Teaching Notes for NWCS Chess +++ Class

By Dr. Ifay Chang, Northern Westchester Chinese School 

Reference material from the Internet, "An Intorduction to Chinese Chess" by (Terence) Peter Donnelly

Mr.Donnelly's article is one of the best introductory material on Hsiang Ch’i, I have ever come across. He is the author of the book, "The Chinese Game of Chess", published in 1974. In the following I shall extract materials from the referenced material for the Chess+++ class. I shall take advantage of the web publishing tools to insert my comments into Mr. Donnelly's original text at appropriate places bracketted by [...]. Some original texts are omitted. Students can always visit the original article at  http://home1.gte.net/res1bup4/chess_intro.htm

For the convenience of the students and their guardians to study this lecture together, this material is posted in the Chess+++ class web pages at http://www.mi-card.com/nwcs/reviewdonnelly.html 

An Introduction to Chinese Chess

by (Terence) Peter Donnelly
Author of Hsiang Ch’i: The Chinese Game of Chess (1974)

Chinese Chess, or xiangqi, is perhaps the most popular board game in the world, played by millions of people in China, other parts of Asia, and wherever Chinese have settled. In recent years it has started to become better known among non-Chinese. Westernized sets of boards and pieces sometimes show up in specialty games shops, and there have been several computer versions. But this wonderful game is still not as well known as it deserves to be.

For sheer fun, it’s hard to think of a two-player board game that matches Chinese chess. It exercises the brain in much the same way as Western (international) chess, but it is much faster moving. The movement of the pieces tends to be more fluid, the positions more open. It might be said that Chinese chess is more a tactical game than a strategic one. In a sense, it is all "middle game." There is no careful buildup of pawn structures, the major pieces come into play immediately, and drawn-out endgames are rare. Although the openings have been classified, my sense (as a pure amateur) is that it is possible to become a good player without a lot of rote learning.

[The students ought to be cautious about the strategic versus tactical game aspect in comparing Chinese Chess versus Western Chess. Mr. Donnelly's statement of Chinese Chess is 'all "middle game"' is not because of that Chinese Chess prevents a player to think strategically and build up a careful defense structure, rather it is because of that the Chinese Chess allows faster engagement (pieces tend to move more fluidly and positions are more open, less pawns to block the positions...), hence a careful defense structure (as usually done in Western Chess) can be easily interrupted by the fast engagement from the opponent. The Western Chess has eight pawns and placed in close proximity of the king lends itself to make more defensive positioning. The Chinese Chess, with its King confined in a castle square guarded by the confined bishops (also called mandarins) and the defensive movement-restricted elephants (also called ministers), does not require as much attention as Western Chess in setting up a defense. The castling of the king with either rook on the chess board unique in the Western Chess opens a lot more possibilities of setting up a defense as well as vulnerability of the king to be attacked. Since the placements of the pieces in Western Chess does not allow any fast attack (more pawns and all pieces are placed at the base two rows of the chess board, fast winning attack is difficult; fast trading is possible which tend to make the game a long drawn defensive game), it is natural for players to make careful initial moves to settle up a defense oriented strategy rather than an attack oriented strategy.]

[As to the learning to become a good player, studying game patterns is the best way whether studying alone or by playing with a better player in both Chinese Chess and Western Chess. It is true that the opening game patterns in Chinese Chess are few to dwell on (as they are easily dictated by the opponent's offensive moves, less so in Western Chess) but its middle games and end games are just as challenging if not more difficult to study as the Western Chess.]

[Mr. Donnelly's article contains a nice graphical picture of the Chinese Chess Board and pieces. The applet for playing Chinese online in solitaire is especially beneficial to students who want to learn the Chinese Chess game patterns to master the game. By entering the move commands in the command window, one can set up any game pattern, then one can play from there with thoughtful moves. Naturally two people can play. Students and their parents are encouraged to play together. They can follow any Chinese Chess book's game pattern to set it up then play. The class notes containing game patterns we have distributed in the past are excellent exercises for students to do on this Chinese Chess applet. *note: Applet is a computer program loaded and executable on mouse command.]        

Contents of This Page 

[Mr. Donnelly's Introduction Page contains a lot of information about the Chinese Chess. The history section is interesting although one must keep some reservation not accepted as gospel simply because evolution of games can be just complex as evolution of civilization. Often there is no authentic records for historians to go by. Chinese Chess has been mentioned by many old Chinese classical literature as well as story books because it was a game enjoyed by scholars, royals and common folks in China.]

[The students should refer to the Chess+++'s class notes on comparison of Chinese Chess versus Western Chess when reading the parts on Chess Board, pieces and movements.]

[From Setup and Sample Games onward, it will be shown in a separate window linked to Mr. Donnelly's page. My comments will be discussed in the classs.]


Like all forms of chess, xiangqi is a descendant of the Indian game of chaturanga, which developed around the middle of the first millenium CE. Chaturanga was evidently played on a board identical to that used in modern Western chess, with the same configuration of pieces, although the moves of some were more limited.

