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Go in the Classics
by Donald Potter

There are four principle sources for studying the early history of China, including the origins of go. One is early written artifacts: oracle bones and the inscriptions on bronze ceremonial vessels. From the Shang dynasty (1555-1046 B.C.) there is an abundance of bovine scapula upon which characters have been etched. By applying heat to the bones, irregular cracks were induced from which the King or his assistants pretended to divine or read the future or the ancestral dispositions. The writing is limited, however, to the acceptability of sacrifices, announcements, harvests, and to whether dates for journeys, hunting, or military expeditions were favourable, and the weather (always a popular subject). I spent some time looking for inscriptions such as, `The King lost two games in a row to his minister on the right. The King wishes to know if Thursday will be an auspicious day for beheading him.' But there are no inscriptions mentioning go on the oracle bones.

Great bronze vessels (some weighing more than 50 kilograms) were cast in the early Chou (1046-255 B.C.) to commemorate victories or other important events. Some of the inscriptions have as many as 400 characters. Alas, none mention go.

Archaeological artifacts are our best source of knowledge about early go. A go board in a tomb of the former Han (206 B.C.-9 A.D.) with 17 lines was discovered in 1952. Since then, in Hupei province alone more than 1,000 tombs of the late Chou have been excavated. Just Hupei province! Certainly in all the excavations there will have been some go boards and stones. Someone who loves go will have to look through the artifacts or hunt through the journals. There are two archaeology publications on mainland China, Wen Wu and K'ao Ku. They also should have something on go, but haven't been available to me. (See especially Wen Wu, 1978, No. 14, Erh-shih-pa su yuan p'an, and K'ao Ku, 1978: 15, pp. 334-337.)

Tradition is another source of history. And tradition has it that the Emperor Yao (ruled 2356-2256 B.C.) invented go as an amusement for his idiot son. Not a very nice tradition. Those who believe it would, I think, belie the reputation for superior intelligence that go players have for centuries enjoyed.

Our earliest historical evidence of go appears in the classics, in the Analects and in Mencius. The passages translated below say nothing about the origin of the game but at least establish that go was already popular by the 6th century. Or do they? We know that Confucius, the reputed author of the Analects, lived between 551 and 479 B.C., yet while they are perhaps a collection of his sayings, he most certainly did not write them himself. At best, they are a 5th-century B.C. compilation by students of his disciples. Even the validity of this antiquity may be doubtful.

When Ch'in Shih Huang-ti (reigned 246-209 B.C.) unified all of China in 221 B.C., he commanded that all books be burnt, his aim being to stamp out heterodoxy or any school potentially critical of his regime. A vast number of books were burnt. Consequently, all ancient Chinese historical documents alleged to predate the Han dynasty (206 B.C.-221 A.D.) are collections of this later period. Some of them may be authentic rediscoveries of original works. Some could be and others no doubt are forgeries. The great sinologue James Legge accepts the Analects (Lun Yu) as a 5th-century work, rediscovered in the Han.

In the Analects, the ancient Chinese word for go is i 11; it is first mentioned in Book XVIII, Chapter XXII.

The Master said, `Hard is it to deal with him who will stuff himself with food the whole day without applying his mind to anything good. Are there not gamesters and go players? To be one of these would still be better than doing nothing at all.'

For centuries the expression po-i 12, translated here as `gamesters and go players,' has given scholars difficulty. Some just accept it as meaning `playing go' because it appears in the Analects and they don't know what else it could mean. Legge actually translated the term as `gamesters and chess-players' because, as he admits in his notes, he did not know whether i referred to Chinese chess or to go. There is no doubt that it refers to the latter, so we have amended his translation. Legge also admits he doesn't know what po means but handles the problem very well with the word `gamesters.' Actually po refers to a very popular ancient game called liu po,13 which was played with dice. Professor Yang Lien-sheng has an article on the game in the Harvard Journal of Asian Studies (Vol. 9, 1945, page 202), followed by a longer one in the same journal (Vol.15, 1952).

