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Board Games, Chess, And The Xiangqi Story

Updated: May 27, 2023


I've been curious and fascinated by the strategic board games named Xiangqi as well as the Go game, both essentially fused with Chinese tradition. I never played any of these games but I'm looking forward to it. This is a depiction of three-man from China playing their traditional Chess outdoors during the winter. This game called Xiangqi predates the conception of China itself and was already embedded in the fabric of the region. In doing this painting, I wanted to capture the essence of the environment and the spirit of each person, and their mood as they are entertaining themselves. I also wanted to grasp from this moment an aspect of the culture that is emblematic, knowing that the game of Xiangqi is part of a long tradition in China.

Xiangqi is played by millions around the world and is one of the most popular board games in our modern times. In principle, the rules of Xiangqi are comparable to those of Chess. Two armies are facing each other with the intent to capture the opponent's king. The capture is by checkmate or stalemate. For the Red and Black pieces, it is always the Red that initiates the first move. Both players have 16 pieces to play.

The game of Xiangqi is composed of these pieces:

The Chariots/Rooks (Ju or Che)

The Horses/Knights (Ma)

The Minister/Elephant (Xiang)

The Advisors/Guards (Shi)

The General (Jiang)/King (Shuai)

The Cannons (Pao)

The Soldiers /Pawns (Bing or Zu)

*Also, the Palaces are called "Gong" and the river "He".

*Download the document below for more details on the game.

Download PDF • 3.09MB

According to the writings of H.J.R. Murray, there are two ancient writings that are embedded in Chinese literature, referring to Xiangqi. The Xiangqi pronounced "Shiang-chi" dates back to more than 2000 years. In fact, going back 2300 years from now, the word "Shiang-Chi" is also found in Chinese history books. The theories propose an origin going back to approximately 2700 B.C.E.

1. The first writing is a collection of poems known as Chu Chi by Chii Yuan. Chii Yuan was the most famous writer of the Chou Dynasty (1046-255 B.C.). Take note that the game played in the Chou Dynasty was only four pieces, and not cognizable as Chess, for it didn't have the checkmate aspect tied to it. It is only at the end of the 8th century, during the Tong Dynasty, that we can observe the evolution of the game we know today as Chess.

2. The second one is a famous book of philosophy called Shuo Yan from the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. - 221 C.E.) and refers to the Chu Chi.

Both writings use the term Xiangqi meaning Elephant Game in contrast to the Go game meaning Surround Game. It seems that there is some ambiguity in the meaning of the word Xiangqi and the symbols associated with it. Three meanings are mostly common to the name of the game which is:

1. The Elephant Game

2. The Figure game

3. The Constellation Game

Nevertheless, it is said that Xiang is more likely to be associated with the word elephant, and Qi with the word Chess. It is not clear whether Xiangqi originated in India or is derived from the Chinese game Liubo. Liubo being a game dated to three and a half millennia shows some similarities to the game of Xiangqi. One notable thing is that the original pieces in Liubo were made of ivory and that the elephant was an animal incorporated into the military. The assumption is that the term Liubo Chi was synonymous with Xiangqi.

Moreover, Liubo is not to be confused with the form of Chess that originated in India, probably during the Huri domination of North India (455 - 543 C.E.). This form of Indian Chess would be first documented around the 7th century.

Records of the game of Xiangqi from 569 C.E. can also be found in a manual titled "Xiang Jing". The emperor Emperor Wu Di (561-578) from the Northern Zhōu dynasty is somehow tied to the game.

The form of play known today was established by the Song Dynasty (960 - 1279 C.E.), and was played among all of classes of people. The oldest known piece sets of Xiangqi that were excavated belonged to the Song dynasty, the other ones are from the Yuan dynasty (1271 - 1644 C.E.). The National Museum of China has four (4) complete sets of Xiangqi pieces in possession. The sets are composed of 32 bronze pieces and belonged to the Northern Song Dynasty (960 - 1127 C.E.). The pieces were excavated in 1981 in the Changbu Commune in the Anyi County, in the province of Jiangxi. I is possible to see bronze pieces displayed in the Sport Museum Of China (Beijing). In 1997 a porcelain piece set was excavated from the tomb of the Northern Song Dynasty in Luoyang situated in the province of Henan.

