Xiangqi, Chinese Chess

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Xiangqi is Chinese Chess, Chess played in China, Taiwan and in may other places by Chinese communities. Xiangqi is played in competition and has its champions. Xiangqi is also played in Vietnam where its name is Cò tuóng.

 Compare with European Chess.

For many travellers observing those circular pawns, that game is a mere variety of Draughts.

Scene of Xiangqi liveplay in China. (See more photographs here)

Of course, they are wrong, this a real Chess game whose complexity is comparable to the one of European Chess. Generally, pieces are in form of token with the name written on the upper face, with a Chinese sinogram. Both sides have different colors.

(photo: Ancient Chess Web Site)

Click to enlarge
Xiangqi set-up


Xiangqi is played on the intersections of a 9x10 board. Opposite sides are separated by a central "river". Each camp has a "palace" which is constituted by 3x3 intersection at the center of South and North sides.

Armies are formed by 16 men each. Red plays at South and (generally) starts the game. Black (or Blue) plays at North. In Xiangqi, not all the pieces have the same name for both sides:

  • The "royal" piece is a Governor (Shuai) for Red and a General (Jiang) for Black.
  • The "pawn" is always a Soldier but two different synonyms are used to distinguish them. Red has Bing and Black has Zu.
  • The Elephant (Xiang) - that gives its name to the game - is only for Red. Black has also a Xiang but it is written differently as it is an homonym which stands for Minister.
  • The Counsellor (Shi) have the same name but their ideogram is different for Red. Sometimes, the same extra sign is added for red Canon (Pao), Horse (Ma) and Chariot (Che or Ju) as well. (One reason is because color may vanish with time, then only a different writing allows differentiation)

click to enlarge

Black Che or Ju

 Black Jiang

Red Shuai

Red Che or Ju

Black Ma

 Black Zu

 Red Bing

Red Ma

Black Xiang

 Black Zu

 Red Bing

 Red Xiang

Black Shi

Black Pao

 Red Pao

 Red Shi

  Pieces of a Xiangqi set







Shuai (red)
Jiang (black)

Soái (white)
Tu'ó'ng (black)






Ancient Queen

Xiang (red)
Xiang (black)



Ancient Bishop




Ju or Che








Bing (red)
Zu (black)

Binh (white)
Tô't (black)



Name of Xiangqi pieces

  • There are only 5 Pawns (actually Soldiers) per side. They move and capture the same way, i.e. 1 step forward within its side of the board and 1 step forward or beside when beyond the river. 
  • General/Governor and Counsellors must keep within the palace. They all move 1 step, the former orthogonally and the later diagonally.
  • The Elephant/Minister moves 2 step diagonally. It can not leap an occupied intersection. It can not leap the river either and must stay on its side of the board.
  • The Horse moves similarly to the European Knight, 1 step straight followed by 1 diagonal, except that it can not leap an occupied intersection.
  • The Chariot is exactly identical to the European Rook, sliding orthogonally at any distance.
  • The Cannon is an original piece with no equivalent in European Chess. It moves like a Chariot but captures by leaping over a third piece.
  • It is forbidden to place his General/Governor in direct sight of the opposite General/Governor, i.e. on the same line with no interposing piece in between.

Illustration of possible moves for General, Counsellor, Elephant, Horse, Chariot and Soldier

The red Cannon (column 7) can go on any circled points. It can capture the black Horse (column 1) or the black Elephant (column 7) owing to the presence of intermediary pieces (either friend or ennemy)

The capture or the immobilization of the General/Governor is the goal of the game. In another words, the game is won by "mat" or "pat".

(photos JLC)


The Chinese ideograms used to name the game are transcribed xiang qi, which means "elephant game". Those two characters can be found in association in very old texts like the Chuci, a book of poems from 3rd or 2nd century BC., and the Shuo yüan from the 1st century BC. where it is said: "If you have leisure, then fight at Xiangqi or dance with the women from Zheng". What kind of games was it ? Historians think that it was not a Chess game but rather Liubo, the mysterious Chinese race game.

The problem comes from the Chinese writing and grammar. There are always several ways to interpret an obscure passage in an old text and, moreover, an ideogram may have several meanings. The word "xiangqi" is written with two characters of whom the first, xìang, nowadays denotes elephant; portrait; phenomenon; ivory; stellar configuration; omen; acting; playing; official interpreter, the second, , means chessman; chess or similar games (ex: weiqi); foundation !

A first plausible source is the Xiangjing (‘Classic of the symbol game’) dated from 569 and attributed to emperor Wu (r. 561-578) of the later (Northern-) Zhou dynasty. Although that book is not extant anymore, the preface written by Wang Bao (died in 576) has been handed down to us. There we learn that the Xiangxi was a kind of astrological game and nothing proves that it was identical to the Xiangqi. Three quotes from Linghu Defen (583-661), Wei Zhang (580-643) and Li Yanshou (612-678) confirm that emperor Wu from Beizhou dynasty has invented a game named Xiangxi.

Also, there is a possibility that a Chess game was evoked in the Fanwang fazang shu ('The comment of the Fanwang jing') by Fazang (643-712). But this still deserves more research.