The only reference by Confucius to go

The misinterpretations of the term po-i in the Analects have arisen from failing to understand that the term refers to two games, with po being a contraction of liu-po. Legge at least realized that po and i were separate, which is more than most go historians have done. They have usually translated po-i as a compound word meaning `to play go.'

Motifs of the six immortals playing liu-po can be found cast on bronze mirrors from the middle Chou period and carved on rock in bas-relief around early Chou.

In modern Chinese, po has two meanings: `broad, extensive,' as in po-shih,14 meaning `extensive,' as in po-hsueh,15 which is the Chinese translation of Ph.D. The second meaning is `to gamble, wager money'. Liu-po was a popular gambling game, as in fact go was and is at least in contemporary Taiwan. There are numerous references to liu-po, for example, in the Kuan-tzu, Chan Kuo-tzu, Lieh-tzu, and Han Fei-tzu, which suggests it was much more common than go.

In more recent times, go has been regarded as an art, especially of the leisured literati or gentry, while gambling has been considered a vice. The juxtaposition of the two characters po and i does nothing to flatter go. One day I was walking with O Rissei, 9-dan from Taiwan, on the sixth floor of the Japan Go Association (Nihon Ki-in) where the above quote from the Analects is hanging in full view. He turned to me and said, `I wish they would take that damn thing down.' The prestige associated with go was a later development, probably Sung (960-1206) or T'ang (618-906). Parenthetically, it might be noted that in this quotation hanging in the Japan Go Association i 11 is mistakenly written i.16 The latter means `great, grand, elegant.' As the two characters share the same phonetic, i, which is determined by the upper part of these two characters, they are often wrongly interchanged; they are not more similar in meaning than the English words `scent' and `cent.'

Mencius (372-89 B.C.) is not generally given credit for the work that bears his name. (One of the indications that he did not write it is the use of posthumous titles for his contemporaries. During his life he could hardly have known what his interlocutors were to be called after his own and their deaths.) The same problem obtains for this work as for the Analects and all pre-Han literary artifacts: they were destroyed during the Ch'in and recompiled during the Han (206 B.C.-221 A.D.).

Go is mentioned in Book IV, Chapter XXX of Mencius. The passage, in Legge's translation, reads:

The disciple Kung-tu said, `Throughout the whole kingdom everyone pronounces K'wang Chang unfilial. But you, Master, keep company with him, and moreover treat him with politeness. I venture to ask why you do so.'

Mencius replied, `There are five things which are pronounced in the common usage of the age to be unfilial. The first is laziness in the use of one's four limbs, without attending to the nourishment of his parents. The second is gambling and go-playing, and being fond of wine, without attending to the nourishment of his parents. The third is being fond of goods and money, and selfishly attached to his wife and children, without attending to the nourishment of his parents. The fourth is following the desires of one's ears and eyes, so as to bring his parents to disgrace. The fifth is being fond of bravery, fighting and quarreling so as to endanger his parents. Is Chang guilty of any one of these things?'

Go is again mentioned in Book VI, Chapter IX:

Now go-playing is but a small art, but without his whole mind being given and his will bent to it, a man cannot succeed at it. Go Ch'iu is the best go player in all the kingdom. Suppose that he is teaching two men to play. The one gives to the subject his whole mind and bends to it all his will, doing nothing but listening to Go Ch'iu. The other, though he seems to be listening to him, has his whole mind running on a swan which he thinks is approaching, and wishes to bend his bow, adjust the string to the arrow, and shoot it. Although he is learning along with the other, he does not come up to him. Why? -- Because his intelligence is not equal? Not so.

As in the quote from the Analects, Legge's use of the word for `chess' has been amended. Ch'iu was a player so known for his skill at go that he was nicknamed `Go Ch'iu.'

In the first two citations above, that is, from the Analects and the first of the two from Mencius, go hardly ranks among the noble arts. In fact, according to Mencius it is one of the five cardinal sins against the principal virtue of Confucianism -- filial piety. The Analects merely treat it as a form of gambling, but at least an employment of the mind better than doing nothing at all.

