Indian Chess is Not the Chinese Game of Weiqi
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 10 Sep , 2020

Your deployment was as wild geese in flight – nobody understood it, until the cub was caught in the tiger’s den, and all were shocked. [Pan Zhao] 


The situation along the Sino-Indian border has remained tense despite multiple-rounds of talks (16) undertaken at various levels through military and diplomatic channels. On 31 August reports emerged of yet another attempt [night of 29-30] by People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers to carry out provocative military movements to change the status quo whichviolated the previous consensus arrived at during military and diplomatic engagements during the ongoing standoff in Eastern Ladakh [Indian Army Statement]. The Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said – “PLA troops never cross the LAC and both sides are in communication regarding the situation on the ground.

While the Indian government and its armed forces have remained guarded [low in frequency, high in impact and signaling approach] in sharing the officially acknowledged ground realities and their strategic and tactical approach in dealing with the situation along the Line of Actual Control(LAC), the strategic community made of civilian experts on military affairs, retired military senior leadership and enthusiastic journalists have remained vociferous and rigorous in making an attempt to decode Chinese strategic intent and behavior. However, despite its best effort this attempt falls short in its accuracy and predictions for want of dedicated experts on Chinese military and political affairs. According to Admiral Arun Prakash [Retd] – “….we really don’t understand why the Chinese are doing what they are! Especially amidst the circumstances which are  very unpleasant for the whole world, so had we looked, or tried to look, try to find and get an insight into the Chinese mind much much earlier, learned mandarin, studied Chinese history and so on perhaps we could understand better why they are doing what they are doing because obviously they don’t do things without a good reason, so we would have been able to tackle them better, right now all we are doing is reacting to every time they transgress what we think as  our LAC we react to that, they build-up – we build-up – that’s not really the way to counter a power like China which has a long-history of such maneuvers. The Chinese are not ten feet tall (far from it), nor are they stupid. They are clever people, they are innovative, very determined, they have lot of resolve. One good example is that the western intelligence underrated them….that’s not true they are catching up with America. We should understand our adversary, and as far as the military is concerned we are not into extreme philosophy, we should understand its capability….and it’s not too late to find out because this is a long story going to go on Sino-Indian relations are an ongoing story”.

Echoing a similar sentiment was an editorialBelligerent Indian scholar’s anti-China suggestions hurt India’s interests in Global Times on 21 August by Xie Chao (Institute for International and Area Studies, Tsinghua University) – “As for India’s China policy, it is rare to find Indian scholars who can speak Chinese, understand Chinese culture and can communicate with their Chinese counterparts. The political correctness on anti-China positions is further suffocating dissenting ideas and on many issues, scholars will conveniently turn themselves into China experts, while not having a genuine understanding of China. Some of them even don’t bother to travel to China and their perceptions on China stop at imagination. Well! A bilateral relationship is a two-way street, scholars in both India and China need to upgrade their understanding of each other and refrain from falling back on rational models to interpret each other. There are no more than 05 scholars in China qualified as an expert of Indian affairs, however, China has woken up to this reality and is engaged in creating an intellectual pool on Indian affairs. A nascent project at the Sichuan International Studies University now includes Indian studies at under-graduate level and Duke-Kunshan University (Shanghai) will introduce Indian political thought for 2021-22 academic years.

In lieu of this scenario the following presentation, will describe and analyze the Chinese board game of Weiqi and attempt to inform strategic analysts’ in India to revisit their fundamental approach towards decoding Chinese strategic intent and behavior. 

The Need for China Centric Analysis:

Unlike the ancient Indian game of Chess [Chaturangam(Sanskrit)/Shatranj (Persian)], the Chinese board game of Weiqi[围棋Wei (to surround) and qi (logic game)] is not based on regular methods of warfare – annihilation, surrender, and attrition – although it does share many similarities being games of logic. The Chinese Weiqi is about conquering relative share of space and marginal success over the opponent and is applicable to situations of investment and exchange more than situations of zero-sum and warfare. Yet in China, traditionally Weiqi is associated to be a warlike game, governed primarily by skills developed in handling strategic operations and tactical encounters. According to Silvia Lozeva (2019), “a central concept within Go (Weiqi) is creating web-like connections or the opportunities for those connections to occur where a threat presents to the group. This is vital for their survival….aiming to dominate the entire territory without recognizing the need of your opponent to co-exist, to form its own space, is the surest way to lose the game. In sum, the concept of victory (success)and defeat (failure) varies from Chess to that of Weiqi and while the rules of Weiqi are far simpler, they are much more complex than the game of Chess which is predictable in many ways when aided by sharp observation and calculation. In China, the game is now used in training children in the ways of commerce, social interaction, and proper manhood.

