Xiangqi (象棋 )(Shong Chee) is Chinese chess; the name isn’t a literal translation, but it’s in the same family of games, and bares many resemblances. There are a few competing theories as to how “chess-type” games spread throughout the world, though it’s generally agreed upon that they are all of Asian origin (the places vary) and have changed many times both when moving to different regions, and staying in those regions. These changes have both added and reduced complexity over the years, and while it’s easy to see that xiangqi is related to chess, the games are played very differently, have a quite distinct set of pieces, meaning different sets are required to play each.
Now this post isn’t going to be about how to play xiangqi or strategies, there are many good online and long form explanations of those two things. And I’m also no good at the game, just like chess, I’m mediocre at the game but I like playing it. This post will be about a problem I ran into while trying to play xiangqi that just seems weird to me.
I live in the US, and obviously xiangqi isn’t going to be as popular here as it is in China, or other surrounding countries even, regular chess isn’t even that popular here, and xiangqi is very popular in China. So most sets are more geared to Chinese player, or those who already know the game. This wouldn’t be a problem if the game used figures like chess, but instead the pieces are marked with Chinese characters, and the characters vary depending on the side (so they can be told apart with no paint from it either wearing off or never being applied). This obviously restricts the game to people who know what the Chinese characters mean, or want to take the time out of their day to learn both the meanings of some Chinese and how to play a possibly boring variant of what is wildly considered a very boring game (not my thoughts, but people find it boring). And while I am quite willing to spend my time learning parts of a new language to play a game, most of the people I know aren’t, and if I was going to get the game played I needed them to be willing to play it. So I set out looking for a set that had pictures, or stand up pieces, and this sent me on a journey.
Okay, that might be overstating things a little bit, if one is looking for “stereoscopic” pieces the sets are readily available. But they are a bit expensive and I feel like they don’t hold as much cultural ground, I like the idea of keeping the flat disk look of the traditional Chinese game. Also if one is looking for a fully westernized version of the game, where the player even plays inside the squares and not on the intersections, the Elephant Chess Club released fairly recently a set that has enough pieces the play both xiangqi and chess. But it turns out in the past this same company made the exact product I was looking for, a disk set of xiangqi with Chinese characters on one side and western-style pictures on the other. From the little information I can gather these sets were started in 1997 (that’s the copyright in the instruction book) and sold from then until a the early/mid 2000s, some stores might still have them even. After this the company produced a run of the internationalized version I mentioned before and seems to currently have that out of production as well, though I don’t know, they could make a new print run in the near future.
Beyond that set though I combed the internet and found no “internationalized” version of the game. This was very strange to me; xiangqi is possibly the most popular game in the world and here I am, only able to find sets that only have Chinese characters. It makes sense that the majority of these sets would have only these characters, but I would expect at least a few more to a least attempt to appeal to a western audience. So I spent more and more time looking, hoping I was just using the wrong search term and suddenly a huge list of the answer I was looking for would pop up. This didn’t happen. So during that time I contented myself with making my own Chinese chess set, it wasn’t very good, but I could play with it.
After a while I set up a list of what I was looking for, it had to be a set that a) was disk shaped, like a traditional set, b) had both traditional characters, and western pictures, c) was made of wood, or plastic to be suitably light and hard to break, and d) was portable enough to play the game at a café or the like, as I don’t have a car this means it should fit easily in a backpack. This list came about after finding several sets that should have fixed my problem, but I didn’t like for various reasons. The stereoscopic and dual internationalized sets I mentioned before just didn’t seem to capture the traditional feel. Sets that did were mostly just the Chinese character versions. And some were quite large, 1 ½” playing pieces might not seem big, but they are. I also found a nice set (that was too large but still) that had Chinese characters with just the western names written beneath them, which seemed good enough for me, but the set was made of stone, and lugging a stone set to a café or even risking dropping it at home was a bit much for me. I was trying to buy a set that would introduce me and my friends to a game that we would play. So I kept on looking.
There are quite a few sets that appeared throughout the 20th century as it turns out, some not internationalized but many were, but almost all of them poorly. Finding one of these sets online in good condition was still hard, and I didn’t like the quality on most of them, they just didn’t seem as substantial as the real thing. At this point I just was baffled. How had at least a few companies not made (or currently be making) sets that were identical to the traditional sets, but with the simple addition of a stamp on the other side? I had no idea why this wasn’t happening. Eventually I did find something though. I found one set currently in production, in Brazil, for sale from a company that doesn’t ship to the US, and since I don’t speak Portuguese I think getting the set would be hard. So I just waited on eBay, and settled for the Elephant Chess Club wooden versions, they aren’t bad, but they just aren’t exactly what I’m looking for. I also got a used version of the stereoscopic set, which is small enough that at the moment it might be my go-to set. I have magnetic and wooden traditional sets now as well.
So I might have gotten what I wanted, but I really haven’t. What I want doesn’t seem to exist (except maybe that Mitra Brazilian version) which makes no sense to me. I know I have weird desires with products sometimes (I spent forever trying to find the perfect pocket flashlight) and that things aren’t made for me, but this just seems so obvious, and it seems like enough of a market is out there to make this sort of thing profitable.
I just don’t understand it, and my search for xiangqi isn’t over yet, but I have the sets that are easily available to me, and they’ll work for some time. I hope in the future I can be able to obtain my perfect set, but for now I’ll enjoy what I have and keep looking over eBay. And I’ll encourage you to go out and take a look at xiangqi if you enjoy chess and chess variants; it is a fun an interesting game. Maybe if enough people are interested more “internationalized” and “training” versions will be produced, but even if they aren’t, taking the time to learn a little Chinese is fun, and the game can bring a lot of joy.