Photo © Sonia Cacoilo

Xiangqi: Chinese Chess at the Temple of Heaven

The pleasures of a simple board game in the heart of modern Beijing.

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By Sonia Cacoilo

Travel Photographer

14 Jun 2019 - 5 Minute Read

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Traveling for work can often mean long hours, and many days away from home – but you do get to see things that you might not have if you were to travel on your own. After a long day of photographing meetings during a trade mission to Beijing, China, I was relieved to see that there were some cultural activities scheduled in.

The Temple of Heaven in Beijing, China, where hundreds of tourists come to see the spectacular buildings. However, the park, just outside, is a very popular place to play Xiangqi, Chinese chess.
Sonia Cacoilo
The Temple of Heaven in Beijing, China, where hundreds of tourists come to see the spectacular buildings. However, the park, just outside, is a very popular place to play Xiangqi, Chinese chess.

After walking through the beautiful grounds and serene gardens of the Temple of Heaven, I noticed a lively group of people crowded around sets of cards and board games. After our translator explained the game they were playing – Xiangqi or Chinese chess – I took some time to really watch and interact with some of the players. It was refreshing to see people step away from technology, especially in a modern city like Beijing, and just appreciate spending time in a beautiful garden and enjoying each other’s company over a simple board game.

A woman directs the players in a card game, calling all the plays with a loud, powerful voice... mostly followed by loud, powerful laughter. Although the game seems intense, everyone is enjoying themselves.
Sonia Cacoilo
A woman directs the players in a card game, calling all the plays with a loud, powerful voice... mostly followed by loud, powerful laughter. Although the game seems intense, everyone is enjoying themselves.
A man warms up his hands between plays. Even though it is only 45°F (7°C), people are still outside, enjoying the temple gardens, as well as each other's company.
Sonia Cacoilo
A man warms up his hands between plays. Even though it is only 45°F (7°C), people are still outside, enjoying the temple gardens, as well as each other's company.

This moment taught me the importance of diving into local culture. I think sometimes traveling to a new place can be overwhelming, and it’s really easy to get sucked into seeing all the tourist attractions. It’s not uncommon for people to rush through these things, and not look beyond their guide books. When I think back on my most memorable travel experiences, they’re often the times I was able to connect with the locals in a way no tourist attraction could ever match. Watching something as simple as a game of Chinese chess, observing the level of excitement rise as the games got tense, and seeing people smile as each game ended with a new winner, was something special that I will never forget.

An elderly man lays down his cards to play as two young boys watch intently. Even with new technology, there is a sense of value in a more traditional way of spending leisure time, and it goes beyond generations.
Sonia Cacoilo
An elderly man lays down his cards to play as two young boys watch intently. Even with new technology, there is a sense of value in a more traditional way of spending leisure time, and it goes beyond generations.
Two men play a game of "Xiangqi" on the Temple grounds – literally placing their playing mat on the concrete. Spectators watch eagerly over their game play, with the low angle of the board giving them the best view.
Sonia Cacoilo
Two men play a game of "Xiangqi" on the Temple grounds – literally placing their playing mat on the concrete. Spectators watch eagerly over their game play, with the low angle of the board giving them the best view.

This photo essay was a finalist in the 2018 World Nomads Travel Photography Scholarship.

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Sonia Cacoilo is a photographer from Toronto, currently traveling the world as the Photography Lead for the Ontario Government.

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