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Chinese Culture >> Chinese Society, Traditions >> Xiang Qi

Xiang Qi: Chinese Chess

Chinese Chess, Shiang-chi (or Xiang qi), is an Oriental cousin of the more familiar European or International Chess. Phonetically, Xiangqi means Elephant Chess. Both Chinese Chess and International Chess are descended from an ancient common ancestor—India. This ancient game traveled both east and west to become the most popular family of board games in the world today. Games of this family are played in Europe and Asia, as well as in the Middle East. They go by names like Shogi, Makrook, and Shahtranj. Like International Chess, Chinese Chess has two opposing armies with different kinds of pieces.

There are some parallels between Chinese Chess and International Chess. The obvious ones are the near equivalent movements to these pieces—Rooks, Knights, and Bishops.

The object of Chinese Chess is the same as the game of International Chess—to capture the enemy General (or King).

Chinese Chess is played on a board that contains 64 squares. The major distinction of this game is the battlefield. In the middle of the board is a river. Another difference is that the pieces are placed on the intersections of the lines, called points, and not in the squares that can be found in International Chess. Therefore, Chinese Chess is played on a board of 9 x 10 points, rather than on a board of 8 x 8 squares.

On each side of the board in Chinese Chess there is a palace (known as the Imperial Palace). Neither the General nor the guards of the Generals are allowed to leave the palace. Also, the opposing Generals are not allowed to "see" each other directly across the board.

Like International Chess, Chinese Chess is easy to learn but difficult to play. The basic movements of the pieces are as follows.

How to Play
Each player starts with 16 pieces of 7 different varieties. Playing pieces are placed on the intersections of the board, not in the squares. The playing pieces are flat disks with red or black characters. The red player begins play, and then play alternates black, red, black, and so on. Chinese Chess can be won either by putting the enemy General in checkmate or stalemate. It has been said that the player who makes the first offensive move has the advantage.

The Board
As mentioned earlier, Chinese Chess is played on a 9 x 10 grid. There are nine points on each side of the board that are marked by two diagonal lines. (This area is called the Imperial Palace.) The open space in the middle of the board is called the river. The two areas do affect the movement of several pieces. (See Pieces and Their Movement.)

From left to right on the bottom and top rows, there is the chariot, horse, elephant, guard, king, guard, elephant, knight, and rook. On the third rows, there are the cannons, and on the fourth row are the soldiers. Pieces at the bottom half are red. While the other side of the pieces are usually black or green.
The game can be handicapped by allowing the weaker player to start the game by making two or three moves on their side of the river.

A capture is when the space where the opposition piece occupies is taken over by one’s Chess piece (equivalent to that of International Chess).

A General is in check if the opponent's next move will capture him or her. When one’s General is in check, it is vital that the General is either moved away from the attempted capture, or another piece is manuevered in front of the potential capture (or in the case of an attack from the Cannon, it is important to move the screen [Gun mount] out of the way or the attacking piece is captured by a member of the opposition’s own army. (See Gun mount.)

Checkmate is a position where the General is in check and there is no other alternative to escape from the action of checking. Chinese Chess can also be won by forcing the enemy into a position where he has no legal moves available, even though the opposition General may not be in check.

Korean Chess
This same set can also be used to play Korean Chess. The rules for Korean Chess are the same as Chinese Chess with the following exceptions:

The General (King) starts in the exact center of the Imperial Palace.
The General and Guards move one point along any line within the Imperial Palace.
The Elephant moves one intersection forward and two diagonally (like an extended knight the two intervening points must be blank), and may cross the river.
One pair of Knights and Elephants may be reversed in their initial placement. (This is not required.)
Cannons cannot operate as screens for other Cannons and cannot capture other Cannons.
Cannons must vault over another piece to move as well as to capture.
The Soldier moves one space forward, left or right from the beginning of the game.
Note: Depending on the type of professional/amateur tournaments and matches, there are different set of rules pertaining to time allowance, draws, and other technical matters. (But that is topic for another day.)

Pieces and Their Movement
Each player has 16 pieces of 7 types: General (King), 2 Guards, 2 Elephants (aka Bishops), 2 Chariots (Rooks), 2 Horses (Knights), 2 Cannons, and 5 Soldiers (Pawns). The characters for each piece vary between the red and black pieces.

The following is a description of each piece and its movement by its technical ranking and prowess.

The General of the Army or the King can move one space horizontally or vertically (forward, backward, left, or right), with no diagonal movement. Unlike the "King" in International Chess, the "General of the Army" in Chinese Chess cannot move diagonally. In addition, the General cannot leave the Imperial Palace. >From a territory perspective, this means that there are only nine points that can ever be occupied by the General.

Another important restriction is that the General may never move onto an intersection that is directly across the board from the enemy General unless there is at least one piece in between them. Likewise, if there is only one piece between Generals it may not be moved so as to expose the Generals to each other. This rule becomes an important factor in "checkmate" and "stalemate" situations.

