There are many similarities between Xiangqi and its western cousin Chess, suggesting a common origin. Although historically the Chinese have always maintained Xiangqi was locally invented, the prevailing theory on the origin of chess before the 1970's (which was largely based on Oxford historian H.J.R.Murray's work) favoured the so-called 'Indian Connection'. However, since the 1970s, more and more weight has been given to the idea that China already had a version of chess before India. This is an intriguing area of mind sports history, which requires further research, given mention of 'Xiangqi' in documents during the Warring States period (403-221BC) and even earlier.
Chinese historians generally agree that the modern version was reached sometime during the late Tang dynasty (A.D.618-906). This is supported by recent unearthing of ancient artifacts, with a Xiangqi set identical to the modern set that dated back to the Song dynasty. For a long period, Xiangqi was snubbed by high officials, and the game of Go was preferred by the higher classes. However, Xiangqi, with its charms and characteristics, quickly became a game for the masses. From the Song dynasty through the Qing dynasty, the game began to be more accepted by officials, and numerous records were referenced in bureaucratic manuscripts and scholarly works.
The Qing dynasty's last Emperor Fu Yi, in his autobiography, recounted the true case of the Dowager Empress Tzu Hsi, who was very fond of the game. One day the Empress was playing one of the old servants. The servant said:"Your humble servant will take your highness' horse." And the Empress broke into a sudden rage:"Then, I will take your life!" And she ordered her opponent promptly beheaded.
Song dynasty's first Emperor, Zhao, supposedly lost the mountain Hua Shan to Chenchuan, a fairy-like figure, as a wager on the result of a game of Xiangqi. The opening that Chen used still carries the nickname Fairy's Hand.
Hu Han Min, a close associate of Dr. Sun Yat Sen and one of the most prominent figures in the founding of the People's Republic of China, died while playing Xiangqi. In a winning position, Hu inadvertently let his rook be pinned in front of his king by his opponent's cannon. He promptly had a stroke and died.
After the Qing dynasty fell, both Nationalists and Communists had many devoted followers of the game. Dr. Sun Yat Sen, Chiang Kai Shek and Mao Tse Tung were keen players, and Chou En Lai played at near master level. From 1949 on, mainland China and other Asian regions all went through a great surge in Xiangqi popularity, but in separate parallels. In 1956, the game was officially listed as a sports item in China and began its National Championship cycles. The same event also produced the first champion in the person of Yang Guan Lin, who almost single-handedly caused the southern city of Guangzhou to be known as 'Xiangqi City'. During the Cultural Revolution, Xiangqi was banned, among many other things, while outside China it prospered. In 1968, the first of seven Asian Xiangqi championship events was held in Singapore, helping to unite south-east Asian nations/regions.
1980 marked another historical milestone, as China finally joined the Asian Xiangqi Federation and entered international competition, at the First Asian Cup Tournament held in Macao. The Chinese players quickly showed their dominance, and wrapped up every title that they contested. While China is the strongest Xiangqi nation and Hu Rong Hua of Shanghai is recognized as the greatest player of all-time, there had never been a system to compete for and award the title of World Champion.
Currently China is the only place which has a rating system. Grandmaster and master titles have been awarded to players since 1982 and a national rating list is compiled twice a year.
Hu Rong Hua is generally regarded as the greatest player of all-time. Hu won every national singles title from 1960 to 1979 at "10 times running, spanning 20 years!"
Actually in 1962 he shared the title with Yang Guan Lin, and there were no national events in the years of 1961, 1963 and 1967 to 1972 (due to the Cultural Revolution), while the 1976 final was cancelled due to Chairman Mao's death.
His talent is unequalled and his record of winning China's national title ten times running will be nearly impossible to break. Hu single-handedly brought the ancient Bishop Opening and the Pseudo Two Knight Defence back to life. He reached a peak in Xiangqi that no one, past or present, has touched.
Xiangqi is extremely popular in nations like Vietnam, Malaysia and Thailand. Since it is the most popular board game in the world's most populous nation, and played also by a large percentage of Chinese immigrants around the world, Xiangqi could well be the most played board game in the world, even surpassing western Chess.
Xiangqi has many advantages over western Chess as a spectator sport. For the same number of pieces, Xiangqi has a much larger board (90 points vs. 64 squares, over 40% larger), which means more open positions, i.e. more tactical actions.
It has a shorter time control (40 moves in 90 minutes at championship level), making it more appealing to the general audience.
There are, though, two reasons why Xiangqi has not attained the worldwide popularity if deserves. Most importantly, there has been as yet no serious effort on a large scale basis to promote the game worldwide and thus to create an official and credible World Xiangqi championship.
Next, there is a dearth of decent Xiangqi textbooks in other languages. This lack of the transfer of knowledge is a major stumbling block for developing interest in the game outside of China and Asia.
World Mind Masters is now addressing both of these problems through our website, and the invitation for Xiangqi players anywhere in the world to participate in our annual World Xiangqi Masters Tournament - an event that has begun to provide the vital spark and catalyst for greater worldwide popularity of Xiangqi.