A Chinese Chess Ending with Three Hundred Variations
Games of skill played with checkers or counters, are very popular in China, and no one who has leisurely sauntered through the many-coloured ways of a Chinese town can have failed to notice this fact. Street urchins are often to be found outside somebody’s front-door deeply engrossed in a kind of Fox and Geese contest at which they endeavour to outwit each other with bits of stone or fragments of porcelain on a diagram roughly delineated on the accommodating doorstep itself, and even if these youngsters do collect a small gathering of interested spectators nobody interferes with them for obstructing the thoroughfare. The curious passer-by who glances over the shoulders of the crowd to find out what is going on turns away with the simple remark: “Oh, is that all!” and passes on. Shop assistants who despise the Fox and Geese game of the small boys not infrequently while away their spare moments playing the “scholarly” game of Chess on the shop counter, the master looks on, and even proffers advice, and a customer sometimes challenges the winner. But the regular players of Chess in public are the Pai-ch’i-shih-ti. They are the professionals who, provided with a collapsible table, a couple of bamboo stools, a chessboard drawn on a flimsy sheet of paper, and a cheap set of men, as their stock-in-trade, eke out a livelihood at street corners, in tea-houses and in temple-yards where people congregate on feast days, by challenging the whole world. They offer the choice of sides and the first move, and for a small wager will nine times in ten beat anyone who cares to take up the gauntlet. It is usually set Endings that they go in for,—Endings whose variations they are thoroughly familiar with, and of which they have, in the literal sense, all the moves at their finger ends. I have watched these men more than once with keen interest; they are all brought up in the same school. Easy, witty, and patronising, their whole attitude expresses unequivocally the unshakable confidence they have in themselves—confidence which is born of an intimate knowledge of one’s own skill.
Ah Pa, surnamed Dzau, was a shining light among the professionals in the city of Shanghai; he seemed to hold the championship of the neighbourhood, and well he deserved to, for he handled his men with a talent worthy of a Field Marshal. After each contest, whether it be an Ending or a full game, he would nimbly scoop in the coppers and perhaps an occasional ten-cent piece as a matter of course, and this he invariably did with an air of disinterestedness that looked quite real. Sure of his ground and certain of his ability, he knew too how to put on an insinuating smile and say in persuasive tones to any of the losers, “Come on, elder brother, let’s try again; it’s your turn to win.” Then those gathered about him would look each other in the face grinning broadly at their own ineptitude, and wondering who would be the next victim.
Sometimes, though, an adept comes along and gives the professional a tough tussle; when this happens and there is no chance of the professional scoring a victory, he cunningly contrives to wriggle through with a draw. “A draw is better than a defeat,” he would say for the consolation of the loser, “but I’m here to win, and these draws put no rice into my pot, you know.” Notwithstanding this irrefragable truth, a professional, pour encourager les autres, will, now and again, deliberately resort to the sly dodge of losing a game or two, especially if the stake is small and he sees it is advisable not to frighten away the enthusiasts that he can metaphorically twirl round his little finger with the greatest of ease. They are a shrewd, calculating fraternity, those errant exponents of the “scholarly” game, and ever on the alert to throw out a sprat to catch an unsuspecting mackerel. They know how to play upon the feelings of their opponents as well as on the chessboard; and one has to rise very early in the morning indeed to catch them napping. Taking it all round, however, their living is precarious enough, for when all is said and done the mackerels they catch are not big ones, and in wet weather there is little doing. One almost wishes that the profits of these men were more commensurate with their consummate skill, resourcefulness, and knowledge of human nature.