The concepts articulated by the Chinese foreign ministry and its top leadership in recent times – Community of Shared Future for Mankind [President Hu Jintao (2012)], New Type of International Relations Featuring Win-Win Cooperation [Wang Yi Minister of Foreign Affairs, (2016], Community of Common Destiny [President Xi Jinping (2017)] are by design [as against intent] non-competitive and based on Chinese traditional thought [Sun Tzu’s The Art of War 孙子兵法]. In Weiqi, an interaction is made up of units of investments with an preconceived favorable outcome in mind – sometimes proved worthwhile but sometimes worthless – and following moves build on earlier moves – constructions ( 形, Xing) – in pursuit of constructive future ( 势,Shi). For example, China’s Belt and Road initiative (BRI) was an ill-defined multi-national project and an empty basket to begin with. During the course of its evolution it will add into the basket what is considered favorable and discard which are otherwise. For lack of any valuable cultural insight, foreign observers have fallen back on the late 19th century framework Geo-politics to decode China’s strategic objectives with regard to BRI. The idea of competition, survival, accumulative power and self-interest constituted and informed social theories such as geo-politics and was a reflection of Darwin‘s The Origin of Species (1859) and is less directly relevant to the experiences of Asian societies and East Asian societies in particular. The significance of the Chinese society and its values in producing cultural products such as the strategic game of Weiqi is reflected in China’s international political interactions in given times. For example, in Weiqi all stones (black and white) are of equal values and this informs China’s strategic thinking – “China has never sought to establish a maritime empire in the South China Sea and treats the surrounding countries in the South China Sea as equals[Zhao Lijiang; 14 July]. This statement was made in a reaction to the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s statement on 13 July – ….the US would “not allow Beijing to treat the South China Sea as its maritime empire”. The inherent contradiction arises due to subjective interpretation and lack of China centric analyze based on concepts based on relational ways of thinking as against transactional and rational. While the stones are of equal values to begin with, as the game progress the relative importance of the stones inherits strategic significance.

India too, through its foreign policy concepts such as SAGAR [Security and Growth for All in the Region; Prime Minister Modi (2018)], Milan naval exercises, invoking Vedanta philosophy that believes in essential oneness of all, and celebrates unity in diversity एकम सत्यम, विप्राः बहुदावदंति (Truth is one, the learned speak of it in many ways), and domestic policies guided by principles of ‘sab ka saath, sab ka vikas’ strives towards a cooperative strategy in human and politicalaffairs as against competitive ones. For example, evolution of Indian political culture in the 21st century has activated theconcept of Akhand Bharat (Undivided India) which lay dormant for decades. The concept of Akhand Bharat includes sovereigns such as Pakistan and Myanmar within a singular territorial paradigm along with Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet, and Afghanistan. According to Prime Minister Modi (2012), “….does not mean we wage war on any country … without war, through popular consent, it can happen … We call this Sanskritik Bharat (Cultural Bharat)” – peaceful reunification with Indian characteristics. This concept when viewed from the non-cultural [or western cultural] paradigm of geo-politicsimplies regional expansionism and revisionism.

Weiqi as a Product of Chinese Strategic Culture:

It remains unknown as to when the game of Weiqi came into being in China. The earliest written record is a history book called The Chronicles of Zuo (Zuo Zhuan) [448 BC]. The game was adopted by Japanese and Korean social elites well before the times of Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618-907) when it enjoyed a golden age and in given times championed by them while China is only catching up in excelling at the game. Originally, Weiqiwas part of ‘four arts’ (si yi) along with calligraphy, painting, and the guqin (a seven-string plucked instrument) and later was one of the condemned “four olds” (si lao). China’s celebrated philosophers such as Confucius (Kong Zi) and Lao Zi have lacked in their appreciation of the game and at times denounced it as pass time activity among Chinese people. China’s reconstruction of its past through national projects such as ‘national rejuvenation’ have yet again placed Weiqi as an integral part of its glorious history.

