CHESS IN CHINA - AWAKENING OF A DRAGON

By Ignatius Leong, International Arbiter & Organizer

There are three forms of chess which are being played regularly in China. Weiqi (Go) originated in China for several centuries but during the 20th century, the Japanese were the masters of the game. Weiqi became popular only when Chen Zude became the first Chinese to defeat a top Japanese Grandmaster 20 years ago. Today, Weiqi is the most popular chess game among the Chinese and several of such competitions offer very attractive prize money. Xiangqi (Chinese Chess) also originated in China and one could see older folks enjoy this game along the streets. Chess was introduced in China during the 19th century but had never been as popular as Weiqi and Xiangqi.

Alekhine was the first great chess player to visit China in 1933. In an exhibition played in Shanghai, he was held to two draws, one to Xie Xiashun, nick-named "Centurian chess king" because at 100 years old, he was a strong player in all the three forms of chess. Xie, not related to former women's world champion Xie Jun, helped to promote the game and was the top player in China after the 2nd World War. In 1935, he visited Malaya and Singapore and defeated their champion as well as the British Air Forces champion Hunter. In 1936, in Guangzhou, the British sponsored a tournament with top players from Austria, Britain, China, Germany and the United States. Xie won the tournament convincingly by drawing one and winning the other 18 games.

In 1987, Xie (who lived in Wenzhou) died at the age of 101.

In 1974, at the invitation of Dato Tan Chin Nam, then President of the reorganized Malaysian Chess Federation, China was invited to attend the 1st Asian Team Championship with observer status. In 1975, the Chinese Chess Association officially joined FIDE and came second in the next Asian Team Championship held in New Zealand in 1977. China was second again in the next two editions in Singapore in 1979 and in China in 1981. China won the series for the first time in 1983 in India. China won the inaugural women's event in Singapore in 1995.

China took part in the Olympiads since 1978 in Argentina and her teams never looked back. A few days after China eventually was awarded the status of "one-zone federation" in 1990, the women's team took the bronze medals and the men's team came sixth. The women went on to retain their position in the next two Olympiads and in 1996 won the silver medals. Meanwhile, the men's team never ranked below the 15th place. Chess became popular as a result of Xie Jun becoming women's world champion in 1991. After retaining her title match in 1993, interest in Chess was raised further with one million chess players in China.

Officials of the Chinese Chess Association are appointed by the National Sports Committee which also provides funding. The three forms of chess share a common headquarters called QiYuan (Chess Academy) normally with a dormitory with twin-sharing rooms on the top floor. The three respective national chess associations operate in China QiYuan situated in Beijing while Beijing has its own Beijing QiYuan. Similar structures were also setup in most major cities and today, there are more than 30 Qiyuans in China. At these Qiyuans, the paid officials run their day to day affairs and trainers conduct chess classes. Each QiYuan has its own management committee. At the China QiYuan, the Chairman is Mr. Chen Zude who is also President of the Chinese Chess Association. Every QiYuan have allocation of funds to the three forms of chess. Since the restructure of the Chinese government in May 1998, sports shall have to fend for themselves in three years' time during the transition period, funding from the government shall be reduced 30% each year.

Fortunately for the Chinese Chess Association, in 1993, it received an endowment fund from Singapore businessman Mr. S T Lee who donated about US $1.5 million. 10% of this donation was for the establishment of the Chess library in China QiYuan. The remaining 90% were deposited in a fixed account from which the Chinese Chess Association drew interest mainly for its administrative operations and to send players for overseas competitions. In 1997, the Chinese Chess Association found a computer firm to fund its other activities on an annual basis.

Decision making is done collectively rather than by any single powerful official. Any final decision is only taken after thorough discussion and more important ones are referred to the Sports Committee. All officials, staff, trainers and players have great mutual respect for one another and there is no "pushing or ordering around". Since May 1998, all Qiyuans are autonomous from China QiYuan but still they cooperate like one big family.

The first visit of world champion Anatoly Karpov in August 1997 boosted the popularity of Chess further. During this visit, Karpov played 3 exhibitions in Beijing which were broadcast live. He also appeared for a one-hour talk show viewed live on prime time slot during the most popular TV program in China. His visit was widely publicized across China and because of his unusual popularity, he was invited by the government to another visit in May 1998.

Karpov's second visit took him to Beijing, Shenyang, Shanghai and Guangzhou 4 of 5 largest cities in China. He also took the opportunity to launch the Chinese edition of "Disney's Guide to Chess" and appeared to autograph his books at major bookstores in each city he visited. There were 20,000 copies for the first printing and more than half were sold within one week of his visit. Karpov played a total of 5 exhibitions and once again, the immense publicity raised the interest of Chess to another level.

