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11 January 2000


Fan Xiping (also called Fan Shixun) was born in 1709 in Haining. Just a year later Shi Ding'an (or Shi Xiangxia) was born in the same town, and these two were to become great (but friendly) rivals, their encounters culminating in a famous ten-game match at Pinghu. Who was superior it is hard to say, but they were certainly two of the greatest players China has produced.

They were born into rather different circumstances. It was the heyday of the Kangxi emperor (r. 1662-1723), a time of plenty and a time of great cultural and artistic development in the Qing dynasty. Fan was born into one of the families that ought to have enjoyed this prosperity, but which struggled because of go.

His father was addicted to the game and so neglected the family property. Then his son began to learn the game from the age of 3 (Oriental count) by watching his father play with guests. By the age of 6 he could make his own game records. The guests professed amazement and praised the boy. This only made the father determined to make him stronger, and so he spent more money on engaging famous players in the county, Guo Tangzhen and Zhang Liangchen, to instruct him.

As early as the age of 7 or 8 young Fan was able to match these two go masters Guo and Zhang, and soon he had surpassed them. They had no alternative but to take their leave of Fan's father and to recommend he find someone better qualified. Fan senior scoured Zhejiang province and found the Shanyin master Yu Changhou.

Yu, also called Yongjia and Donghui, was only of the third rank, well behind the level of the then guoshous (top masters) Xu Xingyou, Liang Weijin and Cheng Lanru. But they were of an older generation and he could claim to be first among the younger players. Zhang Mengjie said of him: "Being the son of a person of artistic distinction, he embraced the talents of a statesman and by nature he was indifferent to fame or gain. He did not enjoy scholarly advancement, but simply studied day and night the miscellaneous arts of a 100 schools. And he was also well versed in go... When young he disdained to play for money. Therefore good players from everywhere beat a path to his door." Under his guidance Fan Xiping advanced very rapidly, and by the age of 12 he was on a par with his teacher.

This astonishing advance in Fan's go skill naturally attracted attention within the Shi family, and the ll-year-old Shi Ding'an was therefore brought by his admiring father to pay a courtesy call. In his famous book "Yili Zhigui" (Guide to go theory), Shi said: "My fellow townsman Fan Xiping was one year older than I and accompanied Yu Changhou of Zhejiang on his travels. When he was 12 his name ranked with that of his teacher, and therefore I admired him and followed him as a student."

Shi was apparently inspired. He had been born a year after Fan Xiping in 1710. He was also called Shao'an and later by the commonly used courtesy name Xiangxia. For generations his old family had won literary honours and were well known in Haining. His father, it was said, was "versed in literature, good at calligraphy, he could also paint orchids and bamboos. In his late years he often stayed at home and burned incense and played the zither, and played go with visitors."

A man who had the four traditional artistic accomplishments of the zither, go, literature and painting would naturally want his son to follow in his footsteps, and so Shi Ding'an entered a private school to learn his books and the zither. But from childhood Shi was "dull and quiet, his body was thin and he suffered many illnesses." He was therefore also allowed to learn a little go, for recreation. Despite his reputation for dullness up till then, he suddenly blossomed and became a co-pupil with Fan - as the Chinese charmingly put it, they shared the same window at school. At first Shi took three stones from Yu, but within a year, at the age of 12, he was playing him level and vying with Fan.

Yu then took both pupils to Hangzhou to visit the grand old man of go, the 78-year-old Xu Xingyou. Xu played both of them, giving 3 stones, and helped them play over games with commentaries. His insights fascinated the two youngsters. Xu presented them both with a volume of his great and valuable collection of commented games, "Jianxian-tang Yipu."

In 1723, Fan was 15 years old. Tradition has it that in this year he played a match of 10 games with his teacher. Yu Zhanghou lost them all, and so it was time for Fan to move on. Only seven games between Yu and Fan are extant, and there is just one between Yu and Shi (taking four stones) but it is believed to be a later forgery.

At this stage Fan was still classed as a guogong. According to the memorial tablet on his tomb he reached the supreme grade of goushou a year later at the age of 16. Shi Ding'an became a guoshou slightly later than Fan, and according to one source, Zhang Shida in a preface to "Yili Zhigui," it was not for several more years. This may be based on the fact that, in 1730, when Shi was on a visit to Huzhou (modern Wuxing in Zhejiang Province), he met the two great players Liang Weijin and Cheng Lanru in the government office of the envoy of Tanggaitang and played with them, taking first move. This may have been out of politeness. At any rate, in 1732, Shi visited Xianshan (Wucheng in Zhejiang Province) with Liang Weijin and proved himself his equal as a guoshou there.

