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Go and War

A more likely source for the origin of go lies in the way Zhou divination changed. Originally the heavens were asked what Fate had in store for all sorts of ventures, but Man being what he is, these ventures became increasingly warlike, so that typical oracle sessions (as recorded on the bones) would be: "A sign was given; this spring the king, in attacking the X clan, will be able to call out 5,000 men to wage war" or "On the 8th day, we will slay 2,656 men in battle" (Watanabe Y. 1977:64-65).

Assuming the existence of a divining board, perhaps based on the magic-square diagrams, it is then easy to imagine go evolving from sessions around the board with black and white pieces, conceivably placed in shapes resembling cracks in shells or bones, with priests arguing over possible interpretations. Or perhaps military men: there is a reference in Chapter 1 of Sun Zi's "Bing Fa" [Art of War, c. 5th century BC] to counting "factors" in the ancestral temple before an engagement. See Lau 1965:331-332 and Sawyer 1993:437. There is also the use of lodestones and magnetic divining boards to consider - see Needham 1962.

Though still speculative, this version of go history seems to be the most favoured at the moment, and if true suggests a date for its creation perhaps somewhere between the 10th and 4th centuries BC.

Whatever its origin, go became a much-used metaphor for war later. The "Qijing Shisan Pian" just quoted, for example, is modelled on Sun Zi's Art of War, not just in the number of chapters but in its phraseology. Mao Zedong was also fond of using the analogy (Boorman 1969). Nonetheless, except insofar as the speculation above is justified, go seems never to have had strong associations with warfare, unlike chess. Even its terminology is elusive - the many ancient terms that survive refer mainly to hand movements (block, push, throw, etc.).

To follow:
4. Go in the classics
5. Confusion in Han and Wei times
6. Literature

© John Fairbairn, London 1995


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