Liubo is one of the most mysterious game of the whole Human history. Liubo is a ancient Chinese board-game whose rules are forgotten. However, since three decades, several studies have been done, backed by several archaeological findings. Most of the information given here are drawn from Hermann Josef Röllicke's paper (Von « Winkelwegen », « Eulen » und « Fischziehern » - liubo : ein altenchinesisches Brettspiel für Geister und Menschen) published in Board Game Studies n°2, 1999. Also, I should thank here Thierry Depaulis who informed me of his personal understanding related to this game. However, what is expressed reflects my view only and can not be attributed to other authors.
The name Liubo comes from Chinese (liu = six, bo = sticks). This game was played in ancient China, at least since the Zhanguo (The Warring States) era (4th c. BC) and maybe much earlier (7th c. BC) as it is evoked in Confucius' Analects (Book XVII, 22): "It is difficult for a man who always has a full stomach to put his mind to some use. Are there not players of liubo and weiqi? Even playing these games is better than being idle."
Apparently very popular during the Han dynasties (207 BC - 220 AD) when the best players were well respected and formed a corporation, it later vanished, probably outshone by the Chinese adaptation of Nard (a Backgammon ancestor) coming from India and Persia when the Tang (618-907) re-opened the Silk Road. The very last reference dates from the Song time (before 1162) where it was quoted as an “old game”. Archaeological findings are not scarce and there are quite a few literary evocations, nevertheless, nobody knows what the rules of the game were.
I have worked on a reconstruction of the game. The results has been published by Abstract Games (Issue 15 Autumn 2003).
The proposed rules are given on this page: Liubo reconstructed rules
Especially intriguing is the board whose pattern is found in other artefacts like the famous “TLV” bronze mirrors from the Han dynasty. Its cultural connection is almost explained and understood, but it still resists in delivering any clue on how it could have been used for playing!
Some TLV bronze mirrors
That pattern bears a lot of symetry. Similar forms can be found in rather surprising artefact. Take a look at this very elegant cup from the Warring States era (475 - 221 BC). Isn't pattern familiar?
The board and its pattern carried a strong astronomical content. Compare with a Chinese compass.
Many theories have been advanced to explain what kind of games Liubo was. Murray did not cite that name but seemed to evoke it with a “Luk tsut k’i (or Liuziqi in Pinyin, six men game)” which he presented as an alignment game much like Merels . For many, Liubo had certainly given birth to Xiangqi, the Chinese Chess .This presentation is often made on Internet sites presenting the history of Xiangqi. I think it is exaggerated, however, some influence of Liubo on Xiangqi should not be discarded too quickly (marking of the board, presence of a river, presence of a King and 5 Pawns, …).
Also, it is not impossible to guess a board with squares beneath the Liubo board. A connection with the Ashtapada or a proto-Xiangqi board is not impossible even if proofs are lacking today.
Today, most authors (Lhôte, Parlett, Li,...) and specialists believe, with good sense, that Liubo was probably a chance game, a sort of race game with captures.
The board was independently used for divination. This is not surprising as this happened also for many other race games in other civilizations. Maybe the Liubo board had been inspired by those tortoise shells that ancient Chinese put on a fire to see what cracks would appear on the obverse side. By interpreting the cracks the soothsayer predicted the outcome of an event. The tortoise shell looks like a rectangle with corners cut and the cracks are like segmented lines. Is there a link ?
A wooden slip has been excavated in a tomb at Yinwan in 1993 presenting a Liubo-like diagram along with a chart of characters addressing several oracles. A full explanation of the divining process has been recently proposed (ZENG Lanying (Lillian L. TSENG), « Divining from the Game Liubo : An Explanation of A Han Wooden Slip », China Archaelogy and Art Digest, « Fortune, Games and Gaming », Vol.4, n°4, October-December 1999). Although nothing proves that the moving sequence was identical for both the game and the divination, this work brings some light on the allowed positions and the path between them.
The game material also comprised two sets of stones (qi) – 6 white and 6 black – made from ivory, bone, bronze or jade, and 6 split bamboo sticks presenting a flat and a bombed faces.
It is clear that the players did not simply throw the sticks, but they rather placed them in order to interpret them. Then, the results was comparable to the famous hexagrams, related to the Tao philosophy, and the Yijing, the Book of Changes. Made of six continuous or dotted lines, representing the yang and the yin principles respectively, they were the key of the Chinese astrology.
Sometimes, the material includes one or two complex 18 sided-dice as an alternative to the bamboo rods.
The illustrations often show an auxiliary surface, the boxi, where the players could arrange the sticks to interpret them.
The Liubo appears to have borne a strong mystical spirit and its board was at the same time a cosmological, a calendar and a divination instrument.
Liubo board with four game figures, Western Han dynasty, 206 BC - 8 AC. Bronze. Museum of Autonomous Region Zhuang of Guangxi. From "Archéologie chinoise, trésor de la Région du Guangxi", Somogy, Paris, 2003
A very nice website on Liubo from which several
pictures have been borrowed. Many thanks:
Le liubo "six bâtonnets" est un jeu de pions pratiqué dans la Chine antique à partir du VIIe-VIe siècle avant J.-C. Son âge d'or se situe à la fin de la période Zhanguo (IVe-IIIe siècle avant J.-C.) et sous les dynasties Han (200 avant J.-C.-200 après J.-C.). Le jeu disparut au cours du XIIe siècle. Le dessin du tablier de jeu est le prototype d'un motif cosmologique que l'on retrouve sur des mirroirs de bronze et qui pouvait être utilisé indépendamment pour la divination. On employait six bâtonnets de bambou. Pour le jeu, on pouvait aussi utiliser un ou deux dés à la place des bâtonnets afin de déterminer les mouvements des douze pions (six pour chacun des deux camps).
Les règles précises du jeu ne sont pas connues mais de nombreux fragments littéraires nous permettent d'éclairer le fond mythologique, ainsi que les personnages historiques impliqués dans le jeu et le contexte démonologique de ces scènes. On considérait que le jeu était joué aussi bien par des humains que par des immortels. Au cours de ces dernières décennies, quelque vingt sites archéologiques ont été fouillés mettant au jour, entre autres, des tabliers de jeu et des ensembles complets d'accessoires. En outre, un grand nombre de scènes en relief sur des briques, des sarcophages, des mirroirs de bronze et des céramiques, ainsi que des figurines complètes en train de jouer ont été découvertes.
« Quand on ne fait que boire et manger toute la journée, sans appliquer son esprit à aucune occupation, qu’il est difficile de devenir vertueux. N’a-t-on pas des tablettes et des pièces ? Mieux vaudrait se livrer à ces jeux que de rester à ne rien faire." Confucius
Retrouvez le Liubo dans "Du Senet au Backgammon ; les jeux de parcours"
If there is any problem with the presence of the illustration here, please do mail me.
Thanks to Thierry Depaulis for corrections