Xiangqi (Chinese: pinyin: xiangqi; Wade-Giles: hsiang-ch'i; is a two-player Chinese board game in the same family as Western chess, chaturanga, shogi and janggi. The present-day form of Xiangqi originated in China and is therefore commonly called Chinese chess in English. The first character Xiang here has the meaning "image" or "representational", hence Xiangqi can be literally translated as "representational chess". The game is sometimes called "elephant chess" after an alternative meaning of Xiang as "elephant".
Xiangqi has a long history. Though its precise origins have not yet been confirmed, the earliest indications reveal that the game was played as early as the 4th century BC in China. Some sources state that the creator of Xiangqi is Han Xin. It is said that Xiangqi was created by Han Xin to prepare him for the battle against Xiang Yu.
Xiangqi is one of the most popular board games in the world. Distinctive features of Xiangqi include the unique movement of the pao ("cannon") piece, a rule prohibiting the generals (similar to chess kings) from facing each other directly, and the river and palace board features, which restrict the movement of some pieces.
Xiangqi is played on a board that is 9 lines wide by 10 lines long. In a manner similar to the game Go (Weiqi), the pieces are played on the intersections, which are known as points. The vertical lines are known as files, while the horizontal lines are known as ranks. With a few awkward substitutions, it is possible to play this game using a standard chess set.
Centered at the first through third ranks of the board is a square zone also mirrored in the opponent's territory. The three point by three point zone is demarcated by two diagonal lines connecting opposite corners and intersecting at the center point. This area is known as gong, the palace or fortress.
Dividing the two opposing sides (between the fifth and sixth ranks) is he, the river. The river is often marked with the phrases chu he, meaning "Chu River", and han jie, meaning "Han border", a reference to the Chu-Han War. Although the river provides a visual division between the two sides, only a few pieces are affected by its presence: soldiers are promoted after crossing, and elephants cannot cross the river.
The starting points of the soldiers and cannons are typically marked with small crosses, but not all boards have these marks.
The two players take command of pieces on either side of the river. One player's pieces are usually painted red (or, less commonly, white), and the other player's pieces are usually painted black (or, less commonly, blue or green). Which player moves first has varied throughout history, and also varies from one part to another of China. Some xiangqi books state that the black side moves first; others state that the red side moves first. Also, some books may refer to the two sides as north and south; which direction corresponds to which color also varies from source to source. Generally, red goes first in most modern formal tournaments.
The generals are labelled with the Chinese character, jiang (general) on the black side and shuai (marshal) on the red side. These pieces are equivalent to the kings of Western chess. Legend has it that originally the pieces were known as emperors, but when an emperor of China heard about the game, he executed two players for "killing" or "capturing" the emperor piece. Future players called them generals instead.
The general starts the game at the midpoint of the back edge (within the palace). The general may move one point either vertically or horizontally, but not diagonally. The general cannot leave the palace under any circumstances (except under the flying general rule mentioned below); thus, the general can only move to and stay on the 9 points within the palace.
When a general is threatened by an enemy piece, the general is said to be "in check." When the general is in check and unable to escape check on the player's move, it is said to be checkmated, and the player loses the game. A player also loses when his or her general is not threatened, but he or she can make no legal move that doesn't put the general in check; a stalemate rule does not exist.
If a player makes a move that leaves the two generals facing one another on the same file with no other pieces placed in between, then the general is in check. This rule is known as the flying general (??f?iji?ng in Chinese), and states that one general may "fly" across the board and capture the other if they are in the same file with no pieces in between. This is a very important feature of the Xiangqi game and is often forgotten by new players of the game. It is important because the general often plays a role in enforcing checkmate, especially when many of the other pieces have been taken and the board is wide open. Indeed, a win remains possible as long as a player has at least a single horse, chariot, or soldier not on the last rank. If a player forgets this rule and moves a piece that exposes a clear line between his or her general and his opponent's, he or she loses the game if his or her opponent notices what has happened.
The advisors (also known as guards or ministers, and less commonly as assistants, mandarins, or warriors) are labelled shi ("scholar", "gentleman", "officer") for black and shi("scholar", "official") for red. Rarely, sets use the character for both colours.
While their origin is probably not the same as that of the queen in Western chess (from the mantri in Chaturanga), their powers are distinct from those of the queen (but similar to that of the mantri).
The advisors start to the sides of the general. They move one point diagonally and may not leave the palace. This effectively means they can only move to five of the points within the palace. They serve to protect the general/marshal.
The elephants are labelled xiang (elephant) for black and xiang (minister) for red. They are located next to the advisors. These pieces move exactly two points diagonally and may not jump over intervening pieces. They may not cross the river; thus, they serve as defensive pieces. There are only seven possible points on the board to which they can move.
Because of an elephant's limited movement, it can be easily trapped or threatened. A chariot can threaten one just by moving to a space where all brown spaces available to the elephant are threatened. Since one elephant could be easily captured, it depends on the other for protection.
The Chinese characters for "minister" and "elephant" are homophones (listen) and both have alternative meanings as "appearance" or "image". However, both are referred to as elephants in the game.
The horses are labelled ma for black and ma for red in sets marked with Traditional Chinese characters and ma for both black and red in sets marked with Simplified Chinese characters. Some traditional sets use this for both colours. They begin the game next to the elephants. It moves one point vertically or horizontally and then one point diagonally away from its former position. It is important to note that the horse does not jump. Thus, if there were a piece lying on a point one point away horizontally or vertically from the horse, then the horse's path of movement is blocked and it is unable to move in that direction. Note, however, that a piece two points away horizontally or vertically or a piece a single point away diagonally would not impede the movement of the horse. The diagram on the left illustrates the horse's movement.
Since horses can be blocked, it is sometimes possible to trap the opponent's horse. A horse if blocked when there is a piece in front of it on the line that it [will] move 2 points. It is possible for one player's horse to attack the opponent's horse while the opponent's horse is blocked from attacking, as seen in the diagram on the right.
The chariot moves and captures vertically and horizontally any distance. The chariots begin the game on the points at the corners of the board. Their placement and movement is similar to that of a rook in western chess.
The chariot/rook piece is considered to be the strongest piece in the game.
In Xiangqi, each player has two cannons. The cannons start on the row behind the soldiers, two points in front of the horses. Cannons move like the chariots, horizontally and vertically, but capture by jumping exactly one piece (whether it is friendly or enemy) over to its target. When capturing, the cannon is moved to the point of the captured piece. Any number of unoccupied spaces may exist between the cannon and the cannon platform, or between the cannon platform and the piece to be captured, including no spaces (the pieces being adjacent) in both cases. Cannons are powerful at the beginning of the game when platforms are plentiful, and are typically used in combination with chariots to effect mate.
Each side has five soldiers. Soldiers are placed on alternating points, one row back from the edge of the river. They move and capture by advancing one point. Once they have crossed the river, they may also move (and capture) one point horizontally. Soldiers cannot move backward, and therefore cannot retreat; however, they may still move sideways at the enemy's edge.