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Confusion in Han and Wei Times

As to why yi was first used whereas weiqi became usual later, the answer is probably found in the book "Fang Yan" [Dialects] by the Han scholar Yang Xiong (53 BC - 18 AD) which says, "Yi refers to weiqi. East of the Hangu Pass in the states of Qi and Lu everyone says yi." Lu, now Shandong Province, was the home of both Confucius and Mencius and so yi was naturally the term used by them.

Another early statement of the meaning of yi is in the dictionary "Shuo Wen Jie Zi" [Analytical Dictionary of Characters] by the Later Han scholar Xu Shen, written in the 1st century AD, where he says: "Yi is the surrounding board game." Xu also tells us here, by the way, that bo is a board game using six sticks as dice, and twelve men.

As these and other texts imply, weiqi had become the most familiar term in Han times and yi had to be explained to readers of those times. One obvious reason was the shift in the geographical focus of power and thus the ascendancy of another dialect. There is, however, also a theory that yi may have referred to go on 17x17 boards and weiqi to the 19x19 version, the two versions co-existing rather than one evolving from the other (Yasunaga 1977). The survival of Tibetan go (17x17) is seen as evidence for this.

The situation is very confusing. The 17x17 board discovered at Wangdu and referred to above dates from the Later Han, and there are references to 17x17 boards. The most celebrated is by Handan Chun of the following Wei period (220-265) in the "Yi Jing" [Manual of Accomplishments]: "The go board has 17 lines along its length and breadth, making 289 points in all. The black and white stones each number 150." Against this, however, the earliest surviving game record appears to be the game, in "Wang You Qing Le Ji", between the Wu prince Sun Ce (175-200) and his general Lue Fan. It is on a 19x19 board (see Figure, or the game record in either SGF format or GoScribe format).

black white date place result #mn game
Sun Ce
Lue Fan
?196 AD

Until the discovery of the Wangdu board and Tibetan go, it was long assumed by modern players that the Sun-Lue game was a forgery (or Handan Chun was wrong). However, the whole question of its authenticity has been reconsidered recently in Li 1980b. He establishes that the conditions for it to have been true did probably exist, that is 19x19 boards were being used. He suggests too that this board, whether new or evolved, contributed to the upsurge in popularity of go.

There is yet another layer of complication, however, in that the boards in the Shosoin (of a design known also in ancient Korea and China) have 19x19 lines but only 300 stones and no space on the edge, making it difficult to play stones on the edge line (Masukawa 1987:4). It has been suggested therefore that only 17x17 lines were actually used. This theory has been undercut by the discovery of the Torfan picture which shows a 17x17 board with no edge space but stones on the edge line! To confuse things even more, the date of this picture is rather late (c. 750) if it is assumed that 19x19 boards supplanted 17x17 ones (though Tibetan go suggests not entirely), but a board of the same full-out style, only with 19x19 lines, has been excavated from Anyang in Henan and is dated 557-618 (now in Henan Province Museum). Resolving this confusion will surely be the most profitable area for future research.

Another feature of go in Han times is the emergence of references to go strategy. The earliest is in the "Xin Lun" [New Treatise] by Huan Tan (43 BC-28 AD):

"When starting, the best strategy is to spread the pieces far apart and stretch them out, to encircle and attack the opponent, and thus win by having the most points vacant. The next best strategy emphasises cutting off the enemy to seek advantage. In that case the outcome is uncertain and calculation is necessary to decide the issue. The worst strategy is to defend the borders and corners, hastily building eyes so as to protect oneself in a small area."

As any good go player will verify, this implies a sophisticated knowledge of the game. This piece is also valuable in confirming (as the games in "Wang You Qing Le Ji" also show) that the final count-up was done as it is in Japan today, counting only vacant points (territory). The modern Chinese method is to count both stones and territory. For a discussion of the date of the changeover (Yuan-Ming era?), see Yang L. 1960.

Even better known from this period, and in some ways more interesting because it introduces us for the first time to technical terms, is a long poem by Ma Rong (?-166 AD). The first half of his "Weiqi Fu" [Go Rhapsody] tells us:

First the four corners are occupied
To protect them and influence the sides,
Then along the sides the lines are blocked
So that the scattered stones gaze at one another from afar.
Then come knight's moves large and small,
Now far apart, now one on one,
As groups jump out in leaps and bounds
And make their way into the centre.
Having escaped they stop and prepare to move:
To fly to left or right?
Where the way is narrow and the enemy more numerous
They will be unable to go far.
But if themselves more numerous yet lacking plans,
They will bunch aimlessly like a flock of sheep
And will forever be on the defensive
As the opponent snaps at them on all sides.
Instead attack where the enemy is overstretched, seek out his defects
And send thunderbolts crashing in to his vital points.
If there is profit, you will then have time to take it;
If there is opportunity, you can make yourself strong.
But if you are too greedy to capture his stones,
He will break down your walls
And when the dyke bursts it will not be stopped
But will overflow and the flood reach far and wide.

This again shows a deep insight into go as a game of skill, at a time when other cultures were barely above the level of games of chance. What is more, since then go has had almost 2,000 years to flourish further. In that time it has been woven into the fabric of Asia's history at every level, enjoyed by emperors, immortals, scholars and common men. It is sad that its history is so little known in the west.

To follow:
6. Literature

© John Fairbairn, London 1995


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