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Great Wall find unveils old military pastime

By Wang Songsong | China Daily | Updated: 2023-12-26 22:43
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A game board carved on a stone on a Great Wall section in Beijing. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Great Wall: More excavations in the cards

Hundreds of years ago, as the setting sun cast a golden glow upon the Great Wall, a group of soldiers found a welcome diversion from the pressures of military duty in a chess-like board game. Lacking a playing board, they carved one on stone.

The soldiers navigated the board with the same precision they employed on the battlefield, calculating their options and contemplating the consequences of each decision. The clang of swords and the cries of fallen comrades were replaced by the gentle click of pieces on the game board in the evening light.

As the sun dipped below the horizon, casting long shadows across the wall, they finished their game and retreated to their posts, their minds strategically sharpened and ready to face the trials that awaited them.

A scene like this might have played out during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), as centuries later, Chinese archaeologists have discovered what appears to be a sort of chessboard carved on a block of stone in the Jiankou section of the Great Wall in Beijing's Huairou district. The find sheds light on what soldiers might have done during their leisure time.

The game board, carved on a paving stone at watchtower No 141, was discovered last year and recently made public.

"We are not sure which variant of chess it is. There were two popular board games in the Ming Dynasty — Go and Chinese chess," said Shang Heng, associate researcher at the Beijing Archaeological Research Institute.

Previously, Shang had found another game board at watchtower No 145 in the Jiankou section. But that board, with a square in the middle, is different from the one found last year.

The recent discovery adds another layer to the cultural significance of the Great Wall. It not only enriches the understanding of ancient Chinese culture, but also gives the formidable structure a human angle.

"Historical documents tend to record institutional content. The archaeological excavation essentially serves as a supplement that fills in the gaps in our understanding of the Great Wall," Shang said.

According to Shang, the border region was essentially a small-scale society. Apart from patrolling and fighting, soldiers lived their lives as ordinary people.

The 520-kilometer-long Beijing section of the Great Wall winds from east to west, spanning Pinggu, Miyun, Huairou, Yanqing, Changping and Mentougou districts.

Starting in 2021, Beijing has taken the lead nationwide in incorporating archaeological excavations into the restoration work of the Great Wall, with the Jiankou and Dazhuangke sections serving as pilot projects.

This marks a shift from general emergency reinforcement toward research-oriented restoration, allowing historians and archaeologists to delve into the wall's rich history.

Shang said that some parts of the Great Wall above ground are in ruins, while some other parts are buried. Excavations will provide a more comprehensive understanding of the structure and help restore the wall as close to its original appearance as possible.

Moreover, as the underground parts are brought to light, unexpected discoveries can offer glimpses into the wall's cultural dimensions, he said.

"Next year, we will carry out archaeological excavations from watchtower No 117 to watchtower No 122. That's the highest part of the Jiankou section, and visitors will be able to enjoy a panoramic view of Jiankou," he added.

The Great Wall discovery follows another find related to a board game in 2013 in the United Kingdom. A 7th century board game piece was unearthed by University of Reading archaeologists in the remains of an Anglo-Saxon royal hall, where board games were popular.

Researchers believe the hollow bone cylinder they found, at the Lyminge dig in Kent, belonged to an early backgammon or draughts game set.

Du Juan contributed to this story.

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