The Beauty Behind the Titles of Xiangqi (Chinese Chess) Problems
Author: Jim Png from www.xqinenglish.com
Note: This article first appeared on xiangqi.com
Xiangqi problems or endgame compositions (排局 pái jú) are the Xiangqi equivalent of International Chess problems, and they have been around for approximately 1000 years. In Chen Yuanjing's Shi Ling Guang Ji (《事林广记》shì lín guǎng jì), there is still an extant record of an endgame composition which is perhaps the earliest endgame composition of all time. Together with Weiqi, Xiangqi was listed as one of the four pursuits that every gentleman had to be well versed. The other pursuits were the zither (music), calligraphy, and Chinese paintings.
For every endgame composition, there is a title to the composition. While it may not be the most crucial aspect of the endgame composition, the title would often reflect the theme or even hint at the key moves in the composition. Early Xiangqi endgame compositions were created mainly by Xiangqi scholars who knew how to write and had extensive knowledge of ancient Chinese literature. These scholars or endgame composers allowed their imagination to run wild when they named their puzzles.
Over the years, the author has translated many ancient manuals. During the translation process, the author has discovered the beauty of the titles behind these endgame compositions. Although the author had been through many of the endgame compositions in the past, he began to view the endgame compositions in a whole new light after translating the titles. Often, these titles contained many anecdotes that could be represented in the problem itself and breathed life into the problems.
This article would share some of the author's insights and hopes that the reader can appreciate these Xiangqi gems much better.
The beauty of the titles in endgame compositions will be discussed in the following sections:
- Titles describing the placement of the pieces
- Titles hinting at a particular theme
- Titles hinting of the key move/way to win
- Titles using a particular piece of history
Board 524 of the Elegant Pastime Manual (Volume 6) was an endgame that studied how three Pawns needed to be arranged to force a draw against an enemy Chariot. The title of the endgame was called 鼎足三立 ( dǐng zú sān lì ), and the author has translated it as The Three Legs hold the Cauldron.
The creator of the puzzle (unknown) likened the formation of the Pawns to the three legs of ancient Chinese cauldrons called Ding (鼎). (1) There were two types of cauldrons in ancient China: round vessels with three legs and rectangular ones with four legs. These cauldrons were very heavy as they were made of metal (bronze), and thus they had to have powerful and sturdy legs, or they would crumble under their own weight.
Thus, by likening the Pawns to the three legs of the cauldron, the creator of the problem suggested that once the Pawns were placed in this formation, they were strong enough to withstand the onslaught of the enemy chariots. However, if any one of the Pawns were caught, it would mean that the cauldron would fall and imply that Black would win.
Board 540 from the Elegant Pastime Manual was an endgame whereby two Horses could force a positional draw against an enemy Chariot. For the Horses to force a draw, they had to be linked, guard the central file, and not be captured by the enemy Chariot. The Horses must also prevent the enemy from using the Royal Rule to capture the Horses.
To fully express the importance of linking the Horses, the creator of the problem (unknown) used a poetic analogy: the mandarin ducks. Mandarin ducks in Chinese culture are symbolic of their incredibly close relationships. The Chinese name of the problem is 鸳鸯交颈 ( yuān yāng jiāo jǐng ), which the author has translated as the Inseparable Necks of the Mandarin Ducks.
The title of the endgame compositions often hinted at the way of winning.
The title of Board 92 of Volume 1 of the Elegant Pastime Manual was 五丁鑿路 (wǔ dīng záo lù) which was translated as "Five Strongmen creating inroads" by the author. It referred to the plan hatched by the King of Qin to make inroads into an otherwise impenetrable region. The title in this endgame composition was a story.
It was found collected in Shui Jing Zhu. In a nutshell, the King of Qin wanted to conquer the Land of Shu, but he did not know the paths that would lead him to the Land of Shu as there were many natural barriers. So, he devised a plan and his craftsmen to build five stone bulls. Gold nuggets were then placed at the bottom of the bulls' tails. The King of Qin then told the King of Shu that the stone bulls were no ordinary statues and could produce gold. The King of Shu was a greedy man, and not much could be said about his intelligence. He sent the five strongest men in his land to go collect the bulls. As the strong men dragged the bulls back to the Kingdom of Shu, they left a trail for the Qin army. Who would have guessed that the Kingdom of Shu fell not long afterward?
The ancient passage is given below.
In the puzzle, Red's two Chariots, two Cannons, and one Horse were compared to the five strongmen mentioned above. With their collective effort, they managed to blaze a trail to gain the final victory.
There are many endgame composition titles that associate a historical incident or story with the problem. Historical tales or incidences have been incorporated into the puzzles.
Board 377 of Volume 5 of the Elegant Pastime Manual was called 筑坛拜將 (zhú tán bài jiāng). If translated, the title would mean "to erect an altar and assign a general." The title was a reference to the historical incident when Liu Bang, founder of the Han Dynasty, erected an altar to bestow the title of Commanding General to Han Xin. General Han Xin would later help Liu Bang defeat Xiang Yu and establish the Han Dynasty.
Incidentally, both Han Xin, Liu Bang, and Xiang Yu have been implicated in different hypotheses regarding the origins of Xiangqi.
Red would checkmate with R2=4 on the next possible move, ignoring inconsequential sacrifices from Black.
The creator of the puzzle (unknown) probably had a play on the words of the title. He used the Black King (which the Chinese character would be for General) to refer to Han Xin and that he would have to step up the altar (as symbolized by the Black Advisors) to the top where he could receive King Liu Bang's edict. As the critical move was to force the Black King to the cannon rank, it was symbolic of the ceremony.
The original passage was from the Book of Han and has been given below.
There are also other ways for which the creators of the endgame compositions named the titles.
The following example is from the ancient manual Strategic Considerations from the Qing Dynasty.
It is a brilliant endgame situation that demonstrates a position win by Red in an otherwise drawish situation. To emphasize the sorry state of affairs for Black, the puzzle was called 束手待毙 (shù shǒu dài bì). If translated into English, it would refer to a sitting duck that could not escape its eventual fate.
When the author was thinking of ways of promoting Xiangqi and the Chinese culture over a decade ago, one of the most pressing concerns was the portrayal of the Chinese culture and its values. No matter how brilliant a problem was, it would appear to be 'lacking in the soul' if it did not have an identity. The titles given by the many unknown composers would save the day.
If viewed from the intended meaning, a puzzle could be suddenly viewed in another light, and the moves would take on a whole new meaning. It is hard to describe the joy of solving these problems.
Hopefully, this short article would help the reader appreciate the rich culture and history much better.
1. contributors, Wikipedia. Ding (vessel). Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. [Online] Dec 23, 2020. [Cited: Apr 9, 2021.] https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Ding_(vessel)&oldid=995905649.
2. Png, Jim Hau Cheng. Elegant Pastime Manual Volume 5&6. s.l. : Amazon, 2018. p. 366. 9574353923.