It was at the springs in Xianshan that Shi supposedly made great strides when Liang explained to him that a game of go was like a spring whose waters go only where they can go and stop where they have to stop.

About this time Yu Zhanghou took his two pupils to visit Qian Zhangze of the great Songjiang clan. They were treated with unusual politeness. Qian Zhangze was only of the third rank in go, but his discussions of go theory were relatively sophisticated, and on this occasion he talked volubly about old and modern go theory, much to the benefit of Fan and Shi. Fan and Shi themselves became even more celebrated after travelling to Songjiang. This was a time for cashing in on that fame, and so their paths diverged.

This was a time when China enjoyed enormous depth in go, with many rich families willing to sponsor games or hire players. Apart from the old guoshous already mentioned, the famous names of the period include Li Buqing, Tong Hezhong, Zang Nianxuan, Chen Yuanyou, Zhou Chunlai, Wu Laiyi, Jiang Zaibao, the monk Guanru and many others. One player, Hu Zhaolin, was nicknamed Ironhead (he had a violent attacking style) because he was so far ahead of his own circle where he had a record of "100 games, 100 wins." Yet against Fan he had to take 2 stones. The others who played with Fan and Shi, about 100 in total, all took 3 to 9 stones. The benefit for us is that several hundred handicap games by Fan and Shi remain.

There is a story about an encounter between Fan and Ironhead. They were in the middle game and Hu already felt the game slipping away. So he feigned indisposition and adjourned the game. He then despatched a messenger to show the position to Shi Ding'an and to ask him how to retrieve the situation. When the game with Fan resumed, Hu was armed with Shi's moves and his prospects visibly improved - but by then Fan had guessed what had happened. Hu was evidently something of a character. He was a salt merchant who liked to wrap strings of cash round his waist. Whenever he played Fan, he would convert captured stones to silver coins - presumably to encourage Fan to join him in the wild attacking games he favoured.

Fan travelled as far as Beijing in 1736 and this gave rise to a most peculiar story in which Fan was supposed to have played Huang Longshi first in a previous existence. His alter ego had died after coughing up blood at the go board. Then he played him again in his own body, but this time it was Huang who died at the board, croaking that it was retribution. Dates are rarely given by Chinese writers, and as here they rarely let chronology spoil a good story. (Episodes of coughing up blood at the go board were famous in old Japan - just possibly this story is based on accounts filtering out of Japan.)

Formal games between Fan and Shi then were a rare event. According to an anecdote by Hu Jingfu, Fan and Shi played a 10-game match at Beijing University and Fan won 7-3, but no other record of this has been handed down. But there was obvious interest in pitting them together.

In 1739, when Fan was 32 and Shi 31, Zhang Yongnian (also: Danjiu), from a well known go family in Pinghu, employed both of them for a year to give advanced go tuition to his sons. Five generations of the Zhang family had been good at go, and his sons Shiren (Zhenxi) and Shichang (Yuanyan) were of the third grade. In go circles they were known as the Three Zhangs. Throughout this year, Fan and Shi played many handicap games, and picked out 28 especially fine ones for inclusion in the book "San Zhang Yipu" (Go Games of the Three Zhangs).

At the same time, they apparently asked the two great masters to play each other. This was the origin of the celebrated "Ten games of Tanghu". Tanghu, which has erroneously been identified as the famous West Lake near Hangzhou by some western writers, is an old name for Pinghu in Zhejiang Province.

These ten games are not mentioned in "Go Games of the three Zhangs", nor are they even mentioned in the preface. It is far from clear if they formed a match, or whether there were just ten games. Moreover, alternative records of some of the games exist. They appeared for the first time in Zhou Xiaosong's "Xinjiu Yipu Huixuan" (Collection of Go Games Old and New). The the great collector and publisher Deng Yuanhui of Wuxi published a special volume "Fan-Shi Shiju" (10 games of Fan and Shi) in his compilation "Si Da Mingjia Yipu" (Games of Four Great Go Masters).

The huge compendium of Fan and Shi's lifetime games, the "Haichang Er Miao" (Two Geniuses of Haining) then added a private copy of another game in the late 19th century, making a total of 11. Some claim there are really 13 games.

