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Playful Pursuits

Games from Asia to the West

HUMANITIES, July/August 2004 | Volume 25, Number 4

Bridge, chess, backgammon, polo, and Snakes and Ladders have one thing in common: they all originated in pre-modern Asia and spread throughout the world. Games were transmitted from culture to culture by caravans, merchants, mercenaries, or invading armies such as that of Alexander the Great. Games were as significant as trade and religion for transmitting cultural forms and ideas, and as objects of art, they were treasured possessions and status symbols, often finely crafted and elaborately decorated to reflect the aspirations of their owners.

"In ancient times, people couldn't read or write, but they carried the designs of the games in their heads, and when they sat around the fire, they passed them on," says scholar Irving Finkel. "Games have vibrancy and vitality in people's lives on a level that has nothing to do with authority. When you have a really good game, nothing can stop it."

In "Asian Games: The Art of Contest," which opens in New York on October 14 before traveling to Washington, D.C., and the Middlebury College Museum of Art in Vermont, Finkel and his co-curator have assembled nearly two hundred objects from around the world to demonstrate the pervasiveness of Asian games in ancient and contemporary culture--and the vocabularies, metaphors, values, and visual arts that they have contributed to the world. Asian games are a prism through which to explore social attitudes and values throughout history.

"Asia has been the wellspring of more games than any region of the world and certainly the most successful games," says co-curator Colin Mackenzie, curator of Asian art at the Middlebury College Museum of Art and former associate director of the Asia Society Museum. "Games are a component of that phenomenon we call culture, and are as important as the visual arts and the performing arts. They are a cultural activity that more people have indulged in than anything else--people listen to performances, but how many are performers? Europe and the West are in debt to Asia, as games are a significant element of cultural exchange."

Play, says David Parlett in his introduction to the exhibition catalog, "belongs to the superior field of activities which define us as spiritual beings, together with religion and the arts. . . . What makes a game 'real' rather than metaphorical is the sense that players agree that they are in fact playing a game and not using a game-like procedure in pursuit of practical, functional ends. Real play comes to an end when its players report back to the real world."

"What's very compelling is that unlike eating or sleeping, playing a game is the only universal human activity that is not a necessity," says Helen Abbott, associate director of the Asia Society Museum.

The art of contest involves social interactions such .as winning and losing, provides insight into skills necessary for education and the development of a young person in society, offers experiences in both the unpredictable and the controllable, and reflects class and gender roles as games are transmitted across cultures.

"The large number of world games, ancient and modern, boil down into a few families--war games, race games, hunt games, position games," says Finkel, an assistant keeper in the Department of the Ancient Near East in the British Museum. "This tells you something about games themselves. The hunt, the race, the fight are deep-seated in the human mind. There is a school of thought that believes the origin of games was a way of reducing everything to a miniature scale, where the danger of it, the true violence, was diminished."

"The fun of winning creates an adrenaline surge. After losing, you can say, 'I can win again--it's not the end of the day,'" says Mackenzie. "One is empowered by learning a skill, which can be physical or mental. A board game is a way of exercising your mind."

The Chinese recognized this more than four thousand years ago. The mastery of weiqi--a game of strategy in which a player defeats opponents by superior mental skill--was considered one of four essential cultural accomplishments, along with music, calligraphy, and painting.

"Games are important in society," says Finkel. "They are not trivial. There is no culture that has not played them. Before the modern world, before literacy, games were a way of spending time, finding fulfillment, and in many cases an outlet for aggression. . . . A game is preferable to war. And games are different from war. In war and love, anything goes. But a game without rules does not exist. The idea that you can win only within a constricted set of options that are shared by you and your opponent is fundamental."

The exhibition features games that shed light on aesthetic preferences, cultural values, and intercultural communication. Priority has also been given to games that have cross-cultural impact and have inspired significant art works. The exhibition is divided into four types of games--chance, strategy, memory and matching, and physical skill. Game paraphernalia, paintings, images of people playing games, and literary and historical background information are on display.

Games of chance include dice, backgammon, and the Indian "game of knowledge" that inspired Snakes and Ladders in England and Chutes and Ladders in the United States. Games of chance may have evolved in connection with divination systems, and liubo, a Chinese divination game, presents an example of a craze that lasted five hundred years, from the fourth century B.C.E. to the second century C.E. Liubo was a dice game and a game of displacement, in which players captured each other's pieces and the board's layout had cosmological significance. "It had the most remarkable dice that we know of in the history of dice-- eighteen-sided and numbered with Chinese characters from one to sixteen, and the characters on the other two sides we are not quite certain, but they probably depicted 'win' or 'lose,'" says Mackenzie. Liubo was very culturally specific and did not cross China's borders; ultimately it was eclipsed by weiqi, a game of pure strategy.

