The Origin of Chess: what traditions say

L'origine des échecs : d'après les traditions

 

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For many centuries, history was mainly a matter of tradition. Today, modern historians have much more material to study their subject. Anyway, what tradition says should not be completely ignored as it can carry a part of truth.

Tradition in the Muslim (Persian and Arab) world

As soon as the first text ever about Chess, Persians used to say that they had received Chess from an ambassy from "Hind". This word is merely and often taken as "India". Well, a mistake would be to superpose our frontiers and shapes of modern nations to old countries. At the time of the end of the Sassanian empire, Hind meant the lands of Indus, at the gates of India, more or less the modern Sind in Pakistan.

Later, after the Arab conquest, as Persians obtained a predominant cultural position in the new empire, that tradition of Chess coming from India was told, written, re-told and re-written in all Muslim manuscripts about the game. Murray's "History of Chess" can be consulted for details. Clearly, the tradition in Persian and then Muslim worlds is that Chess comes from India. There is no tradition saying that Chess would come from Persia.

Was that true or not? Of course, the basement of this affirmation was a legend, and legends are not always reporting the truth. However, it is difficult to reject it all and deny that there is maybe something true in this story. Some historians have tried to identify the King Dêwisharm of the Persian legend with variable success. The most convincing was rather recently the German Prof. Renate Syed who sees Deva Sharvavarman, an Indian King from the dynasty of Maukhari from Kannauj, as the King from Hind in the legend. Her theory is bright but, of course, it will always lack of a definitive proof.

Anyway, even if that Dêwisharm is identified with an historical person, does that mean that the Persian legend is true, from A to Z? Of course, it doesn't. Since World War II, everything new and pretty in Europe was assumed to come from the US. Any good product for your garden, your car, etc, was even better if it was said coming from the States. Maybe, this has changed a bit those last years but it remains that we should take some care when we listen to the vendors. It was not so different at those times. For Persians, all what fabulous or exotic was coming from India. This tradition maintained for years. The famous Tales of the 1001 nights contain many examples of this trend.

To my opinion, what is probable is that from Ctesiphon, the Sassanian capital (near modern Bagdad), the game was coming from far East. Let's remember that the Sassanian empire was going very far into East, close to the Indus valley, close to "Hind". If the game was coming from a remote Persian land in the East, the legend was prettier with the description of an Indian embassy, full of jewels and elephants. Of course, if other timely evidence are found in North India, it will strongly reinforce an Indian provenance. The problem is that evidence has not come yet. This is addressed in the following pages.

 

Tradition in the Indian world

As it will be seen on next pages, ancient texts on Chess are scarce, at least before year 1000 and no information is got from there.

Later on, for Indian authors, there is no doubt: Chess originated in India. However, at this date, India is already in contact with the Muslim world and the fact that Muslims think that Chess comes from India reinforce the belief.

Tradition in the Chinese world

As far as games are concerned, Chinese do not hesitate to admit foreign origin. Their ancient litterature clearly says that Shuanglu has came from West and the Silk Road (It is the Persian Nard, very similar to our Backgammon). But, they say nothing similar for Chess. Only some modern Chinese writers say that Chess originates in India, just because they have been told it. Classical Chinese writers, on the opposite, have tried to attribute the design of Chess to old, mythical, emperors or to famous epic generals. For example, there is a repeated affirmation that Chess (Xiangqi) had been invented by emperor Wudi (561 - 578), founder of the Northern Zhou (Beizhou) dynasty. The interest reader is recommended to consult Banaschak's 1997 paper available in the Library. (Not to say that David Li's affirmation that the inventor was General Han Xin in 203 BC is more a sort of legend than history.)

One will object that since Chess is the "King" of the games, it was maybe more difficult to admit it was a foreigner than it was for Shuanglu. Hmm. This explanation is not valid: for Chinese, Weiqi (=modern Go) or defunct Liubo were more respectable games.

Here my opinion is troubled. Maybe, the Chinese classical writers were simply completely ignorant about Chess birth and, in such a case, they just assumed that this game was Chinese. It is also true that the Chinese version of Chess, Xiangqi, does not look at all, at first sight, like the Persian/Indian Chess, so they had no reason to think that their Xiangqi had an origin westwards.

Conclusion

As far as tradition is concerned, India has a neat advantage over Persia. China is kept aside.

In order to quantify - if that has a sense - all these aspects of the question, let's adopt the following method. For each criteria we will share an amount of 5 points. For "tradition", we give:

  • India: 3 points
  • China: 2 points
  • Persia: 0 point.

 


RÉSUMÉ EN FRANCAIS

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

 

 

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07/08/2012