The Art of Black and White: Wei-Ch'i in Chinese Poetry

By Chen, Zu-Yan | The Journal of the American Oriental Society, October-December 1997 | Go to article overview

The Art of Black and White: Wei-Ch'i in Chinese Poetry


Chen, Zu-Yan, The Journal of the American Oriental Society


Wei-ch'i is the oldest and one of the most popular board games in China and other East Asian countries. Although the time of its origin cannot be set with certainty,(1) reliable anecdotes about the game date back to 548 n.c.(2) The game spread from China to Korea and Japan before the Tang dynasty (A.D. 618-907),(3) and in fact it is as go, the Japanese pronunciation of the character ch'i, that the game is commonly known in the West. Wei-ch'i is played with black and white pieces, or stones,(4) on a square wooden board crossed by 19 vertical lines and 19 horizontal lines which form 361 intersections, or "points." Players try to conquer territory by enclosing vacant points with boundaries made of their own stones, and by attacking and capturing hostile stones. The stones and board together account for both the simplicity and the complexity of the game: the two kinds of stones, black and white only, and the plainness of the rules of their movement, make the fundamentals easy to grasp; yet the large size of the board, with a wealth of combinations and an infinite variety of moves, demands extraordinary skill. The game requires years of practice and study for a player to become good even at the amateur level.(5)

The ingenuity and skill required made wei-ch'i not merely a pastime popular among nobilities and intellectuals, but elevated it to a princely art form. Wei-ch'i, calligraphy, painting, and the ch'in, a seven-string plucked instrument similar to the zither, were regarded as the "four arts"; attainment in all four was a sign of high cultivation and social finesse.(6) With its fusion of the intellectual and imaginative faculties, wei-ch'i offered particular inspiration and solace to poets. For instance, when Wang Yu-ch'eng (954-1001) was demoted to Huang-chou in 999, he built a bamboo tower and was consoled by its acoustic excellence: "I thus built a small bamboo tower with two rooms. It is a good place to play the ch'in, for the musical melodies are harmonious and smooth; it is a good place to chant poems, for the poetic tones ring pure and far; it is a good place to play wei-ch'i, for the stones sound out click-click."(7) When a stone is grasped between the nail of the second finger and the tip of the third - the traditional method - and placed on the board with confidence, a cheerful ringing note results. This sound was even more pleasant when mellowed and amplified by the bamboo tubes in Wang Yu-ch'eng's simple, elegant tower.

The association of wei-ch'i with poetry is due not only to the game's sophistication and the elegant environment in which it is often played. At a deeper level, both arts share a style based on abstraction and spontaneity. For novices or enthusiasts of modest attainments in either activity, mechanics are the primary concern. Masters, however, are occupied with the art of self-expression. It is no wonder that Fan Hsi-p'ing (b. 1709) and Shih Ting-an (1710-70), the two "national experts" (kuo-shou) of the Ch'ing dynasty (1644-1911), were likened stylistically to two great T'ang poets: "Hsi-p'ing is wonderful and lofty, like the divine dragon shifting shape - its head and tail are indistinguishable. Ting-an is accurate and strict, as an old steed galloping without a misstep. The commentators liken them to the poets Li Po and Tu Fu, which is most fitting."(8) The comparison of wei-ch'i players with poets satisfies both the intellectual and the aesthetic senses, for the arts are similar in their creative demands, the temperament of their practitioners, and the processes through which they unfold.

No game has surpassed wei-ch'i in the interest it has evoked among major Chinese poets, especially since the T'ang dynasty, when both poetry and wei-ch'i enjoyed a golden age.(9) Wei-ch'i poems often provide a vivid picture of a poet's daily activities, enhancing our understanding of his life and writing. On his poetic canvas, Tu Fu (712-70) often portrayed the suffering of the people in times of war and chaos.

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