At present, in terms of publicity, Chess is well ahead followed by Weiqi and Xiangqi. In terms of playing interest, Weiqi still commands the lead followed by Chess and Xiangqi but it is envisaged that 10 million people will know how to play Chess by the turn of the century. On a site inspection visit by Mr. Tang Kum-Foo and Mr. Ignatius Leong from Intchess Asia in February 1998, among 5 cities they visited was Wenzhou, a commercial seaport on the eastern coast. There they were invited to 3 kindergartens and saw for themselves about 2,200 children playing Chess in the classrooms. All the teachers there know and teach the game to the children. China's first men's Grandmaster Ye Rongguang and Woman Grandmaster Zhu Chen hail from Wenzhou. Based on statistical criteria, Wenzhou is the only city awarded the status of "Chess City" by China QiYuan.

On a recent visit to the Beijing City Center Youth Championships in August 1998, Mr. Leong saw 574 children contesting the age-group championships; 233 for Chess, 187 for Xiangqi and 154 in Weiqi. More astounding was that more than 1,000 parents sat outside the school and along the street eagerly waiting for their children's results. Cars parked along the street made traffic movement almost impossible. The events were restricted to schools within Beijing City Center and did not include schools in the northern, southern, eastern and western regions which have their own competitions.

There are more than 1,000 Chess trainers in China and about 300 professionals who earn an average of about US $300 more than the national average wage. Following Shenyang's hosting of the National Youth Championships, the China Chess Festival and the visit of French Grandmaster Bachar Kouatly and Mr. Tang and Mr. Leong in February 1998 and the National Championships and visit of Karpov and his friends GM Kouatly, Mr. Tang, Mr. Leong and GM Xie Jun in May 1998, parents and children of Shenyang have taken great interest in Chess.

The Chinese Chess Association has always taken a cautious approach when organizing any international competition for it strongly believes that any such undertaking including hospitality must be performed at the highest professional level.. While China has the capacity and ability to organize an Olympiad, the Chinese Chess Association feels ready only when it can match those comparable to Havana 1966, Dubai 1986 and Manila 1992.

In 1981, China organized the Asian Team Championship in Hangzhou which is renown for the beauty of Chinese women. In 1990, China hosted the second part of the Women's Candidates Final Match between Yugoslav Grandmaster Alisa Maric and GM Xie Jun. The 1993 Women's Candidates Tournament won by Hungarian Grandmaster Zsuzsa Polgar was played in China. In recent years, were the S T Lee Beijing International Open and the Dato Tan Chin Nam Invitational Tournaments. The event topping the chart was Karpov's China Tour in May 1998.

1998 will be the year Chess in China shall long remember Karpov's revisit in May, the controversial Women's Candidates Final Match between Russian Grandmaster Alisa Galliamova and GM Xie Jun in August and the first ever Asian Chess Open played in Shenyang. The registration of Galliamova and her subsequent non-appearance for the match remain a talking point among the Chinese people and a daily forum in the press.

More good news are forthcoming from the Chinese for the world chess community. For September 1999, in celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the People's Republic of China, the city of Shenyang has won the right over another city to host the second edition of the World Cities Team Championship. An industrial town with a population of 6.5 million people, Shenyang hosted the Asian Sports Festival which included 30 non-Olympic sports and Chess. About 1,500 participants from 40 countries took part in the 2-week Festival. By 2000, Shenyang shall boast of the largest QiYuan in China with space to hold 1,000 players. The complex shall have 3-star rooms and other recreational facilities like a bowling alley and health center. Construction is due to commence next April and the cost is estimated at USD 25million.

Following the World Cities shall be the Shenyang Open Tournament and 4 Grandmaster Tournaments in other cities. As part of their preparations, Shenyang shall organize the Asian Team Championship, the S T Lee International Open, the Tan Chin Nam Cup Grandmaster Tournament and 2 more Grandmaster Tournaments shall be held in other cities.

The Chinese Chess Association is also planning to accommodate the requests of the visits of Garry Kasparov and the Polgar sisters. Meanwhile, Intchess Asia is helping a major city to prepare a bid for the World Youth Festival. We may not often hear the voice of China in FIDE Congresses, but slowly yet surely, China shall be a major player in world chess by the turn of the century. The Chinese Chess Association is confident that within a couple of years, 10 million people shall have learned Chess. For the moment, let us wait patiently for the awakening of a dragon. Ask Karpov!


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