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Go in Chikamatsu's "The Battles of Coxinga"

Chikamatsu is the classic Japanese dramatist, who wrote extensively for the kabuki; this play is actually for puppets (bunraku, though the use of that term dates from a little later than the period around 1700 when he was active). "The Battles of Coxinga" is a history play from 1715 and his most popular work, which initially ran for 17 months and was frequently revived. Go features prominently in one scene.

The story is set in China 70 years before. The emperor's loyal minister is on the run with the heir to the throne from a court conspiracy backing the alien Tartars. Let the Narrator of the play take up the story:- "He makes a blanket of his body to warm the infant prince; and for the prince to ride in, he fashions a handcart of ivy vines in place of a brocaded palanquin... He struggles wearily up a steep mountain road towards the summit of the Mountain of Nine Immortals."

There he notices "two old men with shaggy eyebrows and white hair, seemingly in perfect harmony with the pine breeze, as friends who have lived together long years. They have put a Go board on a rock before them, and are utterly absorbed in their game, watching the black and white stones form scattered pockets or diagonal lines like flights of geese over the 361 intersections. Their thoughts move freely, like a spider's thread in the air, and their bodies have become empty cocoons on a withered branch. This is the art of conversing by hand, far removed from the usages of the world."

GO SANKEI (the minister): Old gentleman, I am interested to see you play the game of Go.

OLD MAN: If it looks like a Go board to you it is a Go board. But there is a text which likens the world to a Go board.

GO SANKEI: And the result of your contest?

OLD MAN: Does not the good or bad fortune of Mankind depend on the chance of the moment?

GO SANKEI: And the Black and the White?

OLD MAN: The night and the day.

GO SANKEI: The rules of the game...

OLD MAN: The stratagems of war ...

GO SANKEI: ...breaking up formations, obstructing or threatening, opening offensives...

NARRATOR: In Go as in war the sparks are set flying. The black and the white may be likened to crows in restless flight or to clusters of snowy herons...

OLD MAN: A heroic general named Coxinga has crossed from Japan to China and taken up the Ming cause. The power of vision that comes from concentration on Go will permit you to see how the battle progresses...

The Go board functions as a long range scanner to relay Coxinga's victorious progress over four years. As in the old story of the axe handle which rotted in the spectator's hand, Go Sankei loses track of the passage of time, and the infant prince grows up. The immortal players disappear mysteriously.

Later in the same scene the minister and crown prince are threatened with capture by the Tartar leader Bairoku and his forces. The soldiers are dumped into a gorge by a magic bridge. Go Sankei finishes off Bairoku by beating him over the head with the Go board, recalling a scene illustrated in many prints, and alluded to by an onlooker, of Tadanobu defending himself when caught off guard in the house of his mistress.

Adapted from "Major Plays of Chikamatsu", Donald Keene, Columbia. Keene has written a whole book on this play : "The Battles of Coxinga", Taylor's Foreign Press, London 1951.

Charles Matthews

(From Tesuji 35, 1996)

For more information try the Chikamatsu links page, Amagasaki City, or the Donald Keene Centre of Japanese Culture .