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The Legends of the Sage Kings and Divination

Most Chinese writings on go quote the legend: "Yao invented go in order to instruct his son Dan Zhu." Since Yao was a semi-mythical emperor of the 23rd century BC, this is usually distilled in English into: "Go is 4,000 years old."

This is but one legend, though the orthodox one. It is usually attributed to the scholar Zhang Hua, for the remark did appear in his "Bo Wu Zhi" [Record of the Investigation of Things], written about 270-290 AD (the ancient Chinese texts quoted here appear in many anthologies; for go the best are Shen [undated] and Liu 1985; on Zhang Hua and go see also Shirakawa 1993). However, he went on to add, with dry mockery: "Others say [Emperor] Shun regarded his son Shang Jun as stupid and invented go to instruct him." It is necessary to realise that, as many anecdotes show (e.g. Du 1987:11-19; Li 1980a; Watanabe Y. 1977:93-133), go had suddenly become enormously popular in Zhang's time, but was frowned upon by Confucian moralists - for Confucius appeared to regard it as only one step up from gluttony and idleness. The ascription of go to Yao, in fact based on the "Shi Ben" [Origins of History], a book of the Warring States period (475-221 BC), was designed to counter this, since the sage kings Yao and Shun found favour with Confucius. Zhang Hua's understated observation of the manners of his time should not be taken as credulity.

Indeed, the Chinese themselves have a long tradition of dismissing the legend out of hand, though using sometimes surprising arguments. For example, the preface to the celebrated "Xuanxuan Qijing" [Mysterious and Marvellous Go Manual] of 1347 says that go is the wrong thing to make a foolish son wise. Others of course chose to believe it. The Regional Inspector Tao Kan (259-334) had go and backgammon boards thrown into the Yangzi River because go was "for foolish sons" and because backgammon was supposedly invented by the evil tyrant Zhou around the 11th century BC (Watanabe Y. 1977:144).

Where the "Shi Ben" got the legend from is another matter. Its sources were the histories of various states from the dawn of Chinese history. The version of the text we now have simply says Yao invented go [yi] and Dan Zhu was adept at it. It appears there has been a conflation of different legends, as one reason Yao and Shun were regarded as wise was that they perceived that their sons were unworthy to follow them and appointed outsiders as their heirs. However, Yao was also associated in legend with calendar making and divination, and here it becomes easy to see a possible link with go.

Divination in China seems to have been associated first with agriculture. Certainly the Shang (16th-11th century BC) used cracks in animal bones and turtle shells to predict harvests and the weather. Interestingly, too, divination was associated with the legendary Yellow River Diagram and the Luo Record. These were supposedly revealed to the Great Ancestor Fu Xi on the back of a dragon-horse and a turtle that rose out of the Yellow and Luo Rivers respectively. They are just magic squares, but the Chinese have always depicted them in the same way as go diagrams [Figure 1 is omitted here but to get the point, imagine a magic square where the numbers are not shown with numerals but with clusters of black and white "go" stones].

The Shang were displaced by the Zhou, who shifted the emphasis of the oracles to predicting the influences of the heavenly bodies. This was the period when the enduring yin-yang theory took shape. Their view of the cosmos was widely admired and quoted even by later go writers. For example, in the "Yi Zhi" [The Essence of Go] the famous historian Ban Gu (32-92 AD) said: "The board must be square and represents the laws of the earth. The lines must be straight like the divine virtues. There are black and white stones, divided like yin and yang. Their arrangement on the board is like a model of the heavens."

Even a book as late as "Wang You Qing Le Ji" [The Carefree and Innocent Pastime Collection: the oldest surviving go manual, from the early 12th century - though it is actually an anthology of older texts] begins: "The number of all things in Nature begins with one. The points on the go board number three hundred and sixty plus one. One is the first of all living numbers. It occupies the polar point of the board around which the four quarters revolve. The other 360 points represent the number of days in a [lunar] year. They are divided into four quarters which represent the four seasons...", and so on in similar vein. This text is from the section "Qijing Shisan Pian" [Go Manual in 13 Chapters].

Though popular - similar texts exist, for example, for backgammon - such ideas clearly belong to Ban Gu's time and later, and have nothing to do with the invention of go (but may well be linked with the transition from 17x17 to 19x19 boards).

To follow:
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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