Chinese chess or xiangqi (象棋, literally “elephant game”) is one of the most popular board games in China. Although it is commonly believed that Western chess and xiangqi both originated from an Indian game called chaturanga, some claim that chess is actually Chinese in origin. Regardless, there are some very important differences between Chinese chess and the Western version we all know and love.
Ages: 8 and up
Type of game: Board
Number of players: 2
As in Western chess, the game represents a battle between two opposing forces. In order to win the battle, one must capture the enemy’s general. Unlike Western chess, the pieces are not placed within the squares of the board, but rather on the intersections of board lines called points. The horizontal lines are referred to as ranks, whereas the vertical lines are called files. There is a square zone centered bounded by ranks 1-3 that is located on both sides of the board. This location is known as gong (宮), which translates to “palace” or “fortress.” During the course of the game, generals and advisors must stay within the confines of this area.
Between the fifth and sixth ranks lies the river (河). The river’s main function is to serve as a distinction between the two sides of the board; it only has an effect on a few pieces. Elephant pieces are unable to cross, whereas soldier pieces have the ability to move sideways after crossing the river.
Pieces are placed in their respective positions, and the game begins. Although red is usually the first to move, this can vary by region. Just like Western chess, players take turns moving pieces from one point to another; it is generally prohibited to move through a point already occupied by another piece. When a player moves his piece onto a point occupied by an opponent’s piece, the enemy piece is removed from play.
For a detailed comparison of xiangqi and Western chess, as well as explanations of placements, pieces, and their abilities, see this handy guide by Chess Variants.
There are two ways to win a game of Chinese chess. The first is the same as in Western chess: checkmate your opponent. This occurs when you attack the enemy general (placing it in check), and there are no possible moves your opponent can take that will allow the general to escape.
Unlike Western chess, a player can also win the game by stalemating his opponent. A stalemate occurs when a player has no legal moves left. Instead of ending the game in a draw, as is the case in Western chess, a stalemate in xiangqi results in a loss for the player receiving it. As such, players will sometimes try to check or chase pieces in such a manner as to make their moves fall in a cycle, giving the opponent no choice but to draw the game. If neither side can force a checkmate or a stalemate, the game ends in a draw.
Photo by No Dust via Flickr