Many recreational pursuits including abstract strategy games spread via the Silk Roads as merchants, artisans, envoys and ambassadors travelled along them, sharing the games of their home regions and learning new ones as they spent time interacting with one another. Traditional board games such as chess are not only concrete elements of the shared heritage of the people of different regions along the Silk Roads but also provide a solid basis for continual reencounters and exchanges in the modern era.
Chess is a two player strategy board game where the aim is to move different types of playing piece, each with a prescribed set of possible moves, around a chequered square board trying to capture the opponents ‘king’ piece. Today there are over 2,000 identifiable variants of the game. Indeed, chess was so widely played along the Silk Roads that there a number of theories as to how it evolved. One theory is that an early game similar to chess called Chaturanga originated in Northern Indian Subcontinent during the Gupta period (~ 319 – 543 CE) and spread along the Silk Roads west to Persia.
Whilst modern Chess is believed to have been derived from Chaturanga, similar strategy board games such as Xiangqi in China, Janggi in the Korean Peninsula and Shogi in Japan have been exchanged and played along the Silk Roads where they are still played today. Chaturanga means ‘four divisions’ referring either to the divisions of the playing pieces into infantry, cavalry, elephantry and chariotry (pieces which in the modern game became the pawn, knight, bishop and rook), or to the fact that the game was played by four players. Chatrang, and later Shatranj, was the name given to the game when it arrived in Sassanid Persia around 600 CE. The earliest reference to the game comes from a Persian manuscript of around 600 CE, which describes an ambassador from the Indian Subcontinent visiting king Khosrow I (531 – 579 CE) and presenting him with the game as a gift. From there it spread along the Silk to other regions including the Arabian Peninsula and Byzantium.
In 900 CE, Abbasid chess masters al-Suli and al-Lajlaj composed works on the techniques and strategy of the game, and by 1000 CE Chess was popular across Europe, and in Russia where it was introduced from the Eurasian Steppe. The Alfonso manuscripts, also known as the Libro de los Juegos (Book of Games), a medieval collection of texts on three different types of popular game from the 13th century CE describe the game of Chess as very similar to Persian Shatranj in rules and gameplay.
Whatever its precise origins, the evolution of Chess throughout the hundreds of years it has been played provides an excellent example of the transmission and interpretation of aspects of different cultures in multiple directions along the Silk Roads. In each case, elements of the game were altered to fit the various specificities and tastes of its new locality, particularly in terms of the forms the various pieces took. However, in each case, it retained enough similarities to constitute a variation on the same game. For example, in the game Xiangqi from China, the pieces take the form of flat disks with Chinese characters written on them. Shogi pieces include the flying chariot, gold and silver generals and jewelled king. According to 13th century accounts, the pieces in Shatranj included the Prime Minister (Firz), elephant (Fil) and the Rukh (a chariot piece now represented by the modern ‘rook’ or castle), similar to those used in Indian Chaturanga.
Traditional games including chess and its many variants constitute important elements of the cultures of different people living along the Silk Roads. The interactions and reencounters that have been taking place for thousands of years along the Silk Roads provided considerable opportunities not only for the spread of traditional games throughout different regions but also for their enrichment at different levels. This can be seen in the way the pieces and rules have been adopted and then adapted in the various new localities in which the game was played, as well as in the ways in which considerable scholarship surrounding chess theory and strategy was undertaken in a number of academic centres along the Silk Roads.
Learn more about the traditional sports and games of the Silk Roads here
"Traditional Sports and Games" is one of the three themes of the Youth Eyes on the Silk Roads Photo Contest this year. Click here to learn more about this initiative.