Tuesday, March 8, 2016

A Chinese Way of Seeing the World Part 2 (The Game of Go [ Weiqi ] )

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A Chinese Way of Seeing the World Part 2 of 8

Foundation myths
In China, of the four noble pastimes of the lute, chess, calligraphy and painting, weiqi is said to be the most difficult to apprehend, to understand, and to master... The lute, calligraphy and painting are apprehended by the senses, in a fairly straightforward way; while weiqi is the most abstract of these four arts. It is a representation of Chinese cosmology, the harnessing of energies, a quest for harmony of the complementary principles.

The struggle between the white and black stones is played out on a surface with 19 horizontal and 19 vertical lines (chessboard, weiqipan or goban in Japanese), the intersections of which form the 361 places on which, in turn, the two adversaries place their stones, in order to seize spaces.

Although, in contrast with xiangqi (Chinese chess, which much more closely resembles the Western game of chess, and which is widely played in China), there is no hierarchy or difference in value between the pieces and the spaces, the actual practice of the game is highly organized hierarchically. At both professional and amateur levels, there is a rigorous categorization of players in terms of grades or duan [4], and, because of the intellectual capacities and the apprenticeship it requires, weiqi belongs to the rightful line of Buddhist and Taoist "sanctifying" disciplines, expressed in the term xiushen. Professionals interviewed speak of a tension so intense during the game, that notions of pleasure and play are totally forgotten. The tension is all the higher because all the ancestral rivalry between Japan and China is revived at each international tournament, and because China's honor rests on the players. Victories are not individual, they are national, the individual and the ego are disdained in favor of the representation of an entity which surpasses them.

What exactly is this entity? People often speak of an esoteric expression of the Chinese soul:
"As an incarnation of ancient Chinese culture, weiqi holds profound connotations, and within the black and white world constituted by the board and its horizontal and vertical lines, is carried the gene of Chinese wisdom, is reproduced the secret code of Chinese culture".[5]
This is why one may consider that weiqi is related to the main currents of Chinese thought, and to the wisdom which in Chinese is called zhihui (intelligence). From this point of view, there are two main hypotheses as to the invention of the game of weiqi, an accumulation of legends more or less tinged with magic about its practice, and numerous passages referring to it in the literature of all periods.

The first hypothesis is that weiqi was invented by the military strategists of the periods of the Springs and Autumns (Chunqiu, 770-476 BC) and of the Warring Kingdoms (Zhanguo, 475-221 BC), somewhat later than the game of xiangqi, primitive versions of which are estimated to date back to the Zhou dynasty (11th to 7th centuries BC). The first written mention of weiqi is indeed found in the in one of the Chinese Classics, the Zuozhuan, which dates back to the 5th century BC. Moreover, some historians of the Tang dynasty (618-917) are said to have voiced this idea as to the similarity of the concepts employed by the strategists of the Warring Kingdoms and by the weiqi masters: "weiqi proceeds from the path of harassment, feint, combat and camouflage".[6]

Mengzi, for his part, gives us to understand that weiqi is even older since he mentions Yiqiui as being a weiqi grand master at the time of the Warring Kingdoms, which is attested to by all the contemporary historians of the game. Moreover, the expression he uses, "master" - literally "the best"- implies terms of comparison and an established system of tournaments and apprenticeship which rule out too recent origins.