“Chess,” exclaimed a magniloquent youth who had with more eagerness than good judgment bolted several sprats to his own confusion, “is the pastime of the Superior man; it is the Mean man who stoops to deceitful tactics to gain mean advantages. The Superior man plays after the manner of the Immortals, which is much to be admired; but the Mean man plays like a thief; his pieces prowl about the board like weasels in the night seeking prey, which is not to be admired.” He had played three games and had been given quick despatch each time; hence this oblique observation. “Look here, my budding Confucius, I should recommend you not to speak so loud,” retorted the professional, “you will spoil your chance of being mistaken for a second Chu-Ko Liang. Run home and tell your mother how you have fared. Just say that you lost the first game, that your opponent won the second, and that when you tried to make the third a draw, he wouldn’t let you. If you cannot save your King by hook or by crook, a little figurative language in which you seem to be so well versed, may save your handsome face; for a man without any sort of face is certainly not to be admired. I think you will find something to that effect in the Four Books and Five Canons if you read a little more about Superior and Inferior men.” And so they bandy words, and with a retort ever ready at the tongue’s end, they give a Roland for an Oliver every time; but it is not always that the words are taken in good part, for sarcasm sometimes degenerates into abuse, and then the chessmen go flying in all directions while the principals, addressing each other as “turtle’s egg,” among other choice epithets, proceed to settle matters by true militant methods at close quarters. A real fight over a game of chess is always keenly relished by the spectators. I know of few things more mirth-provoking,
Among the many set Endings in vogue, the present one called the “Ch’i Hsing Chü Hui,” or simply Ch’i Hsing Ch’i, seems to be the favourite with the professionals. It is the first of a series in a native publication on Chess Endings entitled “Pai Chü Hsiang Ch’i P’u” published in April 1801, and he who has not heard of it is not reckoned as knowing much about Chinese Chess literature. For this reason, and because it is really a curiosity in its way, full of surprises and rapid changes of situation, I have been at some pains to introduce it for the first time to foreign players. The native work in which this Ending is found gives, however, only one diagram and forty-one unclassified variations against the sixty diagrams and three hundred classified variations that I have brought together in these pages. To arrange these three hundred variations in a connected sequence and in the regular order of moves of the “first” or “fundamental” proposition, called here the “Grand Tournament,” has demanded no little time and labour; inasmuch as the first proposition from which the whole series of developments and combinations branch off was not known and had to be found. The Pai Chü Hsiang Ch’i P’u, with its forty-one disconnected variations, was of no help whatever in the quest; unfortunately the earlier editions of this standard work [are] not obtainable, and the recent reprints are so lavishly besprinkled with vexatious misprints that, together with the difficult double notation adopted, they are a sure incentive to strong language and a sore trial to an average man’s temper. More than once I was on the point of giving up the task as hopeless. I had resorted to every expedient I could think of to find the first game, even to engaging the services of professional street players, in the hope that they would follow some avenue unknown to me that would lead to the discovery. But these men could not see the object of finding the “Pên,” or “Root,” as they called it; they were content to adhere to their cut and dried methods, and to play each variation as an independent Ending, so that beyond obtaining a few drawn games, which I have incorporated in their proper places in these pages, I was for a long time no farther advanced.
Just as my efforts were becoming a veritable weariness of the flesh, and I was beginning to despair of ever being able to arrange my variations in their regular order, I chanced by sheer luck some months ago to make the acquaintance of the scholar, poet, and noted chessplayer, Mr. Ch’ien Hsiang-yen, a native of Wusih, Kiangsu. Speaking of chess one day, I casually mentioned to him the difficulties I had encountered in attempting to classify the developments of the Ch’i Hsing Ch’i. He needed but little explanation and readily offered me his assistance. It was with his assistance and through his untiring patience that the “Pên” or “Root,” was at last hit upon and the variations finally set in the order here given. To this gentleman I am also indebted for several missing variations required to link up the chain, for much help in revising the moves, and for the many valuable hints and suggestions that have made it possible to publish this little book in the form I had intended it to take.
While no pretence is made to having supplied a complete list of variations—since the variations are unlimited and interminable a complete list would be impossible to produce—the present work certainly claims to have achieved a result far and away beyond anything to be found, so far as this particular Ending is concerned, in any known native publication. I know of no other single Chess Ending of which three hundred variations have yet been published, and this number, I almost fear, is more than sufficient to damp the ardour of the ordinary votaries of the game; but there is room for endless amplification and expansion, and whoever cares to enter still farther into the trackless maze can start from any stage and ring out new changes to please himself. The variations here given are made up of
|5 Repeated, or Forced Checks, and|
They include some very neat Checkmates, and all the Stalemates and Repeated Checks are interesting. (A Stalemate always counts as a win to the side that makes it. The rule being that a player must not allow his King to be stalemated; if he does, he loses. A Repeated Check counts as a Draw, and Perpetual Check is always barred.)
The name of the Ending, “Ch’i Hsing Chü Hui”, means literally the “Assembling of Seven Stars.” As a matter of fact there are fourteen “stars.” Rabelais who, by the way, seems to have been a chessplayer of no mean order, tells us that certain true philosophers by dint of quenching their thirst acquire a knack of multiplying the stars till the “seven become fourteen,” as brawny Hercules did with Atlas. But in our case, there is no such multiplication at all; it is not a case of seeing double, there actually are fourteen, and no less. The reason why seven is the number chosen for the title is simply because it is meant that there are seven on each side, because there are seven Pawns arranged in the manner of the seven stars in the Constellation of the Great Bear, and because in the end seven pieces are left on the board. Apart from this, the Chinese do not as a rule go out of their way to say or do things according to other people’s orthodox ideas. For centuries past they have been saying things in their own way, and if we of a later and younger civilization find some of their ways diametrically opposed to ours, we should remember that they were not intended for us; on the other hand, it is not the prerogative of a translator to introduce changes, or to represent things as different from what they are just to make them fit in with other people’s conceptions of what may be called logic. The idea here is that seven stars assemble to take part in a grand tournament in the skies against seven other stars, and it is their combined movements and evolutions in space that men feebly attempt to mimic on the chessboard. The evolutions begin when the two Constellations of seven stars each, coming from opposite directions, meet and trail across the Heavenly River, or Milky Way.
For our purpose, the board represents the firmament, the space that runs across it and divides it into two fields stands for the Milky Way, and the pieces are the stars.
