Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index


Xiangqi (象棋 pinyin xiang4 qi2, pronunciation resembles "see-ahng chi"), also called Chinese chess or elephant chess, is a game that is similar to shogi and chess and goes back to the same origins: the Indian game Chatrang, from about 1400 years ago. It is worth noting that in the past (pre-1000 CE) that the name Xiangqi has been applied to board games other than Chinese chess.

Xiangqi is played on a board that is 9 lines wide by 10 lines long. The pieces, disks marked with an identifying character, are placed on the intersections of the lines (as in Go). The sides are red, which moves first, and blue or black (green in Korea). The central row of squares is called the river. Each side also has a palace that is 3 lines by 3 lines (i.e., 9 positions) in the center of that side against the back edge of the board.

The game-tree complexity of Xiangqi is approximately 10150.

Xiangqi plays faster then western chess, because the barrier of pawns is reduced dramatically, and also because the Cannons (see below) jump to capture, which makes them a threat early in the game. Also, while in western chess battle is concentrated in the middle few rows for the bulk of the game, in Xiangqi the battle seems to be happening simultaneously all over the board. The give-and-take between offensive and defensive play are thus more obvious in Xiangqi.

Korea has developed a variation of Xiangqi called Janggi (also written Changgi, Jangki, Tjyang Keui or Korean Chess). For each piece, the Korean rules match the Chinese rules unless otherwise noted.

The Pieces

The General

The pieces are labelled with the Chinese character shuai4 (帥) on the red side and jiang4 (將) on the blue side. These are actually military generals, though they are equivalent to the kings in the western chess. Legend has it that an emperor executed two players for "killing" or "capturing" the emperor piece. Future players called them generals instead.

The General starts the game at the center intersection of the back edge (within the palace). The General may move 1 either vertically or horizontally only, never diagonally as in international chess. When the General is lost, the game is lost. The General cannot leave the palace under any circumstances, but he has the theoretical power of capturing the enemy General by moving along a file like a Rook. Since it is illegal to move into check, a player cannot make any move that would leave the two Generals facing one another on the same file with no other piece intervening. This is a very important feature of the game, as the General often plays a role in enforcing checkmate, especially when many of the other pieces have been exchanged.

The Guards

The pieces are labelled shi4 仕 for red and 士 for blue. They are civilian government officials, i.e. the council members serving the commander in chief. One can call them guards too since they stay close to the general. They are also called assistants or mandarins.

To both the left and right of the king are the guards. The guards are the weakest pieces because they can only move one spot diagonally and may not leave the palace. They are invaluable for protecting the king, though.

In the Korean variation, the King and Guards may each move to any of the 9 positions within the palace, following the lines marked on the board. There are 4 diagonal lines in the palace connecting the center position to the corners.

The Ministers or Elephants

Actually called ministers (相 xiang1) for red and elephants (象 xiang4) for blue, these pieces are located to both the left and the right of the guards. These pieces move exactly 2 points diagonally, and may not jump over intervening pieces. Their purpose is strictly defensive, however, because they can not cross the river.

In the Korean variation, the Elephant moves 2 points diagonally plus an additional move horizontally or vertically away from its initial position, ending up on the opposite end of a 2 x 3 rectangle. They may cross the river.

The characterss for "minister" and "elephant" are homonyms and both have alternate meaning as "appearance" or "image".

The Horse

Called the horse (馬 ma3) for both red and blue, this piece is very similar to the Knight in international chess. It is important to distinguish that the knight moves one point vertically or horizontally and then one point diagonally away from its starting position because the knight can not jump over pieces like the international chess knight can.

The move of the Horse is like that of the Elephant (in Korean chess), ending its move at the opposite corner of a 1 x 2 rectangle.

The Chariot

These are labelled che1 or ju1 (車) for both red and blue. Like the Rook (or Castle) in international chess, the chariot (or car) moves and kills in a straight line either horizontally or vertically. The two chariots begin the game in the corners.

The Cannons

They are labelled pao4 (炮) for red and (包 bao1) for blue. Each player has two cannons. The cannons are placed on the row behind the pawns, directly in front of the knights. Cannons move exactly like the chariots, but capturing with cannons is more tricky. In order to capture a piece, there must be exactly one piece (friendly or otherwise) between the cannon and the piece to be captured. The cannon then moves to that point and captures the piece. They are powerful at the beginning of the game when "hurdles" are plentiful, but lose value rapidly with attrition.

In the Korean variation, the other piece over which the cannon jumps may not be another cannon. In addition, Korean Cannons are required to jump in order to move, as well as capture.

The Soldiers

They are labelled bing1 (兵) (soldiers) for red and zu2 (卒) (bandits) for blue respectively. Each side has 5 soldiers (or bandits). They are placed on alternating points, one row back from the edge of the river. They move, and unlike Pawns in international chess also capture, straight ahead. Once they have crossed the river, they can also move (and capture) one space horizontally. Unlike international chess, when they reach the enemy's edge of the board they are not promoted but just move from side to side.

In the Korean variation, the Soldiers may move and capture horizontally from their first move; they needn't cross the river first.

Ending the Game

Stalemate is achieved when no legal moves are possible. Unlike international chess, however, the person who has no legal moves loses. (In the Korean variation, a stalemate is a draw.)

Some sites on Chinese Chess (to learn more and meet other players):