Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Mystery of the Chess Master

Hello, Hello! I just finished reading a super famous Chinese novella called, The Chess Master by A Cheng. The story follows a Chinese fellow who has to go off and work at a labor camp during the Chinese cultural revolution. In doing so he meets a guy named Wang Yisheng, a man with a complicated past who loves chess (the Chinese version which is actually called Xiangqi) over everything else and is thus dubbed "the chess maniac". 

 This novella is unique for the time because instead of following the process of the cultural revolution, which was often violent and always unfortunate, the story focus's more on self realization and existential transformation (ooh big words!). The main character and narrator is a man that came from a privileged family, but suffered abject poverty after the death of both parents. In the story he transforms from a man who is constantly searching for money and upward mobility, to a man who is able to enjoy the simple blessing of financial stability. The chess master, Wang Yisheng, the focus of the story, was a poor man, who's family is in dire straights in terms of finance and who became interested in Chess from a young age. His realization is simply that before one can spend time playing chess and enjoying leisurely activities, the fundamentals of life must be fulfilled (e.g. a means of sustenance) which is impossible purely through things like playing chess; at least, that was my interpretation. It's pretty deep stuff.

Your average Xiangqi board and pieces.
Chinese Chess itself is actually quite an interesting game. It works around the same principal as Western chess, in that you need to capture or check-mate the other player's king piece to win. The pieces however move quite differently and in the middle of the board there is a line that represents a river that only certain pieces can cross. I believe the reason for this is that the game is based on a decisive historical battle in the Chu-Han Contention, (a war between two states in the "warring states" period in Chinese history from 206-202 B.C.) in which the two sides fought at a river. The board itself is also quite different with a series of lines the pieces can move over instead of the familiar checkered pattern in Western chess.

Even today this is not an uncommon site in my local China town; a bunch of older men watching a game. (not my pic)
My personal experience with Chinese chess is fairly limited. I once tried to learn "JJangi" which is the Korean version (though I'm fairly certain it's the same game) and found it to be extremely difficult and confusing. This was not helped by the fact that the pieces were all in Chinese and nearly identical in size, though you can get boards that feature figurines. I'm also terrible at Western chess as well, so it was sort of a lost cause from the beginning, I suppose. My other experience is watching old guys play it in China town. It can get pretty intense! I once saw a large group of Chinese men of all ages gathered around a park picnic table and I was really curious what they were looking at. After eventually investigating I realized they were all watching a Chinese chess game! I was pretty surprised!

Box art for the film "King of Chess" based on A Cheng's novella, sometimes called "Chess King".
Apparently a rather critically acclaimed Chinese film was released based on The Chess Master called, King of Chess. I have yet to see it but have heard good things! Anyway, the book is well worth your time, its quite short and a very easy read. Check it out!     

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