King of Chinese Chess
By Ah Cheng
Ah Cheng, originally known as Zhong Ahcheng, was born in Beijing but has origins in Jiangjin, Chongqing Municipality. When he was still young, his academic career was cut short as a freshman in high school, a direct result of the Cultural Revolution. Starting in 1968, he went to the countryside and worked as a farmer in Shanxi and Inner Mongolia, during which time he started to take up painting, then settled in the construction corps’ farms in Yunnan Province. Upon returning to Beijing in 1979, he found employment in the China National Publications Import and Export Corporation and served as editor for World Books. Afterwards, he assisted his father Zhong Dian in writing Film Aesthetics. In July 1984, he published a novella titled King of Chinese Chess in Shanghai Literature Monthly, earning him instant, nation-wide recognition. In 1986, he went to the University of Iowa in USA to participate in their three-month-long International Writing Program. The next year he travelled to USA again to attend the American Library Association’s annual meeting, and has lived in America ever since.
Ah Cheng’s major works include the novellas King of Chinese Chess, King of Trees, and King of Kids and the short story series Seeking Pleasure All Around. King of Chess was conferred the 3rd National Best Novella Award, while the short story A Dinner Party won the 1st Writers Monthly Novel Award.
In 1985, Ah Cheng published Culture Constrains Humanity, a theoretical article about seeking one’s familial origins. His stories and literary theories made him a major representative of the 1980s school of genealogy. Ah Cheng also published some essay collections in the 1990s following his relocation to the United States, such as Common Sense and General Sense, Chatting about Chinese Conventions and Chinese Stories.
Wang Yisheng came from a poor family, he and his mother eked out a living by folding pages for a printing factory. But one day, he got his hands on a book about chess, which made him addicted to the game ever since. He begged people to play chess with him in school and in the street, and always came out on top. He became infatuated by it, chess taking over his whole life. It was not long after that his mom passed away, leaving behind a characterless chess set she made by scrubbing off the characters using a toothbrush – this was the only love she could give him outside of playing chess.
One day, Wang Yisheng came across an old trash-digger when he was searching for his lost chess manual in the garbage collection station. And he was surprised to find out that the man was a master of chess, beating him at a game of blindfolded chess over at the station. Since then, Wang would play chess with the old man every day, pondering on his moves after returning home. And at long last he won a game. Afterwards, the old man handed him a chess manual containing many parts that Wang couldn’t understand; the old man also lectured him on the Taoist way of Yin and Yang, imparting him with the essence of chess, which is that “Ferocity begets usurpation, while timidity begets suppression.” Later, Wang Yisheng happened to tear some big-character posters by mistake when helping the old man collect junk. This misstep threw him into the unrest that was taking place, and overnight the street walls were covered with posters criticizing him.
My parents were beaten to death in the unrest and I had to apply to go to the countryside for a living. I met Wang Yisheng on the train, who challenged me to a few games of chess, hence making our acquaintances and striking up a conversation. He asked me how I managed to survive those two years following my parents’ deaths, inquiring particularly in regards to how I had been eating. I found that he was very interested and knowledgeable concerning dining, so I paid close attention to his table manners. I could see that he took the matter very seriously, to the extent that no single bit or crumb would be left after a meal. His pious attitude towards eating reminded me of Jack London’s novel Love Life. Once during our mealtime, I mentioned this story and Balzac's Uncle Banc, then Wang Yisheng shared his views on eating. To him, filling one’s stomach was the sole aim of eating, no more, no less. We parted from each other when the train arrived at the station, heading to our respective farms.
After quite some time, Wang Yisheng paid me a visit when I was working in the mountains. It turned out that he was on leave to find chess rivals and it had already been half a month before he came to me. In the farm where I was working, he got to know Ni Bin, a chess family descendent. Nicknamed “Foot-egg”, Ni Bin was lean and tall, a well-off guy who behaved gently and dressed neatly, Wang’s opposite in every way. We treated Wang to a big dinner, after which Wang and Ni held a chess match, with Wang defeating Ni while blindfolded. With that, they became friends of a common appreciation, and Ni told Wang mid-conversation that a chess game was to be held during the local sports meeting, persuading him to compete in it. On the third morning Wang bid us goodbye and left.
For the following six months I saw nothing of Wang, but news spread far and wide that he was out there playing chess with others all the time. Prior to the local sports meeting, we agreed to see him in the first quarter of the game. However, Wang didn’t show up until the local finals started. Truth is, he was not allowed to enter the game by the branch field, not even sign up for it, simply because he kept asking for leave to find chess mates. Ni’s father knew the secretary in charge of local cultural education, who received us at his home upon request by Ni’s father. But we faced a flat rejection when we pleaded him to let Wang directly enter the finals match. The second time Ni went to his home, Ni offered him family heirlooms and ebony chess sets so that Wang could enter the local finals. When the secretary accepted, we were up in arms in delight, but Wang decided to turn down Ni’s favor, as he didn’t want Ni to give away his family heirlooms and possibly be backbitten because of it.
Wang Yisheng decided to play chess with the top three winners in private after the game, and this idea caused quite a stir in the community. Thousands came to watch the face-off, many ecstatic over the opportunity. Wang Yisheng played against nine people while blindfolded, including the top three winners, all at the same time. Before the match, Wang entrusted me with the characterless chess set his mother left him. The battle went on until nightfall – eight of the challengers were already defeated, and one chess match against the champion remained. The local champion was an old man from a chess family up in the mountains. Who’d expect that he would deliberately show himself out here when he’s only ever played at his home upon request? Now, sitting in the middle of the large house was Wang Yisheng, all alone, looking like a thin stump carved from iron.
The old man walked up a few steps, praised him on his superb skills, and offered to make peace, saying that the spirit of Chinese chess had not wavered. We rubbed and massaged his limbs which were rigid from sitting for so long, and after a while he came over and agreed to the peace offering. The crowd melted away. I showed him a characterless chess piece I’d been holding in my hand. He did not seem to recognize it at first, but hocked up a loogie and cried for a bit before coming around. And from this grand match, I could feel the spirit and charm that resides behind this element of traditional culture.
With the publishing of Ah Cheng’s monumental work in 1984, King of Chinese Chess stirred up a “whirlwind” in the literary world, sparking sustained and extensive discussion. The novel, both in terms of its themes and forms of expression, provided new dimensions of exploration for the contemporary literary world and ushered in a “Culture Craze” in the 1980s, thus carrying much weight in contemporary Chinese literary history.
As for the genre, some may classify this novel as Educated Youth Literature since it addresses the educated youth and their lives, as well as a master work of genealogical study for the rich traditional culture embedded within. In terms of its cultural interpretation, many people believe it demonstrates the reproduction in modern individuals of a traditional cultural spirit characterized by the mutual permeation between Confucianism and Taoism. At a much deeper level, the novel also reflects the spirit of chivalry present in secular culture, and to date, people are still observing its cultural implications from new angles.
In sharp contrast with other Educated Youth Novels of the same era, the novel also boasts a unique style in forms of expression. Although set in the period of the Cultural Revolution, the story only light touches on this particular historical background. Instead, it writes out a distinctive memory of that eventful time, taking as its entry point the experience of chess-playing by Wang Yisheng and some common underclass folk. In narration, the story blends the traits similar of secular Ming and Qing dynasty novels with the techniques of Western realism, forming an elegant, unified whole. The language is clean, concise, and unpretentious, inducing a light, detached and natural frame of mind in the reader.
作者 | 南京师范大学教授 何平
译者 | 李欣
审校 | Damine Liles