As liu-po was played with dice, the element of chance was always present, enhancing opportunities for betting. In the early development of go, the pieces or stones were no doubt thrown at random on the board (in the process of divination -- this is a subject for further research). Obviously unpredictability is necessary in wagering. The staid Confucianists may well have opposed such diversions as clearly they could distract one from `the nourishment of his parents.' Similarly, after the Crusades, chess became a favorite pastime of the European aristocracy and clergy. Religious officials frowned on it as a wasteful and compulsive distraction from spiritual commitment.

Another possible reason that go received such short shrift from Confucianists is that it derived from astrological divination and magic, which were connected with Taoism. Throughout the Chou period (1045-55 B.C.), especially during the later half, numerous philosophical schools such as the ju-chia (Confucianists), Taoists, Mohists, Legalists, etc., bitterly contended for the attention of the rulers of the various ancient Chinese states. Their disputes were much more bitter and consequential than, for example, those of today's high-minded monetarists and unprincipled spendthrifts. In the end, the Legalists in the state of Ch`in won. When that state succeeded in unifying China, all other schools were proscribed and their books banned and burnt, giving rise to our present textual difficulties and providing employment for untold numbers of historians and philologists.

In the last of the passages quoted above, Mencius is comparing himself and his unsuccessful efforts to teach a prince with a go master, I Ch'iu (Go Ch'iu), trying to teach two men, one of whom is not paying attention.

For Mencius to condemn go as one of the five great sins, and later to refer to it as a minor art, is an anomaly. The explanation probably lies in the fact that the author of the two passages was not the same person. Probably they were not even written in the same century. The first passage could be of the second or third century B.C., but the latter probably comes from the Han period, when go was already well established as an intellectual and aristocratic pursuit. No longer a sin, it is but one of the `small arts.' Furthermore, the passage from Book VI suggests that the author may actually have been a go player himself. Who else would have known that success in go requires the `whole mind' and all one's concentration? Most people imagine that skill in chess or go is simply a matter of genius or talent; they know little of the effort required to achieve pre-eminence in this `small art.'

In conclusion, one may make the following observations:

  1. The principal source for establishing the antiquity of go will remain archaeology.
  2. Go is mentioned in only two of the classics, the Analects and Mencius, twice in the latter and with very different attitudes expressed towards the game.
  3. Any implications derived from these works depend on their own historicity.
  4. Probably neither work is by its reputed author, though the Analects may be as early as the late 5th century or the 4th century B.C. and the Mencius as early as the third century B.C. Parts of either or both may be as late as the first or second centuries B.C.

My own opinion is that in the 6th and 7th centuries B.C. go still included some element of chance that was important to its origin in astrological divination. The game of liu-po was already popular by the 11th century B.C. There is no reason go could not have shared a parallel historical development. The origins of the two games are probably similar. Nonetheless, all this is pure conjecture. Our earliest information about go is the classical references given above.

The Tso-chuan

There is also a reference to go found in the Tso-chuan, an important classic of the fifth century B.C. Legge translates the passage as follows:

Ning-tsu is now dealing with his ruler not so carefully as if he were playing at chess. How is it possible for him to escape disaster? If a chess-player lifts his man without a definite object, he will not conquer his opponent; how much more must this be the case when one would put a ruler down without a definite object? He is sure not to escape ruin. Alas that by one movement a family whose Heads have been ministers for nine generations should be extinguished! 1

In the 1860s, when Legge translated the Tso-chuan, the word `go' was not yet widely used. Today we would translate the expression as `playing go' rather than `playing at chess.' The character i 16 is also used instead of the etymologically correct form i 11. Even today the two are used interchangeably, though inaccurately so. Another minor stylistic point is the translation `would put a ruler down' -- chih chun.

Chih 17 means `to establish, arrange, lay out'. Chih-li 18 means `to establish.' Chih-chia 19 means `to set up a home, marry and establish a family.' In modern English usage, perhaps, chih-chun could be rendered `in dealing with his ruler.' Legge's construction no doubt aims at keeping the flavor of the Chinese inclination for parallelism: chih ch'i pu ting, chih chin erh fou ting, `playing a stone without consideration, serving one's ruler without thought.' In translation Legge strove to keep as close to the original and basic meaning of the characters. As in the Chinese itself, ambiguity can easily arise.

