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Chinese Masculinities and the Game of Weiqi in China
By Marc L. Moskowitz
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2013 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
The deepest of all the [Chinese] games is one with more than two hundred pieces, white and black for each side, on a board with more than three hundred squares.... The mandarins have become so absorbed in this game that some of them occupy most of the day playing it, each match lasting more than one hour. And those who are good at this game, even if they have no other ability, are appreciated by everybody and invited everywhere, and some are chosen as masters to teach this game.
MATEO RICCI, On the Entrance of the Company of Jesus and Christianity into China, 1610
The art of Go began in China and was transmitted to our country by Grand Minister Kibi. Since that time it has spread, and now everybody plays. Monks who have a talent for it play Go with women and become their lovers. People pass through the world worrying about the moves just as if they were members of the Go Bureau. They put their own lives in jeopardy out of concern for the lives of their stones. Though these addicts are not Buddhist monks, they make do with but one meal a day, and though they are not yamabushi priests, they sit up all night as if waiting for the sunrise.
YAMAOK A GENRIN, an Edo period (1603–1868) essayist
These games were little dramas, in structure almost pure monologues, reflecting the imperiled but brilliant life of the author's mind like a perfect self-portrait.
HER MANN HESSE, The Glass Bead Game, 1943
JULY 8, 2010. That was the day I discovered that I could play Weiqi better than a ten-year-old in China. In 2010 I spent three weeks taking classes at the Wenbo School for children (the Wenbo Weiqi Training Center, Wenbo weiqi peixun zhongxin) and its summer school in a different location. In the first week, most of the children were on vacation and the school offered only one beginning and one lower-intermediate class. Much to my surprise, and even more of a shock to my teachers, I turned out to be the strongest player in both classes. Mrs. Wang, the accountant, head administrator, and joint owner of the school with her husband, quickly learned of this. She then began to bring in stronger players, who normally came to the school for private lessons, to test my mettle. When I defeated the first three of these opponents, Mrs. Wang displayed her boundless enthusiasm and began searching in earnest to find me a worthy adversary.
Playing Weiqi in China I suffered the disadvantages of having had no formal training and growing up in a culture that does not commonly play Weiqi—I didn't purchase my first book to study the game until I was thirty-eight years old. To be fair, I had several advantages in these games as well. The most obvious of these was that my classmates were, on average, ten years old. Second, as often happens when I play Weiqi in China, my opponents often started our games in an overly aggressive fashion because they assumed that an American would not recognize the traps of a beginner. Perhaps most important, as word spread of my victories, a growing number of students, teachers, and staff came to watch. This was a tremendous load to bear for a ten-year-old who was attempting to uphold his country's honor. It was very little pressure for a forty-five-year-old American who was so far past his Weiqi prime that the only thing he could do was surpass startlingly low expectations.
After my second day of classes, Mrs. Wang marched in a new opponent to challenge me. He was a stern and focused nine-year-old with a 3-duan amateur rating and therefore already a better player than most people would become in their lifetimes. At this point the room was packed full of spectators, including the teachers, several students, and even the female staff who usually showed no interest in the game. My opponent, who had earned a reputation for being something of a Weiqi prodigy, was small in stature but radiated natural intelligence and had honed killer instincts for the game. His intense stare seemed to penetrate the board—an entirely different feel from the other somewhat fidgety students I had played against up to that point. He quickly took the lead. After I conceded my loss halfway through the game he stood up, turned around without a word, and, heedless of his mother's admonition to say good-bye, walked out of the room without a backward glance. I felt as if I had met Bobby Fischer's reincarnated spirit in the Weiqi world, and I tried to suppress a smile.
THE GAME OF WEIQI
Weiqi is a board game that originated in China and was already well known in the time of Confucius (551–479 B.C.). Referred to as Go in the United States, Igo in Japan, and Baduk in Korea, the word Weiqi is made up of two Chinese characters; wei (to surround) and qi (logic game). The appellation "surrounding logic game" vividly evokes Weiqi's primary goal, which is to try to take one's opponent's pieces by surrounding them while simultaneously accumulating additional points by encircling empty space on the board. Today, the People's Republic of China (PRC), Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan are the epicenters of the Weiqi universe, although, with the advent of the Internet, it has a steadily growing fan base in the West as well.
I refer to Weiqi as a Chinese game but, in much the same way that the Chinese origins of gunpowder and paper have become largely irrelevant in today's globalized political economy, Weiqi now belongs to several nations. Japan's nearly four centuries of Weiqi supremacy, South Korea's dominance in this sphere from the mid-1980s to approximately 2008 when China became a serious contender, and Taiwan's strong presence in international competitions, have so advanced the theory and practice of the game that it has been transformed into something very new.
