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12 Most Popular Games in the Imperial Palace in Ancient China

2015-12-23 09:58:46Share:

  Living in the vastness of the imperial palace, one could not expel the feeling of loneliness. Court games, therefore, were an indispensible part of the daily life of the maids-in-waiting, eunuchs, officials, and even the emperor in the grand palace. These games could help kill time, and meanwhile, bring much fun. The following were the 12 most popular games in the imperial palace in ancient China.


  Touhu (literally, throwing at the pot)


  As recorded by Touhu in The Book of Rites, Touhu was a game often played during a feast in which a pot filled with wine was placed at a certain distance as the target, and the winner was decided by the number of arrows thrown into the pot.



  Boqian (Flipping coins)


  Boqian (Flipping coins) is also called Daqian (beating coins), Zhiqian (throwing coins), and Tanqian (spreading out coins). The participant tosses the coins in the hands, and then flips these coins on the ground. When all the coins settle down, count the number of face-ups and facedowns, and decide the winner.



  Hook hiding


  As recorded by YouyangZazu (a representative novel of the Tand Dynasty) quoted from the Records of Sanqin by Xinshi, Lady Gouyi, a concubine of Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty, had always clenched her fists and could not stretch until finally she met Emperor Wu, and a hook was seen on her palm. Thereafter, the game of hook hiding came into being, in which several people participated, and a participant guessed which one held the hook.



  Chang hang


  It is said that Chang hang comes down in a continuous line with Woshuo and Shuanglu, and some say it is Shuanglu. The game has 15 yellow and black chess pieces respectively, and two dices as well.



  Woshuo (literally, holding chess piece)


  It is said that Woshuo was an alien game passed from the Western Regions during the reign of Emperor Xuanwu in the Wei State of the Northern Dynasty. The game is similar to Liubo, Shuanglu, and Changxing. Shuo refers to a chess piece or chessboard, and by playing the game; a dice is thrown to decide who moves the chess piece.



  Grass Stem Fight


  Grass stem fight was a folk game popular in the Central Plains and the lower reaches of the Yangtze River in ancient China. Ancient people usually held such a fight during the harvest time. The game was called Tabaicao (literally, treading on mass grasses) in the Southern and Northern Dynasties, and Doucao (grass stem fight) or Doubaicao in the Tang Dynasty. By the Song Dynasty, it had become regular game at any moment. Descriptions of it can be found in many literary works of various dynasties.



  There are two kinds of grass stem fight, namely Wudou (Martial Fight) and Wendou (Verbal Fight). At a martial fight, first, two contestants each pick a blade of grass that has some tenacity, and then cross the blades and pull with strength. The one whose blade of grass stays unbroken in the end wins. Therefore, the game is decided by the contestants’tensile force and the grass tolerance.


  As to the verbal fight, or the matching of plant names, girls pluck various plants, and call plant names antithetically, for example, Gouercao (morning glory seed, literally dog ear grass) vs. Jiguanhua (coxcomb, literally rooster crest flower). The one that gathers the most varieties of grass shows the highest antithetical ability and hangs out to the last wins. Therefore, the participants must have some knowledge of plants and be widely read in literature.




  Dice, also called devil's bones, are small regular polyhedrons used as the props of board games. They are one of the oldest gambling devices, and also easy-made random number generators. The most common dice are polyhexes. They are cubes, with each of the six faces showing a different number, and the numbers are arranged so that opposite faces adds to seven. In China, it is the tradition that the one and four pips are coloured red.



  According to the study of Zhao Yi in the Qing Dynasty, Emperor Minghuang of the Tang Dynasty was the first one to have the four pips dyed red. It is said that Emperor Minghuang and his favorite consort Yang Guifei were fond of throwing dice. Once, when it was Emperor Minghuang's turn to throw dice, he could only win his consort with both dice showing four pips. When the dice were rotating, the emperor kept shouting, double fours, double fours! And finally, the dice stopped as Emperor Minghuang had expected. Viewing it as auspicious sign, the emperor order Eunuch GaoLishi to paint the four pips on all the dice into red color. Later, the one pip was also painted into red, and the practice has been handed down until present days.




