The game of Go: Ancient Wisdom

Go, an ancient game that has its origins in China, remains an inexhaustible source of fascination. Playing Go exercises your mind and moulds your temperament. Like China, other Asian countries, especially Japan and Korea, also see Go prosper nationwide and have produced large numbers of master players.

The game of go

Confucius Institute Reporter,
Tu Yuanyuan
本刊记者 屠芫芫
In 1938, Japan held what was then the most prodigious Go match in the country: the Meijin Retirement Match between 64-year-old Honinbo Shusai, a titan of Japanese Go, and Kitani Minoru. The match started on June 26 and, due to the poor health condition of the aged Shusai, went through multiple adjournments before it finally ended on December 4, lasting almost half a year. During the first 120 moves each man played wonderfully, bringing the match to one crisis after another. It was hard to tell who would come out the winner. In expectation of a fierce fight, the ailing Shusai had even dyed his hair black. As Shusai adjourned the match after the 120th move, Minoru wrote down the 121th move and had it sealed up. ose who had been expecting to witness a classic match were shocked and gravely disappointed the next day, when the match was resumed with Minoru inexplicably placing his black stone on a side point, far away from the fierce central battlefield, with the intention of adjourning the match again. In so doing, Minoru had broken the rhythm of the entire match and caused a tremendous shock to Shusai’s spirit. Minoru soon won the match. Not long after that, Honinbo Shusai died of illness.

In a modern Go match, such a tactic as Minoru’s is not altogether inexcusable; however, the 121th move almost totally put out the passion for the game in Shusai, who, in his constant pursuit of an ideal game, did not consider winning itself his ultimate goal. Japanese writer Kawabata Yasunari, who had been invited to watch this match, had all sorts of feelings welling up in his mind and wrote a novel, The Master of Go, immortalizing the match in history.

Of all the human activities of the world, board games are probably the only ones capable of having two perfect strangers sitting facing each other for several days running without talking. Of all the board games, Go is probably the only one that values rhythm and aesthetics as much as it does intense competition. Go, an ancient game that has its origins in China, remains an inexhaustible source of fascination.

The game of go

No two Go matches have ever been played identically.

Go is said to have been invented earlier than 2,000 BC, by Yao, an ancient Chinese emperor. According to the ancient Chinese historic document, Shiben (Origins of Dynasties), “Yao invented the game of Go and Danzhu became good at it.” Initially, Yao’s son, Danzhu, was intractable and not interested in learning. So, Yao invented Go in order to mould Danzhu’s temperament to become receptive to education. It is also said that Go was first used as an imperial tool for divining celestial phenomena. In traditional Chinese society, “lyre-playing, chess, calligraphy, and painting” were the “four arts” that the lettered population was expected to master. “Chess” referred to the game of Go. For 4,000 years, Go has enjoyed uninterrupted popularity in China, where the ability to play the game has usually been considered a sign of intelligence and wisdom.

Go has a simple look: only horizontal and vertical lines, and black and white stones. The side that has occupied more territory wins the game. It is also very important to surround the opponent’s stones, because a stone is “captured” when it is surrounded on four sides. Although Go is simple in the extreme, its variations almost reach infinity. Professional players need to be able to calculate about 50-60 moves ahead and, harder still, be able to compare more than ten different changing scenarios from which to choose the best path. Besides having outstanding computational skills, they have to possess an acute sense of situation. Go concepts such as “thickness” and “good flavor” describe qualities of a match that reveal a player’s “sense of the game”. Calculation is thinking, while sense is wisdom. An outstanding player has to excellently integrate these two.

Although Go is simple in the extreme, its variations almost reach infinity. Professional players need to be able to calculate about 50-60 moves ahead and, harder still, be able to compare more than ten different changing scenarios from which to choose the best path.

It is very difficult to have an estimate of the number of variations in Go. The Arabian Nights has this story: Once, when an Indian emperor wanted to reward a certain man, that man said that all he would like to have was as many grains as would fill up the 64 grids of an international chess board with the first grid taking 1 grain, the second taking 2 and so on, each grid taking a number of grains that is the square of the number of grains that the previous grid had taken, until all the grids had been filled. Considering this to be a rather modest request, the emperor said yes, only to find after calculation that all the grains in his empire would not suffice to meet the man’s request. The number of variations in international chess is truly remarkable, and yet the Go game board is almost 6 times larger than the international chessboard. According to a calculation done by North-Song dynasty (960-1127) mathematician Shen Kuo, the number of Go variations should have roughly 768 digits. A 9-digit number meaning at least a hundred million, a number with 768 digits is incomprehensible to the human mind. In fact, the number is actually far larger than this, because the game allows ko fights and capturing of stones and countless other maneuvers. Indeed, “counting the number of Go variations is as impossible as counting the number of stars in the sky.”

In the 1990s, Deep Blue, an IBM computer, was able to easily defeat a world champion of international chess. A million-dollar reward was then posted for anyone who could develop by the year 2000 a Go game computer program that would be able to play the world’s top professional players. Unfortunately, to this day, 11 years after the deadline, Go game computer programs are still pitifully weak. The best of these programs are only as good as 5-dan professionals.

Thus, it has been said of Go: “No two matches have ever been played identically.” In the richness of its variations, Go is truly unparalleled among all the world’s games of intelligence.

The game of go
A dance performance, “Playing Chess,” shown at the 2010 Spring Festival Gala. The dancers’ costumes, in black and white, reect the philosophical implication of Chinese weiqi, Yin and Yang, and tough and gentle.