The key point of this quotation, as with those in the Analects and Mencius, lies in determining the date of its composition. According to tradition, the Tso-chuan has been considered a commentary on a work written by Confucius called the Ch'un-ch'iu 20, which was itself a brief chronicle of the state of Lu covering the period 722 B.C. Because of the Master's penchant for brachylogy, an impediment seldom encountered in occidental scholarship, his disciple Tso Ch'iu-ming is supposed to have written an exegesis known as the Tso-chuan or `Commentary of Tso.'

Ch'un-ch'iu is a kind of generic term applied to chronicles kept by most of the feudal states of the Chou period (1045-55 B.C.). The name derives from the fact that each chapter opens with `In the spring' or `In the autumn.' Ch'un means `spring,' chu'iu `autumn.' For example, `In the spring of the Duke's eighteenth year, he invaded his neighbor and killed him.' The emphasis being on conciseness, neither reason nor conclusion is given -- hence the need for commentary. The task of the scribe who kept these records was probably of a ritual character. Historiography was closely linked with the fortune of the ruling houses.2 The court historian recorded not only human but also celestial events. By subjective interpretation of the latter, he was in a position to advise and remonstrate with his ruler.3

The idea that Confucius wrote the Ch'un-ch'iu derives from a statement by Mencius:

The world was fallen into decay, and right principles had dwindled away. Perverse discourses and oppressive deeds were again waxen rife. Cases were occurring of ministers who murdered their rulers, and of sons who murdered their fathers. Confucius was afraid and made the Ch'un-ch'iu.4

If, however, Confucius did indeed write a Ch'un-ch'iu, few scholars today believe that the one handed down to us is his. More important for us, the Tso commentary was not written by a disciple of Confucius or even, in fact, as a commentary on the Ch'un-ch'iu. While the latter is a laconic, disjointed recitation of unconnected events without style or elegance, the Tso-chuan is a magnificent history, quite independent of the Ch'un-ch'iu. It was later cut up and mutilated to fit the chronology of the Ch'un-ch'iu.

The eminent Swedish scholar Bernhard Karlgren writes: `Among the documents which the sinologist has to utilize for the study of ancient China there is hardly one that in all-round importance is the equal of the Tso-chuan.' 5 About it the French sinologue Marcel Granet says: Il est le document le plus vivant et le plus riche de la litterature chinoise.6

Traditionally this excellent history is ascribed to a man called Tso Ch'iu-ming, allegedly a disciple of Confucius. The Master once remarked: `Fine words, an insinuating appearance, and excessive respect -- Tso-ch'iu Ming was ashamed of such things, and I also am ashamed of them. To conceal resentment against a person, and appear friendly with him -- Tso-ch'iu Ming was ashamed of such conduct, and I also am ashamed of it.' 7

The great Sung classicist Ma Tuan-lin (1250-1320) argues the impossibility of Confucius's referring to his own disciple as if to an earlier sage. The Tso-ch'iu Ming referred to by Confucius and accepted by tradition cannnot have been the author of the Tso-chuan. Furthermore, the Tso-chuan contains much material that postdates Confucius (551-479 B.C.), so it could hardly have been written by someone earlier. The authorship of the Tso-chuan -- whether by Tso Ch'iu-ming or Tso-ch'iu Ming (a rare double surname) -- remains unclear.

The late 19th-century political reformer K'ang Yu-wei (1858-1927) tried to prove that the entire work was a forgery by the Han historian Liu Hsin (33 B.C.-23 A.D.). K'ang contended that Liu forged the work in support of the latter's patron, the usurper Wang Mang. Karlgren convincingly refutes this argument.

