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from the April 2004 issue

from The Girl Who Played Go


Min loathes games, he thinks they're a waste of time, but this afternoon, after prolonged pleading, I have managed to make him change his mind. He agrees to play cards on condition that we stay in bed and my stomach serves as the table. For him, every pleasure in life is ultimately related to erotic gratification. He is quite incapable of working out his opponent's strategy and loses gloriously, rushing to throw his cards down between my breasts. I find his laziness and his flippant attitude exasperating and, to punish him, I leave the room on some flimsy pretext and head off to the Square of a Thousand Winds.

The players are sitting there meditating and snoozing. Having failed to find a partner, I sit myself down at a table and wait for an amateur player to come past. With my head resting on one hand, I lay out the stones and start an imaginary game against Min. A shadow falls over me and I look up. A stranger, with a panama hat pushed right down over his tortoiseshell-rimmed glasses, inclines his head slightly. I reply with a nod and gesture toward the chair opposite me. The Stranger doesn't seem to understand and makes as if to move away, but I stop him.

"Do you know how to play go?"

He still doesn't speak.

"Come on, you look like a connoisseur. Sit down, let's play."

"May I ask at what level you play?" the lump asks me with a terrible Peking accent.

"I don't know."

"I don't want to play without some knowledge of your handicap."

"Let's start a game. I'll give you a little demonstration!"

He hesitates for a moment and eventually sits down opposite me. It's obvious that this stranger has no idea of my reputation. Like a lot of stupid people, he is deceived by my appearance.

I push the black stones towards him noisily.

"Over to you."1

He puts his first stone down in the northwest corner. His pretentious behavior earlier is still niggling at me and I decide to play a nasty trick on him. I reply by sticking a white stone alongside it. You never start the battle with such close combat at the beginning of a game. That is one of the golden rules. Disconcerted, he looks up at me and sinks into thought for a long time.

The stones fight over the 361 intersections formed between the nineteen horizontal lines and the nineteen vertical lines on the square board. The two players divide up this virgin land and, at the end, compare the extent of their occupied territories. I prefer go to chess because it is so much freer: in a game of chess the two kingdoms with their armored warriors confront each other across the board, but the agile, twirling stones in a game of go spiral round each other, setting traps-daring and imagination are the qualities that lead to victory.

Instead of establishing my frontiers, I attack my opponent head-on. My white number four lures him into a duel. He stops to think again.

My number six is blocking his black number five, and rallies with the others to surround his number one.

In extremis, he parries by placing his number seven.

I smile. The joke is over, now I am constructing my game.

The Stranger plays infinitely slowly. I am surprised by his convoluted deliberations: each of his moves translates a desire for harmony within the whole. His stones make a subtle, airborne sort of progress like the dance of the cranes. I didn't know that in Peking there was a school where elegance had the edge over violence. Now it is my turn to be perplexed, and I let myself be carried away by his rhythm.

The Stranger suddenly interrupts the game just when it is becoming really exciting.

"I have a meeting," he says gruffly.

A little put out and wanting to resume the game as soon as possible, I say,

"Come back at ten o'clock on Sunday morning."

Through his glasses I can see that there still isn't a glimmer of enthusiasm in his eyes.

"Never mind, then," I say, standing up.

"All right," he agrees eventually.

I make a note of the positions of the stones on a piece of paper and gratify the Stranger with a smile. Having used it on Cousin Lu, Min and Jing, I know my weapon well.

And he does indeed look away.


The disguise I have chosen-a linen tunic, a panama hat and a fan embellished with calligraphy-gives something of the solemnity of an imperial official to my character, and a pair of glasses makes him look like an academic.

The rickshaw boy can tell straight away that I am not from the area, and he decides to swindle me: instead of going straight to the Square of a Thousand Winds, he sets off on a long detour round the town. His voice shuddering with the physical effort, he tells me some of the history of the region. Four hundred years ago the court nobles discovered the local forest and built sumptuous palaces on its fringes. For many centuries they cherished these lands, which were rich in game and beautiful women. A Thousand Winds, which was originally just a small village, grew into a town where trade and local crafts could flourish. The city is like a miniature copy of Peking and has copied its rectangular layout. When the Manchurian Empire disintegrated, some of the Peking aristocracy followed the Emperor to the New Capital; others took refuge here. They can be identified by their elegant brand of poverty: they wear outdated robes, and they oppose any form of modernity by keeping their nails long (a sign of the leisured classes) and their heads shaved with the traditional little plait at the back.