Chaturanga spread to the west through Persia and the Islamic world until it arrived in Europe in the Middle Ages. At the same time, it spread into China and thence to Japan, where it took a very distinct form as shogi. There is also a Korean version very similar to the Chinese one. (Further south, the chess of Thailand, which is holding its own as a national pastime, appears to be on a different evolutionary branch.) By the end of the Song dynasty (960-1279), the modern Chinese game was fully developed.

Some sources assert that China is the birthplace of chess, but this is improbable, since the Chinese game is an obvious improvement on chaturanga. What seems more likely is that chaturanga converged with one or more native Chinese games. The modern game may even contain traces of an ancient system of divination in which pieces representing celestial bodies were moved about a map of the cosmos, divided by the Milky Way. The Milky Way is called a river by the Chinese, and the chessboard, as we shall see, has a river running through it. Charles Kliene gives more evidence of this association in the highly entertaining Preface to his Seven Stars: A Chinese Chess Variation with Three Hundred Endings. See also Joseph Needham’s Science and Civilization in China, vol. 4 pt. 1, pp. 314 ff, and H.J.R. Murray’s A History of Chess (1913), p. 122.

Even the name of the game may suggest a connection with some type of astrological tablet. Qi qi means a strategy game, and xiang xiang is the character that appears on the so-called elephants of the black side. (The equivalent red pieces are called by a homonym that signifies "adviser" or "augur".) Like so many Chinese words, xiang has several meanings: it can indeed mean "elephant", but it might equally refer to the ivory from which some sets are made, or it might signify "image" or "symbol" or even (according to Mathews’ Chinese-English Dictionary) "star" or "heavenly body". Thus xiangqi might be translated "celestial game". "Elephant game" is a possible translation, but it does not seem apt, given the very limited role of the elephant in play; unless the name simply suggests the game's Indian origins.

[The piece Elephantmeans the minister or an adviser to the King or Emperor or the General. The minister or advisor often had to advise the king based on his observations of the stars (image of sky or heaven). The word xiang xiang is indeed used in 'image of heaven' and 'patterns of weather'. The equivalency of these two pieces make perfect sense in Chinese Chess. Therefore, the milky way and celestial game may be a good interpretation.  However, the modern game since Song Dynasty definitely depicts more as a war game between countries.] 

It is interesting to compare the evolution of chess in China and the West. The game of chaturanga suffered from several weaknesses, and these weaknesses were remedied in very different ways, as follows:

  1. The pawns in chaturanga were slow to come into contact with the enemy. In Western chess, this problem was solved by allowing the pawns their initial two-step move. The Chinese solution was to set up the pawns in a forward position.
  2. The original game suffered from a lack of mobile attacking forces. Among the major pieces, only the rook and knight had their modern moves. The bishop moved just two squares diagonally, the queen just one. In the West, this problem was solved first by extending the move of the bishop, then finally during the Renaissance by the unleashing of the modern queen -- delightfully called in Italian the dama rabiosa. In China, the queen and bishop became if anything weaker than in chaturanga, but two powerful new mobile pieces, the cannons, were added. Moreover, the reduction of the number of pawns to five opened up files for the rapid deployment of the rooks.
  3. Games of chaturanga that reached the endgame must often have ended in a draw, because the pawn only promoted to the weak queen. In the West, the extension of the powers of the queen made it easier to enforce checkmate in the endgame. In China, the approach was very different: the king was confined to a small part of the board, making him easier to pin down, and the pawns were promoted earlier, being granted lateral movement as soon as they passed the river at the centre of the board. In addition, the king was given the extraordinary power of striking across the board like a rook against the opposing king, making it easier to checkmate with just a few pieces left on the board.

[These observations are very good based on the assumption that both Chinese and Western Chess games are evolved from Chaturanga. Students may refer to the previous class notes on how culture may have influenced the evolution of the Chess game in the Western World and the East. In the past, both West and East were male dominated societies in reality, but Queens are more glorified and empowered by her beauties in the West (a 'civility' accepted among royals and citizens which may have led to the evolution of Queen's power in Western Chess) whereas Queens in the East were not permitted to have much influence in politics or national affairs (a 'morality' regarded by royals and citizens - Queen ought to be a mother caring for her children and husband - which may have led to the disappearance of the Queen in the Chinese Chess.). Of course, it is entirely possible, the Chinese Chess was evolved from one of the many ancient Chinese board games just like Wei Qi or Go game.]   

An important part of the game’s history is the development of the problem. Unlike Western chess problems of the "black to move and mate in three" variety, xiangqi problems usually offer one side an easy forced win, given the first move, but can also be won by the other side if the advantage is reversed. Charles Kliene has documented one such ending, and gives a colourful description of the hustlers (bai3 qishi di, which translates as something like "powers of chess layout") who would set up such jeux partis at the side of the road and challenge all comers. Evidently this custom is still alive today.

