Philosophy about the cosmic game

Weiqi mimics human life in its preoccupation with contradiction and confrontation, as described in Cha Shen-hsing’s (1651-1728)

In “Inscription on Chang Ch’i-chi’s ‘Painting of Men Watching a Weiqi Game'”, the first four lines of this poem read:

The cosmos is like a Weiqi board, The battlefield of Black and White – Trivial as worms and ants. Great as marquises and kings.

These lines compare the Weiqi board to a battlefield, where straggles may be as petty as those between insects, or as great as those of nobles and kings. The human desire for competitive triumph is captured precisely in the action of a Weiqi contest.

This thirst for victory is an essential subject of Chinese poets’ philosophical ponderings, often colored by Buddhist and Taoist pacifist ideas – the notion that man should strive not for glory, but for a state of peace, particularly when faced with failure in one’s career. This tension informs Wang An-shih’s (1011-86) quatrain, “Weiqi”:

Don’t disturb true emotion with a mere game, Just let me follow the course and claim victory. Yet after the fighting, two boxes take back the Black and White, On the board then, where are the losses and gains?

The tone of self-consolation suggests that the poem may have been written after Wang An-shih lost a game. The lines reveal that Wang An-shih played Weiqi merely for entertainment, as is vividly confirmed in an anecdote: “Wang An-shih’s Weiqi style was extremely low. When playing with other people, he rarely thought seriously and responded to rivals’ moves quickly and casually. When he felt he would lose, he would put his stones back in the box, saying: ‘I wanted only to soothe my disposition and forget my cares. Now, however, I cudgel my brains and labor my spirit. It would be better to stop here’.” It seems that Wang An-shih played only in lulls between his more important political activities.

Victory is surely pleasant, / But defeat can also be enjoyed.

Su Shih’s answer to the “flavor” question and is the thesis of the poem. Most players are elated upon winning and frustrated by a loss, but Su Shih says he is equally composed in victory and defeat. This appears to express his Taoist attitude. Su presents Weiqi as a microcosm of the human condition. Man occupies a universe in which he is moved by mysterious forces whose directions he cannot understand. When Su wrote this poem, he was defeated in the political arena. Banishment to Hainan Island meant humiliation and hardship, which was difficult for him to bear at first. But he was soon able to revive his spirits; as he put it: “I – an old man now – and my son Kuo, sitting face to face, are like two ascetic monks. But I feel transcendent and content in mind, and don’t change my demeanor.” This attitude allowed Su not only to survive the extreme hardships of the island but also to turn the three years he spent there into a productive period of creative and scholarly writings.

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One thought on “Philosophy about the cosmic game

  1. Great post. I really thought that Su Shih’s statement of being “equally composed in victory and defeat” is a fantastic ideal that all players should work towards.

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