Song Dynasty Xiangqi Peices excavated in Kai Fung Beijing

Song Dynasty Game Pieces (960 - 1279 C.E.)

The Shaanxi Museum of History is also said to have one (1) complete set from the Northern Song dynasty. The earliest known Xiangqi chessboard dates from the Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644 C.E.).

The game of Xiangqi or Chinese Chess, in its form of play, is undoubtedly from China. And the evidence is shown in the Chinese literature and historical records. Where there is an ambiguity about the true origin of Chess, China is best known to be the birthplace of a great number of games such as Mahjong, Wei-chi, Chinese checkers, and Dominoes which is popular in the Caribbean, etc.

Murray, however, mentions the evolution of "Shang-chi", during the Tong Dynasty (800 C.E.), to a more contemporary form. He also points out the spreading of Buddhism from India to China during the same period. Thus the evolution of "Shiang-chi" may have been the result of cultural interchange. Again, Murray is not clear whether "Shiang-chi" influenced the Indian game called "Chaturanga", or if it's the other way around. It seems for now, that there isn't sufficient proof for either perspective. But let's investigate more.

Origin Of Chess

It is still challenging to determine the true origin of Chess. The assumption has been that nothing prior to the 6th century C.E. reveals the existence of Chess in its modern form. However, pieces of the game were discovered in the Asian and Eurasian regions such as Russia, China, Central Asia, Pakistan, and India among other places. The game pieces that were found to be further in the past, seem to come from distantly related board games, often played with dice, on boards of 100 squares or more.

One of these games is Chaturanga, a war game first mentioned in the Rig Veda, then the epic poem titled the Mahābhārata, the Rāmāyana, and other Indian scriptures. Chaturanga calls for a battle formation, the Sanskrit word meaning "Having 4 limbs". The number 4 as a symbol is of great significance in the Hindu tradition. So in its form, this board game is a hybrid of what we know as international Chess today as well as the game of Xiangqi. Murray points to the fact that Chaturanga is known to be very old and is probably the root of both games. Other than Xiangqi, it is indeed the root of what has developed into multiple strategic board games, in the debt of East Asia such as Shogi and Janggi. As in Japan and Corea, distinctive forms of Chess would develop with their own sets of rules and ways to play.

Chaturanga in fact shines through the 7th century C.E. as the elder of games that show many traits in common to modern Chess. Again, the evolution of Chaturanga is uncertain. The game known as Shatranj may be a variation of Chaturanga. Shatranj was mostly played in regions such as northern India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and southern parts of Central Asia.

The Rāmāyana who was brought to light through oral transmission between 750 and 500 B.C.E., testifies that Chess was created by Ravana, the King of "Lanka" (modern Sri Lanka) for his wife Mandodari. Congruously to Ananda's version of the Rāmāyana, Mandodari notably defeated the King at the game.

Many other Indian scriptures refer to what is said to be a game of dice but could probably be the root of the Chess game we know today. I can mention the Hindu text Bhavishya Purana, but also "The Law Of Manu" which refers to the dice game.


*Let him never play with dice, nor himself take off his shoes; let him not eat, lying on a bed, nor what has been placed in his hand or on a seat. The Law of Manu 4:74

**Drinking, dice, women, and hunting, these four (which have been enumerated) in succession, he must know to be the most pernicious in the set that springs from love of pleasure. The Law of Manu 7:50

H.J.R. Murray points to the Harivamsa or Family of Vishnu as a reference, which is a supplementary book to the Mahābhārata. The Harivamsa, as well as the Mahābhārata, were written in their contemporary form in 500 C.E. The text refers to a meeting between Rukmin and Balārama for a dice-play. This so-called dice-play is most likely the game of Chaturanga or Chaturanji. In the Mahābhārata, the dice game that King Yudhishthira and King Nala are playing is Chaturanga. In the story, they get carried away by the game to the point of losing their kingdom.

