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The Game of Go: Ancient Applications and Contemporary Connotations 围棋游戏:古代应用及当代内涵

Go is one of the oldest board games in existence, originating in China more than 2,500 years ago. Today, Go has spread not just to other Asian countries, but also to the West.

June 7, 2016
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Originally published by US-China Today. Written by Catherine Wang. 

Nestled in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains, the city of Asheville couldn’t seem farther removed from China. Yet in 2006, the American Go Association held its annual Go Congress in the suburbs of Asheville, and several hundred Go players from around the world gathered there to compete in this traditionally Asian board game.

Andy Okun, the president of the American Go Association (AGA), recalls playing an exciting game with an elderly Japanese competitor that year. After their game, they posed for a picture, and Okun asked the man why he – and a group of his Japanese friends – had traveled all the way to America to play a game that is much more established in Asia.

The man replied, “I love the game, and I love the relaxing atmosphere of being able to come somewhere and just enjoy playing it.” After years of seeing many such players travel from Asia to play in the US, Okun observes, “It’s a fun enough atmosphere here that they fly not to New York or to London, but to somewhere you reach after you turn at the gas station – for a week of their lives, for thousands of dollars. They love the game.”

Go, also known as weiqi (围棋), is one of the oldest board games in existence, originating in China more than 2,500 years ago. Today, Go has spread not just to other Asian countries, but also to the West, as more Americans and Europeans have become interested in learning the game. The cultural connotations of Go have shifted over the years as well, applying to many contemporary fields beyond the game board, from artificial intelligence to gender politics.

The Roots of the Game

The rules of Go are surprisingly simple. Players using black and white stones take turns to move on the grids of a wood board, and players compete for territory by surrounding their opponents’ stones. (For resources on how to learn Go, visit the American Go Association’s website). The complexity lies in the possibility of moves and strategies, which can seem very abstract for outsiders to the game. A common comparison is that unlike chess, which focuses on a “local” battle between individual pieces, Go emphasizes global strategies on a more expansive board with many simultaneous battles. Okun says he loves the game “because there’s very little of your mind that doesn’t get engaged in it.”

The exact origin of Go is unknown, but the game has long been regarded as an exercise in discipline and strategic thinking. In ancient China, it was considered one of the “Four Accomplishments” for scholarly gentlemen, along with painting, calligraphy and playing the lute. During the Cultural Revolution, the government condemned the game for representing a “bourgeois” tradition, but many people continued to play.

David Lai, a professor at the Strategic Studies Institute of the US Army War College and author of Learning from the Stones: A Go Approach to Mastering China’s Strategic Concept, Shi, recalls how he was first exposed to Go: “I was born and grew up in China, and I watched my father play Go during the Cultural Revolution. When the government put the economy on hold, many people who couldn’t use their talents elsewhere played Go to pass time… Many years later, when I played Go with a friend, I realized that since I had been exposed to that part of my culture, I had developed a natural liking for Go like many other Chinese people.”

Man vs. Machine: A New Wave of Go

Last March, when Google’s artificial intelligence program AlphaGo won four games of Go against international champion Lee Sedol, the world of Go enthusiasts was shaken, and the rest of the world felt the ripples. A notoriously complex game, Go is so challenging that for decades it was considered a distant goal for AI technology to win a human player.

Fei-Fei Li, director of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab, explains the difficulty of the game: “The biggest challenge is the practically infinite number of possible moves that a Go match creates. Any intelligent agent, be it a human player or a machine player, needs to find a way to search among these infinite possible moves for the best ones in order to win. The number of moves is greater than the total number of particles in the universe.”

Many lovers of the game received news of AlphaGo’s victory with mixed feelings. Lai admits, “It was heartbreaking to see that AlphaGo defeated the best human player, especially because people thought it was impossible. But life goes on, and this innovation doesn’t mean that the game is over… Just as when many years ago the Deep Blue computer that IBM developed defeated humans in chess, people were shocked, but life went on.”

Others are more wholeheartedly optimistic. Okun credits the widespread news coverage and online streaming of the AlphaGo matches for helping increase interest in the traditional game. “The Google broadcast has turned out to be a big boon for us, and for interest in Go. We have more people joining the AGA. We just had someone become a lifetime member who said he was inspired by the AlphaGo broadcasts.”

Li and other computer scientists view AlphaGo as an impressive achievement, but only a stepping stone for applying similar AI innovations to more socially useful fields, such as self-driving cars and medical imaging. Meanwhile, Go is no less challenging for its players, and besides its psychological complexity, it maintains a rich cultural influence in China and beyond. Despite – and perhaps because of – modern developments, it remains a popular, evolving platform for entertainment and intercultural understanding.

