Chinese chess and how not to offer cherry tomatoes to old men

The guy on right, Mr. Sòng, was in the process of kicking my tail at xiàng qí (象棋), a.k.a Chinese chess, when this photo was taken. I’ve played him a couple times now. He’s one of the guys that hangs out with the bike repair crowd on the corner, the ones with the bái jiǔ (白酒). They’re more or less nice, and good for language practice, except for the main bike repair guy who speaks really thick Tianjin dialect/accent.

Xiàng qí is similar but different to Western chess. A few extra factors, like the river in the middle that some pieces can’t cross, the “goalie crease” around each king that some pieces can’t leave, some pieces move differently and can be blocked differently. It’s still all about strategy, and it’s sort of a community thing, where people gather around and offer suggestions, or argue a little over who’s suggestions are best. To be manly about it you’re supposed to slam the pieces down when you take one. One my favourite things is getting to say things like, “Ah, but if I beat your elephant, you’ll eat my horse!” Beat, eat, and kill are some of the verbs used to describe taking one of your opponent’s pieces.

They’ve let me sit and snack/drink with them several times, so I thought it’d be nice to bring some food for once. My teacher suggested cherry tomatoes, because they would be the right price (not too high) for the occasion. If I brought something out of proportion to what they’d given me, then it would put pressure on them to reciprocate, kind of like a “my face is bigger than your face” sort of thing (I guess?). Anyway, after class I grabbed a bag of xiǎo xī hóng shī (小西红柿) from the cài shī cháng (菜市场), washed them at home, and brought them in a bowl to our scheduled match that afternoon.

No one would touch them. They just sat there for about 90 minutes while we played and friends and neighbours came and went. Before we left I asked one of the guys why no one ate any. I had to scribble his answer down in pinyin and take it to my teacher the next day. Her take on the whole situation, after I explained way more details than I’ve given here, was that there were may have been two or three reasons. They may have thought I hadn’t washed them, because I didn’t pull the little green grassy things off the tops. Apparently you don’t serve tomatoes or strawberries with the green part still attached. Second, “old people take more care about their face,” meaning I probably didn’t ask them to eat enough times or forcefully enough. I should have asked them three times and then when they still refused just shoved the bowl at them and told them to eat while taking one myself. And if some of them hadn’t ever been the ones to foot the bill for food previously, they would feel bad taking some.

Next time, I’ll just pretend that he’s me and I’m him trying to get me to drink more bái jiǔ. That oughtta do it.

7 thoughts on “Chinese chess and how not to offer cherry tomatoes to old men”

  1. Ah, this is why I can’t get the kids to play Chinese Chess more quietly during their breaks from class here in Yung Ho. They always slam down the pieces and cause a ton of racket.

  2. I love playing Chinese chess with some of the guys on the street. Sadly it isn’t that common in Shanghai, although you’d see it all the time in Beijing, especially around 南池子.

    The pao is great fun. I once had a dream about it jumping around once.

  3. I wonder if it’s more of a northern thing? I only saw it a couple times in Taibei, but there it seemed like every male over 50 played 围棋 (wéi qí). There’re pictures of it somewhere on here.

  4. I also love the slamming down of your cup when you play dice! Have you done that? We learned to play that in Shanghai, and it made us understand that the noise you produce is half the fun! Ah, I miss China… :)

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