Weiqi's popularity in China is often part of a choice to embrace a lifestyle that evokes nostalgia for gentry scholars in imperial times. Its long history has resulted in contemporary dreamscapes that draw on images of noblemen and intellectuals, generals and emperors who played the game. This imagery makes a particularly strong statement in the PRC, where elite culture was dismantled in favor of a new communist utopian movement.
Weiqi embodies mainstream traditionalist ideals in an age in which many people have abandoned the past in favor of more globalized opportunities. Middle-class and elite markers of distinction, including learning English, playing the piano, and studying abroad, are more often than not immersed in Western symbolism. Weiqi's association with historical elite culture aligns it with Chinese tradition. In doing so it offers a very different marker of elite status than most symbolic capital in the PRC.
Weiqi is an iconic reminder of perceived regional differences. In Taiwan, one never sees Weiqi played in parks—the game is too embedded in elite culture. In the PRC, the city of Chengdu is quite famous for the prevalence of Weiqi players in parks and teahouses. In Beijing, where I conducted my research, it is less common to see people playing Weiqi at parks, although those who do so display a remarkable devotion to the game.
China is a game-playing nation. Walking down the streets of Beijing one can see people playing Chinese chess or cards on street corners and in parks. It is not unusual to see people playing cards at restaurants as they enjoy their meals. In public areas such as parks and roadsides Weiqi does not have the ubiquitous presence of Chinese chess and cards, but some parks are known to have groups of retired working-class people playing the game. They are there in stifling hot summer days and on the snow-covered sidewalk in the winters.
Chinese people's love of board games is in part born of a culture that places no stigma on intelligence. There are few of the cultural stereotypes of nerdiness that one might associate with these activities in the United States. Board games admittedly lack the cool factor of rock music or club culture, but in China one rarely sees depictions, so pervasive in the West, of mad genius game players rushing to their doom. Chinese people's appreciation of board games extends to games in general. Outings that include alcohol will inevitably feature drinking games in one form or another. It is a social activity that relieves the strain of witty banter and becomes a way for the entire group to participate. This might include competitive drinking (a game in and of itself) or those on the sidelines cheering them on. Though more sedate, Weiqi in parks evinces a similar sociality. A handful of people play and groups of twenty to thirty bystanders spend the day watching, kibitzing, and perhaps rotating in to play if the mood strikes them.
Weiqi is central to China's dreams of self and other, past and present. Given that China has the largest population in the world, it is surprising that there has yet to be an anthropological study of this topic. Television programs, several journals, and an array of instructional books are devoted to instructing players in Weiqi. These texts include issues such as general strategies as well as "life-and-death" problems. The increasingly transnational character of the game includes Internet servers that allow online competition between players from countries as diverse as Brazil, China, and Estonia.
Online reviews of games, as well as sites devoted to teaching Weiqi, have created a contemporary environment that can arguably be considered to be Weiqi's golden age. Though embedded in traditionalist discourses that draw on images of Imperial China's cultured gentlemen, Weiqi has also become part of a far more modern world. With the advent of international competitions, as well as Japanese manga and anime revolving around the game, Weiqi has transformed into an intensely modern transnational experience. This ability to simultaneously represent both the ancient and the futuristic is a vibrant example of how, far from being antagonistic forces, traditionalism and modernity revolve around each other in symbiosis.
In Beijing, most people who play Weiqi online use the Internet server "Tom." Because one must negotiate a densely packed Chinese-language website to find the Tom server, and because one needs a Chinese ID number to register, it is an overwhelmingly Chinese domain. Many people I interviewed in Beijing also use Korean servers or IGS (Internet Go Server, a.k.a. Pandanet). KGS (the Kiseido Go Server) is by far the most popular Weiqi server in the West. The vast majority of Weiqi players on KGS use English as a lingua franca, though one also sees an array of other languages being used as well. As an anthropologist I find KGS to be the most interesting server because of the online community that it has fostered. As with other Weiqi servers, KGS has unicode capability that allows users to communicate in any language by typing comments in a dialogue box to the right of the game. These servers also include the ability to save and edit games. This means that people can review games together or they can entreat, or employ, a stronger player to review their games and point out areas for improvement.
When beginning a game on KGS, it is typical for opponents to exchange casual greetings. This usually takes place in English, with a set of stock phrases such as "Hello," "Enjoy," or "Have fun." The games frequently end with "Thanks," "Bye," or "Good game." Some people enjoy having conversations while they play, whereas others prefer to focus on the game without distractions. When they have finished, many players review their games with their opponents.
