Weiqi Versus Chess

Using a universally relevant metaphor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, former National Security Adviser to US president Jimmy Carter, wrote in The Grand Chessboard (1997): “Eurasia is the chessboard on which the struggle for global primacy continues to be played.” China’s New Silk Road strategy certainly integrates the importance of Eurasia but it also neutralizes the US pivot to Asia by enveloping it in a move which is broader both in space and in time: an approach inspired by the intelligence of Weiqi has outwitted the calculation of a chess player.

The chronicle by Japanese writer Kawabata Yasunari (1899-1972) of an intense intellectual duel, translated in English as The Master of Go, contributed to the popularity of the game in the West, but Weiqi is a product of the Chinese civilization and spread over time in the educated circles of Northeast Asia. Kawabata, who viewed the Master as one of his favorite creations, knew that for China the game of “abundant spiritual powers encompassed the principles of nature and the universe of human life,” and that the Chinese had named it “the diversion of the immortals.”

In imperial China, Weiqi had the status of an art whose practice had educational, moral and intellectual purposes. In a Chinese version of the scholastic quadrivium, the mandarins had to master four arts, known as qin, qi, shu and hua. It was expected of the literati to be able to play the guqin (qin), a seven-stringed zither, but also to write calligraphy (shu) and demonstrate talent at brush-painting (hua).

The second artistic skill, qi, is a reference to Weiqi, a strategy game played by two individuals who alternately place black and white stones on the vacant intersections of a grid. The winner is the one who can control, after a series of encirclements, more territory than his opponent; one can translate Weiqi (围棋) as “the board game of encirclement” or “the surrounding game.”

For centuries, literati have been fascinated by the contrast between the extreme simplicity of the rules and the almost infinite combinations allowed by their execution.

Traditionally, the game was conceptualized in relation to a vision of the world. In the early 11th-century Classic of Weiqi in Thirteen Sections, arguably the most remarkable essay on the topic, the author uses notions of Chinese philosophy to introduce the game’s material objects: the stones “are divided between black and white, on the yin/yang model… the board is a square and tranquil, the pieces are round and active.” In the Classic of Weiqi, the famous Book of Changes (Yi Jing), which presents the cosmology of Chinese antiquity, is quoted several times.

The game, “a small Tao,” was so popular that it generated obsessive attitude. Addiction to Weiqi was considered by the Chinese philosopher Mencius (372-289BC) one of the five types of unfilial behavior. Through the centuries, the game remained an important element of the Chinese society. Ming dynasty painter Qian Gu (1508-1578) realized an exquisite masterpiece when, in a mood of ease and poise, he portrayed A Weiqi Game at the Bamboo Pavilion, where the breeze, water and young maidens revolve around the circulations of black and white stones. One of the famous set of 12 screen paintings from the Emperor Yongzheng period (1678-1735) portrays an elegant and refined lady sitting by a Weiqi board.


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