The eldest undeniable reference for the Xianqi is the Xuanguai lu (‘Tales of the obscure and peculiar’) writen by the Tang Minister of State Niu Sengru (779-847), a collection of tales of the supernatural. One is telling the of  Cen Shun dreaming of a battle to come (which was supposed to occur in 762 AD.): "the celestial Horse springs aslant over three, the Commanders go sideaways and attack on all four sides, the baggage-waggons go straight forwards and never backwards, the six men in armour (or the men armed with six weapons) go in file but no backwards... On both sides stuff was unpacked, stones and arrows flew across." To make it absolutely clear, these moves can be deduced from the text, but not with certainty. Since the source is unique the greatest prudence is recommended. There is just another mention in poem from Niu's contemporary and friend Bo Juyi (772-846) which explicitly evoke Soldiers and Charriots.

One notices that long range weapons are evoked. Are they clues indicating the Cannons? Bowmen and Catapults are also used in Qiguo Xiangxi, a 7-sided variant over a Weiqi board, invented by Sima Guang (1019-1086), inspired by the Warring States period (453-222 BC).

click for enlarge

The river first appears in a poem from Cheng Hao (1032-1085) and it is an almost modern board which illustrates the Dama tujing (Painting of the kicking horse) from poetess Li Qing Zhao at the same period.

Illustration of the Dama tujing

However, at the very beginning of 12th c., Zhao Buzhi indicated that the game used 34 pieces over the lines of a 11x11 board (this point is not clear, see here). Soon in the Northern Song, the game was stabilized and it is a definitive game which inspireded the poet Liu Kezhuang about 1210. After this date, the references are numerous and first treaties are going to appear soon.

As far as archaeology is concerned, several extant Xiangqi pieces are known from the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1126). The reader will find an excellent paper from Dr. Banaschak (1999) in the Library resuming the current knowledge. The earliest complete set is made of copper and dated from the era Chongning (1102-1106). These pieces and other comparable sets are discussed in this page dedicated to old Xiangqi pieces.

Xiangqi set found in archeological excavation near Beijing. Dated from North Song era, circa 1105. The value of every piece is given by a drawing on the upper face and an ideogram on the lower face. The General is inside a tent, the Guards are armored women and Cannons are Catapults.

Also it is worth to mention the archaelogical discovery of an isolated Wagon (Che) in the Three Gorges Dam area, in Wanzhou District, Chongqing City, in 2001. The piece is dated to the Eastern Han (25-220 AD.) or Three Kingdoms period (221-265 AD.). As it is an isolated find, caution must be taken before definitive conclusions.

Peter Banaschak made the following remark: "how can it be that we don't know a single set of corroded, imperfect, incomplete metal Xiangqi pieces? It may well be that none thinks it worth while to report, photograph, or describe an imperfect set, but it would remove the nagging doubts about the sets that haven't been found in a properly documented excavation". It is very true and many so-called Chinese coins are nothing less than old Xiangqi piece like this one displaying a Zu (Soldier):


More photographs of Xiangqi "charms" can be found on this dedicated page.



The striking point about Xiangqi is that its board is strongly marked. It is difficult to accept that the river and the two palaces can com from an evolution of the Persian/Indian Chatrang and its plain board.

There are several square patterns in Chinese ancient civilization. The simple square divided in a 3x3 pattern is the supposed architecture of the Mingtang (Palace of the Lights) and dates from the Zhou era (before the 3rd c. BC.). It represents the center, seat of the royalty, from where the government propagates like a shining light. Such a 3x3 palace is exactly the Xiangqi palace.

Under Han era, more elaborate diagrams are found in litterature like the Hetu (Map of Yellow River) and the Luoshu (Script of Luo River). Those patterns are symbolizing the numbers from 1 to 10. Both diagrams ar linked to the famous Yijing, the Book of Changes.

According to legend, as the Sage King Yu the Great (d. 2197 BC.) stood on the banks of the Luo River, a tortoise emerged from the water bearing on its undershell a 3x3 array of the numbers 1 through 9 encoded in dots. The numbers were placed as in the diagram on the cover above. Yu was astonished to find that the numbers in each row, the numbers in each column, and the numbers in each of the two diagonals had the same sum. This was the Luoshu, the unique (up to rotations and reflections) perfect magic square of order three. It was interpreted as a supernatural sign of order in the universe.

The Hetu is said to have appeared on the back of a Dragon-Horse springing out of the Yellow River.

Diagram of Hetu (left) and Luoshu (right)

Finally, there is no need to recall the Liubo to the reader, a precursor of Xiangqi with a very patterned board as well.

Then, I strongly believe that the markings of the Xiangqi boards are in line with deep aspects of the Chinese civilization. 

Looking for a software to play Xiangqi?


Chinese Chess Soul is an excellent master level and popular Chinese Chess Game software.

A curiosity: the Sanguoqi, a 3-Handed variant. It is supposed to allude to the Three Kingdoms period (221-265), Wei, Shu and Wu.

See also from here

click to enlarge

Some people, especially in the West but not only there, have intented to replace the flat round calligraphied pieces by "3D" figures. Some of these curiosities can be found on this page.



Retrouvez l'histoire du Xiangqi, mais aussi ses règles et ses stratégies dans
L'Odyssée des jeux d'échecs



I am very grateful to Peter Banaschak for all informations he gave me.

Thanks to Francesco Cappiotti for pointing out an error.

My deepest thanks to Yutopian which has very interesting pages about Xiangqi history and from which I borrowed several illustrations.

If there is any problem with their presence here, please do mail me.

Also consulted: Andrew Lo and Tzi-Cheng Wang, ""The Earthworms Tame the Dragon": The Game of Xiangqi" in Asian Games, The Art of Contest, edited by Asia Society, 2004