One can also watch other people's games, and strong players frequently attract fifty to one hundred spectators. On occasion, two to three hundred people will gather to watch if a game takes place when people are not working and the players are ranked highly enough to draw attention. Spectators often comment in the dialogue box while a game is taking place, though the people playing the game cannot see the comments until they have finished. At its best, the stronger players watching the game point out particularly good and bad moves. Often, the spectators will use the dialogue box to engage in casual banter.
Figure 1 depicts a KGS game with 118 spectators. As sometimes happens, those commenting seem to have forgotten about the game altogether, preferring instead to focus on a conversation that they are having about unrelated matters. In this case the spectators primarily use English, but they interject French and Spanish as well. In other instances, there might be several distinct conversations going on at once. In a dialogue box that primarily consists of English, for example, one might also see several people writing Russian while a third group of spectators communicates in Chinese.
As in any online setting, one is occasionally confronted with antisocial behavior, including rude comments. For many, the most frustrating behavior is something called "escaping." This refers to when someone leaves a game before it is finished, which usually occurs when the escaper is losing a game. On IGS, someone who does this automatically forfeits his game. Many people complain, however, that this unduly punishes people with bad Internet connections who try to return after being disconnected only to find an abandoned game.
On KGS nothing will happen if someone leaves one game. If he escapes ten games in a certain period of time, however, his unfinished games will all automatically be forfeited. Unfortunately, there are players who use this system to inflate their ratings in order to play stronger opponents. Their ratings will plummet when they are penalized for previous escapes, at which point they can simply start a new account. The only real deterrent is that many people will not play someone without a rating, and it takes some time and effort to regain one's rank. Escapers are a continual frustration for most players. Yet, given that there are no real repercussions for bad behavior, combined with the ability to hide one's true identity, the relative lack of impolite behavior is in many ways more remarkable than its presence.
Several of the people whom I interviewed were concerned that the Internet was transforming the game in negative ways. Points of criticism included the idea that people seem to take the game less seriously on the Internet. These comments usually took the form of pointing out that games tend to be quicker when playing online. One person I interviewed also confessed that when he played on his lunch break he frequently resigned in the middle of a game simply because he had to go back to work. Others complained that in playing online one does not get the tactile experience of holding the Weiqi stones in one's hand, and that one misses the opportunity to develop strong friendships by having a live partner in the room.
Yet if the Internet does not have the same visceral feel as a live game, or the level of intimacy and friendship that face-to-face interaction might offer, it also has many benefits. Friendships develop on KGS that can arguably be seen as a community, albeit one that is largely made up of people who have never met face to face. Many people I interviewed in China voiced appreciation for the fact that the Internet allowed them to play for free. They also lauded the idea that they could play at four in the morning if they chose to do so.
Many advanced Weiqi players review their games from memory. For those of us without such remarkable skills, online servers allow us to review an accurate record of our games. It is also possible to try out alternative moves, and then find one's place at a different point in the game, without ever becoming confused at the order that was played. If someone has completed a particularly interesting match, or received especially good advice while reviewing it, he can save the game and its commentary on the server. He can also download it to his computer if he so chooses.
Excerpted from Go Nation by Marc L. Moskowitz. Copyright © 2013 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of ContentsPreface
Notes on Terminology
Chapter 1. Introduction
The Game of Weiqi
The Ranking System
Gender Coding and the Naturalization of Difference
Ambiguous Identities and Taiwan’s Women’s Team
Constructing Masculinities and the Weiqi Sphere
Chapter 2. Multiple Metaphors and Mystical Imaginaries: A Cultural History of Weiqi
Weiqi in Comparison with Chess
Religious Mysticism and Historical Teleologies
From Stigma to Status
Weiqi’s War Imagery
Chapter 3. Nation, Race, and Man
The Scholar and the Warrior
Chinese Masculinities: Individual Formation and Nationalist Discourses
Anti-Japanese Sentiments as Nation Building
Japan’s Weiqi Legacy
Mastering East Asia: National Rivalries and International Competitions
Conceptualizing Nations, Rethinking Play
An Unexpected Nostalgia for the Japanese Era
Chapter 4. Becoming Men: Children’s Training in Contemporary China
Weiqi Teachers and the Confucian Ideal
Modernizing Influences—Weiqi Schools as Corporate Structures
Weiqi as a Disciplinary Mechanism
Weiqi as Sport—Beyond the Cartesian Divide
Chapter 5. A Certain Man: University Students, Amateurs, and Professionals
Class Consciousness and Relentless Competition
Weiqi’s Suzhi Discourse
The Peking University Weiqi Team, Ranks, and the Amateur/Professional Divide
Facing the Future
Chapter 6. Retirement and Constructions of Masculinity Among Working Class Weiqi Players
Kibitzing as a Social Ideal
Masculinity Among the Working Class at the Park
Chapter 7. Conclusion: Looking Forward to a Bygone Age
Glossary of Terms