The story of the chess piece and the forgotten old soldier

December 22, 2016

Last week. The eldest son of a landowner who I had never seen before. Whose father had passed on last year came in search for me – when the young man saw me. He dived directly to the point….my lands in the North have been overrun by thugs. My family is not respected by the local clans and we get little or nothing despite coming to this largesse that is my father’s legacy – when I asked pointedly what is it that you seek from me.

The young man handed me a chess disc marked soldier 卒 – my father told me before he passed on should our clan need help one day. All that needs to be done is to seek out the landowner who lives on the hill to the West and to present this to him.

When I saw the chess piece. I knew what was expected of me….it was hardly a matter of choice. I put my arms around the shoulders of the young man and we walked. In between the distance of two palms. I turned to him and said to him in a fatherly tone,

‘I shall teach you everything your father once taught me and much more.’

An old debt has to be paid in full.


‘The red or black soldier in Chinese chess seems to be an awfully sad character – it seems all he aspires to do is to cross the river when opportunity presents itself – even then since he can only move sideways one step at a time his chances seem slim to impossible. And even should he manage to accomplish this improbable feat and fulfill his mission – he never hopes to get promoted like other chess pieces that can always better their lot by seizing the high ground with daring and intelligence. The soldiers lot is a very miserable one.

That is why in the forgotten language and customs of the old country – it can carry so many layered meanings….it is a very powerful metaphor that appeals exclusively to the Chinese psyche. I don’t expect everyone to understand the gravitas of this compact – as today so much of the old ways has given way to the idea of the ‘me’ only society, where the ingrate is usually seen as a hero and the selfless man of duty is derided and even looked down upon.

But it was not always like that….

In the olden days whenever the empire was besieged by foreign marauders. And the center threatened to collapse. The emperor would dispatch his fastest riders to the very edge of the known world to seek out men who once served him valiantly and with distinction – when these men were presented with the red chess piece of the soldier. They knew what was expected of them. They would probably ask their womenfolk to prepare a family meal and present offerings to their ancestral shrine. During the dead of night when only the sound of sleep resounds – these men would turn to their wife’s – and whisper to them…I owe a great debt that must be repaid, I shall see you in my next life. In the morning they mounted their horse and rode off never to be seen again some times for years on end.

This is a very sad Chinese tale that is repeated time and again for millennia.

As there is no guaranteed prospects of redemption in this tale – no promise that it may even end happily for the main protagonist or that the lowly soldier can even return and grow old one day and say to himself with a satisfied tone before he goes over that other side – I have lived a full life…there is only duty to a way as old as the mountains and streams.

No man can escape his destiny. Just as no man can escape his debts….heaven and earth demands that the accounts will always be squared.’

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