hist-games: hist-games Digest, Vol 42, Issue 3

P Shotwell pshotwell at gmail.com
Sun Mar 15 22:20:37 PDT 2009

> >. . . I've never heard of Chinese chess pieces being used this way, though
> I
> > suppose it's possible. This is one of the theories about go that I
> question
> > heavily in the body of the Origins article (which is repeated in Appendix
> > III).
> > Best,
> > Peter
> The Chinese used chess pieces for divination, yes. One such variant
> was called tan-ch'hi chess (cf. Needham, Science and Civilization IV).
> The lower board was rectangular like earth, and the upper was round
> like heaven. By throwing pieces, or shaking the board, fate could be
> determined.
> I don't know how old Go is. But if it goes back to the Han period or
> older, then I suspect it was used for divination. We moderns tend to
> think linearly, i.e. that it first originated as a mantic procedure,
> then it became a competition, etc. But ancient people tended to view
> things as multifactorial. They likely viewed it simultaneously as a
> competition, as a mantic method, and as a religious ritual, etc. So
> these aspects arouse conjointly. A boardgame diagram provided a
> topography for playing, but it was also a magical protective design,
> and a doorway for the spirit in divination.
> Depending on the age of the game, the ancient Chinese must have tried
> to predict the future from a game between two Go masters. It was a
> competition, but also an event of spiritual dimensions. The point is
> that they couldn't differ between the two.
> Mats Winther

Hi Mats,
Obviously, we will never know for sure what happened, but with all due
respect, years ago, I pretty much shreded (for the first time) Needham's
far-too-early speculations about the origins of chess and go in my Origins
article. (www.usgo.org/bobhighlibrary).
For the shi board divination theories and their lack of application to go,
see the Origins article and Appendix III, (which were also original--no
anthropological look at go or a structural anthropological look at the Yao
myths had ever been attempted. Ditto for many of the other 'sacred cow'
theories that had grown up around early go, such as the true roles of the
Daoists and Confucians, the lack of attention to the sacred role of gambling
on games, etc.)
For my commentary on the subject of games and their practical roles
(emphasis on the plural) in ancient societies, again see the Origins
article, where the Chinese context is particularly discussed, and Appendix
II where the similarities of the appearance of mancala and possibly go in
early social and religious systems are looked at (along with additonal
posssible intrepretations of the Yao myths).
I think you will see that I agree with at least part of the second
paragraph, but not with the third.

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