How to play Xiangqi – Chinese Chess (+VIDEO)
Xiangqi (象棋: Xiàngqí), popularly known as Chinese chess, is a two player board game from the chess family of games. It is one of the most popular games in China, where people play on the streets surrounded by interested onlookers, and is played across the world by the Chinese diaspora as well as in neighbouring Vietnam.
It is a game of skill, patience, forethought and planning played across a distinctive board on which the pieces are placed on the points as opposed to in the boxes. Distinctive differences to chess include a piece called the cannon, which must jump over pieces in order to capture as well as a parting river in the board’s centre which affects the movement of certain pieces.
The history of Xiangqi
Like most chess based games it is believed that the game’s origins can be found in India, from the game of Chaturanga. The earliest recorded record of the rules of the modern form of Xiangqi (which literally translates as ‘elephant game’) was recorded during the Southern Song Dynasty (AD 1127–1279) in a poem by Liu Kechuang (刘克庄). The game really began to spread in popularity however, during the Qing dynasty (1644 – 1912) and by the 20th century it was established as a major past time all across China.
The Xiangqi board is nine lines wide and ten lines long. In contrast to chess, Xiangqi is played on the intersections of these lines, not in the boxes created, which are known as points.
In the central three vertical lines at each player’s end of the board there is a ‘palace’ or ‘fortress (宮: gōng) which stretches out for three horizontal lines forming a square (3×3). Within this square are diagonal line connecting the opposite corners and a horizontal line across the centre point.
Dividing the board in two is the river (河: hé). This separation has consequences for two pieces: soldiers (卒: zú) are enhanced when crossing the river and elephants (象: xiàng) are forbidden from crossing at all.
It is also customary for the starting points of the soldiers and cannons (砲: pào) to be marked with squares.
Traditionally the two opposing pieces are coloured red and black. The pieces are circular disks decorated with a Chinese character identifying its role. Interestingly, on some pieces the same two roles (i.e. red & black soldiers) are marked in different characters, which is a bit of pain for non-Chinese speakers to master at first. Most sets still use traditional Chinese characters, despite the general public having switched to simplified Chinese characters in everyday life.
The General (Black: 將: jiàng) / The Marshal (Red: 帥)
The general is the equivalent of the ‘king’ in chess and starts the game in the centre and on the back edge of the ‘palace’. It can move one point horizontally or vertically but cannot leave the palace except in one circumstance.
The two opposing generals may not face each other along the same line without any other pieces in between. If this does happen a general may execute the move called “the flying general” (飛將) in which it may move all the way across the board to capture the opposing general, thus enforcing checkmate.
The Guards (Black: 士: shì) (Red: 仕)
The guards start on either side of the general. They move one point diagonally but they are confined to the palace, meaning that they can only move to five points on the board.
The Elephants (Black: 象: xiàng) (Red: 相)
Located either side of the guards, elephants move two points diagonally (not more nor less) and may not jump over any other pieces, meaning they can be blocked quite frequently, a practice called “blocking the elephant’s eye” (塞象眼). Elephants are not permitted to cross the river and their primary function is as a defensive piece, often covering one another.
Sitting outside the elephants are the horses who move very similarly to the horses in chess (1 point vertically or horizontally and one point diagonally). In Xiangqi however, a horse can not jump as the knight does in chess and can be blocked from moving in a certain direction if another piece is located horizontally or vertically to it.
Blocking a horse in this manner is called “hobbling the horse’s leg” (蹩馬腿).
The Chariots (Black: 車: jū) (Red: 俥) (Simplified Chinese for both: 車)
The chariots sit in the corner positions of the board and are the equivalent of the rook or castle in chess. In may move any distance vertically or horizontally but it can not jump over other pieces. It is the strongest piece on the board.
The Cannons (Black: 砲: pào) (Red: 炮)
Unique to xiangqi is the cannon. Starting a row back from the soldiers and two points in front of the horses, the cannons move like the chariots (i.e. any distance vertically or horizontally without jumping) but can only capture an opposition piece by jumping over another piece. The piece the cannon jumps over in order to take (and it must be just one piece) is called the screen (炮台: pào tái) and it can be either an opposition piece or of the player itself. There is no limit to the amount of unoccupied spaces the cannon may jump between the screen and the opposition piece to be captured.
The Soldiers (Black: 卒: zú) (Red: 兵: bīng)
Soldiers are the equivalent of pawns in chess. There are five in total and start every other point, one horizontal line back from the river. They initially move one point forward only, but when they cross the river they may move one point horizontally as an alternative. A solider cannot move backwards and after advancing to the end of the board may still move horizontally along the oppositions edge of the board.
Still confused? Then watch our helpful introduction to Xiangqi, or Chinese chess if you prefer, made with the help of the lovely Julie from Leshan…
written by: Jon