After taking me along the ramparts, which are seething with beggars, fire-breathers and monkey trainers, and after showing me the main square with its large, old-fashioned private houses, he eventually comes to a stop on the edge of a wooded square.

"This is the Square of a Thousand Winds," he says and then asks mysteriously, "Do you play too?"

I do not answer.

All round the park players confront each other in silence across the low tables, and judging by their clothes they come from all levels of society. If I had not come here I would never have believed such a place existed where a passerby could be offered a game of go. I have always thought that go was reserved exclusively for an elite, and that each game was a ceremony carried out with the greatest of respect.

I do not find this phenomenon surprising, though. According to legend, this extraordinary game was invented by the Chinese 4,000 years ago, but during the course of its overlong history, its traditions have been worn away, and the game has lost its air of refinement and the purity of its origins. Go was introduced to Japan over a thousand years ago and there it has been meditated over and perfected to the point of becoming a divine art. Once again, my country has demonstrated its superiority over China.

In the distance I can see a young woman busy playing against herself. At home it would be unthinkable for a woman to be alone in a place where there are so many men. Intrigued, I move closer.

She is younger than I thought she was, and she is wearing a school dress. She is sitting with her head resting in the hollow of her hand, deep in thought. The stones have been laid out on the board with considerable skill, and they draw me in to examine them more closely.

She looks up, wide forehead and slanting eyes like two finely drawn willow leaves. It is as if I am looking at Sunlight aged sixteen, but the illusion is short-lived: the apprentice geisha had a shy, closed sort of beauty, but this Chinese girl sits watching me unabashed. At home, elegance is associated with pallor and women avoid the sun; this girl has spent so much time playing outside that her face glows with a strange charm. Her eyes meet mine before I can look away.

She invites me to a game of go, and I pretend to hesitate to make my character more believable. Before I left the Chidori restaurant, Captain Nakamura's collaborator told me that over the last ten years my country has become a window on the Western world for the whole of Asia. If I claim to be one of those Chinese students who has spent a long time in Tokyo, that will justify my manner, my accent and my ignorance on some topical issues.

The Chinese girl does not like talking much; she does not ask me a single question and urges me to start. With her very first move she establishes a perverse and extravagant strategy. I have never played go with a woman; I have never been so close to one except for my mother, my sister, Akiko, geishas and prostitutes. Even though the checkered tabletop lies between me and my opponent, the young-girl smell of her makes me feel uncomfortable.

She looks as if she is dreaming as she tilts her head to one side, completely absorbed in her thoughts. Her soft face contrasts sharply with her prickly maneuvers-I find her intriguing.

How old is she? Sixteen? Seventeen? With her flat chest and her two plaits, she has all the ambiguity of adolescence, which makes girls look like transvestite boys. And yet the first signs of femininity are just emerging, like snowdrops in early spring: there is an indolent roundness to her forearms.

Night is falling quickly now and I have to get back to the barracks. She invites me to come again, and this invitation from any other woman would be somehow immodest, but this young girl knows how to put her innocence to good use.

I do not answer. She puts the stones away in their pot, clattering them against each other, a racket that is clearly a protest against my indifference. I laugh inwardly: she would be a great player if she could moderate her aggression and apply herself to a more spiritual path.

"Ten o'clock on Sunday morning," she says.

I like her perseverance: I offer no further resistance, and agree with a nod of the head.

At home, when women laugh they hide their faces behind the sleeves of their kimonos. The Chinese girl smiles without any embarrassment or artifice. Her mouth opens with all the irresistible power of a grenade exploding.

I look away.

1In the game of go the black stones begin the game, but they have to concede 5l/2 points to the whites in the count-up when the game is over.

From The Girl Who Played Go by Shan Sa. Copyright© 2003 by Shan Sa. Excerpted by permission of Chatto & Windus, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.

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