Friday, September 01, 2006

Chinese Chess

I recently bought a Chinese Chess set. Chinese chess is not a modern faddish attempt at modifying a European game and calling it Chinese. Rather, chess, invented in either Persia or India, spread both east and west, changing as it went in each direction. It was originally a battle simulation of sorts, with chariots (rooks), horsemen (knights), elephants (bishops), soldiers (pawns), and an advisor (queen) protecting the king. The elephants were positioned head-up, which is what the pieces look like today, without the trunk and tusks. Someone in Europe at some point suggested it looked like a bishop's mitre, which is how it got associated with a bishop. Eventually in medieval Europe the names started to change to reflect a royal court instead of a battlefield.

In China, this game developed differently. For one, the pieces stay on the intersections, not the squares. Most of the pieces are like the Persian original, but have more limitations on their movements. But there's also a cannon, which moves like a rook (horizontally or vertically any number of spaces) but when it captures, must jump exactly one piece (your own or your opponent's) along the way of taking your opponent's piece.

In Mandarin, the name of this game is Xiangqi (pronounced something like "shong chee"), and in Cantonese it's Jan kei (pronounced something like "Junk kehy").

When it spread to Japan, it became Shogi, which added a new rule that completely changed the game: when you take a piece, it becomes your piece to place anywhere on the board.

But back to Xiangqi. I was in Mong Kok, looking at random clothes stores. Stores in Hong Kong seem to be clustered according to type. All the shoe stores are on one street. All the cell phone stores are in one complex. All the stereo stores are in one area. So I was surprised to see, in the middle of the shoe store area, a small stall selling Mahjongg sets (another game). I went to the stall, intending to get a Mahjongg set, and saw that they had Xiangqi sets, which I became more interested in, since I didn't know how to play it.

I asked the salesperson if they had instructions in English for this game, and he said no. I asked about the difference between the sets, and he pointed out the materials, eventually suggesting I get the cheapest one, for HK$3.50 (US$0.50), which had wooden pieces and a paper board. Here it is:

Without an instruction book, I learned the rules using the ancient Chinese meditative technique of looking it up on the internet.

You're looking through black's perspective. The middle of the board, between the red and black sides, is a river, which is not an obstacle, but it does come up in the rules. The forwardmost 5 pieces are the pawns. The character on the pieces means "soldier". Red's pawns have a different character that also means "soldier". They move forward one space each move, even when capturing, until they cross the river, when they can also move (or capture) left and right. Nothing special happens when they reach the far end.

On the first row, there are lots of pieces. The outermost pieces have the Chinese character for "cart" or "car", and are the rooks. They act just like rooks, moving horizontally or vertically any distance. The next pieces in have the Chinese character for "horse" and they move like ordinary knights except they cannot jump. The movement is considered one step in a horizontal or vertical direction, then one step in a diagonal direction. The next ones in are the elephants (red's characters are different but they are both pronounced "Xiang"--in fact, this is what the game is named after) and they move diagonally like bishops, except they must move exactly a distance of two each move, and may not cross the river. This makes them, in my view, very weak pieces, but maybe that's because I don't yet know how to use them strategically yet.

The next pieces in are the guards. They cannot leave the "palace" (the region marked with an X) and move one space diagonally. Then there's the king, who also cannot leave the palace and moves one space horizontally or vertically each move. There's also a special rule that the two kings cannot "see each other". That is, the kings cannot be on the same file with no pieces intervening. Any move that results in this is illegal. This gives the kings a kind of distance "attack" or at least influence, sometimes preventing the other king from escaping, and sometimes pinning a piece.

Between the first row and the pawns are two cannons, described above. You win by checkmating or stalemating the opponent's king. Rules are found here.

I tried playing against myself a few times, just to figure out strategy. The problem with this is that I might come up with what I think is a clever attack, and when I'm playing the other side, I'm still in the mindset that the clever attack will actually work, and so I don't always see what the correct response should be. Still, I've found a few ways to get a checkmate, and some interesting uses of pawns and cannons. Pawns are a bit more powerful because they can't get "blocked" by another pawn, and because they "promote" fairly quickly, when they cross the river. They're also useful in being the intermediate piece in making an attack with a cannon.

In contrast, the "bishops" are pretty useless, except for protecting one square two spaces in front of the king. But since nothing naturally protects that square, it's not that useful for blocking checks. The knights are a bit less powerful because they can't jump. And the guards and the king are very much restricted because they can't leave the palace. In fact, only rooks and cannons can make really long-range attacks in this game. And knights, bishops, and cannons can be "blocked" from moving in some direction without being able to take the thing that blocks its movement.

I did get the chance of playing a live person. Aaron is from Chengdu, the main city in Szechuan province (famous for pandas and for spicy food), and has been studying at the City University of Hong Kong for the past few years, and just graduated. He's been going to Kowloon International Baptist Church (see an earlier post below), even though he's not a Christian. But he does like the friends he's developed there in the college group. After church last Sunday, we played a game. I won, but it was close.

I hope to find other opportunities to play this game. Meanwhile, the church college group told me we'd play Mahjongg at some point. I had learned the rules when I was a kid, but I never had 3 others to play it with. Mahjongg is like gin rummy in its rules, but like bridge in the seriousness and devotion to it by the players. More on that later.

Today the International Office is giving us a tour of Hong Kong island. I still haven't been there yet.

One of the Pepperdine students who's in the Hong Kong program, Jonathan Hippensteel, has a blog, too. It's got lots more pictures and has a very different perspective from mine. I'm actually going to require all the students to get a blog, come the beginning of classes (gasp) Monday.


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