In summary, the three distinctions that make the General of the Army differ from the King of the International Chess:

It cannot move diagonally.
It cannot leave the Imperial Palace.
The opposing Generals may never face or oppose each other directly across an unobstructed board.
Note: There are no Queens in this game, but it is acceptable to have female Generals


The Chariot (or Car, pronounced as Che) maneuvers exactly like the Rook (or Castle) in International Chess. It is the only piece that moves and captures exactly the same in both strategy games. It moves any number of unobstructed points in a straight line, up and down (forward/backward) the columns and left and right (sideways) through the rows of the Chessboard.

The Horse (pronounced as Ma) moves and captures the same way as the Knight in International Chess. However, there is one important restriction that differs itself from its cousin the Knight: The Horse cannot jump over another piece. The Knight's move is a combined move of one point in any direction horizontally or vertically, plus one diagonal move. However, if the first point of the horizontal or vertical move is blocked by a piece, then the Knight may not move in that direction.

The Cannon (pronounced as Pao) is a unique piece in reference to its technical prowess and is the most difficult to learn from the Western point of view. The Cannon is also called the Gun, Gunner, or Catapult. It moves exactly like the Chariot. It maneuvers any number of unobstructed points in a straight line, up and down (forward/backward) the columns and left and right (sideways) through the rows of the Chessboard. However, to capture, the Cannon must first jump over one (and only one) piece of any color. Chinese purists refer to this intermediary piece as the "Gun Mount." (It can also be described as a Screen.)

If you are used to playing International Chess, the Cannon may be somewhat perplexing at first. Remember that the Cannon is the only piece in Chinese Chess that captures in a way different from its non-capturing move. However, when the Cannon captures, it still moves to the point occupied by the captured piece. Remember also that it does not capture the piece it jumps over.

Note: For those who are fascinated by the movement of the Cannon, there are books on how to tactically convert the Cannon into a triple-threat maneuver, used as an offensive and defensive weapon in all phases of the game (from the opening phase through the middle game to the endgame). Some of the material covers the usage of the Cannon in a conventional and Chariot-less game environment.

During my journey of learning Xiang Qi, I went through some old books that annotated Cannons-based games that are close to about a thousand years old.

Note: A good strategist never ever uses just one or two pieces to win a game. He or she uses everything in the arsenal to become victorious.


Guards (pronounced as the Shi) is technically the weakest piece in both armies. They move one point in any diagonal direction. This, incidentally, is exactly the way that the Queen once moved in medieval Chess, before it became much stronger in the fifteenth century. The Guard has a further restriction in that it cannot leave the palace. This means that there are only five points that can ever be occupied by the Guard. Before the game begins, they are positioned on each side of the General.

Elephant (pronounced as Xiang) moves exactly two points diagonally, no more or less. Its movement is very similar to that of the Bishop in International Chess. However, the Elephant cannot cross the river so there are only seven points that the Elephant can occupy. The Elephant cannot jump and its movement is blocked if there is a piece on an intervening point. Since the Elephant cannot cross the river, its purpose is defensive in nature. This makes it less powerful than the Bishop in International Chess. Typically, one Elephant is moved so that it is two points in front of its own General, whereas the other remains on its original point. In this way, the Elephants protect each other and defend their General.

Soldier (pronounced as Bing or Jui; its brother in the International Chess is the Pawn). Soldiers can only move and capture one point forward until they cross the river. They can never retreat. Unlike the Pawn in International Chess, the Soldier does not capture by moving diagonally. Once the Soldier crosses the river, it may move one point to the left or right instead of forward. However, Soldiers do not get promoted when they reach the far side of the board. Instead, they can only move sideways.

Although the objective in Chinese Chess is the same as that in the game of International Chess, the strategies are very different. In Chinese Chess, achieving a good attacking position is more significant than a material advantage.

One tactical approach is attempting to advance two Soldiers over the river and then connecting them. Not only does this jointed unit become stronger, it can be a technical advantage especially in the endgame when it is advancing toward the Imperial Palace of the opposition. There are many ways to checkmate the General, even if he has many friendly pieces around him. Like any strategic board game, it is easy to win (or lose) the game in a few moves.

From my experience of playing Chinese Chess, International Chess, and other strategic board games, learning the opening game’s traps is usually the first stage. However, as one climbs the steep mountain of mastering this game, the quality of opposition will increase. And the deployment of basic opening game’s traps becomes ineffectual. My recommendation is to study the numerous ways of creating positional advantages that could later be converted into a wide range of "checkmating" scenarios.

"In theory, practice works well. In practice, theory doesn’t always work at all."
Anonymous Player

To an avid Chess player, Chinese Chess might seem simple enough to play. As a warning to beginners, this game can be somewhat confusing and difficult in actual practice.

One last point: Unlike its counterpart International Chess, the act of stalemate is not a draw in Chinese Chess. Rather, it is a win for the side that stalemated the other.

If you go to the Internet, there is an abundance of information on Chinese Chess strategy books, software games, sets, actual tournaments and web-based games.

About the Author:

Hom is an amateur game player who enjoys utilizing his knowledge of Sun Tzu’s military principles to his Game of Go, Chinese Chess, and International Chess.