As a preserve of social elites, Weiqi was unique given its structure and abstract reasoning and was revered by political and military leadership alike. According to Professor Zhongqi Pan (2016), “for the Chinese, Weiqi is significant not just militarily, but also in the sense of philosophy, politics, society, and culture. Furthermore, according to David Lai, a Chinese American serving as faculty at the US Air War College, ‘‘[T]his game bears striking resemblance to the Chinese way of war anddiplomacy. Its concepts and tactics are living reflections of Chinese philosophy, strategic thinking, stratagems, and tactical interactions. This game, in turn, influences the way Chinese think and act.’’The significance of Weiqi as a product of China’s strategic culture was also stressed by the US former Secretary of State and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger in his book On China wherein he emphasizes on understanding the game of Weiqi to decode the strategic decision making of Chinese leaders in foreign relations and conflicts (Sino-Japanese War, Korean War, Sino-Soviet Border War, Sino-Indian War).

The game stressed on the character of the player to determine the final outcome of the engagement in terms of success and failure. The rule number one being – don’t be greedy (Silvia Lozeva; 2019) and other strategic taboos being near-sightedness and impatience (Zhongqi Pan; 2016). In many ways Weiqi is a short-hand for values that are crucial to maneuver with in the Chinese society and the foundations of its structure is deduced from War and War-fighting which is by all means a matter of life and death. Furthermore, in order to understand the guiding philosophy behind the board game of Weiqi one needs to appreciate Chinese way of life centered on the concept of “guanxi” [relationships]. According to ancient Chinese philosophers, individuals do not exist by themselves but is identified in his relationship with others and hence a society is made up of network of social relations of which an individual is a sub-set. The context of an individual’s existence is thus paramount than the individual him-self. According to Professor Pan Zhongqi (2016), “….as China applies relationship logic to international relations, its actions aim to optimize relationship rather than transactions….in this model China does not use preponderance of power to optimize its side of each transaction, but rather to stabilize beneficial relationship”.

Weiqi as a Philosophy guiding Chinese strategy:

In a game of Weiqi one attempts is to ‘capture – throughencirclement its enemy as against ‘annihilation [Kill]’ or check-mate of the King in Chess. In other words there is no definitive end objective in Weiqi and hence no specific plan of action. Both – the end objective and the means to achieve it – are defined as the game progresses, depends on the situation as it develops and the fleeting opportunities as they present themselves. The concept of capturing your enemy can be traced to the third chapter (Attack by Stratagem) of Sun Zi’s The Art of War where he recommends – “the best thing of all is to take the enemy’s country whole and intact; to shatter and destroy it is not so good. So, too, it is better to recapture an army entire than to destroy it, to capture a regiment, a detachment or a company entire than to destroy them. Furthermore, unlike Chess where the game is defined at start and through-out itsprogress by the unique capability of various coins which creates a structure of balance of power, in Weiqi it’s an open start(empty board) that’s not defined and players our allowed to define their movements at willstar-like pattern that appearsrandom at start before presenting the final big picture. In other words the abstract quality of Chinese Weiqi differs from that of Indian Chess and allows for imaginative and creative thinking as against problem solving and logical thinking. Perhaps it is for this reason; application of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in developing online Chess has been far more successful than that of Weiqi. However, a coin placed in Weiqi cannot be changed [until it is removed through capture] – maintains a static position – unlike Chess where they engage, dis-engage, attack, retreat, and defend through a controlled, dynamic and reciprocal manner with an end objective to win and defeat through annihilation of the enemy (forces) – the king of the opposing army. Animportant distinction being – while a Chess player is preoccupied with achieving his objectives with limited resources at his disposition, a Weiqi player is contemplating about what he can bring to bear with additional resources (Zhongqi Pan; 2016). In other words while Chess is a well-defined ‘battle’ space occupied by the armies of opposing forces, Chinese Weiqi is ‘War’ made up of multiple battles occurring simultaneously.

In Weiqi, while all the stones are equal to each other in absolute term and static, as the game progresses the stones become significant and relative in power differential, and hence a single stone placed at the right intersection on the board can bring about a victory as well as a defeat at later stages when the engagement in intensive with shrinking of empty spaces for maneuver on the board. There are usually several skirmishes going on simultaneously along various points of space on the board. According to Dr. Hans Berliner, a computer scientist at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh who is an expert on computer chess, “In chess, if a player loses even a single pawn at world champion level, it can decide the game maybe 99 percent of the time…. In Go (Weiqi), you keep hearing people say that you can lose a life-and-death battle along the edge of the board, but that is far from deciding the outcome. You can go on to other battles. It’s a very different kind of game.

