Friday, June 22, 2007

Old Chinese Chess Commentary

Hola darlings! Whew - it's Friday night (finally), and I'm feeling all right! Hot as hell here, and the weekend is jam packed with yard work, an investment club meeting (remind me to tell you about the investment club some time), and a Sunday afternoon at a St. Martin's Fair - dodging thunderstorms, of course!

I came across this information in an article the other day and thought it was interesting - I've never heard of the "book" it mentions and probably most westerners have not. It's not quite clear from the article, but I assume it is about Chinese chess (xiang qi). As far as I can tell, all Chinese scholars think that the west got its chess from xiang qi via transmittal by Persian merchants, and most western scholars follow H.J.R. Murray's school of thought that chess was invented in India and travelled east to China along the Silk Road. Only a few brave voices from the west, such as Joseph Needham and Pavel Bidev, believed chess came out of China but, unfortunately, they're not around anymore to develop their theories further. I'm not aware of anyone else who has chosen to pick up the gauntlet, except perhaps Peter Banaczak, and I have not been able to get in touch with him for at least five years (he probably put me on a "do not receive list" - I can be a pest. Drat!) The last I know, Banaczak was working on his PhD, one of the few western chess historians who can actually read Chinese and has knowledge of ancient Chinese classics that mention a game that might very well be chess or a form of proto-chess.

It seems pretty obvious to me that the "standard history" of chess that we in the west accept as true is steeped in 19th century racism and few have bothered to "call" Murray's progeny on their implicit, unspoken assumptions of "western" cultural superiority. You know, the "Aryan invasion" and all that crap! There's a reason I call some of these people the chess Nazis. Ah, but that's an argument for another day, I don't feel like fighting tonight, I just want to soak my feet and have a glass of wine on the deck while the sun goes down.

The English translation of the article is somewhat quirky. This is the gist of it: a Qing Dynasty collection of chess games and - I think - chess problems - has been declared a "national folk treasure" by the Chinese government and now resides in - I think - a museum in Bejing. It's a bit unclear from the article, but it appears that only a portion of the actual games and/or problems has ever been published. It's also unclear whether what's being exhibited at the Bejing museum is just the published portion of the text, or the whole thing. So, without further adieux, here's the excerpted information from the article:

"The chess manual scripts collection, "the Deep Pool and Infinite Sea," has been cited as the "rarest and most valuable works" highly revered and esteemed among top Chinese chess game players for almost two centuries.

"These folk national gems have kept intact through centuries in spite of vicissitudes they have gone through from generation to generation. So people have taken interest in anecdotes about them and in particular titbits or sidelights of interest.

"The Qing Dynasty (Chinese) chess manual scripts represent a huge collection of the cream or quintessence of ancient chess games and well-known, knotty chess games collected and sorted out by author Chen Wenqian for 17 consecutive years, and he finally completed the copying in 1808. The entire works is divided into 16 volumes with a total of 371 famous chess games. But to date, there is one works only extant, as Chen was too poor and much in need to have it printed at that time.

"The collection of chess games emerged abruptly in 1933 after having had sunken into oblivion for over a century. Then, an ace (Chinese) chess game player in north China's Hebei province, Qian Mengwu, chanced on it but he failed to get it as its owner offered too higher a price that he could pay. Through the maneuvering of his friend, however, he succeeded to borrow it and got his chess pals to hurry through its copying overnight.

"About 30 years later, another chess star Liu Guobin on July 30, 1964 found the chess manual scripts collection with the introduction of an acquaintance at the China Bookstore. Then, he pawned a Swiss-made watch and bought the chess manual scripts with 150 yuan (some 20 dollars) he got from the mortgage. And, grand chess master Qian Mengwu confirmed it afterwards as the very works he had borrowed and had it copied with the help of his chess pals three decades earlier."

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