What the two Constellations of seven stars each may be, I confess I have failed to determine, and Mr. Ch’ien who disclaims all knowledge of Astronomy has not been able to enlighten me on the point, though he particularly observed that the manner in which the seven Pawns are deployed on the board resembles (more or less) the Great Bear. I am inclined to think that the two Constellations are purely imaginary ones, in spite of Mr. Ch’ien’s emphatic assurance that stars do meet in space, cross and recross the Heavenly, or Silver River, eclipse each other, and shift from place to place exactly as do the pieces on a chessboard. Whatever may be said of this from an astronomical standpoint,—and here I may as well state positively for the satisfaction of the hypercritical that this is not a treatise on the motions of celestial bodies but merely a Chinese Chess Ending,—the notion that the Universe is a great Chessboard, and that a Grand Contest is taking place on it between opposing Forces, between Light and Darkness, between Good and Evil, is undeniably an expressive as well as impressive way of putting in concrete form the great abstract problems of moral philosophy. The Chinese who dearly love a pi fang (an analogy), have always been apt in their choice of ways and means to convey great thoughts to little minds, as we see by their vast store of proverbs, allegories and legends.
The space that divides the chessboard into two fields, and called the “River,” is usually marked with the characters , meaning the “Yellow River serves as Boundary,” or simply , “River Boundary.” Now, an enquiring mind is fairly entitled to ask what on earth the Yellow River has to do with the Milky Way more than the Yangtzekiang, for instance, or any other river. This is the explanation. Chang Ch’ien, a Minister and intrepid explorer of the Han Dynasty, (2nd Century, B. C.), was sent by the Emperor Han Wu Ti to discover the source of the Yellow River. Taking a boat the explorer sailed up the stream for many days, till at last he came to strange regions where he met a woman spinning on the bank. In response to his enquiry as to his whereabouts, the woman handed him a shuttle and told him at the same time to take it home and show it to the State Astronomer, who, on inspection, would be able to inform him where he had been to. The shuttle was accordingly brought back. The State Astronomer, named Chün P’ing, after a careful examination declared the shuttle came from the Weaving Maid who dwells on the banks of the Milky Way, and that consequently Chang Ch’ien must have sailed into the Heavenly River, or he would never have brought back the proof. The connection of the Yellow River with the Milky Way is thus manifestly clear.
The notation I have adopted is, I think, the simplest that can be devised. In following the variations the player has only to step from one to the other according to the numbered moves of each, Black or White, as the case may be. All the Pieces except the Cannon, which is additional, are named according to their foreign equivalents, and the terms and expressions used in the foreign game have been borrowed with the sole view to simplifying matters for those who do not know Chinese. Anyone knowing the foreign game need look forward to no difficulties in the ensuing pages; the obvious resemblances in the two games will soon reveal themselves, and after a little practice, the foreign beginner ought to be able to hold his own against the average native player. My experience of native players is that they are very good-natured, and that they rather enjoy the surprise of being beaten by a foreigner at their own “scholarly” game.
Shanghai, October, 1916
About Charles Kliene
Kliene is identified on the title page as “Charles Kliene F.R.G.S., Chinese Customs Service” and as the author of How to Play Chinese Chess, Chinese Chess Problems, and An Anglo-Chinese Calendar for 250 Years.
I am indebted to John Kliene, Charles Kliene’s great-grandson, for the following information:
Charles Kliene was born in China at Tatung on the Yangtse River in 1867. He was the son of a Danish sea captain, and lived in China all his life. He died in Shanghai in March 1952 at the age of 86.
As a customs official he spent several years in Tientsin, Amoy, Hainan, Ningpo, and Shanghai where, following retirement from the customs service, he was appointed Director of Chinese Studies for the Municipal Council of the International Settlement. In his lifetime he travelled to Europe and the Middle East on several occasions and spent a number of years in Scotland, where his children were educated in private schools.
His major pastime was the study of Chinese money, coins, and musical instruments. He donated a very large collection of coins of exceptional quality to the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen, where it was recently presented in a special exhibition.
The following is culled from a couple of sources on the internet, and I make no guarantee as to accuracy:
At the beginning of this century, Charles Kliene from Denmark did his utmost to search the ancient xiangqi manuals during the twenty years he stayed in China. Wherever he went, he always tried to make friends with the local players. He collected newspaper cuttings on the endgame by Xie Xiaxun, the xiangqi champion of the time, and bound them into a volume. He paid a call on Mr. Xie, who later became his close friend. In 1916, Kliene translated into English several dozen variations of The Seven Stars, a famous end-game from an ancient xiangqi book, and published them in Europe and America. He was the first foreigner to introduce xiangqi to the Western world.
A study very similar to the one documented by Kliene can be seen at www.xqinenglish.com. In the initial position, the soldier on red’s 1 file is posted one step farther ahead than Kliene has it, but this doesn’t seem to make any difference for most of the variations. Note that the viewer on the site allows you to follow a different line by clicking on the alternative response in the right-hand window.