Chinese Chess – Xiangqi (象棋: xiàngqí)

Today, we are going to learn how to play a popular Chinese board game – Chinese Chess! It actually bears some resemblance to the western game of chess you may be used to, but with a few key differences such as a river running down the middle of the board and placing the pieces on the intersections of the lines rather than the squares. The game is designed to resemble the battle between two opposing armies, with the ultimate goal being to kill the other team’s general.

The history of chess in China

A game called xiang qi first emerged during the Warring States period (475-221 BC) in China, however the rules and gameplay bear no resemblance to the modern day game and so the origin of Chinese chess is usually said to be in the Tang dynasty (618-907 AD) instead. It particularly grew in popularity during the Qing dynasty (1644-1912 AD) and is still one of the most popular board games today. You will often find locals playing in small parks or street corners, while there is also an international league with professional players representing countries from all around the world! 

How to play Chinese chess

Chinese chess is played on a simple 9 x 10 board which uniquely has a “river” running through the centre. Players start with their pieces arranged along their side, then take turns to move one piece at a time – with the ultimate goal being to kill the other team’s general. There are many similarities to western chess, for example some of the pieces are the same. The main differences are that the pieces are placed on the intersections between the lines, rather than inside the squares, and there are restrictions on which pieces can cross the river or move inside the fortress.

If you do not have a Chinese chess set at home don’t worry – you can also play xiang qi online here (with a random opponent) or here (with your Facebook friends), or on various phone apps!

Getting started

At the start of the game, each player places their pieces on the board as shown on the right. Red usually starts, then players take turns to move one piece each turn.

You can capture your opponents’ pieces by landing on them, with the ultimate goal being to kill the enemy’s general in order to win the game.

The pieces

General (将 / 帅)

The general can move one place vertically or horizontally (but not diagonally) and is confined within the fortress. He also cannot directly face the opponent’s general, instead there must always be one piece between them.

Guard (士 / 仕)

The guard is also confined to the palace, but can only move one space diagonally. The role of the guard is to protect the king.

Elephant (相 / 象)

The elephant can only move exactly two points diagonally each turn. It cannot jump over other pieces, nor can it cross the river.

Horse (马)

The horse most closely resembles a knight in western chess and moves in a similar way. It moves one place horizontally or vertically, followed by one point diagonally. Unlike in western chess, it cannot jump over other pieces.

Chariot (车)

The chariot is essentially identical to the castle/ rook in western chess. It can move horizontally or vertically by any number of points and can cross the river.

Cannon (炮 / 砲)

The cannons are very unique to Chinese chess. They can move vertically or horizontally by any number of points, however they can only take other pieces by jumping over another piece in between.

Soldier (兵 / 卒)

Soldiers are very similar to pawns in western chess. Before crossing the river, they can only move one place forwards (but never backwards). After crossing the river, they can also move one point horizontally each turn. 

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