On 23 July, 450 people gathered in the main hall of Japan’s best-selling newspaper to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the country’s greatest Go player – Wu Qing-yuan, who was born in Fujian province and moved to Japan at the age of 14.
The tickets were sold out far in advance of the event at the Yomiuri Shimbun because of the legendary status of Wu among the four million players of Go in Japan. “The God of Go” was the headline in the weekly magazine of the Japan Go Association in December 2012, which reported that a survey of the top 130 professional players had chosen Wu as the best ever player.
He was the subject of a biographical film, The Go Master, made in 2006 by director Tian Zhuangzhuang; it premiered at the 44th New York Film Festival. Taiwan actor Chang Chen played the title role
His fans study the many books he has written on strategy and tactics and copy the moves of his greatest games recorded in textbooks used in Go classes.
Go is a board game that originated in China about 2,300 BC and spread to Korea and Japan in the fifth and seventh centuries AD. It is played on a grid of 19 by 19 lines, with two players who alternately play black and white pieces, called stones.
Once placed on the board, a stone may not be moved. But it can be removed if ‘captured’ by surrounding it by occupying all adjacent points. Players continue until neither wishes to make another move; the territory is counted along with captured stones to determine the winner. One player may also resign.
There are over 40 million players worldwide, most of them in East Asia. The three strongest countries are China, Japan and South Korea. The International Go Federation has 74 member countries, with tournaments in Europe as well as Asia.
In his early days, Wu’s games could last for weeks. In 1933, he played against the leading Japanese player, Honinbo Shusai, in what was known in the Go world as the “game of the century”; it began on 16 October and lasted nearly three months.
Wu started the game with a series of moves never seen before; the contest aroused enormous enthusiasm and newspapers covering it sold out.
Wu was born on 12 June 1914 in Fuzhou, the capital of Fujian province, the third son of the family. His mother had nine children, of whom six became adults. His grandfather was a wealthy salt merchant.
In the autumn of 1914, the family moved to Beijing. At the age of seven, Wu began to learn Go from his father who had taken lessons from a master as a student in Japan. In 1925, his father died of tuberculosis, at the age of 33.
After the death, the family fell into financial difficulty; Wu’s earnings from Go matches were an important source of income.
By the age of 12, Wu was recognised as a prodigy; he was taken to play with Duan Qirui, the main Beijing warlord and a lover of Go. He was also matched against leading players from China and Japan. Those from Japan were so impressed that they asked him to come to Japan to improve his skills.
“The invitation to come to Japan came from two of the top people in the country,” he recalled in an interview later in his life. “I am still very proud that these important figures in Japan came to ask a Chinese boy, would you believe, whether he wanted to come to Japan one day. Many people think that I came to Japan off my own bat.
I came here as a guest and several highly placed people in the Go world came especially to Tokyo to meet me.”
On 18 October 1928, he moved to Japan with his mother and siblings and became a student of a Japanese master. He quickly established his credentials, defeating top local players.
In 1930, still only 17, he played in the national championships and recorded seven victories and one defeat. That autumn, he was promoted to ‘fourth dan’; the top rank is ninth.
“What distinguishes him is his intense focus on winning,” said one of his many admirers. “His motivation is stronger than that of other players. Whether the stone is light or heavy, he can carry it. He is also famous for his creativity.”
In 1934, he and Kitani Minoru, a leading player, published a book on strategy; it became a best-seller, selling 100,000 copies. In 1936, he became a Japanese citizen, adopting the Japanese pronounciation of his name, Go Seigen.
In 1942, he married a Japanese lady named Kazuko and was promoted to the level of eighth dan. In May 1945, his house in Tokyo was burnt down in an American air raid and he took refuge in different parts of the country.
In 1950, he was promoted to ninth dan, the highest rank of the game in Japan. In 1952, he made the first of two triumphal visits to Taiwan, where he was received with every honour.
During the 1950s, he was at the top of the game in Japan, with outstanding performances against the best players. In 1961, he defeated an eighth-dan in the final of a tournament. From 1930 to 1961, he was the dominant force in the Go world, defeating the top Japanese players.