The sage Vyāsa is traditionally known to be the author of the epic poem titled Mahābhārata. The work itself is belived to shed light on the history of mankind. It is said of the Mahābhārata that "That which is there about Dharma, Artha, Kama, and Moksha, you can find it all in Mahābhārata, and cannot find anything that is not in Mahābhārata out there in the world." These words are commonly synthetized as "What is here is elsewhere. What is not here, is nowhere." It is estimated that the epic poem was compiled between the 3rd century BC and the 3rd century C.E., with the oldest preserved parts around 400 B.C.E. It is also estimated that the text reached its completion at the beginning of the Gupta dynasty in 400 C.E. Again, some point of views differ, concerning the date of the actual events, and the writing of the epic poem. The other puzzling factor is what documents or scriptures should be given credibility.

In his book "Histoire de l'Inde" (History of India), Alain Daniélou states that according to Western historians, events of the Mahābhārata date around 1500 to 1000 B.C.E. From Daniélou's point of view, the western historians' position is questionable, due to the fact that the conditions of India, as described in the Mahābhārata, could not possibly be a few centuries before the birth of Buddha. Buddha is said to be born around 624 B.C.E. Daniélou leans more on Indian oral tradition which claims that the events of the Mahābhārata took place in 3000 B.C.E.

It is known for example that the Indus Valley Civilization flourished from 7000 B.C.E. to 650 B.C.E. while trading with Egypt and Mesopotamia. Around 3500 B.C.E. Lapis lazuli was traded in Badakhshan (northeastern Afghanistan) up to Mesopotamia and Egypt. Around 3000 B.C.E. this trade found its way to Harappa, Lothal, and Mohenjo-Daro in the Indus Valley Civilization (contemporary Pakistan), and northwest India. The Indus Valley (Meluhha), seems to have been involved in maritime trade with the Sumerians and the Akkadians in Mesopotamia. Traces of the most ancient harbor known was built in Lothal, India around 2400 B.C.E. Within these timeframes, we can observe the coming to power of the mythical figure of Fo Hi (Fu-Xi or Fu-Shi), said to be the founder of science, and the first emperor in China, around 3000 B.C.E.

World Tour & Time Travel

Now going back to ancient Egypt, according to archeologists, board games appeared in this area around 9000 B.C. and one offspring of these games is Senat. Some suggest that there may be a relation between Chess and Senat, the oldest known board game. In the 19th century, the Catalan researcher Josep Brunet y Bellet championed the idea of an Egyptian origin of Chess. The game of Senat which originated in this region is estimated to date around 3000 B.C.E. or even earlier. The Argentinian researcher Sergio Negri also presents this idea in a broad work on the origin of Chess. Concerning Egypt, Negri based his hypothesis on Greek classical accounts which echoed through the middle ages. Though tagged as an inconsistent hypothesis it is nevertheless an interesting avenue to explore.

It seems that Senat was also popular in neighboring cultures and reached the mass of people through trade routes. A great amount of Senat games made of stone were found in regions such as Arad in the Levant, Byblos, and Cyprus. Josep y Bellet points out that the game of Senat traveled from Egypt to Greece and Rome, and eventually to India and Persia during the times of Alexander the Great (327 B.C.E.). Games such as Senat and Seega must have influenced the Greek game called Petteia, and the Roman game called "Ludus latrunculorum".

Quoting Sergio Negri on the matter of Senat: "Because of its characteristics (morphology, system of rules and conception), it cannot in any way be directly linked to chess. An association between them could only be established within the framework of an evolutionary chain of many links in which Senet would occupy an initial space while chess would appear much later."

In the case of Petteia and Ludus latrunculorum, both are similar in their core principles. The Roman Ludus latrunculorum is in fact a variant of the Greek Petteia. Ludus latrunculorum means "The game of brigands", "The game of soldiers", or "The Game of mercenaries". Like Chess, it is a two-player military strategy board game. We can see these games mentioned in Greek and Roman literature. It is said to be found in the works of Homer, Aristotle, Polybius, Plato, Socrates, Julius Pollux In all cases, these games bring us back to Egypt and particularly point to the game of "Seega". Among the ancient Egyptian games, Seega is most likely to be compared to the game of Chess. On the Roman part, the game of Ludus latrunculorum is to be found in the work of Marcus Terentius Varro titled "De Lingua Latina". Other key authors on the subject are Ovid, Martialis, Saleius Bassus, Statius, Lucan, Calpurnius Siculus, etc. It is also mentioned in a mysterious work titled "Laus Pisonis" whose authorship is debated, or Saturnaliorum from Macrobius Ambrosius Theodosius.

