Wednesday, March 9, 2016

A Chinese Way of Seeing the World Part 3 (The Game of Go [ Weiqi ] )

(updated  at 12:00)

Click here for Part 1 and click here for Part 2.

Part 3 of 8
8 March 2001

An aura of nobility 

This myth, which partly founds the nobility which is attributed to the game of weiqi, works hand in hand with the way in which literature reports on the game down through the ages. Literature includes the great Chinese Classics, and one must admit that weiqi has not always found favor in the eyes of the representatives of the great movements of Chinese thought. 

Confucius (551-479 BC) himself was apparently fairly laconic on the subject; a few words on weiqi are attributed to him in his Conversations. These few words have been translated in a thousand ways and the authors who quote him have him praise or decry the practice of weiqi, according to their thesis... 

Yang Guoqing suggests that the assessment which Confucius makes of the game of weiqi is not very laudatory or is, at the least, lukewarm:
"Although he did not categorically repudiate weiqi , his assessment of it is not very high and seems tinged with indifference".[11]
This seems to correspond fairly closely to the conclusion to which lead the various translations of these words of Confucius's. According to Pierre Rickmans, one reads:
"How tedious are these people who stuff themselves all day without using their wits! Don't they even know how to play chess? That would still be better than nothing".[12]
However, in this translation by Eulalie Steens, Confucius's words seem less lukewarm since it is possible to read into them an encouragement to play chess:
"The Master: What a pity to stuff oneself with food all day without ever using one's wits! Could people not play chess? That would be better than nothing."[13]
Ma Guojun, a writer specialized in games, interprets these same words to the advantage of weiqi. He explains that even the extremely renowned personage that was Confucius was not opposed to games.[14

It seems in fact that Confucius quite simply did not think that weiqi could improve man in the same way as a knowledge of the Classics or of art. His subsequent disciples were later to distance themselves from this austerity. 

Mengzi (371-285 BC), for his part, states that there are five things which are contrary to filial piety:
"The first is to fall into idleness and to entirely neglect the care of one's parents. The second is to give oneself over to the game of tablet [15], to the game of chess, to drinking, and to entirely neglect the care of one's parents. The third is to love wealth, to take care of one's wife and children only, and to entirely neglect the care of one's parents. The fourth is to give complete freedom to one's eyes and ears, and to cause dishonor to one's parents. The fifth is to like to make a show of bravery, to fight and to quarrel, and thus to put one's parents in danger..."[16]

The game is here reduced to the rank of the numerous activities which potentially endanger the cornerstone of the Confucian system that is the respect due to the father, and, indirectly, the worship of one's ancestors. It is not the nature of the game which is being judged, but the time it steals from family obligations. [17] Once again therefore, one sees that the game of weiqi is far from obtaining the status of a noble occupation, which it was to obtain later in history. 

This apparently radical judgment does not prevent Mengzi from valuing the game and the rigor necessary for mastering it highly enough to use it as a subject in his teachings:

Now take yi, which is only an art of little consequence. Yet if one does not give one's whole mind to it, one will never master it, Yi Ch'iu is the best player in the whole country. Get him to teach two people to play, one of whom concentrates his mind on the game and listens only to what Yi Ch'iu has to say, while the other, though he listens, dreams of an approaching swan and wants to take up his bow and banded arrow to shoot at it. Now even though this man shares the lessons with the first, he will never be as good. Is this because he is less clever ? The answer is No ".[18]

The perception of weiqi continues to develop. Yang [19] states that the Han master Du Fuzi was a great practitioner of weiqi and maintains that the understanding of the principles of weiqi helps in the understanding of the principles of Confucianism. 

The great master Ouyang Xiu, of the Song dynasty (960-1279) was much later to go so far as to elevate the game of weiqi to the rank of one of the six traditional teachings (liuyi, originally ritual, music, archery, driving a chariot, writing and arithmetic). 

The later infatuation of some emperors [20] for the game over history was to make possible its slow justification. The board made up of 19 by 19 lines was officially adopted under the Jin of the East and West (265-420) and the Dynasties of the North and the South (420-581) since this board is true to the Chinese vision of the Universe and of the Earth. [21] Under the Tang, at a time when xiangqi was taking on its present form and the ancestor of mah-jong, yezi jiupai was taking form, even court-designated players appear, who offer their services as partners or teachers to a select clientele (qidaizhao, instituted around the year 720 by the Emperor Xuan Zong). [22] Weiqi was to become very widespread among the elite, with high-ranking courtesans adding, to their talents as poetesses, singers, musicians and lovers, the art of playing weiqi with the nobles who summoned them.[23]

The oral tradition, poetry and popular literature were to contribute enormously to establishing weiqi as the center piece of Chinese culture. There is a legend entitled Lankeshan ji ("The story of the rotten handle mountain") which tells of the following: under the dynasty of the Jin (265-420) the woodcutter Wang Zhi came to cut wood on the Mountain of the Caverns (Shishihan). Suddenly seeing two men engaged in playing weiqi, he sits down beside them and watches the game.

