August 18, 2005

Book Review: Qiwang (The Chess Master)

Qiwang (棋王)
By: Chang Shi-kuo (張系國)
ISBN: 9579525439

Although few people actually play chess, chess in literature is something that everyone can enjoy. Chess is a game, and like other games there are many strategies one needs to learn to be a competent player. There are openings and endings; there are strategies for each chess piece; and most importantly there are deployment strategies. However, unlike other games, we think of chess as a competition of deep thinking and creativity in its purest form. Twenty years ago, we doubted that the methodical analysis of a computer could ever beat the intuition and flashes of human brilliance of masters like Gary Kasparov. In the twenty-first century, we have reevaluated the intelligence of computers (which have already beaten the masters), but we still regard chess champions with awe, as paragons of raw intelligence honed for competition. We understand that it takes something special to drive them to be a champion.

In the Broadway musical "Chess," the driving forces behind the chess players are ambition and competitiveness. Chess is also a way for the players to escape the mundane world. In the recent comic series, Hikaru no Go (棋靈王 or 棋魂), which was very popular in both Japan and Taiwan, the chess players are driven in a typical model in which one must relentlessly pursue a goal until it is achieved, thus validating the value of the individual. Qiwang (translated as The Chess King or The Chess Master) is different from the typical portrayals of chess. In Qiwang, brilliance in chess is not a matter of intelligence, but rather a freak accident, and the chess player’s desire to play chess does not lie in ambition but in a child-like satisfaction in winning. Nonetheless, ambition and drive are important themes in this novel; In the environment of Taipei in the 70s, the race for money is game everyone plays.

The protagonist of Qiwang, Cheng Ling (程凌) is an artist who has created his own advertising firm. He enjoys painting, but like his friends, he is caught up in the pursuit of money. The paradox that Cheng Ling constantly ponders is that money is freedom, but one has to give up so much in order to achieve that freedom that he must constantly evaluate whether he is losing more than he gains.

The chess prodigy in Qiwang is able to easily win at chess by predicting the future. The author avoids getting into a detailed paradoxical explanation of how he uses this knowledge to win. Chess happens to be the first expression of the child’s special abilities, and the author is more concerned about a philosophical speculation about where these powers come from and an exploration of the willingness of adults to exploit anything, including children, in modern society.

The sharp dialog and colloquial language are surely a great part of the book’s appeal. Qiwang has the most colloquial language of any Chinese book I have read. The book has been used for Mandarin classes, so I thought it must be fairly easy. However, I reached for my dictionary more times than I care to mention.

In this review, I just wanted to introduce the book. Chang Shi-kuo peppers the book with philosophy, so there is a lot of material to talk about, yet the book is not a philosophical text. It’s a fast-paced science fiction novel with sharp dialog, populated by characters that have consciences, but whose lives, like ours, revolve around making a living.

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Qiwang was named one of the top one hundred Chinese novels of the twentieth century by Asia Weekly (亞洲周刊). It has been made into a musical written by San Mao (三毛), and has been made into a movie (only part of a movie, actually), and has been used as a text in Mandarin classes, along with a glossary and audio recording. Chang Shi-kuo grew up in Hsinchu, Taiwan. He is now a professor of computer science at the University of Pittsburgh.


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