The Tso-chun, when studied linguistically turns out to have a grammar of its own, a constellation of grammatical phenomena which is quite unique, and no forger could have imagined and consistently carried through this peculiar grammatical system.8

Karlgren concludes:

The Tso-chuan has a homogeneous grammar, akin to but not identical with that of the Kuo Yu (but unlike every other ancient Chinese text). The grammar could not have been imagined or carried through by a later faker, and therefore it is a genuine text, written by one man or by several men belonging to one and the same school and having one and the same dialect. It has nothing to do (at least directly) with the school of Lu, as its grammar is totally different from that of Confucius and his disciples, and of Mencius. It is later than the year 468 B.C. (the last year treated in the text) and in any case anterior to 213 B.C., probably to be dated between 486 and 300 B.C.9

Legge suggests somewhere around 424 B.C., which is pretty much a reflection of the opinion of Tu Yu (222-284 A.D.), the earliest authority on the Tso-chuan.10

Establishing the date of this work is pivotal to our understanding of the development of go. If the Tso-chuan were a Han (206 B.C.-220 A.D.) forgery, it would be of no use to us at all. However, as its composition is more internally consistent that either of the other classics mentioning go -- Mencius and the Analects -- it was most likely written by one man, probably a highly literate and scholarly court official -- the historiographer of the state of Lu (roughly Shantung province in northeastern China).

Reasonably dating the composition around 424 B.C. makes it the earliest reference to go that we know of. The comparison of Ning-tzu treating his ruler like `one who plays go without design' suggests that go was well known, at least among the literati, by the sixth century B.C. As the Ningtzu eposode occurs in the 25th year of Duke Hsiang (547 B.C.), we may conclude that go was already established in North China by this time. It no doubt enjoyed a development of at least one or two centuries before Ning-tzu.


I am indebted to Dr. A.D. Stefanowska of the University of Sydney for the Tso-Chuan reference. I would also like to thank Father Ives Camus, S.J., of the Ricci Institute, Taipei, for his kindness in allowing me to use the Institute's facilities.

  1. James Legge, The Chinese Classics, Vol. V, `The Ch'un Ts'ew' with `The Tso Chuen,' reprinted by Southern Materials Center, Taipei, 1983, p. 517.

  2. P. Van Der Loon, `The Ancient Chinese Chronicles and the Growth of Historical Ideals,' in Historians of China and Japan, edited by Beasley and Pulleybank, London, 1961, p. 25.

  3. Actually go probably orginated with these astrological historians. Probably during the early Chou period (say 1000-800 B.C.) astrologers drew stars with celestial coordinates either on the ground or on a board upon which they cast stones or, more likely, pieces of wood to see how they would line up with the stars. From the alignment they could interpret and predict the future (that is, advise the ruler). It is not hard to see how disagreement over predictions or policy by two shamans could lead to adversarial roles over the board. I hope to show this development in a later article.

  4. Legge, op. cit., p. 2.

  5. Bernhard Karlgren, On the Authenticity and Nature of the Tso Chuan, Goteborg, 1926, p. 3.

  6. Ibid., p. 68.

  7. Legge, op. cit., p. 23.

  8. Karlgren, op. cit., p. 10.

  9. Ibid., p. 64.

  10. Legge, op. cit., p. 33. We cannot prove who the author of the Tso-Chuan was. What we know is that he was not the double-surnamed sage Tso-ch'iu Ming, to whom Confucius referred. Nor was he the disciple of Confucius named Tso Ch'iu-ming.

Further References

Ch'i Ssu-ho, `Professor William Hung on the Ch'un-ch'iu,' Yenching Journal of Social Studies, 1938, pp. 49-71.

William Hung, `A Bibliographical Controversy at the T'ang Court A.D. 719,' HJAS, Vol. 20 (1957), p. 124, note 102 on Tu Yu

Hung Yeh (William), Shih Hsueh Nien Pao Vol. 2, No. 4, pp. 19-96.

Charles S. Gardener, Chinese Traditional Historiography, Harvard, 1961.

Kalgren, `The Early History of the Chou li and Tso chuan Texts,' BMFEA, III (1931), pp. 1-59. H. Maspero, `La Composition et la date du Tso tchouan,' Melanges Chinois et Bouddhiques, 1 (1931-32).

Karlgren, `The Authenticity of Ancient Chinese Texts,' BMFEA, 1 (1929), pp. 165-183.