Time passes, and from time to time he eats a date. Suddenly he hears: "Why don't you go home, look at the handle of your axe". When he looks, he notices what is left of his crumbling handle and realizes that more than a hundred years have gone by. When he returns to his village, he finds that his family and friends are long buried. [24] 

There are endless versions of this story, always featuring an isolated and quiet place, and the total absorption of the players. 

The powerful fascination that weiqi exerts in China over players and spectators alike, as well as its symbolic importance, are all illustrated in this story, and in several others. 

Links with weiqi are also discovered in poetry, mainly in the second half of the first millennium, for two principal reasons. Firstly weiqi has become by then one of the four occupations of the nobility. In the well-known formula qinqishuhua (lute-chess-calligraphy-painting) is inferred the presence of poetry; is not the calligrapher he who gives the poem a second wind... 

Secondly, there is also the simple fact that weiqi has become a recurring theme in poetry. A large number of scenes are to be found in the poetry of the Tang and Song dynasties, where weiqi is a major "atmospheric" element, which shows the extent to which the game the game truly became refined and widespread at that period. [25] The metaphorical use or the mere mention of the game have a tone where purity and calm return as a leitmotiv... Taoist monks searching for immortality, hermits, sovereigns and poets play weiqi, often in close harmony with nature, and time, once again, seems suspended... As an example, this poem by Du Fu dating from 758, "addressed to Master Min of Chiang Nin, by the care of Hsu the VIIIth": [26] 

"I have not seen you, Master Min, for thirty years
I send you this letter, my tears fall slowly
Your former favorite pastimes, do you still practice them today?
Now that you are old, with whom do you share your new poems?
You loved to go to play chess by a secret ravine among bamboo
I remember your white robe when your boat floated on the lake
White-haired, still confused, inebriated I fall asleep

This translation mentions the word for chess: qiju. Bear in mind that it is indeed, in Du Fu's case, a question of weiqi and not of xiangqi. Although many poems refer to the game of weiqi, Du Fu remains the Tang dynasty poet who most frequently mentioned our game. He was, on the one hand, a fervent practitioner. But on the other hand, the game of weiqi was his way of expressing the enigmatic and constantly changing aspect of the rules which govern life, which governed his life. His philosophical detachment from the world is expressed thus: "They say that chess brings serenity, nothing in this world can distress me". 

Harmony, abstraction, the abolition of time connected with weiqi run along the lines of the Taoist quest. When the player has played, he has reproduced the Taoist act of creation according to Laozi:
"The Tao begets the one
The one begets the two
The two begets the three
The three produces the ten thousand beings
The ten thousand beings lean back against the Yin
And hug the Yang to their breast
Harmony is born of the immaterial breath

Thus the black Yang stones and the white Yin stones, borne by inspiration and intuition, answer one another to form a harmonic whole. The occupation of territories is built around the "eyes"(mu), or empty spaces surrounded by the stones, and the "breaths of life"(qi), spaces for potential connections between stones of the same color. This notion of emptiness also connects us with Laozi: "Thirty spokes gather round a hub. But it is on its emptiness that the use of the cart depends." As Reysset summarizes it so well, "... the game of go will be an invitation to share living space. For what is it about but creating together new spaces on virgin territory? Is it not a question of replacing the notion of total emptiness with that of appropriate emptiness surrounded by the fullness of stone walls?". [27

Now we will see that the aesthetic feeling which hovers over the game is also a major factor in the fascination of weiqi. 


11. Yang Guoqing, " Lun weiqi yu Zhongguo gudai sixiang wenhua liupai " (Remarks on weiqi and the schools of thought in ancient China), in Tiyu Wenshi (Revue historique des sports), n° 6, 1990, p.

12. Pierre Ryckmans, Les entretiens de Confucius (Conversations with Confucius), Paris, Gallimard, 1987, p. 98.

13. Eulalie Steens, Le livre de la sagesse de Confucius (The Book of Wisdom of Confucius), Paris, Editions du Rocher, 1996, p. 206.