Backgammon, on the other hand, is a game that has become so much a part of Western culture that many may assume it came from Europe. The game was known in Rome, but it also had roots in Asia. The Persians claimed to have invented it, and by the fifth century it was closely associated with the ruling Persian elite. From Persia it traveled to China and Japan, and scroll paintings illustrate Japanese women playing backgammon, which was part of an aristocratic lady's dowry.

Games of chance were not only about a race to the finish, but also about players attaining a spiritual or material goal or state. Snakes and Ladders is a simple form of a race game, with one or two dice and the goal of arriving at a destination as quickly as possible.

Finkel is a specialist in pachisi, the second most important game to come out of India after chess. It reached Britain and America in the mid nineteenth century, reduced to a game requiring little skill. "The original game played in India for centuries was a complex sophisticated race game with dice, involving skill, strategy, and pure luck," Finkel says. "It was played by Muslim rulers as well as the poor, and was for centuries a national game. It was complicated as well in that in different parts of the country there were different rules."

In India the "game of knowledge" had a clear religious, moral, and didactic theme. "As you ascend in the boxes, you get closer to nirvana," Mackenzie says.

In Chinese versions the idea was "to get ahead because the road to success was to climb the ladder of official bureaucracy. . . through merit. You could write a history of the Chinese bureaucracy through these games. Yet this was almost totally a game of chance, not skill," Mackenzie continues. "From India, Snakes and Ladders was picked up by British colonials, but it lost its real moral and didactic element and becomes just a children's game."

The exhibition focuses on two consummate games of intellectual skill, chess and weiqi, also known as Go in Japanese. Both games enjoyed high status in Asia and Europe, with the exception of Chinese chess.

Perhaps more than any other game, chess has been associated with political power and authority. Differing styles of chess sets reflected religious and cultural differences. It is believed to have evolved from an early Indian game, chaturanga, which is Sanskrit for "having four limbs," a reference to the four branches of the Indian army: elephants, horsemen, chariots, and infantry. Although no early example of Indian chess survives, in Persia and much of the Islamic world chess came to be regarded as a royal game. Its sets were abstract, perhaps reflecting Islamic avoidance of figural representation. The transmission of chess from Islam to Europe sometime in the tenth century had an effect on European leisure habits, and pieces took on an explicitly military form with images of power and authority, such as the queen and bishop.

Some games of memory and matching--card games, dominoes, and mahjong--have unexpected origins. Chinese printed money, for example, was the original inspiration for playing cards. Games of connoisseurship include Japanese poetry cards, the playing of which depended on one's knowledge of poetry rather than card suits. The Japanese incense game was dependent on olfactory memory, but again, as a game that was particularly culturally specific, it did not find favor elsewhere.

Games of physical skill, including kickball and polo, dispel the misconception that such games are primarily Western or modern in their origin. These games also display the importance of physical skills in the societies they represent, and suggest gender roles. Polo's origin is probably horseback chase games such as buzkashi, which is still practiced among the nomadic peoples of Central Asia. The first literary and visual references to the game in China date from the late seventh century, after which time it became a popular sport in court circles throughout the Tang dynasty, where polo was played by both men and women in the late seventh and early eighth centuries. Particularly among the elite, women's enthusiasm for physical sports was curtailed in the following Song dynasty, which spanned the tenth through the thirteenth centuries. But polo continued to move westward to Persia and on to India, where it was adopted by British colonials who carried it to the West.

Finkel does not believe that today's computer games are a death knell for traditional game forms. "Competition against a machine is very shallow," he says. "And the traditional games of the world are in the hands of huge numbers of people who live in parts of the world that are more or less unaffected by the computer."

"Games will always be popular," Mackenzie says. "In this sense, society is competitive; the idea is to get ahead, and yet you do it within a set of assumptions about what is right."

About the Author

Janis Johnson is a writer in Los Angeles.

Funding Information

The Asia Society received $340,332 in NEH support for "Asian Games: The Art of Contest." The exhibition opens at the Asia Society Museum in New York on October 14 and will travel to the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C. and the Middlebury College Museum of Art. Beginning in 2005, a version of "Asian Games" will travel to small and midsize museums as a part of the NEH on the Road initiative.