Go a Go-Go: The Japanese Board Game of Go Currently and Historically In East Asia

Western Civ

Research Report
Web Resources


The Japanese board game of Go, known in China as Wei Qi and Korea as Baduk, is an ancient game of strategy played thougought most of East Asia. As it spread from China to Korea and Japan, the game developed and grew in each. All developing their own styles and ways of playing, the game today is quite international and those three countries regularly compete to see who is the strongest. 
Historical Background

It is widely accepted that the origins of Go lay in ancient China, where the game was known as Yi but today is called Wei Qi, a good deal before the time of Christ.  There are several legendary origins, dealing with legendary rulers of the early Chinese dynasties, but no exact known origin, though many can speculate at how it developed.

The best known legendary origin comes from a simple Chinese quote “Yao invented Go in order to instruct his son Dan Zhu.”  The Yao referred to is one of the three patriarchs, Yao, Shun and Yu, who lead in that order, each previous stepping down to let the next in line rule as he proved a more capable ruler.  If this legendary origin is true, that would place the creation of Go in the mid 23rd century BC, making the game over four thousand years old. 

While we have no direct knowledge of when Go was invented, we have a fairly good idea where its true origins lie.  We have proof today of divination in China with cracked turtle shells dating back thousands and thousands of years.  It is conceivable that perhaps these cracks were reproduced on boards with stones in order for the priests to have better access to interpret them.  Another possibility could lie with the military.  Often used in later times as metaphors for war, Go could have easily developed as a strategy tool for commanders of the armys. 

The spread of Go to Korea, where it is known as Baduk, took place one of two possible ways.  The first theory involves a man named Kija (Qizi in China) came to Korea around 1000 B.C. with many others to avoid the wars raging in China.  He was said to be a scholarly man and taught a Chinese way of life to many throughout Korea and Baduk was one of those things taught which stuck with them until this day.  The other theory is that around 108 B.C. when the Chinese had invaded and took control of Korea extensive trading in the region lead to a good deal of culture moving around and Baduk was introduced in this manner to the land.

The spread of Go to Japan is a much easier tale to tell.  In the mid 8th Century the Emperor of China sent the game through Japanese representatives to the current Emperor of Japan.  The aristocracy soon took to the game and it spread through Japan in that way. 

Research Report

After its start in China, go spread throughout East Asia, ending up as major parts of the cultures of Japan and Korea as well as China.  The growth of the game took different roads in each country, with rules and its place in culture changing over time.

China is the obvious place to start, as the game first developed here and has had the longest time to be a part of the culture.  Some of the earlier definite references to Go can be seen in the works of Confucius. He makes mention of it in an unflattering manner, causing future generations to at times regard Go as un-Confucian.  Later it begins being known as a game of skill and those who are good at it tend to be known as wise men. 

At this period in time it appears that the game was played on 17x17 boards rather then the 19x19 boards used today.  It is unclear when and why the change occurred, but there is evidence that they were both in use for some time together before 19x19 boards became the general type used.  For example in Tibetan Go a 17x17 board is still used today, making it seem obvious the switch to 19x19 boards was not universal.

Another difference that existed in early Chinese Go was the concept of placement.  In placement, four stones are placed on the board before play, black stones diagonal corner star points and white stones on the other diagonal corner star points.  This would end up limiting Chinese Go players as other countries had gotten rid of that rule and allowed for more inventive openings that led to all sorts of new strategies.  By the time placement was gotten rid of in China, they lagged far behind other countries.  Eventually the “Chinese” opening was developed as it was one the other countries had not seen before and could help keep Chinese players on even ground to continue the game. 

In China today there are many top world players living there or that have come from there. The top women's player in the world, Rui Naiwei, is from China and was the first woman ever to win a major open title. Other pro players from China consistently play well against international competition, not quite as well overall as the Korean players, but better overall then Japanese players. 

The next country to look at is Korea.  As in other countries, the game began as something for the aristocracy.  It was seen as a romantic pursuit for the scholarly and wise. 

In 1592 after the Japanese invaded Korea, Go began to be popular among the middle class as still one of the important arts all wise and scholarly people were good at.  It was played by many a commanding officer Korea during the conflict with Japan.  This style of Go was still the old style brought from China many hundreds of years before but a new style was developed, Sun Jang Baduk.  In this style 16 stones are first placed on the board and then with the first move by black is placed on tengen, the center star point.  This style forced fighting in the early game and made many Korean plays very adept at dealing with any situation that could arise in the game.

After World War II, Go began the rise to prominence it holds today in Korea.  A professional institute was established and pro games began to be played.  Players emerged with great strength and understanding of the game.  When international tournaments began to be held Korea would often come out on top.  In the 90’s Korea became the undisputed top Go power in the world.  Many titles were consistently held by the top Korean players and still are today.  Also the person considered the strongest player in the world is Korean, Lee Chang-Ho.