A philosophy of “round Heaven, square Earth”

“A ferocious fistfight”, “The temperature of the board reaches three thousand degrees”, “The streams of water are in no hurry to overtake each other”, “hidden ambitions” … it would be hard to imagine these phrases and sentences being used to describe Go maneuvers. Open up any Chinese Go manual, and you will often find such descriptions on an illustration. Go is a game of precision, but that has not discouraged people from talking about it in poetic styles using all kinds of metaphors. To Chinese people, Go is not just a game of intelligence; it manifests a unique way of thinking and of understanding life and the universe.

The invention of Go was inseparable from the Chinese philosophy of the oneness of Heaven and Earth. In Yi Zhi (The Essence of Go, written by Ban Gu of Han dynasty (206 BC- 229AD)) it is said: “Go’s white and black stones stand respectively for yin and yang, while the arrangement of its grids is a reflection of celestial patterns.” In ancient times Go was an imperial tool for observing celestial phenomena and guiding agricultural activities. It was only later that it became a game. The stones of Go come only in two colors, black and white, symbolizing the alternation of day and night and also the extremely important concept of yin versus yang. The stones are round, and “the Heaven is round and moves”; the Go board is square, and “the Earth is square and still”. The Go board has 361 points, exactly the number of days in a lunar-calendar year. The four quadrants of the board symbolize the four seasons, and the 90 crossing points on each quadrant correspond to the 90 days of each season.

Go is known by many names. In ancient times, it used to be called “yì”, and playing Go was called “duì yì” (confronting someone in Go). Its appearance also earned it the elegant name of “Square Round”. Playing Go was also called “shǒután” (hand talk) – communication through hand instead of language. Go was called “zuòyǐn” (sitting in seclusion), a name that brings to mind the image of a recluse living in the mountains physically and in Go spiritually. It was also called “wàngyou” (forgetting worries), as it was believed that it could make the players forget their worries.

In ancient times Go was an imperial tool for observing celestial phenomena and guiding agricultural activities. It was only later that it became a game. The stones of Go come only in two colors, black and white, symbolizing the alternation of day and night and also the extremely important concept of yin versus yang.

Although Go seems to be a way of “fighting”, its essence is about harmony and balance. Unique among all board games, Go does not consider it a player’s ultimate goal to kill off all of the most important stones of an opponent. Neither does it consider the side that has lost more stones the loser. Winning by one grid is as much a win as winning by half a grid. There are no differences of stones, no such distinctions as cavalrymen and generals; all stones are equal, and their potency is derived from the intelligence of their player. Any stone is thus capable of being imparted with a mighty force. In such a gentle contest, any part of the board can afford possibilities for change. Consequently, any given situation can be responded to with numerous different moves – violent or graceful or steady – depending on the player’s personality and way of thinking. There is practically no limit to the amount of wisdom that man is capable of projecting onto the Go board.

A lookout platform for appreciating wisdom

Historical luminaries including Han Dynasty’s founding emperor Liu Bang, and the ree-Kingdoms period’s Cao Cao, Zhuge Liang and Sun Quan were all Go enthusiasts. Indeed, Chinese history has almost never known an emperor or refined scholar who could not play Go. In today’s China, too, there are many Go matches. Each year the Chinese Go Association organizes more than 160 matches, averaging over ten matches per month. Such frequency of competition is not seen in any other kind of sport. Many TV stations have channels for professional Go players, often inviting world champions to share their insights into brilliant matches. You can also play online. More and more people are now able to play Go. Those who can play all have this experience to share: once you have learned to play Go you will fall in love with it, and this love will remain for the rest of your life.

Playing Go exercises your mind and moulds your temperament. Go requires of its players a heart that is pure and animated; so, it is advisable to start learning the game at as early an age as possible. In fact, the world’s Go masters have all been initiated into the game at a young age. Go being a quiet game, its players are arguably the most quiet group of people in our society. Go has distanced many people from the din of society since their kindergarten years. However, as a competition in both mental and physical strength, Go matches are of all games also the most intense and most capable of testing a player’s will. Not just a kind of game, Go is also an educational tool. As such, it has been officially introduced into China’s educational systems, and many of the country’s primary schools now offer lessons in the game. Eager to develop their children’s intelligence, parents are all willing to let their children learn Go. On weekends, classrooms in Children’s Palaces are filled with young learners of Go.

Go is also an educational tool. As such, it has been officially introduced into China’s educational systems, and many of the country’s primary schools now offer lessons in the game. Eager to develop their children’s intelligence, parents are all willing to let their children learn Go.

Like China, other Asian countries, especially Japan and Korea, also see Go prosper nationwide and have produced large numbers of master players. Go was introduced to Japan in 735 by Kibi Makibi, a Japanese scholar who had studied in China. Later, it was spread to Korea. Since then it has flourished in Asia. Many rules in modern Go such as those about dan grades and title fights were born in Asia. Go enthusiasm has also spread from Asia to other countries of the world. In 1979 the first World Amateur Go Championship had only 15 countries participating; that number has now increased to almost 80, with contestants coming from all five continents of the world. In Africa and South America Go’s popularity has grown tremendously.

This ancient game knows no national borders. Drawn by its indescribable wonder, wisdom lovers from all corners of the earth gather around little game boards. The silent stones and the crisscross game board are an ocean of intelligence and a palace ever sparkling with mental exploits. The Go board is a lookout platform for appreciating human wisdom.


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pdfPublished in Confucius Institute Magazine
Magazine 17. Volume 6. November 2011.
View the print issue in PDF

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