Monday, March 7, 2016

A Chinese Way of Seeing the World Part 1 (The Game of Go [ Weiqi ] )

Following is an article that was formerly found in MSOWorld .com 

Read and enjoy

A Chinese way of seeing the world
Part 1

8 March 2001 
By Elisabeth Papineau

Elisabeth has a master's degree in Art History and a doctorate in Anthropology. She is currently teaching Chinese Culture in the Anthropology Departement and the Center for East-Asian Studies of Université de Montréal, and is a post-doctoral researcher at the Institut National de Recherche Scientifique (INRS-Culture).



Weiqi is better known in the West under its Japanese name of game of go. Indeed the Japanese are often wrongly credited with its invention. It is true that on its official introduction in Japan, in the 8th century, weiqi was given the highest consideration, first by courtiers and courtesans, then by the bourgeoisie, before becoming popular with the population at large. These circumstances allowed the strategy and the organizational aspects of the game to be refined to the point where the Japanese were able to claim supremacy.

Weiqi in China has not benefited from such constant support from the authorities, and, historically, it did not become as widespread among the common people as in Japan. Nevertheless, since the Cultural Revolution, the growth of leisure and the political will to make the game the symbol of a certain Chinese prestige, have contributed to a remarkable renaissance in its practice. East Asia is estimated to have a total of 50 million weiqi players, 10 million in Japan, and 8 million in Korea (where the game is known as baduk)[1]. No estimate has, to our knowledge, been made of the number of Chinese players, but observers believe that the numbers are growing constantly, perhaps precisely because of the prestige associated with weiqi. We will therefore, in this article, deal with this growth, as well as with status and the meaning of play in contemporary Chinese society.

Games are eloquent... Sociologists and anthropologists have sought since the beginning of the century to extrapolate more or less successfully on the identity of various societies, on the basis of the games they play. In his work of synthesis on games, Roger Caillois states the following:
"Along with music, calligraphy and painting, the Chinese place the game of draughts and the game of chess among the four disciplines that a learned man must practice. They believe that these games train the intellect to take pleasure in the multiple answers, combinations and surprises which spring forth continuously from constantly new situations. Aggression is said to be calmed, while the soul learns serenity, harmony, and the joy of contemplating possibilities. Without any doubt, this is a mark of civilization [...]. Societies which are full of hustle and bustle, whether they be Australian, American or African, are societies which are also dominated by the mask and by possession, which is to say by mimicry and the ilinx: conversely, the Incas, the Assyrians, the Chinese and the Romans present ordered societies, with offices and careers, with codes and scales, with controlled and hierarchical privileges, where competition and chance, which is to say in this context, merit and birth, appear as the primary and complementary elements of social interplay."[2]

It no longer seems possible to us nowadays to unilaterally restrict the Chinese world to stereotypes and marks of civilization such as wisdom, serenity and contemplation. In the case of China there are two games which have been "simultaneously favored" for a number of years, and these two games, which are popular in the both meanings of "well-known" and "widely practiced", are weiqi and mah-jong (or majiang). In describing the world of mah-jong in a previous article, we sought to show a frivolous, noisy and irreverent facet of China, which puts paid to certain clichés. The game of mah-jong, with its insolent and unbridled character, relates to Dyonisiac qualities (what Caillois called paidia). The game of weiqi, which is calm and reflective, seems to reflect the attributes which Nietzsche [3] called Apollonian (and Caillois ludus). It is a depiction of this latter game which we seek to make in this article, while specifying that it represents only one facet of China at play. 


1. The origins of the game of weiqi in Korea, date back, according to John Fairbairn, to the wave of immigration led by Qizi in 109 BC. There is no evidence that he carried with him the game of weiqi, but this hypothesis remains very plausible. The first physical evidence of the existence of weiqi in Korea is a game board found in the temple of Hae-In and dated 880 AD. The present level of the professional game in Korea is extremely high and it is estimated that 40% of the population plays regularly as amateurs. See Origins of Go in Korea. Back to text

2. Roger Caillois ed., Jeux et sports (Games and Sports), Paris, Gallimard (La Pléiade), 1967, pp. 167, 171-172. Back to text

3. Friedrich Nietzsche, La naissance de la tragédie (The Birth of Tragedy), Paris, Gallimard, 1977 (1st ed. 1872). Back to text

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