Xiangqi, which is pronounced ‘shyahng chi,’ is still being discovered in the West, where it’s known as ‘Chinese chess’ in small circles. It has been played and enjoyed for centuries in China, however. It could very well be the most popular board game in the world–even more so than the more familiar ‘international’ chess that is well known throughout North America and Europe.
Arranging The Xiangqi Board
Unlike many games in its family, Xiangqi pieces are arranged along the lines of the board instead of inside the squares. The board is made up of nine vertical lines, or files, and ten horizontal lines, or ranks. At the back of either side is a palace, which is three by three lines, with four diagonal lines that go out from the middle forming an ‘X.’ Separating the rival sides is a river, which is located between ranks five and six.
The set up for Xiangqi is similar to that of Western chess: each side’s back row features (in order from the outer edge to the middle) a Chariot (rook), a Horse (knight), an Elephant (similar to a bishop), and a Counselor (similar to a queen) on each side of the General (king), who sits in the middle. The two Cannons occupy spots two positions in front of the Horses, and the five Soldiers (pawns) sit one row behind the river.
While the black and red pieces have the same power in the game, the monikers for the Red characters are not-so-subtly more positive than the Black ones – one could say the Red side is supposed to be the ‘good guy,’ though that shouldn’t affect gameplay.
Deriving from the same family of games as Chaturanga, Western chess, Shogi, and Jogi, a Xiangqi set consists of seven different pieces, with 16 in total. The Xiangqi pieces are identified by Chinese characters, sometimes traditional, sometimes simplified. Below we have listed each piece’s Chinese and English name, as well as it’s approximate equivalent in the more familiar western chess for your understanding.
‘Shuài’ – General
Much like the king, the General in Xiangqi is the key to winning the game: to win, you have to put him in checkmate. The General can move only one space horizontally or vertically while remaining confined to the nine-point palace where he resides.
‘Shí’ – Counselor/Guard
The Counselors remain in the nine-point palace guarding the General and are somewhat similar to the queen in Western chess, though with far less power. Like the General, they may not leave the palace, and Counselors may only move one point diagonally.
‘Xiàng’ – Elephant
This piece doesn’t really have a Western chess equivalent. It moves two points in any direction diagonally but can be blocked by intervening pieces and cannot jump over other pieces or cross the river in the middle of the board.
‘Mà’ – Horse
Though similar to the Horse in Western chess, this Horse does differ from it in many respects. This Horse moves one point horizontally or vertically, then one position diagonally and can be blocked by other pieces; this Horse can’t jump over other pieces.
‘Ju’ – Chariot
If you know Western chess, this piece will be simple for you as it moves exactly like the rook: it can go as far as it wants vertically or horizontally until it meets another piece or the end of the board. Because of this freedom of movement, the Chariot is often considered to be the strongest player in the game even though they cannot jump over other pieces.
‘Pào’ – Cannon/Catapult
The Cannon is similar to the Chariot, moving as it pleases horizontally and vertically when it’s not capturing. When the Cannon does intend to capture, however, it must jump over another piece, whether teammate or enemy, to do so. The Cannon can only capture after having jumped over another piece, and can only jump over another piece when its intent is to capture.
‘Bing’ – Solider
Very much like the pawns of Western chess, the Soldier can only move one point forward. Once it crosses the river, however, it can also move to the left or to the right. While the Soldier can never go backward like the pawn, it can capture as it normally moves, which the pawn can’t. It doesn’t promote if it reaches the opposite end of the board, also unlike the pawn.
How To Play Xiangqi
Sometimes referred to as the ‘Elephant Game,’ Xiangqi has a similar goal to Western chess: capture the enemy General (king). Each side alternates playing, with the ‘good guys’ on the Red team usually making the first move as the white side does in Western chess.
Capturing an opponent’s General occurs through ‘checkmate,’ when the opposing General is under attack with no way to escape, or through stalemate, which is when he’s not under immediate threat, but has no legal or safe move to make. The player threatening has put that opposing General in ‘check,’ or ‘Jiang,’ and is meant to announce when it occurs.
With the exception of the Cannon (which is explained above), every piece captures by moving normally and landing on a position occupied by an opponent’s piece. A captured piece is out of the game, and the capturing piece takes its spot on the board. If the game is repeating, whoever is forcing the repetition must change up as there is no perpetual check in Xiangqi.
An interesting caveat to the game is that the opposing Generals may never face each other on the same line when there are no other pieces in between them; some say it’s because they must never see each other. The fewer pieces there are on the board, the more importance this rule bears.
The other unique aspect of Xiangqi is its river. While it doesn’t affect most of the game and can be somewhat ignored while playing, it does carry important connotations for some pieces. The Elephants cannot cross the river, and the Soldiers gain extra freedom of movement once they cross it, though no other pieces are affected.