Madrid view: the Chinese don’t play chess


In his recent, monumental book ¨On China,¨ which consists of 608 pages, Henry Kissinger, offers us the key to understanding the strategic thinking of the Chinese. To do so makes it unnecessary for one to learn Mandarin or to read the 608 pages. Thanks to Doctor Kissinger, understanding the complexities of the Chinese mindset is now available to the whole world.

The secret, informs Kissinger, is in the Chinese board game ¨Go,¨ also called ¨weiqi¨ in Chinese and ¨igo¨ in Japanese, a game with more than 2,600 years of history. The game is of a devilish complexity which consists of 180 identical tokens that move along 361 squares (details here). Of course, there is also an online version.

The West’s strategic thinking, says Kissinger, is dominated by chess, where the goal is to obtain control of the center of the chess board and from there attack with all might the opponent’s King until overthrowing him. However, in the weiqi game, the goal is to surround the opponent, prevent him from moving and limit his movements. The game is so complicated, states Kissinger, that it is sometimes difficult to know how is winning and who is losing.  Armed with this genius discovery, Kissinger explains to us with absolute coherence Mao´s foreign policy and communist China, from the conflicts for the straits near China to the Korean war, etc.

The metaphor is fascinating but at the same time also creates suspicions. First, because one thing is being a realist in international relations and another thing is thinking, as Kissinger does, that all of China’s interests have been unchanging in the last thousand years and that foreign policy has stayed the same while the communist ideology has not played a role in Chinese politics. Second, it is difficult to accept that all people think and operate mentally in mindsets that are radically different just because of their culture or ethnicity and that there exist different types of rationalities (Western, Confucian, etc.). Edward Said, in his work ¨Orientalism,¨ showed us how and with what disastrous effects the West constructed the ¨Arabic¨ and the ¨Arabic¨ as culturally and mentally different (exotic, sensual, untrustworthy, etc.).

Therefore, going a little further, I’ve discovered that there are fundamental suspicions that all of this weiqi history could be an urban legend. The first reason is due to the reference that appears in a report published in July 2002 and presented by the Secretary of Defense to the American Congress on ¨The military power of the People’s Republic of China¨ which confirms that the Chinese strategic thinking is different to the American strategic thinking. This statement uses as proof for its argument the ¨shi¨ concept designed by Sun Tzuand his references to the weiqi game. The author of this official report is unknown but in May 2004, Daniel Lei, a professor at the US Air War College published a paper with the title ¨Learning from stones: A Go approach to Mastering China’s strategic Concept, Shi¨ where he sketches the details of the weiqi thesis. Given the institutional affiliation and the fact that Lei has been giving conferences and seminars on this topic during the last couple of years, it is safe to assume that Lei was also the author behind the Pentagon report. Lei has also been fascinated by Kissinger’s work, who refers to Kissinger’s thesis in an article published in Newsweek in November 2004. Since then, according to the Wall Street Journal (¨What kind of game is China playing?¨), Lei has not done anything else except give seminars and conferences in the majority of American military centres, becoming a sort of celebrity on China’s strategic thinking.

The doubts concerning Kissinger’s thesis have also even been expressed by The Economist, which criticised Kissinger’s book and its analysis on China’s strategic thinking in its article ¨No Go¨ published in May 2011. Furthermore, Charles Rowley, a professor of Economics at the George Mason University, demonstrates exact quotes which reveal that Mao used to adore playing chess and spoke of ¨sacrificing chessmen¨ during the China-India war. And for all the historians and analysts, the millions of dead and Mao’s terror regime which consisted of the ¨Great Leap Forward¨ and the ¨Cultural Revolution,¨ are a good example of how Confucian wisdom does not exactly fit in the picture.

In Apocalypse Now, Robert Duvall made his the cultural explications when he shouted to his soldiers: ¨Charlie does not surf!¨ What do the readers think? Do you think the Chinese think differently from us? Or is Kissinger the one that does not surf?


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