In his daily life, he was normally very careful. But, one day in August 1961, he was in a rush and did not use a pedestrian crossing. He was hit by a motorcycle that came out of the shadows at high speech while overtaking a bus. He was thrown into the air; then the same motorcycle ran into him once again, hitting him and dragging him along. The film of 2006 suggested that this may not have been an accident.
Go suffered from dizziness and nausea. He was hospitalised for two months and again for a longer period a year later. He suffered nerve damage; his stamina and concentration deteriorated as a result.
This made it difficult for him to continue playing at the highest level. He gradually played less and less and went into virtual retirement in 1964; he officially retired in 1983.
After that, he remained active in the Go community by teaching, writing and promoting the game around the world. In 1971, he and his wife visited many cities in the United States.
In 1987, he was awarded the Grand Cordon of the Order of the Rising Sun, 3rd class, Gold Rays with Neck Ribbon, for his lifetime contribution to the game. He published his autobiography in 1997.
In December 2012, his wife Kazuko died, at the age of 90. They had three children, none of whom became a professional Go player.
Game of the century
The most famous game in which Wu took part was the “game of the century” which began on 16 October 1933. His opponent was Honinbo Shusei, who represented the Honinbo, then the most important of the four major Go schools, and was considered the top player in Japan at that time.
The media gave the event detailed coverage; the public followed it blow by blow.
While the actual playing time with the two in front of the board was 14 days, the match lasted almost three months. This was because Shusai had the privilege to decide when and if the game should be adjourned; he did this frequently.
On the eighth day, for example, Shusai played first, Wu replied in two minutes and Shusai pondered for three and a half hours, only to adjourn. This enabled him to study the position with his students and work out the best move to follow. So Wu was playing not only his esteemed opponent but all the leading members of his Honinbo school. In the end, Shusai won by two points.
According to one version, the move that won the match for Shusei was thought of not by him but by one of his students. When a story saying this appeared later in a newspaper, it caused an uproar among the supporters of the Honinbo school.
The headquarters of the Japanese Go Association is an eight-storey building in the Chiyoda district in central Tokyo.
In the basement is a museum which tells its remarkable history.
The game is said to have started in 2,350 BC, with the character for Go found on bones and tortoise shells of the period between 1,500 and 1,000 BC.
It came from China to Japan in the sixth century AD, at the same time as Buddhism. It became a professional sport in Japan in around 1600, with the government sponsoring four leading schools.
The head of the biggest school was a Buddhist monk named Nikkai who won a tournament in 1588 organised by the government. It resulted in him receiving a fixed income from the shogun. After going to Tokyo in 1603 when the capital moved there, he received an official post and took on the responsibility of spreading Go all over the country.
As in China, the game was associated with the ruling class and nobility. The museum has elegant paintings of officials playing Go in well-appointed rooms; there is also a poster of the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper of “the game of the century”.
Go was introduced into Europe in 1881, with the first book in English, Game of Go, published in New York in 1906. On 17 July 1924, the Japan Go Association was founded.
One of the photographs on the wall is of Chen Yi, a Communist military leader who served as the first post-1949 Mayor of Shanghai and second Foreign Minister. He was a keen player who carried a Go board with him during military campaigns and founded the Chinese Go Association.
In 1960, he invited five Japanese professional players to visit; they won 32 of the 35 games they played.
But the institutes Chen established in Beijing and Shanghai produced excellent players who were by the 1980s able to defeat their Japanese opponents.
On 13 June, the Beijing Youth Daily published a long story to mark Wu’s 100th birthday. It said some of his pupils in China flew to Japan in June, to join members of his family, to visit the Master at the nursing home near Tokyo where he lives; they gave gifts and celebrated the anniversary.
Those who gathered on 23 July to mark Wu’s birthday were not only celebrating his achievements but also a unique game that brings together the two countries in his life.
Wu once said: “After I am 100, I will continue to play Go. After I am 200, I will play Go in the universe.” The Beijing newspaper commented: “Wu was a man whose simple life transcended national borders and the customs of ordinary people to become a Go master from the universe.”
By Luo Xunzhi in Tokyo
(Issue N. 24, September 2014)