Go as a Cultural Metaphor, and the Globalization of the Game

Generals in ancient China played Go to strengthen their military tactics. Today, strategists continue to invoke the battlefield metaphors of Go, and some even argue that learning Go is a way to understand Eastern military philosophy.

In a Newsweek article, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger encouraged American military strategists to read Lai’s 2004 text Learning from the Stones. Lai wrote that traditional Chinese war strategy revolves around a sort of “battle of wits,” while Western warfare emphasizes the use of force. He explains, “Go informs us about Chinese strategic thinking, which is very different from American strategy… Americans tend to converse about war in terms of chess and contact sports like football and boxing, unlike China. We understand that nations play games in war and expect other nations to respond in kind, but China plays by a different game.”

Dr. Marc L. Moskowitz, a professor at the University of South Carolina and author of Go Nation: Chinese Masculinities and the Game of Weiqi in China, is more reluctant to interpret Go as a literal representation of Chinese strategy, but he agrees with its significance as a cultural metaphor. He shares an applicable tactic from the board game: “Unlike chess, in weiqi you could lose a pretty big group and still go on to win the game – you lose a battle to win a war.”

Another fascinating application of Go is its interaction with shifting perceptions about gender. Moskowitz, who has researched how the game reinforces masculine ideals in China, explains, “The language of weiqi is hyper-masculine: invading the enemy, etcetera. There’s a lot of talk about seizing initiative and dominating your opponent. So there’s this idea of intellectual domination, a sort of weird machismo.” From its inception to today, Go players – especially at the competitive level – have been predominantly male. However, with the globalization of Go have come efforts to make the game more inclusive. In the late 1980s, Japan invented pair Go, a variation in which two teams of one male and female each play against each other. An annual international tournament is now dedicated to pair Go, and the style has gained popularity in Western countries.

Besides differences in race and gender, there is also diversity in the wide age range among Go players, especially in Asia. To produce his 2012 documentary Weiqi Wonders, Moskowitz interviewed a wide range of Go players in China. He noticed that “For older folks, it’s a way to bond with each other. They have lived through some of the toughest moments in Chinese history, like the Cultural Revolution, and this is a way for them to pass time. Games provide an outlet for spending time with each other and marveling at each other’s moves, sharing an artistic interest – and at the same time there aren’t the normal pressure to keep up a conversation.” On the other hand, as older players enjoy the social rewards of the game, younger generations often learn Go for more educational purposes. Moskowitz continues, “Children and university students are being disciplined by the game: they’re taught to sit still and concentrate for long hours, to use their minds to compete – all important values in contemporary China, like endurance and intellect.”

The Future of Go

The past few decades have seen tremendous changes in the demographics of Go players, and even in how the game itself is played. There is a flourishing online platform for playing Go, which enables enthusiasts from around the world to access teaching resources and compete with each other. However, although virtual Go has connected players around the world, Okun still stresses the value of in-person games: “We [the AGA] encourage community… A lot of people play online now, and you don’t necessarily get to know the people you’re playing with. In real life you meet a person, and you might be silent through the game, but they become a friend.”

Despite recent progress, another enduring issue is the difficulty of generating sustained interest in Go outside of Asia, and for a wider variety of audiences, not just those who are highly educated. Okun says, “Anyone can play it, but they’re not likely to if no one tells them it exists. If you’re an American, and if you heard about the game early and learned to play it, odds are you were a college student, and it was for a technical or scientific subject. The son of a truck driver isn’t likely to find out about it. This is a thing we’re trying to change, but it’s hard.” Community, high school, and collegiate Go clubs are growing in number, but often have difficulty maintaining a committed membership. Ultimately, in the US Go remains at the margins, and probably will be for many more years.

Lai affirms the challenge of raising interest in Go, but argues that the game has nonetheless been impactful. “I have had students who went on to high-level positions in the military come back to me and say that understanding a bit about Go has helped them understand Chinese strategy better. I tell my students that if there is some part of a country’s military strategy that you don’t understand, ask yourself: is there a cultural factor that is influencing it?” Lai recognizes that hardly any of his students will become expert Go players, but more than anything, he aims to make them conscious of different cultural perspectives.

For those of us who won’t be applying the game to highly specialized fields like artificial intelligence or military strategy, Okun believes that Go is still rewarding to learn, and can even offer a life lesson or two. When asked to share advice for curious beginners, he says to not be intimidated. “Don’t care about losing… Everybody, even the best player in the world, loses in Go. Now with AlphaGo, everyone is going to have to get used to losing even more often. You learn about yourself and your emotional strength. There’s a famous proverb in Go: ‘lose your first hundred games, and lose quickly.’ Play in tournaments and try to win, but also look for people who can beat you. Hunt them down, and take joy from being clobbered by them.” 

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