Chinese Chess —The Beginner’s Handbook


Are you feeling stale playing the same old games? Or are you feeling the urge to learn something new? How about picking up chess, a fun game that trains cognitive thinking and strategy? Here is a chance for you to touch some grass and play this board game with your friends and family. 

I am sure that most people have heard of international chess before, but its predecessor – Chinese chess, or Xiang Qi in Mandarin – is lesser known.

History and Background

Chinese chess pieces are shaped into simple disks imprinted with the Chinese characters of their different roles. Chinese chess is said to have originated around 200 B.C. Invented by a Chinese strategist named Han Xin, the game depicts a particular battle that he anticipated fighting in. 

Interestingly, though most pieces from opposite ends of the board have the same moves, not all of them share the same character imprinted on them. An example of this is the 象/相,士/仕,and the 将/帥. 

Similar to international chess, the ultimate goal of the game is to capture the commander of the opposing sides (将/帥) using your other chess pieces.

Board Set-up

A typical Xiang Qi board is made of a 8×8 grid, with a “river” between the two sides. The pieces are placed on intersecting lines  of the grid, instead of within the cells drawn by the lines. Similar to international chess, the pieces are symmetrically laid out on each side of the board.

Each side consists 5 pawns (either 兵 or 卒), 2 artillery/cannons (炮), 2 rooks (車), 2 horses (马), 2 advisors (相/象), 2 guards (士), and last but not least, the commander (将/帅). Starting from the bottom left, we have the rook, followed by the horse, advisor, guard and in the center, the commander. This sequence is then repeated on the other side of the commander. As for the pawns, they are lined up one step behind the river, with single-spaced intervals between them, as shown in the picture. The final piece, the cannon, would be placed 2 units in front of the horse, as shown.

  1. Pawn(兵,卒)
Movements of the pawn

The pawn is the ‘smallest’ piece in the game, and it is easily overlooked, often used as sacrifices. The pawn primarily moves forward, but once it reaches the opponent’s territory, it is also able to move side to side. As useless as this piece seems though, it is terribly useful late into the game and might even get you the win when strategically placed!

  1. Artillery(炮)

The artillery piece is the most mobile piece in the game, being able to traverse large distances to ‘kill’ other pieces. It is able to move along the line in any direction, without limits to the distance. At the same time, its ‘killing’ method involves it jumping over another piece, be it an enemy or ally, and thus ‘killing’ the piece under it. An example of this can be seen in the picture above.

Movements of the artillery
  1. Rook(車)

The rook has the same movement and ‘killing’ technique as its counterpart in English chess. It is able to move horizontally and vertically freely along the board, unless its path is blocked by another piece. For a beginner, this piece is a favorite due to its simple movement.

Movements of the rook
  1. Knight(马)

The knight is the most complicated, and yet the most versatile piece on the board. It moves by a two-step sequence. The first step is a single step in either a horizontal or vertical direction. There cannot be another piece in that space, as the Knight cannot “jump” over troops. After the first step is completed, the second step requires you to move diagonally towards either of the two corners in that direction. Refer to the picture below for better understanding. 

Movements of the knight
  1. Advisor(相)

The advisor is a piece that cannot cross the “river” in the middle of the map. The advisor’s movements can be visualized as a 2×2 square on the board. Imagine that the advisor piece is at any corner of that square. The advisor can only move to the other diagonal end of the square, as shown in the picture below. 

Movements of the the advisor
  1. Guards (士)

The guards and the commander are pieces that cannot move out of the fortress. The fortress is a 3×3 square around the guards and commander. The guard is basically a smaller version of the advisor, in that it can only move diagonally once a turn, along the diagonal lines marked out in the fortress. 

Movements of the guard
  1. Commander(将,帥)

Our final and most important piece is the commander. Restricted by the fortress, the commander piece cannot move out of the 3×3 fortress square. Other than that restriction, it is able to move freely, vertically and horizontally, 1 step a turn. 

Movements of the commander

Need a more visual representation of how the chess pieces move in Chinese chess? Here is a video by the user Xiang Qi Chinese Chess on Youtube. It demonstrates all that this article has explained and more!

The video can be used as a reflection and further guide as you embark on your journey in playing Chinese chess! So find a friend to play against and you will find yourself gradually improving. Who knows? You might even end up gaining glory for your house in the upcoming Inter-house Chess Tournament!

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