The game of Go: Stars on the goban
By Konstantin Bayraktarov
Trans.: Tsvetomir Varbanov
The Chinese game weiqi, also known in the world as “Go” is 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 is traditionally started in the year 2357 BC – the year of the enthroning of Yao. The Chinese sources give credit for the game’s invention also to other mythological persons of Chinese origins. For example, the successor to Yao – 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 the 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 in the 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 mean arithmetic 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 Earth’s 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 metaphore for the Cosmic or Heavenly harmony that is the example to be creatively and willingully 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 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 board for Go itself is a coordinated grid work, upon which the different stars can be positioned precisely by means of stones. Probably using the same method, the Chinese of 2500 years ago created the first star catalogue with over 800 static stars.
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 logic 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 metaphore 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 collossal 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.
1. Fairbairn J., Go in Ancient China, Mind Sports Worldwide www.msoworld.com/mindzine/news/orient/go/history/ancientch.html
2. History of Weiqi, Yutopian Enterprises 1999 www.yutopian.com/go/misc/gohistory.html
3. Luo Guanzhong, Sanguo Yanyi (Romance of the Three Kingdoms) www.lib.ru/poechin/sanguo/sanguo.txt
4. Confucius, Lun Yu, Confucius Publishing Co.Ltd. www.confucius.org
See also sites like www.wam.umd.edu/~stwright/rel/conf/Analects.html 5. Zhang Ni, Qijing Shisanpian (The Classic of Weiqi in Thirteen Chapters), Its History and Translation by Paolo Zanon, 1996 www.figg.org/areafile/qissp.pdf
6. Fairbairn J., The essence of Go, Mind Sports Worldwide www.msoworld.com/mindzine/news/orient/go/history/yizhi.html
7. HALONG BAY www.limsi.fr/Recherche/CIG/ehalong.htm (Now this site not respondet!)
8. Pinckard W., Some Senryu about Go kiseido.com/sen.htm
9. Trost W./ Трост В., САМАЯ ПРИВЛЕКАТЕЛЬНАЯ ИГРА В МИРЕ (The Most Attractiveness Game of the World, Най-привлекателната игра на света), Ukrainian Go Federation, 1995 www.ufgo.org/Go_texts/Go_samaya1.htm
В-к “Телескоп”, бр.12 (254), Астрономическа асоциация София (ААС), 21.03.2006