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The Chinese game of weiqi, better known to us by its Japanese name go, has been done a great disservice by the chess historian H.J.R. Murray. In Murray 1952:35-36 he concludes his brief discussion of games in ancient China thus: "The oldest and best of the native Chinese games, wei-k'i, is older than AD 1000." This is prefaced by other outrageous remarks: "... Chinese historians have always tended to exaggerate the age of their inventions and in particular the age of their games. Modern scholarship holds that the only Chinese board-games before the Christian era were simple games of the merels type, i.e. games of alinement. The yih mentioned by Confucius (551-479 BC) and Mencius (372-289 BC) was the smaller merels."

Yet only a year before, the great sinologue Bernhard Karlgren was castigating those who found it fashionable to pour scorn on the antiquity of Chinese texts: "It looks very scholarly and critical. But with few exceptions such condemnations are based on flimsy, insufficient and subjective arguments..." (Karlgren 1951:117)

Moreover, what was to Murray "modern scholarship", so far as I can see, totally contradicts his assertion. Limiting ourselves, in deference to his suspicions, to non-Chinese scholars, we find Dr Ogawa Takuji, for example, in a very important article (Ogawa 1933:79) stating: "It is correct to interpret yi as weiqi. There can be no doubt that the reference to yi in Mencius is used only in respect of weiqi." In Eberhard 1942:104-105, Professor Wolfram Eberhard more cautiously said thet yi "is normally equated to Wei-ch'i" but added unequivocally: "The term Wei-ch'i occurs as early as Han times," before the start of the Christian era. And Karl Himly, whom Murray approvingly quotes elsewhere in his piece, says the game, the same as the Japanese go, was "first mentioned in Tso Chuan, Analects [of Confucius] and Mencius" (Himly 1896:136-137).

As it happens, we do not need to rely on scholarly reputations to show that go is much older than Murray claims. We also have archaeological evidence. From China this includes a 17x17 stone board dated prior to 200 AD found in Wangdu County in 1954 and now in Beijing Historical Museum (Watanabe Y. 1977:119) and an exquisite picture on silk of a Tang lady playing go, also on a 17x17 board, excavated in 1974 at Torfan and dated around 750 AD (Watanabe Y. 1977:119-120; reproduced in colour in Go World 29, Autumn 1982). These discoveries post-date Murray, but full sets of go boards and stones have lain in the imperial repository, the Shosoin, in Nara, Japan, since the mid-8th century (see e.g. Masukawa 1987:1-8).

There is also a mass of background evidence - anecdotes, fairy stories, biographies, mathematical manuals, etc. - that refer to go and show it was well established in China, Japan and Korea well before 1000 AD.

I therefore propose to survey the evidence for the antiquity of go, although as there is so much it is possible here to attempt only a tour d'horizon, and even then I shall have to limit myself largely to China in the period before about 250 AD.

But, first, a note on terms: the modern name for go in China is weiqi (pronounced way-chee), which means the "surrounding game." In old texts, however, the ancient term yi is also used. Both have often been rendered "chess" in English, but proper Chinese chess is xiangqi. It is also useful to recall that modern go is played on boards of 19x19 lines (=361 points) with 181 black and 180 white "stones" (pieces). In ancient times 17x17 and even smaller boards were used with correspondingly fewer stones. Today only Tibetan go still uses 17x17 boards, with slightly different rules of play from go elsewhere (Cheng 1988; Fairbairn 1990; Watanabe H. 1983:54-61). In China, Japan and Korea the only major differences in the rules have been in the initial set-up, handicaps, and the method of counting up a finished game.

Recall also that liubo or bo refers to a race game (proto-backgammon?). Several other games are referred to in ancient texts, but I shall avoid referring to them. However, since many western games writers have, to their great detriment, ignored oriental research, I urge them to read, for example: Ogawa 1932, especially on wuzi (five stones: generally regarded as a precursor of gomoku but possibly a derivative of backgammon) and tanqi, a precursor of hasami-shogi; Kotaka 1943; Masukawa 1983; and Yang Y. 1946. For liubo see also Watanabe T. 1982 and Koizumi 1991.

To follow:
2. The legends of the sage kings and divination
3. Go and war
4. Go in the classics
5. Confusion in Han and Wei times
6. Literature

© John Fairbairn, London 1995


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