Finally we look at Go in Japan. After it had spread to the country in the 8th century the next period of real interest in Japanese Go history isn't until the Tokugawa Shogunate period. 

Before this time, there would often be Go tutors who worked specifically for the emperor, the best players in the country with the sole purpose of teaching the emperor to play better. When the first Tokugawa Shogun came into power he established an official government post for the best player in the country to be personal tutor to the shogun, the Meijin Godokoro. A highly coveted position, the Meijin Godokoro had power, prestige, and also a direct line to the shogun. 

Go support by the shogun didn't stop there. In 1612 the government began subsidizing the four major Go houses at that time: the Honinbo, Inoue, Hayashi, and Yasui. For the next 250 years these schools were supported by the government until the Meiji Restoration brought their funding to an end. 

Also at this time the castle games were started. A castle game is a Go game between two of the best players around, usually from the heads or upper ranks of the four schools, played before the shogun at his castle. The first one was held in 1605, but it wasn't until 1628 that it was made an official ceremony and after 1667 they began to be held annually. The most famous participant of these castle games is Honinbo Shusaku, who in nineteen consecutive castle games never lost once. The castle games also suffered when the Meiji Restoration came about, they were never held again after 1863. 

With all the turmoil in Japanese Go during the Meiji Restoration, game play around the country suffered a great deal. This was one of the low periods of Go in the country until newspapers began to help sponsor it. Newspapers would publish weekly Go columns, discussing games and strategy and giving the average person an easy look into the world of professional Go. As years went on newspapers began to sponsor tournaments, and today all the major tournaments in Japan are supported by newspapers.

Japanese Go also benefited by the creation of the Nihon Kiin in 1924. The Nihon Kiin is the main Go body in Japan; it organizes professional events and handles rank promotions and such. The last head of the Honinbo school helped to establish the Nihon Kiin by handing over the title of Honinbo to be determined by tournament through the organization. Today all titles are determined through tournaments in this way. 

Go in Japan today is suffering. Constantly behind other Go powers China and Korea in international play, Japan is searching for a way to retake its place as the top Go power in the world. Help is coming from a strange place these days, anime and manga. Hikaru No Go is the story of a boy named Hikaru and the ghost of a Heian period Go tutor to the emperor named Sai. The two are forced together when Hikaru finds the ancient Go board the ghost is trapped inside in his grandfather?x2019;s attic. Hikaru then begins to learn to play and enjoy Go from Sai and quickly becomes a great player. The popularity of the manga led it to being made into an anime that is equally as popular. Due to this new phenomenon Go has had resurgence among the young in Japan, with classes for children quickly filling up and new classes starting all around. This will hopefully bring about many new great players to help Japan reach the top of the Go world again. 

Historical Significance

The significance of Go in East Asia is similar to that of Chess in Europe.  As a game played mainly by the aristocracy in its early days, it is still seen today as a game of skill and wisdom and refinement.  Go was also a large part of military strategy, with military commanders in China and Korea playing Go and samurai in Japan playing go to sharpen their minds. 

The significance of Go in modern times in East Asia is similar to sports in the US.  Go professionals make a decent living merely playing Go and the top players and tournaments are followed very closely by the general populace.  Schools are set up in Japan, for example, where children at young ages are taught to play go very intensively with the intent of becoming pro players.  Internationally between East Asian countries Go is a matter of national pride, with currently Korea and China on top of Japan who had in ages past been the top Go power in the world for many years. 


Guousun, Shen. Beauty and the Beast: Exquisite Play and Go Theory. Santa Monica: Yutopian Enterprises, 1996.
Web Resource

Go, An Addictive Game, http://www.gobase.org -- Good general resource of Go information.  Commented games, info on players and playing strategies are only the beginning of what this site has to offer.

Sensei's Library, http://senseis.xmp.net/ -- Another good general resource of Go information. Full of information on virtually anything Go related currently and historically.

IGS, The Internet Go Server, http://igs.joyjoy.net -- Go playing server where many highly skilled players come to play.  Japanese title matches and other major tournaments are often played out for anyone to watch.  Client download required for play.

Kiseido Go Server, http://kgs.kiseido.com -- This is another Go playing server with fewer highly skilled players but a simpler design and easier to use interface.  Java only required for play through web browser.

American Go Association, http://www.usgo.org -- Web site of the American Go Association.  The site has information on chapters around the country as well as Go events, including tournaments and lectures, around the country.

Nihon Ki-in,  http://www.nihonkiin.or.jp/index-e.htm -- English version of the Japanese Go Association in Japan.  It contains a good deal of information on Japanese tournaments and current title holders. 

Site Created by:  Kyle D. Rudy