Description of Chinese Chess by Eyles Irwin (1793)

An ACCOUNT of the GAME of CHESS, as played by the
to the Right Honourable the EARL of CHARLEMONT,
Preſident of the Royal Iriſh Academy.

My Lord,

Read Nov. 16, 1793.

I CONSDIDER no apology neceſſary for the intruſion on the
public ſituation in which your talents and reputation have
placed you. Whatever tends to the acceſſion of knowledge,
or the illuſtration of antiquity, cannot prove unacceptable to
your Lordſhip, when adding a mite to the Tranſactions of the
Academy which is diſtinguiſhed by your ſuperintendence.

Why I have addreſſed a ſubject of this nature to the Iriſh
Academy, when there is a ſociety exiſting who ſeems to have
a title to it from its name—or why the firſt offering of
my reſearches ſhould proceed from the remote empire of
China, are, I truſt, queſtions that are not neceſſary for me
to reſolve. If a patriot wiſh to promote the ſpirit of inveſti-
gation in my country, by the exertion of my mean abilities,
be not denied me, I am indifferent to cenſure or praiſe on
this occaſion.

I must promiſe to your Lordſhip, that, during a long reſi-
dence in the Eaſt Indies, where the game of Cheſs is generally
ſuppoſed to have originated, I had often heard of its exiſtence
in China, though on a different footing, as well in reſpect
to the powers of the King, as to the aſpect of the field of
battle. The Bramins, who excel in this game, and with
whom I uſed frequently to play for improvement, had a tra-
dition of this nature, which is a further argument on behalf of
what I am about to advance. But, with all my enqui-
ries from perſons who had been there, and from the pub-
lications relative to China, I could never obtain any con-
firmation of the game being even known in the country,
except that Chambers, in his Dictionary, mentions it to be
the favourite paſtime of the ladies, but quotes no authority
for the aſſertion.

Some unlooked-for circumſtances in the courſe of the laſt
year at length brought me to the quarter, which I had once
wiſhed, but never expected, to viſit. I need not ſay, that
among other objects of curioſity, I was eager to aſcertain the
reality of the Bramins ſtory. And if the difficulty of acquiring
information here, not more from the want of interpreters,
than the jealouſy of the government, were not well known
in Europe, I ſhould be aſhamed to tell your Lordſhip that I
deſpaired of ſucceſs for ſome time. A young Mandarin, how-
ever, of the profeſſion of arms, having an inquiſitive turn, was
my frequent viſitor ; and, what no queſtions could have drawn
from him, the accidental ſight of an Engliſh cheſs-board effected.
He told me, that the Chineſe had a game of the ſame nature ;
and, on his ſpecifying a difference in the pieces and board, I
perceived, with joy, that I had diſcovered the deſideratum of
which I had been ſo long in ſearch. The very next day my
Mandarin brought me the board and equipage ; and I ſound,
that the Bramins were neither miſtaken touching the board,
which has a river in the middle to divide the contending
parties, nor in the powers of the King, who is entrenched
in a ſort, and moves only in that ſpace, in every direction.
But, what I did not before hear, nor do I believe is known
out of this country, there are two pieces, whoſe movements
are diſtinct from any in the Indian or European game. The
Mandarin, which anſwers to our biſhop, in his ſtation and
ſidelong courſe, cannot, through age, croſs the river; and a
rocket-boy, ſtill uſed in the Indian armies, who is ſtationed
between the lines of each party, acts literally with the motion
of the rocket, by vaulting over a man, and taking his adver-
ſary at the other end of the board. Except that the King has
his two ſons to ſupport him, inſtead of a Queen, the game,
in other reſpects, is like ours ; as will appear in the plan of
the board and pieces I have the honour to encloſe, together
with directions to place the men and play the game.

As the young man who had diſcovered this to me was of
a communicative and obliging diſpoſition, and was at this time
purſuing his ſtudies in the college of Canton, I requeſted the
favour of him to conſult ſuch ancient books as might give
ſome inſight into the period of the introduction of Cheſs into
China ; to confirm, if poſſible, the idea that ſtruck me of its
having originated here. The acknowledged antiquity of this
empire, the unchangeable ſtate of her cuſtoms and manners,
beyond that of any other nation in the world ; and more
eſpecially the ſimplicity of the game itſelf, when compared to
its compaſs and variety in other parts, appeared to give a
colour to my belief. That I was not diſappointed in the event,
I have no doubt will be allowed, on the peruſal of the tran-
ſlation of a manuſcript extract, which my friend Tinqua
brought me, in compliance with my deſire ; and which, accom-
panied by the Chineſe manuſcript, goes under cover to your
Lordſhip. As the Mandarin ſolemnly aſſured me that he took
it from the work quoted, and the tranſlation has been as
accurately made as poſſible, I have no heſitation to deliver the
papers as authentic.

