Chess in Canton

Buddhist monks playing Chinese chess, Temple of the Five Hundred Gods, Canton (Guangzhou), c.1869.  Photograph by John Thomson.  Wellcome Images (L0055983).

Buddhist monks playing Chinese chess, Temple of the Five Hundred Gods, Canton (Guangzhou), c.1869. Photograph by John Thomson. Wellcome Images (L0055983).

The Wellcome Institute announced recently that all historical images that are out of copyright and held by Wellcome Images are being made freely available under the Creative Commons Attribution licence.  Search for, download and study images by, for example, John Thomson or Patrick Manson, at http://wellcomeimages.org/.

Page from an album at the Royal Society for Asian Affairs, London (RSAA reference RSAA/SC/BOW/1).

Page from an album at the Royal Society for Asian Affairs, London (RSAA reference RSAA/SC/BOW/1).

As it happens, an image by Thomson (Buddhist monks playing Chinese chess, Temple of the Five Hundred Gods, Canton (Guangzhou), c.1869) is to be exhibited this weekend (1st and 2nd February) at the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, as part of Bristol’s Chinese New Year celebrations.  The nineteen images in the pop up Canton Camera exhibition are from Historical Photographs of China collections and each decade is represented, from the 1860s to the 1940s.

Wood engraving from ‘In the Valley of the Yangtse’ by Mrs Arnold Foster.

Wood engraving from ‘In the Valley of the Yangtse’ by Mrs Arnold Foster.

It is interesting to compare the Wellcome’s scan of Thomson’s negative with the RSAA print.  The wood engraving appears in Mrs Arnold Foster’s children’s book ‘In the Valley of the Yangtse’ (1899), in which she describes Chinese chess:  “Across the middle of the board is a river, guarding which on each side stand five soldiers.  Besides these there are a general, two secretaries, two elephants, two horses, two chariots, and two guns”.  This 32-piece game, said to have been invented c.1120 BC, is similar to the Western game – an even older Chinese version had 300 pieces!

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