The Origin of Chess: conclusion

L'origine des échecs: conclusion


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It is now time to synthesize our small exersices and see which land has got more points in that race of claiming to be the cradle of Chess:































The result is an almost a draw. As one can argue to give one more or less point here or there, it can be considered that it is a tie game. The Persian advantage by 1 point is not significant.

Such a result is not surprising. It just translates why the question of Chess origin is so controversial: there are good arguments from every area. Apparently, India gave its name to the game which (in the West) seems to reflect the composition of her epic army. India is named by Persians as the land of birth of their Chess. However, most ancient undisputed texts are all Persians and this is confirmed by the pieces found by excavations which mainly come from Persians lands. Nevertheless, the Chinese version seems more primitive than the Western one and if it easy to understand how a Chinese Chess would have become an Indo-persian one, the reverse is not true.

Chess is for sure ... an Asian game and was born before the end of 6th century. At present time it is difficult to go beyond this. Three regions or areas are possible candidates:

1) Persia, but it should not be taken in its modern sense. Persia was once much more extended that today Iran. The lands in Central Asia, along the Silk Road, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Tadjikistan, etc.., were of Persian language and civilization. They seem to be in relation with many aspects of Chess origins.

2) North India as all first evidence of Chess, disputed or not, are concentrated in Kashmir or the Ganges valley with a special mention to Kânnauj (Kânyâkubjâ ).

3) China, on the other extremity of the Silk Road.

Either the game was invented in China and then transmitted to Serindians, Sogdians, Persians and Indians, or it followed the opposite track. Every one will decide which scenario is the most probable, but with care because the characteristics of that proto-Chess might have been different (board dimension, number of pieces, etc.) from the known forms.

Also, it can not be discarded that the scenario was indeed more complex if the ressemblance between the main two forms were the result of loans and convergence, superposing upon older and existing games.

The mainframe theory affirm that Chess would have followed the road of Buddhism which went out of India to conquer China. This is a seducing hypothesis but it largely remains a speculation. Reality is that the Silk Road has been a very efficient channel of cultural exchange in both directions.

It is our opinion that progressing on the question would require scholarship in the 3 classical civilizations, Indian, Persian and Chinese. This has never been possible up to now. Specialists exist, some are bright, famous and recognized, however they are too much biased.  Unfortunately, it is often the case with "native" searchers, those most skilled to understand their civilization. An extreme case is today Indian history which is poisonned by extremism and nationalism at a point where it becomes embarrassing to read anything from these authors. Situation is not very far from that with Chinese or Persians "historians" who wrote on the Internet or elsewhere. Are "not-natives" researchers more neutrals? Unfortunately, not really.

Sinologists want to demonstrate that China has invented everything. It is true for the compass, for the gun powder, for the silk, for the pasta (!) but not necessarily for Chess. Joseph Needham made a huge work on Chinese civilization and was the prominent in attacking the mainframe theory. Other China-defenders have appeared later, nowadays. Unfortunately with much less talent and with childish theory they damage their cause more than they help...

Iranologists also wrote to defend Chatrang as the ancestor but they are less numerous and they do not make so much noise as India defensors. Maybe because the fashion is less in studying the Persian civilization due to the difficulties with the political status of these countries.

Indologists are by far the most active, especially in Europe, mainly Germany and UK. Again, their scholarship is very impressive but they are "victims" of their passion. India seems to bewitch all those who go there to study her. Then it is impossible, or very difficult, for many indologists to imagine that something was not Indian. For them, India invented everything. And sent everything abroad: Buddhism, numerals including the zero, martial arts, etc. So they invented Chess, and some affirm that they invented Nard (Backgammon) as well. Today several Indologists are persevering to find ancient artefacts in the vaults of Indian museum and this energy is a good thing: we will see if something comes out of it.

On this web site, we have no preconceived opinion. Chinese, Indian or Persian (in alphabetic order!) origin, whatever, or something else (Kushans?) is an acceptable solution for this enigma.

We will keep on eyes on any progress from any discipline that could throw some light on that exciting matter. What is needed here is objectivity. No a priori solutions.

 The Silk Road : click to enlarge
The Silk Road (click to enlarge) 


 Les arguments présentés sur cette page sont développés dans L'Odyssée des jeux d'échecs, (Praxeo Editions, 2010).

Wall painting in a temple in Guangsheng (1319) depicting a mysterious large Xiangqi on 9x12 points. An other riddle?