The Peculiar Gender Dynamics of Hanoi’s Male-Dominated Cờ Tướng Scene

On a sunset wander through Hanoi, you may be surprised by the peculiar sight of men haphazardly perched in nooks and crannies playing the ancient game of xiangqi.

The strangely spectacular Chinese strategy game has for generations been hugely popular in Hanoi, though interestingly it seems only to be played by men. But as younger generations question the roots of its exclusive nature, this unique game could be set for a change.

Chinese chess, or xiangqi (cờ tướng in Vietnamese), is a board game of strategy that bears some resemblance to western chess, as it is a game for two with pieces that play a defined role. However, there are many dissimilarities. Its origins are highly debated, with some sources claiming that the xiangqi we know today was fully developed by the Song dynasty of 960–1279. What seems to be agreed upon is that the game was born as a training device for Chinese army generals, using it as a mental challenge to develop the tactical capacity of their soldiers. The pieces are placed on intersections, rather than square interiors, with specific abilities that define their movements. For example the “Elephant” (Tượng) piece is unable to cross the central “river” divide, whilst the “Counselor” (Sĩ) and “General” (Tướng) must stay in the “fortress.” The overall aim is simple: to take over the opponent’s territory and capture their general.

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Elise Luong