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Go in the Classics

Turning now to the early literature, the first reference is normally considered to be in either the "Zuo Zhuan" [Zuo's Commentary on the Spring and Autumn Annals] or the Analects of Confucius. The latter was compiled by disciples of Confucius some time after his death in 479 BC. The former is dated to 424 BC (Potter 1985-86:21) or later, but refers to an historical event in 547-8 BC and so it seems reasonable to give this priority. (Although Watanabe Y. 1977:70 also puts forward for consideration a possible reference written in 91 BC but relating to 681 BC.)

The "Zuo Zhuan" text (Duke Xiang, Year 25) reads: "Duke Xian of Wei ... ... went to speak with Ning Xi. Ning Xi promised [to collaborate with him]. When the Grand Uncle Wen Zi heard about this, he said: "Alas! ... Ning is now dealing with his ruler with less care than if he were playing go. How can he escape disaster? If a go player establishes his groups without making them safe, he will not defeat his opponent. How much worse if he establishes a ruler without making him safe."

Confucius's reference (Analects, Book XVII, 22) is unflattering: "It is difficult for a man who always has a full stomach to put his mind to some use. Are there not players of [liu]bo and go? Even playing these games is better than being idle."

The next major reference is by Mencius, a follower of Confucius. He gives two references. In one (Mencius, Book IV, B-30) it is linked with liubo and wine as an unfilial thing that leads to malnourishment of one's parents. In the other (Book VI, A-9), he gives this parable:

"Now the art of go is but a minor art. Yet if one does not apply one's mind to it and bend one's will, one cannot master it. Go player Qiu is the best player in the land. Suppose he teaches two people to play, and one applies his mind and bends his will and listens to what Qiu has to say. The other, however, listens to him but his mind is on a swan he imagines is approaching and he wants to take up his bow and arrows and shoot it. Although he is studying with the first player, he will not be as good. Is this because he is not as intelligent? I say no."

All these classical references are to yi. Admittedly none of them tells us what the game is, and we have to wait until Han times (206 BC - 220 AD) for detailed descriptions that confirm yi is go. But the weight of tradition cannot be ignored, for there is a continuum of references to yi between the Confucian era and Han times. Interestingly they often imply that it is a game of skill, and as will be shown below a rather high level had already been reached by Han times, and then beyond, although in the Han the term weiqi emerged. Yin Xi, for example, in the "Guan Yin Zi" [Book of Master Yin] of the late Zhou period (4th-3rd century BC) says: "Take the accomplishments of archery, chariot-driving, playing the zither, and go: in none of these is it possible to stop learning." Liu An's "Huai Nan Zi" [Book of the Prince of Huai Nan] (c. 140 BC) also says: "To play but one game of go [qi] is insufficient to know wisdom."

To follow:
5. Confusion in Han and Wei times
6. Literature

© John Fairbairn, London 1995


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