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Chess and the Compass

The game of chess (as we know it) has been associated throughout its development with astronomical symbolism, and this was more overt in related games now long obsolete. The battle element of chess seems to have developed from a technique of divination in which it was desired to ascertain the balance of ever-contending Yin and Yang forces in the universe. According to the Chinese literature this "image-chess" (hsiang chi) was developed during the reign of the Emperor Wu of the Northern Zhou dynasty (561 to 578 B.C.), and the date of the first treatise on the subject is definitely named as 569 B.C. The preface of this by Wang Pao still exists. It appears that the pieces on the board in this divination technique represented the sun, moon, planets, stars, constellations, etc. The suggestion is that this "game" passed to 7th-century B.C. India, where it generated the recreational game conceived in terms of battling human armies.

Now this "image-chess" derived in its turn from a number of divination techniques which involved the throwing of small models, symbolic of the celestial bodies, on to prepared boards. Thus there was a dice element as well as a move element, and there were many intermediate forms between pure throwing and placement followed by combat moves. All these go back to China of the Han and pre-Han times, i.e. to the 4th or 3th century B.C., and similar techniques have persisted down to late times in other cultures. On a parallel line of development numbered dice, anciently wide-spread, were on a related line of development which gave rise in 9th-century B.C. China to dominoes and playing-cards.

The most significant of the ancient boards was the shih (used from the Warring States period 475 - 221 B.C. and onwards) - a double-decked cosmic diagram having a square earth-plate surmounted by a rotatable discoidal heaven-plate, both being marked with cyclical and astronomical signs (compass-points, lunar mansions etc.) as well as the symbols of the I Ching (Book of Changes) and other technical terms used only in divination. "Pieces" or symbolic models were employed with this in a variety of different ways, and in the round heaven-plate of the shih we can recognize the lineal ancestor of all compass-dials.

The reason for this is because among the symbolic models used there was one representing the Great Bear (the Northern Dipper), so important in Chinese polar-equatorial astronomy - carved into the shape of a spoon. This replaced the picture of the Great Bear, or Northern Dipper, which previously had been carved on the heaven-plate of the diviner's board. This model spoon was probably first of wood, stone or pottery, but in the 1st century B.C. (and possibly already in the 2nd century B.C.) the unique properties of lode-stone (magnetite) suggested in China the use of this substance. Since polarity would establish itself along the main axis of a bar of the mineral, whether or not it was removed from the rock in a north-south direction (i.e. in the earth magnetic field), the "south-pointing spoon" was discovered.

During later centuries the frictional drag of the lode-stone spoon on its bronze base-plate was avoided by inserting the piece of lode-stone in a piece of wood with pointed ends which could be floated, or balanced upon an upward-projecting pin. Such methods were used as late as the 13th century. But some time between the 1st and 6th century it was found in China that the directive property of the lode-stone could be transferred to (included in) the small pieces of iron float upon water by suitable devices. The earliest description still extant of such water-compasses, from which all subsequent forms must derive, is the early 11th century. By the 7th or 8th century the needle was replacing the lode-stone, advantage being taken of the property of induction; on account of the much greater precision with which readings could be taken. By the late Tang period (8th or 9th century) the declination as well as the polarity of the magnet had been discovered, antedating the European knowledge of the declination by some six centuries. The Chinese were theorizing about the declination before Europe knew even of the polarity, an event which took place at the end of the 12th century.

Thus it may be said that the ancestor of all dial-and pointer-readings, the greatest single factor in the voyages of discovery, and the oldest instrument of magnetic-electrical science may perhaps be said to have begun as a proto-"chess"-man used in a divination technique. Not without some surprise we are brought to the conclusion that the recreational game of chess, and the magnetic compass, with all that flowed from it, took their origin at a single point - namely, a group of divination techniques in ancient Chinese proto-science.

Joseph Needham
Cambridge, 1962