translated into English it is made clear how much political support he needed to persist.

At present Nie is just being displaced as leading Chinese player, by Ma Xiaochun; and there are many younger players coming up through the system. A book by Ma published this year in English is called “The Thirty-six Stratagems Applied to Go“, an interesting reflection of what was said above about traditional military thought. Many people expect the future of weiqi/Go to be in the hands of the Chinese and Koreans – men and women. The current Women’s World Champion is Feng Yun, who visited Cambridge a couple of years ago.

Charles Matthews
(Article submitted 1996 to The Seres)

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