Accepting the ten games that today are put forward as their "ten-game match", the score would be 5-5. Eight of them are close games, and without doubt masterpieces. In his book Deng Yuanhui described the players thus: "Fan was marvelous, lofty and far reaching, like a supernatural dragon, changing so that no-one could tell his head or his tail. Shi was profound and precise, like an old steed galloping but never losing its step." He also said, "Shi was like the ocean in great flood, containing much that is profound. Fan was like the high mountains, with aspirations that were lofty and marvellous."

As this implies, despite their shared youth Fan and Shi were different both in temperament and in go style. Fan was upright and guileless, but self possessed. On the go board he was bold and uninhibited, allowing his fancy to run free. He was always experimenting and going beyond what others expected. Li Ruzhen, a famous scholar of the time, who was also a go player, said: "Fan's attitude to go is like Duke Mu of Wu's to generalship: he does not follow the ancient methods, but is all conquering."

Shi, however, studied at private school as a child for the literary examination for entry to the civil service. He became proficient in poetry and in the zither. On the go board he was noted for his accuracy and steady and cautious style. His knowledge of go theory was profound and thorough, and he planned carefully. A poem he wrote said: "To answer without thinking leads to many defeats."

He took infinite pains and played very slowly. This was in direct contrast to Fan, who was marvellously quick. According to the storytellers, Shi sometimes would not play a stone till sunset, while Fan would go on a picnic or sing songs, or even lie down on a bench and take a nap.

In middle age Fan married and went to live with his bride's family in Jiangnin (=Nanjing). His go activities were constantly moving between Suzhou, Yangzhou and Taicang. In 1746, when 38, he accepted an invitation by Bi Jianfeng of Taicang to teach his grandson Bi Yuan. Bi Yuan (1730-1797) passed the civil service examinations to become a jinshi and was appointed governor of Huguang (= modern Hunan and Hubei). He was a talented poet and prolific author, and studied go with Fan for 17 years, taking 3 stones. It was considered a great honour for Fan to teach such a famous pupil.

Shi Ding'an, having passed 50, lived in Yangzhou for several years as a go instructor, but he had very few pupils. He died in 1770. Fan's date of death is not known. There is a source that implied he lived to over 90, but given that a record of his tombstone memorial had already been published in 1797, we can safely assume he was dead by then.

Apart from the legacy of their games, however, we are blessed with famous go manuals. In 1762, when Shi was 53 in Yangzhou, he wrote "Yili Zhigui". Five years later, now in Suzhou, he had his pupil Li Liang compile "Yili Zhigui Continued." Because it was written entirely in rhymed verse and contained many technical terms, it was notoriously difficult for the general reader, and so Qian Changze of Songjiang rendered it into a popular version, "Yili Zhigui Tu." This was the version that became famous. Shi was also the author of "Zi ni er zi pu" (Self-made two-stone games) and other instructional works (including go proverbs). He also edited versions of earlier classics.

Fan Xiping's most famous work is the "Tao Hua Quan Yi Pu" (Peach Blossom Fountain Go Manual). In 1764, when he was 56 and also living in Yangzhou, he was visited by Bian Wenheng of Yizhi. At that time Shi had already published his "Yili Zhigui." Having read it, Bian asked Fan for his comments. The result was his own book. The Yangzhou Salt Commissioner of the time, Shi Gaoheng, like many merchants, wanted to ingratiate himself with men of letters and to pose as a man of culture. He therefore sponsored Fan's book and named it after an old brine well beside his government office. In fact, he also diverted funds illegally from the government office to pay for its publication.

Fan's book caused a sensation among go players, and editions appeared everywhere. It was so popular that for a time it was famously said again that "paper became expensive in Luoyang." This refers to the story of Zuo Si during the Jin dynasty (265-420) who wrote some poetry that others copied to such an extent that the price of paper rose. Like Shi, Fan also wrote a book called "Zi Ni Er Zi Pu" and he also helped Qian Zhangze collate the "Canju-lei Xuan" (Selection of tsume-go).

Here is a small selection of downloadable games by Fan and Shi in sgf format with a great rarity for the first time in the west: an ELEVEN-stone game by a master.

Game 1: Fan Xiping v. Shi Ding'an (ten-game match at Tanghu)
Game 2: Fan Xiping v. Chen Yuanyou
Game 3: Fan Xiping v. Hu Zhaolin "Ironhead" (2 stones)
Game 4: Shi Ding'an v. Bu Cangru (4 stones)
Game 5: Shi Ding'an v. Xiuqin (11 stones)