Monthly Archives: May 2007

GO – the game for emperors, that could read the stars

GO – the game for emperors, that could read the stars

By Konstantin Bayraktarov

The Chinese game Weiqi, also known in the world as “Go” was invented, according to some sources, by the legendary emperor Yao. The same emperor is cited also as the creator of the calendar. And the system of chronology in China traditionally starts in the year 2357 BC – the year of Yao’s enthroning. Chinese sources give credit for the game invention also to other mythological persons of Chinese origin. For example, Yao’s successor – emperor Shun, also known as the Encircling Shun – directly corresponds to the essence of the game itself – the process of surrounding and encircling of territories. One can only be certain that Weiqi (Go) or “the game of encircling” bears the honorary age of three to four thousand years, making it the oldest known intellectual game.

Considered to be of “heavenly” origin, according to an old Japanese proverb, Go is said to be a game of Gods, while chess is the game of heroes. The elements of the sky like the ghosts of Great Bear (Ursa Major, Beydou) and Little Bear (Ursa Minor, Niendou) are known Go players in Chinese folklore. This comes as no surprise, as long as the game is a metaphor of Life itself and these two ghosts are responsible for life and death. This ancient game has connections to Chinese astronomy. The science of the skies played an important role in the life of the old civilizations.

The first lunar and solar calendars stem from observations of the skies. Knowledge of astronomy is essential to astrology, as well as to intellectual games. This connection of Go to astronomy is hinted by the naming of the nine marked points on the board, known as “star points”. They correspond to the nine stellar palaces from where the Heavens are ruled, according to Chinese mythology. The central point or “tengen” is the Northern star – the star of the Yellow Emperor Huang Di. This heavenly model is the one to be abided by the Earthly government. The Chinese Emperor is the reincarnation of Huang Di himself. Confucius (551-479 BC) in his famous Analects explains:

“He who exercises government by means of his virtue may be compared to the North Polar star, which keeps its place and all stars turn towards it.”(Lun Yu, 2:1)

The ancient authors confirm the embedded astro-calendar symbolism in Go. Zhang Ni in Quijing Shisanpian (The classic of Weiqi in thirteen chapters) writes:

“There are 360 plus one intersections and One is the beginning of all numbers. It occupies the Tengen (center point) and drives the whole board. There are 360 days in a year. The four corners represent the four seasons and the 90 intersections in each quadrant correspond to the days in every season.”

The Go board has 19 horizontal and 19 vertical lines and signifies the Universe, that the Chinese call “yuzhou” and stands for “transverse and longitudinal beams (lines)”. The intersections of these lines are 361, a number that is running closely to the real count of the days in a year. Actually it is almost the true number of the lunar (354 days) and the solar (365 days) years.

The Chinese historian Ban Gu (32-92 AD) wrote: “The board must be square, for it represents the Earth laws. The lines must be straight for they embody the spirit of pure virtue. The pieces are white and black, and so are divided into the Yin and the Yang. Paired and set out in order, they represent the patterns of the Heavens.” The idea of Heavenly order provided some support for the elemental nature of chaos. The existence of Heavenly order where everything is moving according to its own laws was obvious to the ancient. Therefore it was up to Man to provide such order down on Earth, mirroring the Heavenly one. Such cosmological vision is manifested in a poem by the Vietnamese King Le Than Tong (1442-1497):

High summits are drawn up as a crowd

in the sea like many jewels.

bluish tops are dispersed like falling stars

and the pieces in the Go board of waves.

Fish and salt, abundant like sand,

offer a rapid gain to people.

Inspired by the natural beauty of Halong Bay in Northern Vietnam, the Poet-King conveys the image of a settled and orderly country. The game of Go is a metaphor for the Cosmic or Heavenly harmony that is the example to be creatively and willingly represented on Earth. The desired harmony in the country and the society correlates with the ideal of virtue and the rule of justice that should be conducted by the enlightened King. The Neo-Confucian Yu Jie (1272-1348) of Hanlin Academy recommends to emperor Wen Di the game of Go as mandatory for the Son of Heaven (Tienzi). If Huandi is the ruler of the Heavenly Cosmos, then his reincarnation on Earth – the Son of Heaven – rules the social cosmos.

The way the Chinese see the Sky has a lot in common with the imagination of the wise men, that created the game of Go. The process of identifying and naming certain star groups is both intuitive and governed by semantic associations. The imagination kicks in to compare the group to some real or abstract object. The configuration of stones in Go is the main structural object in the game. The same principles can be applied to constellations on the sky. So the names of some basic constructions in Go and some of the constellations owe their origins to the associative and mytho-poetical thinking.

Since ancient times, the stars are grouped in constellations for their easier recognition on the sky. Different cultures grouped them differently. For example, the configuration known in the Western world as the Great Bear (Big Dipper) is perceived as belonging to other constellations in the east. Still the ancient Chinese saw eye to eye with the modern westerners, but generally they were prone to dissect the sky into numerous smaller groups. The Chinese astronomers were able to “draw” in the sky the figures of exotic creatures by using as little as 2 or 3 stars. The analogy in Go are groups known as a “horse”, a “big horse”, a “tiger” (or “tiger mouth”, “tiger eye”), “an empty triangle”, “bamboos” (or “bamboo joint”), “a wall and a shadow” (the higher the wall, the higher the shadow it casts), “a diamond” (ponnuki) or “a ladder”.

The same principles guided the Chinese in naming the constellations. Two or three elements and some imagination is enough to “draw” whatever you want. The mentioned groups and their names are known to every beginner in the game. These constructions have some very tactical sense in the game and their combinations form the strategical view on the board. The Go board itself is a coordinated grid work, upon which different stars can be positioned precisely by means of stones. Probably using the same method, the Chinese created the first star catalog with over 800 static stars 2500 years ago.

The Man is gazing at the Sky for millennia. This impulse has provided the necessary elements for the foundation of the science of the stars. And the understanding of the world finds its interpretation in logical games. Man gradually discovers the Universe within, stepping over from ontos to gnosis. In the words of Immanuel Kant: “Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me. ” The universe of the Mind is also stunningly colossal. An ancient Japanese verse (senryu) turns the Universe into a game of Go in the mind of a player:

In the depth of night

even the ceiling

becomes a Go board.

Lying in bed, writes William Pinckard (1927-1989), he replays the game far into the night. A strange and interesting metaphor is here: the Go stones move from the board to the ceiling and beyond the ceiling to the sky where they become again the stars from which they were born thousands of years ago.

Everyone is aware of the colossal number of possible combinations in chess, yet the game of Go trumps it. The approximate calculations point that the number, corresponding to the possible variations in Go is about three times as long as the one about chess and twice as long as the number that currently stands in science as the quantity of the atoms in the known Universe and the latter itself boasts a hudred-digits magnitude! Bearing in mind that the endless possibilities in Go mirror the countless events in nature, the saying goes that Go encloses the Universe itself.

Translated from Bulgarian: Cvetomir Varbanov