14. Ma Guojun, Zhonghua chuantong youxi daquan (The Big Traditional Chinese Game Collection), Beijing, Nongcun duwu chubanshe, 1990, p. 1.

15. Game of tablets is here used for the game of bo or liubo which was played with dice and resembled backgammon, as is shown by a few illustrations from the Han dynasty. Liubo is contemporaneous with weiqi, though some claim that it dates back to the Shang dynasty because of a resemblance between the game of liubo with its bronze mirrors called TLV (because of the motifs in the form of T, L and V with which they are decorated) which dates back to the Shang. Yi is a character which identified board games in ancient China. however, in the Chinese texts consulted during this research, it is found to refer most often to weiqi, particularly in the interpretation of these words of Confucius. It is also the first character in the name Yiqiu, who was certainly the most famous player in classical China.

16. Séraphin Couvreur (Trad.), The Four Books Of Confucius - which are his spiritual legacy and are titled: La Grande étude; L'Invariable milieu; Les Entretiens; le Meng Tzeu (The Great Study, The Unchanging Middle, The Conversations, the Meng Tzeu), Paris, Jean de Bonnot, 1981, p. 501.

17. This critical approach has its counterpart in Plato, a century earlier, as this story shows: "Plato one day reproached a man who was playing dice. The man replied that he was getting carried away over very little, and Plato said to him: "But the habit of playing it is not very little". see DUFLO, Colas, Le jeu. De Pascal à Schiller (The Game, From Pascal to Schiller) Paris, Presses Universitaires de France, 1997, p. 14.

18. Mengzi, Lau [Trans.], 1979, p. 232 -Book IV-A.

19. Guoqing Yang, " Lun weiqi yu Zhongguo gudai sixiang wenhua liupai " (Remarks on weiqi and the schools of thought in ancient China), in Tiyu Wenshi, n° 6, 1990, p. 57. 20. Shi lists the following emperors as having been notorious players: " ...Liu Bang (Qin), Cao Cao and Cao Pi (Han), Jin Wu di (Jin), Song Wu Di and Song Ming di (Song), Qi Gao di (Qi), Liang Wu di (Liang), Tang Xuanzong and Tang Xizong " (Tang). The most famous among them for his mastery of the game remains the © Emperor Tang Taizong [Li Shimin] (SHI Liangzhao, Pingsheng juying-Zhongguo boyi wenhua (Sound of the Board, Reflection of a Game - Chess Culture in China), ShanghaiShanghai guji chubanshe, 1991, p. 174.

21. See Sports and Games in Ancient China, 1986, p. 68. to the ancient Chinese, the Earth was a closed square space divided into four sections, a center and nine directions (or winds). This is exactly what one obtains if one divides the board horizontally and vertically, passing through the points called mu (eye), the center being named tianyuan (sky-origins). The mythical Emperor Yao "traveled over and measured the nine Mountains, the nine Rivers, and the nine Marshes, arranging the soil which was at last able to be cultivated, that is to say which was divided into fields, which were square and divided into nine squares: in short, we are told Yu divided the world into nine regions"(Marcel Granet, La civilization chinoise, Paris, Albin Michel, 1988, p. 146) According to Reysset, one can also see a correspondence between the number of intersections and of stones to be played and the number of days in the Chinese religious calendar. This counts 360 days, and "the two numbers are all the more disturbingly close because the number 1 "does not count" to the Chinese since it is the center, the void, the origin, neither yin nor yang".(Op. cit., p. 28).

22. Ma Zheng, " Tang Song liang dai de qidaizhao " ("Professional weiqi players in the Tang and Song dynasties"), in Weiqi, n° 3, 1986, p. 31.

23. See Pascale Coulette, Lectures chinoises de la prostitution, (Chinese interpretations of Prostitution) Doctoral Thesis presented at the Department of Anthropology, University of Montreal on the 21st of January. (forthcoming).

24. Shi, op. cit., p. 138 et ss.

25. Shen catalogues several dozen in his work on "the culture of weiqi". One finds in these poems, which are closely tied to weiqi, the themes of nature, the seasons, wine, twilight and the communion of friendship.

26. Wingfun Cheng, Hervé Collet (Trad.), Tu Fu, Dieux et diables pleurent (Tu fu, Gods and Devils Cry), Millemont, Moundarren, 1987, unpaginated.

27. Reysset, op. cit., p. 15.

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