In Mesopotamia, "The Royal Game of Ur", also known as "The Game of Twenty Squares", was played during the beginning of the third-millennium B.C.E and remained popular until late antiquity. It was known to be a game to break through all social classes. "The Royal Game Of Ur" consists of a race between two players on a board of twenty (20) squares. The game seems to have been praised throughout the whole area of the Middle East. Ur boards were found in Persia (Iran), Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, Cyprus, Crete, and all the way to Sri Lanka. When it comes To "The Royal Game of Ur" we can observe a clear transmission and joint contribution to the evolution of the game.

In Egypt, four (4) gameboards similar to "The Royal Game of Ur" we found in the tomb of Tutankhamun. The Ur boards were apparently tied to Senat boards on the opposite sides, with small boxes containing dice and game pieces.

In Assyria, a graffito version carved was found on one of the human-headed bull gate sentinels of Sargon II's (721-705 B.C.E.) palace situated in the city of Dur-Sharrukin (contemporary Khorsabad in Iraq).

An original set of the game can be found in the British Museum. The game set was unveiled in the 1920s, by Sir Charles Leonard Woolley in a tomb of the royal cemetery at Ur in southern Iraq. In 2013, in excavating a 5000-year-old grave in Turkey, researchers were able to find 49 three-dimensional animal shape-like stones, sculpted and painted. They found these objects along with dice and circular tokens made of shells, but no boards. The researchers were however able to figure out how to play the game that was sought 4500 years ago. More than 100 boards of "The Royal Game of Ur" have been salvaged from many sites in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East.

There seems to be a gradual evolution of the game over 1200 years time. The researchers' investigations claim that the game was transmitted from Mesopotamia to the Levant around 1800 B.C.E., from the Levant to Egypt around 1600 B.C.E., then from Egypt or the Levant to Cyprus and Nubia.

While the popularity of the game started to fade, the game of backgammon seems to have been one of its offspring. Nevertheless, the game was still played among the Jewish population of the Indian city of Kochi. The game was initially introduced by Jewish merchants. They called their version of the game "Asha", which is a variation of the Mesopotamian version. They continued to play "Asha" until the 1950s, coincidentally with their migration to Israel.

A parent of "The Royal Game Of Ur" would be "Knossos". The game dates approximately to 1600 B.C.E. Starting his archeological excavations of the Knossos Palace in Crete in 1899, Sir Arthur John Evans (1851-1941 C.E.) has been able to find a unique version of the "Knossos Game" by 1901. It is believed to have belonged to a member of the Minoan royal family who lived in the Knossos Palace. It seems to be a simplified version of "The Royal Game of Ur" whose description can be found in obscure Akkadian and Egyptian literature.

The Shahnameh is an epic poetic work of 50 000 couplets that calls back to the history of ancient Persia (Iran). To a certain length, it calls back to the history of mankind. Therefore it is a collection of the most ancient tales known in the geographical region, transcending generations. It sums up the stories of kings and heroes of Persia, up to King Khosrow II (590-628). With the support of the Samanid nobility, Abul-Qâsem Ferdowsi Tusi begins the writing of the Shahnameh, in continuation of the works of his fellow poet Abu Mansur Daqiqi. Among his main sources, Ferdowsi uses the Shahnameh of Abd-al-Razzāq and the sacred book "Zend Avesta". Most of the key stories and heroes of the Shahnameh exist in the Zend Avesta. Ferdowsi also bases his work on the testimonies of the authorities of the faith of Zarathustra. Ferdowsi's started writing in 977. His first version of the Shahnameh was completed in 994 with certain modifications, to finally be completed on March 8, 1010.

The earliest known authority to mention the game of Chess would come from a short Pahlavi treatise about the origin of Chess. In his work "Persische Studien" Theodor Nöldeke situates the date of the work as older than the period of the historian and geographer al-Yaʿqūbī ( ? - 897 C.E.) and succeeding the Muslim conquest of Persia. The work itself speaks about the Indian King Dewarsārm sending an embassy to King Khosrow I (Anusharvan) (531-579 C.E.), with a game of Chess. In return, King Khhosrow I sent the game of Nard. The game of Chess itself is Chaturanga translated as Shatranj. The game as described in the work was made of sixteen (16) pieces made of emerald on one side, and sixteen (16) pieces made of ruby on the other side. It seems that the game was composed of all the following pieces, but the elephant and the chariot were not mentioned in the work:

The King (Shah)

The Minister (Frazin)

The Horse (Asp)

The Foot-Soldiers

The Elephant

The Chariot

This Pahlavi treatise may also have been a source for Ferdowsi's Shahnameh where a similar story unfolds in the book.

