A Set of Liubo Chess

Western Han Dynasty ( ca.206 B.C.-ca.9 A.D.)

Hunan Provincial Museum

Hunan Provincial Museum

This set of bo chess unearthed from Tomb No.3 at Mawangdui is fairly complete. More importantly, it matches the record in “inventory of burial objects” unearthed from the same tomb, thus allowing us to know something about the use of the pieces: mainly the chessboard, the chessmen, the chips, the dice, the knife, the xue and the small spade, all placed inside a wooden box.
This set of bo chess unearthed from Tomb No.3 is exquisitely beautiful. Inside a specially designed box, there is a square chessboard coated with black lacquer, with inlaid ivory to mark out the squares. There are also 12 long chopstick-shaped ivory chips, 30 short chopstick-shaped ivory chips, 12 big ivory chessmen, 18 small chessmen, one wooden spade, one ivory sharpening knife and one carving knife with a ring-shaped head made of horn. The cover of the box is square shaped and its outer surface is applied with the so-called “incised design” decorative method, which involves carving out with a needle flying bird designs and floating cloud designs. There are also geometric designs painted out with vermillion lacquer between the above-mentioned two designs. The chessboard is also square in shape, with inlaid ivory slips to mark out its center and the edges, the twelve L-shaped and T-shaped zigzagging lines and four flying bird pictures. The inside of the box is divided into square, oblong and oval frames for storing chessmen and other pieces.
The game of bo certainly needs a dice, but there was no dice in the box when it was first unearthed. In the after sorting process, one dice was discovered inside a two-tiered lacquer box with six small boxes. The dice is ball-shaped with 18 facets, made of wood and coated with dark brown lacquer. Its diameter is 4.5 cm, just big enough to be place in one of the empty frames of the box. On 16 facets are carved the numerals 1 to 16, while on two opposite facets are carved in seal character “骄” and“妻畏”respectively. With this dice added, the whole thing can be determined to be a set of bo chess.
The ancient Bo Classics mentions that bo in the Han Dynasty was played with 12 pieces, six white and six black. Each move was made after one throw of the dice, so it was called liubo. The figurines playing bo and stone carving pictures depicting scenes of playing bo from Han tombs show the chips and the arrangement on the chessboard are similar to those found in Tomb No.3. However, the game of bo in the Han Dynasty had variations of big bo and small bo, with different rules and names. Whether this set of bo chess is liubo still needs further study. Win or lose, the actual playing of bo was very intense. Pictures of the winner beside himself with joy have often been found. One example is the brick drawing of playing bo chess found in Pei County, Jiangsu Province. Two persons are playing the game, with a chessboard, chessmen and chips placed between them. The man on the right is about to put down a chessman, but the man on the left is holding up his arms and opening his mouth to shout loudly, because he has won. This whole picture is very vivid and lively.

Show lessRead more


  • Title: A Set of Liubo Chess
  • Date: Western Han Dynasty ( ca.206 B.C.-ca.9 A.D.)
  • Type: lacquerware
  • Rights: Hunan Provincial Museum ( 湖南省博物馆 )
  • External Link: Hunan Provincial Museum