The principles of The Art of War, attributed to Sun Wu, better known under the name of Sunzi, are also related to the practice of weiqi; on the level of structure, the black stones confront the white on a restricted terrain which is closely contested and has vital points; in practice, the balance and direction of the forces engaged are carried out according to a strategy which is not immutable, and while trickery is allowed, and strategy essential, there is a moral code which must be obeyed: "Do not cut off an enemy in retreat", "An army surrounded must be left a way out", "Do not push to the limit an army at bay"... What is valid for the defense of the country applies also to goban.[7]

Numerous authors of chess manuals down the centuries were to refer to Sunzi's Art of War to clarify the tactics and subtleties of the game, and to comment on the games already played. During the Han dynasty (206 BC - 220 AD), Huan Tan wrote: "In our day there is the game of weiqi, which can also be called the art of war".[8]

More recently Boorman has established the relationship between the tactics used by Mao during the years of struggle against the Japanese and the Kuomintang (the Nationalist Party), the military strategies of Sunzi and the traditional strategies of weiqi. Boorman tells us:
"It can be stated with complete certainty that there has undoubtedly been, historically, considerable interaction between the strategy of wei-ch'i and that of the wars in China".[9]

There has certainly been interaction, since from the time of the Han, weiqi has been the favorite game of the learned and of the generals, but without it being possible to prove that the game sprang from the brains of the military at the time of the Warring Kingdoms. In fact one may conclude that weiqi was once, in its "primitive" form, a pastime played with stones on lines drawn in the sand, such as there have been in all cultures in all parts of the world. It may have become more refined at the time of the Springs and Autumns. It may have taken on its familiar form at the time of the Warring Kingdoms, with its dynamics which recall the social dynamics of that period, when wars followed on wars. It may have become the favorite pastime of generals and soldiers, the familiar leisure activity of the military and ruling class.

The second hypothesis, much more widespread in society and literature [10] maintains that weiqi was invented by the mythical Emperor Yao (2300 BC) in order to refine the intellectual and moral qualities of his son Danzhu. It is written in the official register of the Qin (221-207 BC) that: "Yao invented weiqi in order to instruct his son Danzhu".

Pernickety historians give little credibility to this version, which brings a mythological character into play. What matters is that it is frequently quoted in order, on the one hand, to attest to the antiquity of the origins of weiqi (5000 years!), and on the other, to emphasize its formative side and its nobility. What we should bear in mind above all is the use made of this "legend"... It helps to anchor the legitimacy of weiqi in a country whose system of thought and political regime sought for some time to make the game immoral. As soon as the discourse emphasizes the healthy and formative side of this art which is classified in China under the rubric of "sport", the people are free to practice it with the distant blessing of the mythic Emperor Yao. 


4. Duan is the Chinese pronunciation of the better-known Japanese word "dan", which represents the various minor grades in karate and judo. Back to text

5. Yang Guoqing, " Lun weiqi yu Zhongguo gudai sixiang wenhua liupai " ("Remarks on weiqi and the schools of thought in ancient China"), in Tiyu Wenshi (Historical Review of Sports), n° 6, 1990, p. 56. Back to text

6. Sitong Lin, " Lun Zhongguo weiqi de minzuxing tezheng " (Remarks on the national characteristics of weiqi in China), in Tiyu wenshi (Historical Review of Sports), n° 3, 1991, p. 13. Back to text

7. Pascal Reysset Le Go aux sources de l'avenir (Go At The Sources Of The Future), Paris, Chiron, 1992. p. 149. Back to text

8. More recently, Ma Xiaochun, 9th dan and world champion in 1995, wrote a work entitled The thirty-six stratagems applied to Go, 1990, p. 97. Back to text

9. Scott A. Boorman, Go et Mao; pour une étude de la stratégie maoïste en termes de jeu de go (Go and Mao; Towards A Maoist Strategy In Terms Of The Game Of Go), Paris, Seuil, 1972, p. 14. Back to text

10. See: Huang Jun, Yiren zhuan (Stories of Chess Masters), Changsha, Yuelu shushe, 1985; Lin Sitong, " Lun Zhongguo weiqi de minzuxing tezheng " (Remarks On The National Characteristics Of Weiki In China), in Tiyu wenshi, n° .3, 1991, pp. 13-16; Ma Guojun, Zhonghua chuantong youxi daquan (The Big Traditional Chinese Game Collection), Beijing, Nongcun duwu chubanshe, 1990. Back to text

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