Introduction to the Xiangqi (Chinese Chess) Pieces

Xiangqi is a battle of wits between two opponents, each with 16 chess pieces.
Each player has the following pieces, 1 king ( red’s king is also known as 帅,whilst black’s king is also known as 将) 2 advisors (known also as 士/仕) 2 elephants (象/相) 2 horses/knights (马/傌) 2 cannons ( 炮/包) 2 rooks/chariots/cars (车) 5 pawns/soldiers (兵/卒)
The chess pieces are mostly circular discs made of either wood or plastic with chinese characters inscribed on it. There are two different colours to denote the two sides. By default, red moves first and black moves last. There are three dimensional chess pieces, but these are considered more of a collector's item than for actual play. This is quite different from International Chess sets where the chess pieces are three dimensional.

It also makes Xiangqi an easier game to access, because the chess set (a piece of paper which can be folded would serve as the chess board, whilst the circular pieces made of plastic or wood easily fit into a small box) can be easily fitted into a coat and all you need is a little space and you can start playing. The basic starting layout has been described in Introduction to the Xq board.

By default, Red moves first (先手) while Black moves last (后手). The movement of the chess pieces show a certain amount of similarity to International chess. So, anyone with an International chess background should be able to learn Xq with ease. Each piece has its own rules and we shall examine each one by one.



The King 帅/将  

basics of xq pieces king 01 movement basics of xq pieces king 02 royal rule

Winning XQ means capturing your opponent’s king and vice versa.
Movement: only one step either horizontally or vertically. Can only move in the palace. Kings cannot face each other in the same file without any intervening piece. There must be at least one other piece in between, therefore, the diagram on the right is not allowed. This is a rule distinctive in Xiangqi and is very commonly used for attacking, especially in endgames whereby there are fewer pieces. For example, if red controls the 5th file, black’s king is limited either in the 4th or 6th file. Black cannot cross over to the 5th file.

The Advisor 士/仕

basics of xq pieces Advisor 01 movement

Movement: only one step diagonally Cannot move out of the palace. Used to protect the corners of the palace. Often assists the cannon in attack especially in the end games as a cannon mount. Often used to block the knight or other pieces.

The Elephant 相/象

basics of xq pieces Elephant 01 movement

Movement: only 2 steps diagonally in the same direction. Limited to your side of the board, cannot cross over to the opponent’s side --> therefore, there are only 7 positions to place your elephant on your side of the board. It is recommended that these positions are memorized for they provide important defense and can determine offense especially when a cannon is available. The elephant can be blocked. If there is another chess piece (red or black) preventing the elephant from moving the first diagonal, as represented by the red dot, it cannot finish its move. It follows that there are basically 8 points where the elephant may be blocked and they are known as 象眼or elephant eye in direct translation. It is recommended that these 8 points are committed to memory too.

The Horse 马

basics of xq pieces horse 01

Movement: same as its counterpart in International chess. A horse move is completed after moving one vertical/horizontal step followed by one step diagonally. Therefore, a horse may have 8 points to move to as represented by red’s horse being able to take black’s pieces. No limitation as to where the horse may move. Free to roam the entire board, but not outside. ( Yes, someone has asked me that question before...) Like the elephant, the horse may be blocked. If the first vertical/horizontal move is blocked by any other piece (red or black) the knight is not allowed to move in that direction, as exemplified by the black’s horse which is trapped in the corner. It would take some time for the International chess player to get used to the concept of the horse being blocked. Any piece that blocks the path of the horse is known as 伴马脚 or lame horse according to the WXF. However, for most practical uses, a block is sufficient. Therefore, horses are more powerful in the endgame as there are less number of chess pieces which might serve as "horse-blocks" to hinder its movement.

The Chariot 车

basics of xq pieces Chariot 01 movement

Movement: unlimited steps forward, backward or sideways in the same file or rank. Can traverse the entire board. Needs <=2 move to get to any point on the board provided it is not blocked. Identical to its counterpart in International chess -- the rook. Considered the strongest piece available. One chariot is considered to be worth slightly more than 2 horses or 2 cannons or a combination of both.

The Cannon 炮/砲/包

basics of xq pieces Cannon 01 movementbasics of xq pieces Cannon 02 capture a

The cannon is a chess piece that is unique to Xiangqi, although Janggi or Korean Chess as it is also known, has its own variant of the cannon. There are two areas to note when using the cannon. Movement: it moves like the chariot basically. You can move it any number of steps either horizontally or vertically. And it can also traverse the entire board at will. However, you can only capture your opponent’s piece by jumping over another piece (yours or your opponent's), when there is another piece in front of it. And it can only "jump" when it wants to take another piece. The piece used for "jumping" by the cannon is also known as 炮台or the cannon mount according to the WXF.Any piece on the board may be used as a cannon mount, that is, a cannon may jump over any piece to eat the next piece in the same file or rank nearest to the cannon mount. As illustrated, red’s right cannon is checking black’s king. Please take a look at the diagram on the right. Red’s left cannon, has black in a skewer. But the only piece that it can eat is black’s cannon, and no other piece.Cannons are more powerful in the openings than horses as there are more pieces to jump over. However, because there are relatively fewer pieces in the endgame, it is considered less powerful than a horse.

The Pawn 兵/卒

basics of xq pieces Pawn 01 movement

The pawn in Xiangqi is quite different from its International chess counterpart. Movement: Before crossing the river, the pawn can only move forward one step. Once it crosses the river, it may be allowed to move horizontally one step. It can NEVER move backwards. Therefore, red’s 7th file pawn, the only pawn that has not crossed the river, can only move forward. However, once it crosses the river, like the red pawn on the left, it may take either the horse or elephant by moving one step forward or one step left/right. It can never back-tract and take the rook. It does not capture diagonally. And there are NO en passants, NO promotions of pawns to other pieces in Xiangqi. Therefore, the pawn on the deepest column can only move horizontally, and such pawns are affectionately called Old soldiers ( 老兵 ).

First created : April 2011

Last updated: 7th June 2016

Acknowledgments: Thanks Carlos for your excellent diagrams. Thanks to Michael Yuen for pointing out a few questionable sentences in the use of the cannon, and also John Machin for reminding me that Janggi has also its own variant of the cannon.

To the next article: Value of the pieces

References: In Chinese, <<象棋入门>> by 李浭 and 馬正福 In Chinese, <<少兒象棋啟蒙篇>> by 傅寶勝 In English, Chinese Chess, An Introduction to China’s Ancient game of Strategy by HT Lau In Chinese, <<象棋四日通>> by Master 黃少龍 In English,