It is known that there was frequent maritime trade between India and the Sassanid Empire. Around the middle of the 6th century, a two-player version was introduced of Chess was introduced to Persia by Indian merchants. It is because of the Persians that we use the words "Check" and "Checkmate". The original term in the Persian language translates as "Shah Mat". The word "Shah" means "King" and "Mat" may mean without resources, defeated or dead.

Certainly, the silk road has been a key point of entry for Chess in many regions. Chess (Chaturanga) traveled from India to spread all over Asia, including Siberia, to reach Persia, through Afghanistan. Then from Persia to Arabia (7th century) where it is known as Shatranj. By the end of the 8th century, the game reaches China, as well as Japan and Korea by the 11th century. In the 9th century, the Arabs brought it to North Africa, all the way to Byzantium (contemporary Turkey area), and then introduced it to the rest of Europe starting from Spain, Sicily, Southern Italy, and the Iberian peninsula. The game Shatranj translated to "Ajadrez" in Spanish, "Xadres" in Portuguese, and "Zatrikion" in Greek.

Among the oldest board games known in America, the main one is Patolli. Patolli is a cross-shaped board game that consists of war, and a race between two players. It is said to be a game of strategy and luck that was played among all classes of people. It is a gambling game, which would sometimes be problematic as people would bet anything from their properties, their own self, or their families. Patolli is one of the many games that were played by the Natives in America. The game of Zohn Ahl and its variations were played by the Natives from the plains of North America. This game is known by the Kiowa people as well as the Kiowa Apaches, the Comanche people, the Cheyenne, and the Arapahos. The Quince/Patol game was common to the Zunis, the Western Apaches, and the Havasupais from Arizona.

Patolli is believed to be of Aztec origin, the word itself translates to kidney beans or fava. Many variants of the game were played throughout the pre-Columbian Mesoamerican cultures. Besides the Aztecs, this game was well known by the Teotihuacanos, the Toltecs, the Chichen Itza, the Mayans, and many other groups such as the Zapotecs and the Mixtecs. Many other board games existed in this part of the world but have been lost. There is a great possibility that these games find their origin in the Olmecs (1200 B.C.E. - 400 B.C.E.). Some anthropologists such as Sir Edward Burnett Taylor in 1879, and Edward Adamson Hoebel in 1966; claimed the possibility of a relation between Patolli and the Indian game of Pachisi. Though this theory is refuted, to give way to a distinctively American creation of the game, it enters into the idea of pre-Columbian contact versus post-Columbian contact. The pre-Columbian contact theory was favored by many historians academicians and archeologists though receiving fierce opposition. A theory also deemed by some to rob America of its distinctive cultural traits. To name a few of the other advocators of the pre-Columbian contact theory, there is Leo Wiener, Heinke Sudhoff, and Ivan Van Sertima. This perspective sheds light on the possible contact and trade with people of Africa such as ancient Egypt, the Empire of Mali, and the Moors. It also nurtures the idea of a Phoenician, a Celt, as well as a Hebrew presence in America in ancient times. Then there are also accounts of Chinese presence and Norseman Vikings etc. The possible contact may have occurred from a period dating to the dept of the antiquities which is estimated to be 2000 BCE or earlier, all the way to a few years prior to the venue of Christopher Columbus.

The game Patolli is mentioned in the "Florentine Codex" manuscript written by the Spanish Franciscan friar Bernado de Sahagún in the 16th century. It is part of a work titled "La Historia General de las Cosas de Nueva España" which translates as "The General History of the Things of New Spain".

In Spain, the game of Chess gained a huge amount of popularity. It is said that the conquest of the Iberia peninsula in the 15th century, under the leadership of Queen Isabella, literally changed the rule of Chess. From there, the Queen became a more salient piece in the game. Our contemporary form of Chess is in fact based on the rules fixed during Queen Isabella's reign. The Spanish player Luis Ramirez de Lucena is said to be the author of the first book on the theory of Chess.

