What Is Chinese Chess Game? (Xiang Qi)

Chinese chess has been one of the most intriguing games and has excited the quizzical for a pretty long time now. The Chinese chess game is known as Xiangqi and pronounced as ‘shiang-chee’. It has existed since time immemorial, and up to date, it is still one of the most popular board games in the world.

Although its rules are similar to the popular western chess game, there are fascinating variations with the Chinese game. It is mostly played in China and across Asia, but you will find a few players in the West as well. Also, you will find several men playing Chinese chess in any Chinatown neighborhood across the world.

Following that background, we will explore the Chinese chess game and how you can play it. Also, we will outline the differences between Chinese chess and chess.

What is Chinese chess game?

Chinese chess history: Chinese chess is a strategy board game that has been played in China ever since 700 AD. Just like orthodox chess, the Chinese believe that it was derived from the popular Indian game known as chaturanga, a 4-player game played with dice. The Chinese chess game is ultimately known as the Elephant Game (Xiangqi), where Xiang means elephant and Qi means chess game.

There are two reasons why it is called the elephant game. The first reason is that the game pieces of pawns and generals in Liubo were made of ivory, and ivory comes from elephants. The second reason was that the Chinese incorporate elephants in their military, which informed how the pieces were arranged in the game.

Aside from that, the Chinese chess game also holds cultural significance among the Chinese people. Because of this, it has become a popular means of intelligent entertainment in the whole of China and Vietnam. Almost everyone in China knows how to play Chinese chess, particularly as a way of associating with one another or a way of passing time.

How to play a Chinese chess game?

Step One: Setting up the board and familiarizing with the line on the boards

The Chinese chess board has approximately 64 squares, which is similar to any international chessboard. Towards the middle part of the board, there is a river in between that divides the board between opponents. There are diagonal lines in some parts that clearly identify the boundaries that some pieces cannot cross over to. You cannot make any plays in the river, so you will have to cross it to make any play.

You will find an imperial palace on both sides of the playing board, and the guard and general pieces cannot leave this space. You need to place the pieces on line intersections known as points, instead of the actual board squares. The Chinese chessboard features 9 by 10 points, but you only move in the line intersections.

Step Two: Understanding the pieces

The pieces in the Chinese chess game are no different from those in International chess. Every player in the game gets 2 guards, 1 general (king, 2 chariots (rooks), 2 elephants (bishops), 5 soldiers (pawns), 2 cannons, and 2 horses (knights). Each one of these pieces is a flat white disk with either black or red markings. The markings correspond to the Chinese character that matches the piece.

Step Three: Playing the game

Begin by placing the pieces on the board and ensure that they are in the correct place. On the row that is closest to you, place the pieces from left to right, that is, chariot, horse, elephant, guard, king, 2nd guard, 2nd elephant, 2nd knight, and 2nd chariot, then on the third-row place the 2 cannons on the intersection you find one space away from the edge of the right and left side of the board. Afterward, place the soldier prices on all the other intersections.  

Your goal in the game is to capture your opponent’s king, so all your other pieces are the ones you use to put the general into checkmate. The player that has the red pieces makes the first move, then the next player with the black ones follows. From there onwards, the two players alternate throughout the game, while making one move per turn.

The term ‘capture’ means to take over the point that your opponent occupies. You put your opponents’ genera in ‘check’ when your next move can successfully capture the piece. If you don’t, your opponent’s next move would protect the general from the capture. If you end up in a stalemate situation, then the game becomes a draw. A stalemate situation simply happens when your opponent cannot make a legal move to protect his king. Also, the game becomes a draw when none of the players can call a checkmate or force a stalemate.

What is the difference between Chinese chess and chess?

While Chinese chess and International chess have the same goal of capturing the opponent’s general (king), there are significant differences between the two.

First, only the Chinese chariots are the equivalent pieces of the Western rooks. The Chinese horse pieces are almost equal to western knights. However, the main difference is that the horse pieces can be hobbled in specific instances. Also, the Chinese elephants and cannons have jumping properties which make them slightly less useful than the western bishops. There is no equivalent of the western queen with the combined powers of bishops and rooks in the game.

The Chinese pawns are more powerful than the Western ones, but only after they cross the river in the middle of the chessboard. Even so, there is no specific promotion mechanism on the 8th rank, and there are no queens to promote the pawns to. To compensate for this, however, the Chinese king (general) is always confined to the 3 by 3 square palace, whereas the western kings in the international chess game trying to achieve that same fortress protection by castling, at least early to mid-game.


The Chinese chess game is quite fascinating however, it appears to be more difficult, simply because the powers of the chess pieces are lesser than the ones in Western chess. All in all, if you are into strategic games, the Chinese chess game is a great way to start.

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