In the purſuit of one curioſity I flatter myſelf that I
have ſtumbled by accident on another, and have gone ſome
length to reſtore to the Chineſe the invention of gun-
powder, ſo long diſputed with them by the Europeans ;
but which the evidence on their cheſs-board, in the action
of the rocket, ſeems to eſtabliſh beyond a doubt. The
inſtitution of the game is likewiſe diſcovered to form the
principal æra in the Chineſe history ; ſince, by the conqueſt
of Shenſi, the kingdom was firſt connected in its preſent
form, and the monarch aſſumed the title of Emperor, as
may be ſeen in the extract which I have obtained from their

From theſe premiſes I have therefore ventured to make
the following inferences :—That the game of Cheſs is pro-
bably of Chineſe origin. That the confined ſituation and
powers of the King, reſembling thoſe of a monarch in the
earlier parts of the world, countenance this ſuppoſition ; and
that, as it travelled weſtward, and deſcended to later times,
the ſovereign prerogative extended itſelf, until it became unli
mited, as in our ſtate of the game. That the agency of the
Princes, in lieu of the Queen, beſpeaks forcibly the nature of
the Chineſe cuſtoms, which exclude females from all power
or influence whatever ; which Princes, in its paſſage through
Perſia, were changed into a ſingle Vizier, or miniſter of ſtate,
with the enlarged portion of delegated authority that exiſts
there ; inſtead of whom, the European nations, with their uſual
gallantry, adopted a Queen on their board *. That the river
between the parties is expreſſive of the general face of this
country, where a battle could hardly be ſought without en-
countering an interruption of this kind, which the ſoldier was
here taught to overcome ; but that, on the introduction of the
game into Perſia, the board changed with the dry nature of
the region, and the conteſt was decided on terra firma. And
laſtly, that in no account of the origin of Cheſs, that I have
read, has the tale been ſo characteriſtic or conſiſtent as that
which I have the honour to offer to the Iriſh Academy.
With the Indians, it was deſigned by a Bramin to cure the
melancholy of the daughter of a Rajah. With the Perſians,
my memory does not aſſiſt me to trace the fable ; though, if
it were more to the purpoſe, I think I ſhould have retained
it. But, with the Chineſe, it was invented by an experienced
ſoldier, on the principles of war. Not to diſpel love-ſick va-
pours, or inſtruct a female in a ſcience that could neither
benefit nor inform her ; but to quiet the murmurs of a
diſcontented ſoldiery ; to employ their vacant hours in leſſons
on the military art, and to cheriſh the ſpirit of conqueſt in
the boſom of winter quarters. Its age is traced by them on
record near two centuries before the Chriſtian æra ; and among
the numerous claims for this noble invention, that of the
Chineſe, who call it, by way of diſtinction, Chong Kè, or
The Royal Game, appears alone to be indiſputable.

I have the honour to remain,


Your Lordſhip's obedient,

Humble ſervant,



14th March 1793.

* That on the acquiſition of ſo ſtrong a piece as the Vizier, the Paö were
ſuppreſſed, this as poſſeſſing powers unintelligible, at that time, to other nations ;
and three pawns added, in conſequence, to make up the number of men ; and that
as diſcipline improved, the lines, which are ſtraggling on the Chineſe board, might
have been cloſed on ours.

Tranſlation of an Extract from the Concum, or Chineſe Annals,
reſpecting the Invention of the Game of Cheſs, delivered to me by
Tinqua, a Soldier Mandarin of the Province of Fokien.

