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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 Vietnam), 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.

Today, the game remains highly popular in China and some of its neighboring countries, as well as previous generations of Chinese immigrants exporting it to further reaches of the globe. In Vietnam, the slamming of chess pieces echoes through the alleys, boards are engraved in park benches, and daily tournaments can be seen in every park of Hanoi. Though a two-person game, it's fast-paced nature and placement in the public realm make it a popular spectator sport, with shouts of victory or contempt often filling the sunset air. The game’s widespread popularity is impressive, particularly in how it can be played anywhere. And I mean absolutely anywhere, any 30 centimeter-square of more-or-less flat ground is ready for a tournament!

A makeshift board etched on a park bench in Hanoi.

The ingenuity of the set-ups and exuberance of the men contribute to the shared experience that I learned to love about living in Hanoi. Here, in many senses, life is on the streets. The pavements contain all types of human action imaginable, including midday naps, Latin dancing, frightfully in-depth ear-cleaning, and young-love canoodling. There is a sense of intimacy in public space that is inescapable. However, it does seem peculiar that the playing of Chinese chess appears to be exclusively the realm of men.

Public Chinese chess matches always invite curious spectators.

In a study on Xiangqi playing in Columbus Park, a popular public space in New York City’s Chinatown, the researchers found the scarce presence of women is a result of traditionalist values: “According to the chess-playing men at the park, one won't find an elderly Chinese woman playing chess because she probably never got the chance to do so when she was younger. In the 'older days' in China, most were poor and playtime was a rare luxury. There was much work to be done, and time was consumed by either school or work. Girls were expected to stay home to do the housework and other 'womanly' chores; they did not have the time to socialize, let alone learn the complex game of Chinese chess. Boys, on the other hand, had the option to go out and socialize with their friends, which ultimately led to playing games like Chinese chess. And since then, they just never learned and perhaps did not care to because women played other simpler games, such as card games. It was not considered 'lady-like' for a young girl to be outside the house often...This value began in China and is still reflected here in the US amongst Chinese immigrants. Interestingly, this sex difference is illustrated by the differences in the games that Chinese immigrants play. This is why so many men play Chinese chess, but so few women play it.”

As intense as a football match.

Hanoi-born 90s child and self-taught chess player Nguyễn Lê Thùy Linh muses to Urbanist Hanoi: “I think it's cultural, you know our heritage of Confucian thinking says that men should do the intellectual work. But the game is pretty easy, I learned it on Google and there are heaps of forums online. I guess you only see older men play it because it's dying out now...times are changing, I was born after Đổi Mới and since then people are way more open about what women can and can’t do. I’m lucky, I had access to information and education, but still, sometimes when I’m not doing 'typical' woman things I still have to convince myself it's ok. But you see now in families and stuff it's usually the woman in charge of the business and household. Women have a lot of power in Vietnam.”

The world's top western chess female player, 26-year-old Hou Yifan from China, at the 2016 Chess Olympiad. Photo by Andreas Kontokanis/CC BY-SA 2.0.

This thought process infiltrates all levels of chess-playing, which the world’s top western chess female player, 26-year-old Hou Yifan hailing from China explained: "I do think the average rating of female players could improve, but the gap between the top women right now and the players competing for the world title is really quite large...in general, I think women train less hard at chess compared to men while they’re growing up. In China, girls tend to think more about university, and then things like family, life balance... while boys are more focused and persistent on that one thing. This makes a big difference...Girls are told at an early age that there’s a kind of gender distinction, and they should just try their best in the girls' section and be happy with that. So without the motivation to chase higher goals, it’s harder for girls to improve as fast as boys as they grow up."

On a recent trip to Saigon, I was delighted to come across a game of Chinese chess being played not on the sidewalk, but in a hip queer bar, the rosy lights flashing across the tattooed hands meticulously placing each piece. The players, with a median age of 21, were slathered in hipster paraphernalia, and when I asked who was winning, the youngest of the group laughed; he was no good, and just learning. As I swizzled my cocktail I felt pleased to see this ancient game will live on in the hands of younger Vietnamese generations, eager to learn and open to change.

Once the match is done, the set returns to its public place, awaiting the next pair of opponents.

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