Shatranj also found its way to the royalty and nobility of Ethiopia. The Arab form of Shatranj was brought to Ethiopia where it is known as Säntäräj. In Europe, we can find the earliest manuscripts of Chess around 997 C.E. We can in fact find two manuscripts in Einsielden Switzerland titled "MC Einsidlensis 365" and "MS Einsidlensis 309". It is a Latin poem on Chess titled "Versus de schachis" written by a German monk at the Benedictine Einsiedeln Abbey. A manuscript written by the Moors in Europe is the Kitab al-Lud which translates as "The Book Of Games". The manuscript was completed in the 13th century by Alphonso X of Castille's Muslim courtiers as well as the Moorish vizier Abu Walid Ibn Rushd. The work contains descriptions of various games and entertainment enjoyed by the Noble Class, which includes Chess, Backgammon, and Polo. By the end of the 12th century, many variants of Chess evolved in place such as France, Germany, Britain, Scandinavia, etc. As far as Russia, the game of Chess came through eastern routes first. Matter of fact, some game pieces kept their eastern names with some variations. The Russian word for Chess is "Shakhmaty", they also use the term "Shakh Mat" for "Check Mate" as a translation of the Persian term "Shah Mat". Then during the 16th century, Chess was brought once more to Russia, this time from the West, with specific changes to the rule of the game, and the movement of the pieces. This time also the Russians adopted the European names for the game. Being among the last of the eldest nations to receive Chess, Russia reigned in the game until the end of the 20th century.

In contemporary Turkmenistan, pieces of Chess were found dating from 150 C.E. and seem to have been played by the Kushan Turks in kinship to India. In fact, pieces were found as early as 100 C.E. in Delvarzin-Tepe (South Uzbekistan), the ancient capital of the Kushan Empire. Chess pieces belonging to the same region (South Uzbekistan) were found in 1972 dating from the 2nd century.

The design and shape of the pieces and game board showed perceivable symbols of balbal, tent, cupola, and horse, which have been emblems of the Turkish civilization. In the 11th century, a defensive Chess set was found and named the "Seljuk Chess Set". This set is shown as evidence for Chess pieces found in the 9th and 10th centuries.

In 1977, seven (7) pieces of ivory estimated to date between 700 and 760 C.E., were found in Afrasiab (modern Samarkand) in Uzbekistan, by the archeologist and historian Yuryi Fyodorovich Buryakov (1934-2015). The piece set known as the "Afrasaiab Chessmen" is now sheltered in Uzbekistan State Museum in Samarkand. The "Afrasaiab Chessmen" is the oldest known Chess set. The Russian Chess Historian and author Dr. Isaak Maxovich Linder suggested that the pieces may be a primitive version of the game. Other findings from a castle may push the findings to an earlier period. Such pieces made of ivory were also found in Nishapur (Iran) and other areas in the Near East.

Burjakov contended that Samarkand, Bukhara, Khiva, Temes, Tashkent, among other regions were at the heart of the spread of Chess through the Silk Road, and made a parallel with the camel caravan routes on the same path. He also claimed that the game of Chess as we know it today was developed in the ancient land of Uzbekistan. Contrary to the classical narrative, Burjakov thought that the merchant from ancient Samarkand settled their post in the East, reaching southern Siberia, the West, all the way to Egypt.

More so, Buryakov thought that instead of the Arabs, Chess was brought to Europe by the Bulgarians who migrated from their native home in the Volga region. It is also from the region of Volga that Chess may have found its way to Ancient Kievan Rus. Buryakov leans on the novel titled "Kormchiyata" which dates from the tenth century to prove his point. The author of the novel uses the term "Shahmaty" borrowed from eastern languages.

Chess sets from the Turkish rules have been found in many regions of Russia. The pieces have a similar look to those from Afrasiab. The perception in Russia is that the Chess set was brought through the Volga trade routes and the Volga River, in the aftermath of the trade between the Volga Bulgars, and Russians.

Also, a monument belonging to the Hun Gokturk era in Mongolia is called "Shatirchulu". Knowing that Turkish, the words "Shatir", "Shatra" "Shidira" "Shatira" and Shator translates as Satranch or Shatranj (Chess).