In Weiqi, a skilled player is most concerned with his abilities to fight simple or complex battles by anticipating the outcome and consequences for his actions. The ill-defined objective of a Weiqi player is to amass territory and how he goes about doing this. Similar to our inability to accurately predict ‘future’, a Weiqi player is unable to accurately predict the progress of the game and hence employs concepts to evaluate his position. One basic concept being – “the construct of group [its strength, influence, and weakness]” and this concept along with others (recognition of patterns) forms the foundation of high-level understanding used in defining short, medium, and long-term goals. Strategic consideration of moves is evaluated within the context of the underlying goals. A skilled player of Weiqi aims to achieve a relative edge over his opponent as against his total annihilation. There are of course times of “life and death situation” which requires an aggressive attitude but such a situation needs to be guarded against and at best avoided in the interest of the overall situation of the game.

Conclusion: The Meaning

China’s foreign policy and strategic intent, behavior and objectives are well discernible when viewed from an understanding of Chinese strategic cultural products such as Weiqi. As for the on-going Sino-Indian border stand-off, one key issue to note is the contradictory approach taken by the two countries. According Chinese leadership the center of gravity is the overall Sino-Indian bilateral relationship, whereas for India it is inconceivable to assume that the border stand-off will remain exclusive to the overall bilateral relationship.

The point to note is that the Chinese formulation of its position is neither arbitrary nor tactical. It reflects its strategic thinking build over thousands of years and this needs to be appreciated within a China centric analysis and not deduced as a ploy even though uncomfortable for an Indian analyst. According to India’s Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar, “….don’t seek to alter the status quo, observe the agreements, don’t think that this will not affect the rest of the relationship, it will! If Indian soldiers get killed in Galwan it cannot be that the rest of India will be impervious to that, you cannot have that assumption. So, this is really the point I wish that the Chinese side will fully understand and appreciate”. This is a fair understanding but a difficult expectation given that it requires Chinese leaders to step outside its own strategic culture. The argument put forward by China is that, Japan and China too have had a violent past but that has been set aside by both sides in seeking equilibrium and a well-developed overall bilateral relationship.

As with regard to the border stand-off itself, it is safe to assume that China has no specific end objectives attached to its military maneuvers along the Sino-Indian border as it is the case with the game of Weiqi. However, its military interaction with India along with other developments over a period of time will allow China to ascertain and derive its end objectives aimed at securing a relative advantage over India. So while India will double-guess China’s intentions and make its military moves, it will in effect help China define its goals and objectives and secure means to achieve them. Weiqi is indeed a unique game!

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Dr Sundaram Rajasimman

Dr. Rajasimman Sundaram teaches history, politics, and culture and a member of the BRICS Advanced Studies Institute at Sichuan International Studies University [四川外国语大学] (Chongqing, People’s Republic of China).

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4 thoughts on “Indian Chess is Not the Chinese Game of Weiqi

  1. Weiqi may be an interesting game, but this article is not really that interesting it indulges in what we call in Tami- jangri chuttarthu and doesnt really seem to have a point. Dharma is maintained only when the wicked are punished, so from Bharatiya perspective, a good kick up the pants is needed when your neighbour is being naughty.

    All the Communist propaganda material like Panchsheel needs to be jettisoned and plain old steps – protect the innocent,reward the meritorious and punish the transgressors- needs to be undertaken. Traditional texts on warfare from India dont talk about chaturanga the game- its a small subset of the tactics of warfare.

    Traditionally, before the last two millenia of invasions, perpetual readiness for warfare and continuous conquest have also been part of Indian tradition. The Dig-vijay undertaken by the heroes of the Mahabharata or the Ashvamedha yagna of the Vedic seers were not figments of imagination. We need to forget the cowardly and pacifist mindset that has developed over the last 1500 years and regain our military heritage.

  2. We are at odds, not with the Chinese – but with the Chinese Communist Party – and the key word here is ‘Communist’.

    Communist policy, strategy and tactics are best understood with reference, not to Chinese board games, but to the works of Marx, Lenin, Mao etc… One particular principle that Lenin enunciated is worth bearing in mind:

    ‘Probe with bayonets. If you encounter mush, proceed; if you encounter steel, withdraw.’

    The Chinese expected to meet mush in India’s borders: let’s give them steel.

  3. Dr. Rajas-imman Sundaram you like many others in the Indian arm chair class are pieces of shit trying to analyze paranoid pieces of shit Han Chinese. You want to make sense of a mad paranoid shit Chinese ? Why do not you and your paranoid friends from Sichuan focus on NOT making enemies and and making friends instead. If you and your Sichuan Chinese do not know how to make friends and live in harmony with every one then there is no place for you or paranoid Han Chinese friends on earth in this Century.

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