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The Mysterious Game of Liubo

Updated on December 27, 2016

The 2004 Discovery

In 2004, archaeologists working at a heavily looted 2,300-year-old tomb near Qingzhou City in China discovered pieces to a game that has eluded scholars for decades. Their discoveries were first published in 2014, but only recently was their discovery translated into English. Published in Chinese Cultural Relics, these are the most recent finds related to the long-lost Chinese game of Liubo.

Archaeologists think this 14-sided die was used to play Liubo.
Archaeologists think this 14-sided die was used to play Liubo. | Source
Two of the game pieces found in the tomb.
Two of the game pieces found in the tomb. | Source

The archaeologists' findings included a 14-sided die made of animal tooth and 21 rectangular game pieces with numbers painted on them. Nearby, they also found a broken tile, which may have been part of the game board. Its design featured two eyes surrounded by cloud-and-thunder patterns.

What was Liubo?

Liubo was once one of the most popular games in China, played by men and women alike. No one is sure how it was actually played because we have yet to find any contemporary sources that detail its exact gameplay. We do know that the game came into use as early as the Zhou dynasty (1045 to 256 BCE), as evidenced by archaeological finds. Yet Chinese legends claim that Liubo was invented by Wu Cao, a minister to the last king of the Xia dynasty, who lived around 1728 to 1675 BCE.

In the third century CE, a poem entitled "Summons of the Soul" references Liubo:

菎蔽象棊,有六簙些。

分曹並進,遒相迫些。

成梟而牟,呼五白些。

Then with bamboo dice and ivory pieces the game of Liu Bo is begun;

Sides are taken; they advance together; keenly they threaten each other.

Pieces are kinged and the scoring doubled. Shouts of ‘five white!’ arise.

By the time this poem was written, Liubo had become immensely popular. It reached its height during the Han dynasty, as evidenced by the many graves which contain Liubo pieces, numerous pottery and wooden figurines of Liubo players, and decorations in tombs and temples.

A lacquered Chinese liubo board game set excavated from Tomb No. 3 of Mawangdui, Changsha, Hunan province, China, c. 2nd century BCE. The set featured a lacquered game box, lacquered game board, 12 cuboid ivory pieces, 20 ivory game pieces, 30 rod-sh
A lacquered Chinese liubo board game set excavated from Tomb No. 3 of Mawangdui, Changsha, Hunan province, China, c. 2nd century BCE. The set featured a lacquered game box, lacquered game board, 12 cuboid ivory pieces, 20 ivory game pieces, 30 rod-sh | Source

During the Han dynasty, we also find evidence that women played Liubo. In some records, brides are recorded as having Liubo game sets as part of their dowries. During the reign of Han Emperor Xuandi, his daughter Wusun Kunmo brought a Liubo set with her in marriage to the King of Jiandu.

Additionally, Liubo is often depicted in association with The Queen Mother of the West. In the image below, The Queen Mother is pictured on her dragon throne with a dragon; a toad, hare, nine-tailed fox, and three-legged crow are to her right; and two fairy Liubo players on a mountain are to her left.

Engraving on an Eastern Han stone coffin from Sichuan dated to the Eastern Han (25 CE - 220 CE) period.
Engraving on an Eastern Han stone coffin from Sichuan dated to the Eastern Han (25 CE - 220 CE) period. | Source

Unfortunately, Liubo died out by around 420 CE. It was quickly replaced in China with the game of Go, though some sources hint that Liubo may have continued on elsewhere. In The Old Book of Tang, Tibetans are said to have continued playing the game long after it ceased to be popular in China.

Liubo Board and Pieces, Han dynasty (206 BC - AD 220), China.
Liubo Board and Pieces, Han dynasty (206 BC - AD 220), China. | Source

How to Play Liubo

Scholars still debate exactly how to play Liubo. Most surviving descriptions of the game are conflicting, suggesting that the game's rules changed according to where or when it was played. Many sets feature at least 12 main game pieces (6 per person), which were used to move around the board. They also featured two sets of 6 rods, thrown by players to determine their moves, and a game board.

In the Book of Ancient Bo, Zhang Zhan recorded these instructions for playing Liubo:

博法:二人相對坐,向局,局分為十二道,兩頭,當中名為水。用棋十二枚,古法六白、六黑。又用魚二枚,置於水中。其擲采以瓊為之。二人互擲彩行棋,棋行到處即竪之,名為驍棋。即入水食魚,亦名牽魚。每牽一魚獲二籌,翻一魚獲三籌。若已牽兩魚而不勝者,名曰被翻雙魚,彼家獲六籌為大勝也。

Method of play : Two people sit facing each other over a board, and the board is divided into twelve paths, with two ends, and an area called the 'water' in the middle. Twelve game pieces are used, which according to the ancient rules are six white and six black. There are also two 'fish' pieces, which are placed in the water. The players throw dice called qióng. The two players take turns to throw the dice and move their pieces. When a piece has been moved to a certain place it is stood up on end, and called a 'fierce' piece. Thereupon it can enter the water and eat a fish, which is also called 'pulling a fish'. Every time a player pulls a fish he gets two tokens, and if he pulls two fish in a row he gets three tokens [for the second fish]. If a player has already pulled two fish but does not win it is called double-pulling a pair of fish. When one player wins six tokens the game is won.

Historians think the game was likely a race or battle type of game. Yet others believe that Liubo might have been for divination, where players used the board, rods, and moves to predict future events regarding marriage, travel, disease, or death.

Another version of the game was reconstructed by Jean-Louis Cazaux in 2003. You can find his instructions in this article from Abstract Games magazine.

Liubo players, Han dynasty (206 BCE - 220 CE), China.
Liubo players, Han dynasty (206 BCE - 220 CE), China. | Source

Famous Mentions

Several Chinese officials were said to have played Luibo. Among them was King Mu of the Zhou dynasty (r. 977-922 BCE), who is said to have played a game with a hermit that lasted three full days. There is also mention of the Uyghur general Li Guangyuan (761 - 826 CE), who was presented with a girl who could play the game.

Liubo also got a shout-out from the philosopher Confucius, who only grudgingly approved of the game, stating that it was better than idleness. In the Kongzi Jiayu (Family Sayings of Confucius), he stated that he would not play Liubo as it promoted bad habits.

Mirror with Game Board Design, Han dynasty (206 BC - 220 AD), China. Held by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 17.118.42, and currently on view in Gallery 207
Mirror with Game Board Design, Han dynasty (206 BC - 220 AD), China. Held by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 17.118.42, and currently on view in Gallery 207 | Source

Perhaps among the most interesting mentions is one that doesn't concern a person at all. In the mirror pictured above, the design for a Liubo game board is featured, and suggests a more spiritual aspect to the game:

The diagrammatic decoration on the back of this mirror points to a new cosmology. The square world—aligned with the four cardinal directions and inscribed with the “twelve earthly branches” used to compute the calendar—is surrounded by the circular heavens ringed in turn by the waves of the cosmic ocean. Sharing the heavenly realm with the animals of the four directions are T-, L-, and V-shaped markings that recall the same design on the liubo game board, suggesting that a game of chance also plays a part in the workings of the universe.

- The Metropolitan Museum of Art

While Liubo isn't explicitly mentioned or depicted as a game played by women, its popularity throughout China and association with The Queen Mother of the West suggests it was played by women.

Do you think women played Liubo?

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    • janebasijan profile image

      janebasijan 4 months ago

      Interesting!

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