It is interesting to consider that in the Middle Ages, the Volga trade route was a bridge to Northern Europe and Northwest Russia with the Caspian Sea and the Sasanian Empire, through the Volga River. The Rus would pass through this route when trading with the Muslim nations on the south shores of the Capsian Sea, reaching as far as the Muslim caliphate of Baghdad and Turkistan.

The Volga Bulgars, related to the contemporary Balkan Bulgarians, traded with Vikings of Rus and Scandinavia. Therefore they were in contact with the Swedes, the Danes, the Norwegians, and the Southern Byzantine Empire. Fur among other trade with the Russians and Ugrians (Khanty & Mansi People) was made from the two central cities known as Bulgar and Survar, now part of contemporary Moscow. It is commonly believed that Chess was introduced to ancient Russia through the Caspian-Volga trade routes from Persia and Arabian territories.

Among the ancient Celts, the board game called "Fidchell" from the old Irish language or "Gwyddbwyll" in Welsh was a very popular game. The game itself is not quite like Chess, as far as the disposition of the pieces and their moves, but in principle, the game involves a King and two armies opposing each other. The meaning of "Fidchell" or "Gwyddwyll" translates as "Wood Sense" but in time has been referred to as Chess. "Fidchell" is arguably the original version of the "Hnefatatafl" or "Tafl" later known to the Vikings and played in regions such as Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Iceland, Britain, Ireland, and Lapland. The game was very popular until the coming of our contemporary Chess in the 12th century but was able to survive in the variant form of Tablut until the 18th century.

There may be a connection between "Fidchell" and the Roman game "Ludus latrunculorum". The "Fidchell" game board seems to be very old and is at the heart of the Celt's folklore and literature. The "Lebor Gabála Érenn" known as the book of invasions is part of the myths of origin among the Celts. In many ancient manuscripts such as this one, speaking of the origin of the earliest people of Ireland, we often find references to board games. Timothy Harding explains in the "Irish Historical Studies Vol. 37" that one version contended that the pre-Norman Irish played Chess and furthermore claimed a native origin of the game. Harding refers to Geoffrey Keating and his "Foras Feasa Ar Éirinn" who points out that "Even if Fidchell, Brandub and their Welsh equivalents were not in fact Chess, and cannot lay claim to the cultural attributes associated with that game, they could still be adduced as evidence of early cultural attainment."

The game of Fidchell is part of Celtic legendary tales and is said to have been created by the god of light "Lugh" and played virtuously by his son the hero Cú Chulainn. It is uttered that the game was played by royalty members as well as the gods. The game can be found in the Mythological story "Tochmarc Étaíne". In medieval Welsh literature, the game known as "Gwyddbwyll " is extensively present. We can find the game in proses such as:

1) "The Dream of Rhonabwy", kindred to the "Mabinogion". This prose shows King Arthur and Owain mab Urien (son of King Urien, ruler of Rheged 510-585 C.E.) playing the game of "Fdichell" on a silver board and golden pieces.

2) "The Dream of Macsen Wledig" evokes Eudaf Hen, known to be king of the Britons and ancestor of King Arthur. In prose, King Eudag is carving pieces for his golden board while being visited by the emperor Magnus Maximus.

3) In the Arthurian romance titled "Peredur Son Of Efrawg" a magical "Gwyddbwyll" board is part of the story.

4) In French literature speaking of the Holy Grail, such magical chessboards are found in the Second Continuation of "Chrétien de Troyes" from "Perceval, The Story Of The Grail".

Finally, as part of the Thirteen (13) Treasures Of The Island Of Britain, the board of "Gwenddoleu Ap Ceidio" was named after the Brythonic King who ruled in Arfderydd (contemporary Arthuret), currently situated in South-West Scotland and North-West England. This board is estimated to date from the 15th and 16th centuries and is made with pieces of gold and crystal, with a board made of gold.

Either through raw materials or fabricated goods, ancient Celts' trade was very dynamic. Among these, we would find products such as salt, wine olives, figs, tin, silver, gold, bronze wares, iron, and ivory. We would also find coral, colored glass, pottery, furniture, furs, etc. Besides participating in the trade of slaves, the Celts would also share ideas in the field of innovations, technology, arts, and faith.