THREE hundred and ſeventy-nine years aſter the time of
Confucius, or one thouſand nine hundred and ſixty-five years
ago, Hung Cochu, King of Kiangnan, ſent an expedition into
the Shenſi country, under the command of a Mandarin, called
Hanſing, to conquer it. Aſter one ſucceſsful campaign, the
ſoldiers were put into winter quarters ; where, finding the
weather much colder than what they had been accuſtomed
to, and being alſo deprived of their wives and families, the
army, in general, became impatient of their ſituation, and
clamorous to return home. Hanſing, upon this, revolved in
his mind the bad conſequences of complying with their
wiſhes. The neceſſity of ſoothing his troops, and reconciling
them to their poſition, appeared urgent, in order to finiſh his
operations, in the enſuing year. He was a man of genius,
as well as a good ſoldier ; and having contemplated ſome time
on the ſubject, he invented the game of Cheſs, as well for
an amuſement to his men in their vacant hours, as to in-
flame their military ardour, the game being wholly founded
on the principles of war. The ſtratagem ſucceeded to his
wiſh. The ſoldiery were delighted with the game ; and forgot,
in their daily conteſts for victory, the inconveniencies of their
poſt. In the ſpring the general took the field again ; and, in
a few months, added the rich country of Shenſi to the king-
dom of Kiangnan, by the defeat and capture of its King, Chou-
payuen *, a famous warrior among the Chineſe. On this
conqueſt Hung Cochu aſſumed the title of Emperor, and
Choupayuen put an end to his own life in deſpair.

* The ſame romantic tales are circulated of the proweſs of Choupayuen as of
our celebrated Guy Earl of Warwick.

[Inset 1]





將 士 象 馬 車 砲 兵

帥 士 相 馬 車 炮 卒


Three hundred and seventy-nine years after the time of Confucius, Emperor Gaozu of the Han dynasty, by the name of Liu Bang, had a general called Han Xin who was thirty-six years old, skilled in both military and civil affairs and of great talent. Emperor Gaozu sent him with several tens of thousands of foot soldiers and cavalry to fight against the King of Chu [i.e. Xiang Yu], but he was unable to defeat him. When winter came his army all wanted to go home, and very many them were ill or dispirited. When Han Xin heard this news he became very despondent, but there was nothing that he could do about it, so in order to make them forget their troubles he thought up this game of Xiangqi for his soldiers to play in the hope that it would cheer them up and dispel their homesickness. Later, when spring arrived, he fought the enemy and defeated them. He pacified the kingdom of Chu, and the King of Chu was left with no option but to kill himself on the banks of the Black River. Hence Xiangqi has a history of one thousand nine hundred and sixty-five years up the present day.

Written by Pan Zhenguan on the 15th day of the first month [i.e. the Lantern Festival] of the 58th year of the Qianlong reign period [1793]

The Xiangqi grid is nine lines across and ten deep, with a total of thirty-two pieces. The river in the centre acts as a border.

[The red pieces:]

[The black pieces:]

Explanation of the Poſition, Powers and Moves of the Pieces on the
Chineſe Cheſs Board, or Chong Kè (Royal Game).

AS there are nine pieces inſtead of eight, to occupy the
rear rank, they ſtand on the lines between, and not within,
the ſquares. The game is consequently played on the lines.

The King, or Chong, ſtands in the middle line of this row.
His moves reſemble thoſe of our King, but are confined to
the fortreſs marked out for him.

The two Princes, or Sou, ſtand on each ſide of him, and
have equal powers and limits.

The Mandarins, or Tchong, anſwer to our Biſhops, and have
the ſame moves, except that they cannot croſs the water or
white ſpace in the middle of the board to annoy the enemy,
but ſtand on the defenſive.

The Knights, or rather Horſes, called Māā, ſtand and move
like ours in every reſpect.

The War-chariots, or Tchè, reſemble our Rooks or Caſtles.

The Rocket-boys, or Paö, are pieces whoſe motions and
powers were unknown to us. They act with the direction of
a rocket, and can take none of their adverſary's men that
have not a piece or pawn intervening. To defend your men
from this attack it is neceſſary to open the line between,
either to take off the check on the King, or to ſave a man
from being captured by the Paö. Their operation is, other-
wiſe, like that of the Rook. Their ſtations are marked between
the Pieces and Pawns.

The five Pawns, or Ping, make up the number of the men
equal to that of our board. Inſtead of taking ſideways, like
ours, they have the Rook's motion, except that it is limited to
one ſtep, and is not retrograde. Another important point,
in which the Ping differs from ours, is that they continue
in ſtatu quo, aſter reaching their adverſary's head quarters.
It will appear, however, that the Chineſe pieces far exceed the
proportion of ours ; which occaſions the whole force of the
conteſt to fall on them, and thereby precludes the beauty
and variety of our game, when reduced to a ſtruggle between
the Pawns, who are capable of the higheſt promotion, and
often change the fortune of the day. The poſts of the Ping
are marked in front.


[Inset 2]

[Inset 3]


The Transactions of the Royal Irish Academy (Dublin 1793-1794) vol.V section 3 pp.53-85.

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