On the history of Chû Shôgi

Dr. Peter Banaschak

This short article describes the outlines of what is currently known about the historical development of Chû Shôgi. [1]

The beginnings of Shôgi

Although the earliest known Shôgi in a way closely resembles other Asian chess games (that would be Song period Xiangqi [Chinese Chess], and Persian catrang as well as Arab shatranj), it is still unknown how these games might be connected to Shôgi.

What we know, however, is that by the early 11th century something that must have been quite, but perhaps not totally, like Shôgi was around. In a text on calligraphy, the [Kirinshô], dating from about 1027 we first hear something about Shôgi. The text describes how Shôgi pieces are inscribed. They seem to have looked much alike the Shôgi pieces we all know. Dating from only a few years later (1059, to be precise) there are the first excavated pieces. These 16 pieces were found on the compound of the Kôfukuji in Nara (and they are very much alike modern pieces). Alongside them was found a mokkan, a wooden tag used for writing purposes, on which Japanese archaeologists have identified the characters for Suizô, meaning "Drunk Elephant"[2]. As we do not have any reference to a game called Chû Shôgi, it is assumed that the Drunk Elephant was a piece used in the Shôgi of the day.[3] The first text that gives a description of any Shôgi game is the [Nichûreki] dated to the early 13th century. It offers a description of a Shôgi as well as a Dai Shôgi. This Dai Shôgi must have been replaced by a new type of Dai Shôgi during the 13th century which is almost like the Dai Shôgi described in the Shogi Association (TSA) rule leaflet. Proof for that is found in the [Futsû shôdôshû].

Some pieces dated to the 13th or 14th century that had up to now been classified as Chû Shôgi pieces now have a doubtful status; they could be either Dai or Chû Shôgi pieces. Thus the oldest reference to Chû Shôgi dates to about 1350: the [Yûgaku ôrai] mentions Shôgi, Chû Shôgi, and Dai Shôgi. The next text which explicitly reports something about Chû Shôgi would then be the [Aro kassen monogatari] of 1476. The text enumerates some Chû Shôgi pieces but gives no details.

It now seems that Chû Shôgi is a derivate of Dai Shôgi, that is, Dai minus all the boring bits[4] with the board size and number of pawns adapted accordingly. Eight kinds of pieces were dropped from Dai, all of which promote to Gold General:

  1. Angry Boar

  2. Cat Sword

  3. Evil Wolf

  4. Flying Dragon

  5. Iron General

  6. Knight

  7. Stone General

  8. Violent Ox

It is safe to say that Chû Shôgi, originated somewhere in the earlier 14th century and began to spread shortly after. Shô Shôgi was not yet a competitor, as the game most probably was not yet being played with drops, featured at least a Drunk Elephant, perhaps even two Ferocious Leopards, but no Rook and Bishop.

The beginnings of Chû Shôgi and what became of it

Again, we know next to nothing about the beginnings of Chû Shôgi. The game simply begins to pop up in diary entries, without any description. Thus we know that something was there, but we lack information on what it was like. However, we can rest assured that a game by the name of Chû Shôgi was already being played in the early 15th century.

For several reasons it seems more probable today than in John Fairbairn's days (see [Shogi history … and the variants]) that the [Shôgi rokushu no zushiki] might really date from the mid-15th century. The text does not describe Chû Shôgi, apparently taking knowledge about it for granted. There are on-and-off mentions of Chû Shôgi in the diaries of the second half of the 15th century. Real freaks played quite frequently. We know, for example that

We know that Chû Shôgi was rather widely played, as the [Shôgi koma nikki] of Minase Kanenari tell us from 1590 on until 1602, he and his sons produced 618 sets for Shô Shôgi, 106 sets for Chû Shôgi, two each for Dai and Dai-dai, three for Maka-Dai-dai, and four for Tai Shôgi. (So who would still claim that these large Shôgi games could not have been played?)

From the early 17th century, literature on Chû Shôgi was written and published. Amongst it there are the following works:[5]

  1. Chû Shôgi horoku shû by Yamagata Yahachirôemon, 1778 (contains the six historical games);

  2. Chû Shôgi kineburui by Tsurumine Shigenobu, dated 1818;

  3. Chû Shôgi shinanshô, dated 1703 (apparently contains 30 problems) [Chû Shôgi shinanshô];

  4. Chû Shôgi shoshin shô, not dated;

  5. Chû Shôgi tsukurimono, by Itô Sôkan, not dated (contains problems);

  6. Chû Shôgi tsukurimono hyakuban, not dated (contains hundred problems, according to the title);

  7. Chû Shôgi tsukurimono tsume sho zukesanjûban, not dated (contains 30 problems);

  8. Chû Shôgi tsumemono, not dated (contains problems);

  9. Chû Shôgi zushiki by Itô Sôkan, dated 1663.

Of course additional information can be found in the various other works of the time that deal with the diverse Shôgis.[6]

Judging from the diaries it seems that Chû Shôgi was more popular with noblemen and high-ranking monks. It seems reasonable to assume that Shô Shôgi began to steeply rise in popularity after the "Office of Shôgi affairs" had been established in 1612, and nationwide rules for this game were fixed. The first head of the "Shôgi dokoro", the former merchant ôhashi Sôkei seemingly preferred to play Shô Shôgi with drops (which undoubtedly makes a good game). Thus this variant of Shô Shôgi became the standard and a fierce competitor for Chû Shôgi.

As the opening of Chû Shôgi is slower than that of Shô, and the middle game of Chû Shôgi is far more intricate than that of Shô, it seems that problems became the center of attention of authors. This might have contributed to the descent in Chû Shôgi's popularity.[7] Howsoever, Chû Shôgi faded out of the public mind. Rumour has it that the game continued to be played after the first half of the 19th century in the remote rural villages of Western Japan; this is unconfirmed.

Knowledge about the game was thus limited mainly to the few remaining players; information was well hidden in the books and unavailable to non-Japanese until the 1970s. At that time, George F. Hodges began unearthing the Shôgi variants, starting with Chû Shôgi (admittedly the TSA rule leaflets for Wa and Dai are from 1980, as well, but they don't really count, do they?). The [Chû Shôgi rule leaflet] was the first informed Western publication on Chû Shôgi ever (don't hesitate to correct me – I wouldn't count Murray's knowledge on Chû Shôgi, as demonstrated in [A History of Chess], as informed).

Beginning with the rule leaflet, and continuing with [MSM], Chû Shôgi began to to rise in popularity, this time in the West. What will further become of it, we shall all see.



Throughout this text for compatibility reasons the Japanese long vowels (oo and uu) are represented by ô and û respectively.


In fact, the literal meaning of the inscription on this mokkan is something like "lively (or energetic, or animated) person".


There are good reasons for that ‐ but this article isn't the place to discuss the intricacies of Shôgi history in general.


I feel I should add that this remark represents a purely personal opinion, without any basis but my own preferences … no offense meant.


It is difficult for me to connect any of these works to the sources mentioned and used in the preparation of [MSM]. Perhaps someone who has access to any of these works ought to check them against [MSM].


The [Kokusho sômokuroku] has 256 works with titles on Shôgi and Shôgi variants. Only six of these are available in recent (that is, after 1900) reprints. (Isn't that a shame?)


Of course, that's not my opinion, but that is how it might seem to your average Shô Shôgi player, isn't it?

A Chu Shogi Bibliography