As their territory expanded from Central Europe, they have been able to cement their trade in a network of well-established routes reaching the Greeks, the Etruscans, and the Romans among the Mediterranean cultures among others. The Iberian peninsula and Britain. Archeological findings confirm trade with Persia, and Thrace (Romania, Bulgaria), also reaching the south of Germany and the south of France. We can trace the Celt's trade somewhere between 1000 B.C.E. to 500 B.C.E., up to 60 B.C.E.

Symbolism & Significance

Concerning the values, and the significance of the games, Sergio Negri points out that they can be observed on higher planes, such as metaphysical, philosophical, and religious. The game in its many forms has been valued as being "...the nourishment of the mind, the solace of the spirit, the polisher of intelligence, the bright sun of understanding, and has been preferred by the philosopher, its inventor, to all means by which will rise towards wisdom".

In the spirit of faith, the board represents the Heavens, in which the Squares are Celestial Houses, and the pieces are Stars.

The game of Xiangqi for example subtlely expresses itself through principles of high value. While entertaining, the game can bring the players to its cultural, philosophical, and ethical dimensions. Sergio Negri explains this of the game: " is suggested that when one has a position of honor one must be humble and, always on a plane of elevation, it ensures that the pieces represent celestial bodies of the cosmos". The game also stimulates the intellect and the development of self, it broadens our perspective and grants us adaptability to any given circumstances. Speaking of Xiangqi and Go, the New Frontiers documentary titled "Go and Ancient Chinese Chess" tells us that as the games evolved, they have been able to transcend time with certain constants which are that "These games have always represented an idea, an attitude, and a state of mind".

In the same breath, the Persian game of Nard symbolizes human life as dependent on the planets and the signs of the zodiac, the board being the earth and the 30 pieces, for the day of the month 15 white pieces for the day, and 15 pieces for the night.

In "The Royal Game Of Ur" also had a spiritual meaning. It was truly believed that the occurrences of the game had a tangible effect in real life. That the players' fate was at play as the board would be a vessel from which messages of deities or supernatural beings were conveyed. It was also a way to communicate with the ancestors, spirits, and one's own Soul.

The tablet of Itti-Marduk-balāṭu would provide a loose prediction of the players' future as they move to certain squares of the game. The predictions would be like "You will find a friend", "You will become powerful like a lion", or "You will draw fine beer".

In North America, the game of Zohn Ahl was used as a path to divination, therefore the outcome of the game would help predict the future.


In this perspective, could what we know as Chess today be the result of multicultural relations, in which every respective nation eventually created a board game version of its own? Or is there a clear and specific origin and lineage to the game?

We must be mindful of the chronology, and the various nations in ancient times. The trades, what was shared and transmitted through oral or written traditions. The cooperation, the contributions to the evolution of the game. We can observe many points of entry for the game to travel, spread, evolve, or be transformed. Whether it is from merchants, trade roads, maritime trades, mass population movements, or the blending of people; through the expansion of conquering nations or diplomacy between nations, a way for mutual conversion was always opened.

***To Be Updated***

The Cultural Origin Of Chess - Rick Knowlton

*What the game consists of, and how is it played?


Book: A Short History Of Chess - H. J . R Murray

Archaeological Discoveries and Tang-Song Period Sports and Games - Cui Lequan

Facts On The Origin Of Chinese Chess (Xiangqi) - Perter Banaschak

How to Play Chinese Chess Xiangqi - Rick Knowlton

XiangQi - Chinese Chess

Old Chinese Chess (Xiangqi) Pieces

Play Chinese Chess!

An Illustrated History Of Chess

Hindupedia: Caturańga

Book: Histoire De L'Inde - Alain Daniélou - Date of the events of the Mahābhārata (P. 68 paragraph 2 and 3.) Edition Fayard (1971)

The Law Of Manu - Chapters 4:74 and 7:50

Other Books by Srila Prabhupada

Sports and Games in Ancient India

Origin of chess aka Chaturanga

History - Ancient precursors and related games

Indus Valley Civilization

MacDonell, A. A. (1898). The Origin and Early History of Chess. The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, 117–141.

Ancient Egyptian Trade

Fu Xi Chinese mythological emperor

Les comptes binaires de l'Empereur de Chine


Petteia and Latrunculi

Ludus latrunculorum

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by Bill Wall

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