This short poem refers to the game of Liubo, the earliest board game preserved in the archaeological record of China, where it was popular from the fourth century BCE until the end of the second century CE. Unique among board games from antiquity, the Liubo board consists of a central square surrounded by disconnected angular shapes, which can resemble the shape of the letters T, L and V but vary across the game's five-hundred-year history. The central square is also found as a rectangle and sometimes as three parallel bars. The moves are thought to proceed along the lines of these angular shapes.
Each player had six rectangular playing pieces, the liù bó (“six rods”) for which the game is named, with two sides distinguished by color or material. Although most often depicted with a set of these two-sided dice, Liubo has also been associated with one or two intricately carved eighteen-sided dice, more often found in elite graves of the period. The game seems to involve gambling and was almost certainly connected to divinatory practices and cosmology.
Despite the rich archaeological finds, descriptions of the rules of the game can only be surmised from poems or occasional mentions in ancient texts. One of the best-known references is the one translated here, from the ninth chapter (titled Zhāo Hún, or Summons of the Soul) of the ancient Chinese poetry anthology, The Songs of the South. Written in the third century BCE, at the time when Liubo was already popular, this short passage mentions the game of Liubo and how it proceeds. These six lines are found in the latter part of the main section of this poem, which is about 280 lines long and speaks about dangers to the soul with a detailed list of rewards if the soul returns.
In this section and for most of Zhāo Hún, each line consists of four syllables. The second line rhymes with every other second line, all of which end with 些 (xiē), a euphonic particle and possible interjection found frequently throughout Zhāo Hún. This particle is repeated and preceded by a rhyming syllable: 簙 (bó), 迫 (pò) and 白 (baí). Since most Chinese words are mono-syllabic, this English translation uses one word for each syllable to create a similar form. The effect of the euphonic particle is recreated by the repeated use of the indefinite article “a”.
This translation aims to visualize a game of Liubo with the evocative terms that were used in the original poem, such as 五 白 (wǔ baí, “five white”), which calls out the winning score with six two-sided dice that fittingly ends this poetry fragment. The material of the rods, bamboo and ivory, match the archaeological finds. Most other elements of the game, such as the promotion of pieces and blocking strategies, may only be surmised from these poetic lines.
Source text of the original Chinese is David Hawkes, The Songs of the South: an anthology of ancient Chinese poems by Qu Yuan and other poets (Harmondsworth, 1985).
In the Classroom
Ludic Diversion: Glean what you can of the rules of the ancient game of Liubo from Alex de Voogt’s translation of this six-line fragment, as well as the historical evidence referenced in the Translator’s Note. Use these details to devise your own game of Liubo, including an instruction manual for gameplay, and a board and playing pieces constructed of paper and other found materials.
Bonus points if you test out your version of Liubo with another player.