[Setting up a challenge game pattern and let the opponents to choose which side to play and always beat them is an interesting gambling game. Typically, there may be hundreds of ways of starting the game from a game pattern but only one sequence will lead to victory for one side red or black. The Chess Master had memorized all these hundreds of play sequences, hence leaving the challenger a small probability, one of several hundred, to win. With that kind of odds, the Chess Master can afford to offer 10 to pay off if a challenger wins. When someone did win, the Chess Master knows that he has found another master. They will make friends and play chess for amusement.]    

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Basic Rules

Player take alternate turns. In each turn, a player must make a single move with a single piece. If a piece ends its move on a point occupied by an enemy piece, that piece is captured and permanently removed from play.

The object of the game is to capture the enemy general. The game is won as soon as one player can make no move that prevents capture of his general. This is checkmate. Stalemate, where one player has no legal move but is not in check, is a win for the last player to move.

It is illegal to make any move that exposes your general to immediate capture. This is called moving into check.

It is illegal to avoid defeat or attempt to force a draw by repeating the same series of moves over and over. In particular, perpetual check is not allowed, and the onus is on the attacker to vary his move.

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The Board

As can be seen from the diagram, the board is very different from the one used for Western chess. The pieces are played on the lines, not on the squares; the playing field is therefore a grid of nine files (numbered here for traditional game notation) and ten ranks, making it 40 percent larger than the Western chessboard.

The board

The markings on the board have the following significance:

  1. The blank strip dividing the two sides is the river. This is important for two pieces: the elephant, which can advance only as far as the near bank, and the soldier, which achieves greater power of movement (promotion) as soon as it reaches the far bank. The river is usually decorated with a calligraphic inscription such as "River Boundary" hejie, or sometimes a more elaborate motto.
  2. The nine points marked by an X on each side constitute the castle or palace. The general and his two mandarins cannot leave this area.
  3. The small markings on the third and fourth ranks on each side are simply an aid to the initial placement of the soldiers and the cannons. All other pieces are placed on the first rank.

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The Pieces

The pieces are small discs of wood, plastic, or some other material. Pieces are identified by Chinese ideograms in the team colours, typically black (sometimes another dark colour) and red. The names of some of the pieces differ on the two sides. The character on the red elephant, for example, actually means minister or augur. However, discussions of the game in English invariably assign the same names to the pieces on both sides.

There is also some variation in the form of the characters, especially in older sets.

Although the pieces are often referred to by the names of their Western equivalents, I believe this practice dishonours the distinct tradition of the Chinese game, and I prefer to use translations of the Chinese names. I have, however, retained the standard abbreviations of the pieces for notation.

ImageNameNo. on each sideAbbreviation [Other Name]
GeneralGeneralGeneral (King)1K Emporer
MandarinMandarinMandarin (Assistant)2ABishop
ElephantElephantElephant2E Minister
HorseHorseHorse2H Knight
ChariotChariotChariot (Rook)2R Vehicle
CannonCannonCannon2C Cannon
SoldierSoldierSoldier (Pawn)5P Pawn

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Moves of the Pieces

In all cases except that of the cannon, pieces move when capturing just as they do when not capturing.

General. One square in any non-diagonal direction within the castle. Cannot move outside the castle. In addition, the general has the theoretical power of moving like a rook along a file from his own castle to the enemy castle, to capture the opposing general. Therefore it is illegal to make any move that leaves your own general on an open file opposite the opposing general, because to do so would be to move into check.

Mandarin. One square in any diagonal direction within the castle. Cannot move outside the castle.

Elephant. Two points in any diagonal direction. It must move two points, and cannot leap another piece of either colour. Cannot cross the river. An elephant can thus reach only seven points on the board.

Horse. One point in any non-diagonal direction, followed by one point in a diagonal direction, so that it ends two points away from where it started. This is similar to the knight’s move in Western chess, except that the move is blocked by any piece occupying the point at the "elbow" of the move. Hence it is important to remember that the non-diagonal part of the move comes first.

Chariot. Any number of points in any non-diagonal direction. Cannot leap. This is just like the rook’s move in Western chess.

Cannon. When not capturing, moves just like the chariot. When capturing, must leap a single piece of either colour before proceeding to the point occupied by the target piece. This intervening piece is called a screen.

Soldier. One point straight forward. After it reaches the opposite river bank, can move one point forward or directly sideways. Never moves diagonally or backward. No further promotion is gained when a soldier reaches the farthest rank of the board.

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Setup and Sample Game

The pieces are set up as shown in the following diagram. Red moves first. (Some older books have black moving first; see note).

Using the viewer applet you can also see the moves of a sample game, from a collection published in Shanghai in 1958. This game is by no means typical in its brilliancy, but it does show the fast-moving, tactical nature of Chinese chess.

Click here for a popup reminder of the pieces and how they move.

Click here for a popup reminder of the pieces and how they move.

Click here to open the applet.
Follow the Game Notation and Examples Then play the games and classical endings. Enjoy! 

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