The Chinese Pirate Ching Shih Plays Go With a Hooded Opponent

4. Ching-Shih

Kendall Evans

The Chinese Pirate Ching Shih Plays Go With a Hooded Opponent

It’s said Ching Shih loved games of strategy
Perhaps because she was so talented
And savvy at naval warfare tactics
Her favorite game, the ancient game of Go,
Shen Dho was her usual opponent

“I have no interest in rolling the bones,
Or gambling games of happenstance and chance,”
She said to Dho one evening while they played—
Though both Shih and Dho controlled two corners
Ching Shih held the advantage center-board

Shih’s pet monkey leapt upon her shoulder
Pondering the progress of their contest
Chittering; frowning forehead deeply grooved,
Scolding Dho when he placed his next Go stone,
Scratching its head in sad perplexity

The pirates were a superstitious lot
Some claimed the monkey was Shih’s familiar
A malicious preternatural brute
Proven vicious in its disposition
Sharp-toothed; prone to bite unwary pirates1

Only Shih was allowed to stroke its fur
Or feed her rough pet tasty galley treats—
As for supernatural connections
Between pirate mage and pink-faced monkey
The world can only idly speculate

Dho thought it strange to see this feared warlord
Sitting quite peacefully before the board
Contemplative, intent on moves she made—
So contrary to images of Ching
Drenched in blood, boarding ships her fleet attacked

She oft-ordered crew to play against her
But pirates too soon wearied of defeat—
For who among them could compete with Shih?
She longed to find a foe more challenging
A player as adept at Go as Shih.

One day the pirates found a stowaway
A hooded figure strolling on the deck
Who refused to give responses when addressed.
None knew or had a clue from whence he came—
They tied his hands and took him to Ching Shih

In Shih’s cabin the hooded one said naught
Gesturing toward the Go board, nothing more,
Ching smiled at thought of untried foe aboard—
“Untie his hands; I have a challenger”
And all too soon their deadly game ensued

Her shadowy opponent moved rudely
Placing his first stone on her side of the board
Contrary to the etiquette of Go—
Either he was a novice to the game
Or an aggressive statement had been made

Slowly, stones were placed; the game developed
Not in a way Shih found to her liking
He was far more skilled than she imagined:
Familiar with the most strategic moves,
Quick to exploit perceived advantages

Still her opponent did not speak a word
Perhaps the man was a mute vagabond
Or a monk? His garb suggested as much—
Had he sworn a pious vow of silence?
Her suspicions were far more ominous

The game of Go is difficult to play
There are so many possibilities:
Three-hundred sixty-one intersections
Where Go stones might be placed upon the board
Each stone played creating repercussions

Mid game, her rival secured one corner
Appearing to hold control of the board.
Next, she undermined his territory
But soon her opponent reclaimed his lead
Time and again, momentum changing hands

Placing a stone, Shih briefly glanced at him:
Thin-bridged, down-curving bird beak of a nose…
Another time, a sudden jut of chin
Otherwise his face would remain concealed
Shih wondered: Why am I anxious? Dismayed?

As time passed, her tension verged on panic
Shih now knew, this no ordinary game
Her life and death hanging in the balance,
Nor could she argue, “Best two out of three?”
Think hard, she told herself; find ways to win

One of her chains of stones was now at risk
Of capture and removal from the board
The hooded one held clear advantages—
Death, my opponent, Shih had realized
Personified and seated right before her

Shih attempted sorcerous intervention
Only to discover her powers blocked—
She must now rely on practiced game skills
Perhaps find in her mind a “Divine Move,”2
An ideal move that changes everything

Above deck, while the game slowly evolved
The dragon figurehead of Ching Shih’s junk
As if alive, rolled painted wooden eyes;
Black smoke coiled up from nostrils carved by hand
In deep-enchanted sympathy for Shih

She made a Knight’s move and a long Knight’s move,
A Kikashi, known as a forcing move
She even tried desperate cutting moves
In an effort to keep her stones alive—
All to no avail; was this bad aji?3

In the intricate Chinese game of Go,
There is a bold move nicknamed “monkey jump”—
As Shih considered making just that move
her pet leapt from a mounted cabin shelf,
Crash-landed on the board, scattering stones

The game’s array could never be restored
Her opponent raised high a fist in rage
And brought it down hard, breaking the Go board.
Dread Death stood angrily and loomed above
A broadly smiling and relieved Ching Shih

Shih squared herself and spat into Death’s face
Or, at least, into the cowl’s dark shadows—
Both robe and hood collapsed into a heap
As if they’d never held a living man;
Ching kicked the empty robe across the room

As to the halted outcome of the game,
Left in limbo, after her monkey jumped—
Might Shih have rescued all her threatened stones
Thus claiming vict’ry in her duel with Death,
Or had her scruff pet monkey saved her life?

Author’s Notes:

  1. “Better dead,” one said, but none dared kill it.
  2. The Divine move is more mythical than real; it is a concept or hypothetical possibility created for the purpose of motivating players of Go to seek the best possible stone placement.
  3. Bad aji: malign possibilities in a position on the game board.

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Kendall Evans’ poems have appeared in Analog, Asimov’s SF, Nebula Awards Showcase 2012, Abyss & Apex, Weird Tales, Fantastic, Mythic Delirium and Strange Horizons. His novel-length poem in dramatic format, The Rings of Ganymede, is currently available from Alban Lake Books.

Editors Notes on “The Chinese Pirate Ching Shih Plays Go With a Hooded Opponent”: This narrative poem, structured with predominantly blank verse quintets, features Madame Ching or Ching Shih (1775–1844), a prominent pirate in middle Qing China, who terrorized the China Sea in the early 19th century (Wikipedia). Kendall says that this is the first poem in a series about this real-life pirate, but with a few fantasy elements tossed in. I like the portrait posted (originating here: http://www.ancient-origins.net/history-famous-people/ching-shih-prostitute-pirate-lord-002582), but many more images of the swashbuckling femme fatale can be found on the Internet, such as this one: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ching_Shih#/media/File:%E9%84%AD%E4%B8%80%E5%AB%82.jpg.

The image of an ancient Go board (600 AD) is seen here: http://www.usgo.org/what-go

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