  Cockfighting, a game more or less gambling like, always reminds us of idling about and not doing decent work. Several emperors in the Tang Dynasty liked cockfighting, and apart from that, Emperor Xizong of the Tang Dynasty was also fond of goosefighting.



  The Shuanglu Game


  Shuanglu (Backgammon set) was an ancient dice game that has been lost. As a game similar to the flying chess, Shuanglu should have been a popular game in ancient China according to records in literary works and cultural relics handed down.



  Shuanglu might have been an exotic game integrated into our national culture, thus becoming an ancient game of China. Ever since its introduction to China, it became popular in Wei during the Three Kingdoms Period, and thrived in the Southern and Northern Dynasties, Sui, Tang, and Song until the Yuan Dynasty. Records about the game increased in the Tang Dynasty, while in Song, it became more prevalent everywhere. During the time, the Shuanglu set was provided in wine and teashops in the north, so that people could play the game while drinking tea. In the Yuan Dynasty, the game was much loved by men of letters and gifted scholars, for whom we could find evidences in the excellent literary works on Shuanglu by the poet Liu Guan, Yuan verse composer Zhou Deqing and playwright Guan Hanqing. Up until the Ming and Qing Dynasties, the game was found declining in popularity; however, it was still mentioned in the novels and plays such as the Plum in the Golden Vase, Marriage of the Flowers in the Mirror and A Wrong Kite. Probably it was because of the prevalence of Chinese chess that Shuanglu, the dice game with a proven history of over 2000 years in China, was gradually washed out of time, until it became totally lost.




  The Fu one uses poem, idiom, literary quotation, etc. to insinuate a certain object, while the She one guesses, and uses other poem, idiom, or literary quotation to reveal the answer. Those who enjoy learning can try to play the game.



  Floating Wine Cup along Winding Water


  The most famous floating wine cup activity in ancient China shall be the one held in Lanting of Shaoxing City on March 3rd, 353 A.D. On that day, Wang Xizhi, the famous calligrapher, held a get-together with many talents by the Jiudian Pool. They each sat on the ground by the bank, with a wine cup put into the upper stretch of the water, floating and winding downstream. As the rule goes, once the cup stopped moving in front anyone, he should take it for a drink and improvise a poem.





  Apart from xiangqi (Chinese chess) and weiqi (the game of go), liubo was another board game popular in ancient China. It's a game between two players, each of whom has six chess pieces; hence the name liubo or six sticks.



  The paraphernalia of the game include a dice, chess pieces, a chessboard, chips, a cutting knife, a scraping knife and a case. A chess piece, or chess for short, is also known as ma or horse. There are a total of 12 chess pieces - 6 black ones and 6 white (or red) ones, with each color representing one side. The chessboard, otherwise known as wooden board or qudao, is usually a near square wooden board with grooves of different rectangular shapes and round dots carved in intaglio on the white or black surface. The grooves are either painted with red lacquer or embedded with ivory. The chips are made of thin bamboo slips. There are two types of chips - long ones and short ones. The chips, varied in number from game to game, are used to keep track of the winning and losing condition of the players. The cutting knife and scraping knife are used to make the numbering chips. The case is for holding the chess tools inside.


  The invention of liubo is a lot earlier than that of Chinese chess. It came into existence way back in the Spring and Autumn season and caught on during the Warring States Period. The game was widely spread during the Qin and Han Dynasties, becoming one of the most popular board games in the imperial court and among the people. Along with the opening up of the Silk Road in the Han Dynasty, liubo was introduced abroad. During the Eastern Jin Dynasty and the Sixteen States Period, it was brought to India. The liubo game may have been widely spread, but it gradually fell into oblivion after the Sui and Tang Dynasties.