The art of black and white: Weiqi in Chinese poetry

Weiqi (or Go in Japanese) 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, reliable anecdotes about the game date back to 548 BC. The game spread from China to Korea and Japan before the Tang dynasty (A.D. 618-907), and in fact it is as Go, the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese character ch’i, that the game is commonly known in the West. Weiqi is played with black and white pieces, or stones, 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. The ingenuity and skill required made Weiqi not merely a pastime popular among nobilities and the intellectuals, but elevated it to a princely art form.

Weiqi, Calligraphy, Painting, and the Qin, 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. With its fusion of the intellectual and imaginative faculties, Weiqi offered particular inspiration and solace to poets. For instance, when Wang Yu-ch’eng (AD 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 Qin, 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 Weiqi, for the stones sound out click-click.” 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.

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