The Singularity and the Chinese History of Chess

While reading up on one of my favorite topics, the technological singularity, I recently came across this interesting passage in an article by renowned futurist Ray Kurzweil entitled The Law of Accelerating Returns:

> To appreciate the nature and significance of the coming “singularity,” it is important to ponder the nature of exponential growth. Toward this end, I am fond of telling the tale of the inventor of chess and his patron, the emperor of China. In response to the emperor’s offer of a reward for his new beloved game, the inventor asked for a single grain of rice on the first square, two on the second square, four on the third, and so on. The Emperor quickly granted this seemingly benign and humble request. One version of the story has the emperor going bankrupt as the 63 doublings ultimately totaled 18 million trillion grains of rice. At ten grains of rice per square inch, this requires rice fields covering twice the surface area of the Earth, oceans included. Another version of the story has the inventor losing his head.

exponential growth

> It should be pointed out that as the emperor and the inventor went through the first half of the chess board, things were fairly uneventful. The inventor was given spoonfuls of rice, then bowls of rice, then barrels. By the end of the first half of the chess board, the inventor had accumulated one large field’s worth (4 billion grains), and the emperor did start to take notice. It was as they progressed through the second half of the chessboard that the situation quickly deteriorated. Incidentally, with regard to the doublings of computation, that’s about where we stand now–there have been slightly more than 32 doublings of performance since the first programmable computers were invented during World War II.

> This is the nature of exponential growth. Although technology grows in the exponential domain, we humans live in a linear world. So technological trends are not noticed as small levels of technological power are doubled. Then seemingly out of nowhere, a technology explodes into view. For example, when the Internet went from 20,000 to 80,000 nodes over a two year period during the 1980s, this progress remained hidden from the general public. A decade later, when it went from 20 million to 80 million nodes in the same amount of time, the impact was rather conspicuous.

the singularity

I’d never heard the claim that the Chinese invented chess; I’ve always heard that the game was invented by the Indians or Persians and then later iterated by the Chinese. Kurzweil’s story also seems a bit suspect to me because of its reference to “squares,” which does not match the forms of Chinese chess I’m familiar with, but then again I’m no expert on any kind of chess. Wikipedia has this information on the history of chess in China:


> Joseph Needham posits that “image-chess,” a recreational game associated with divination, was developed in China and transmitted to India, where it evolved into the form of modern military chess. Needham notes that dice were transmitted to China from India, and were used in the game of “image-chess.”

> Another alternative theory contends that chess arose from Xiangqi or a predecessor thereof, existing in China since the 2nd century BC. David H. Li, a retired accountant, professor of accounting and translator of ancient Chinese texts, hypothesizes that general Han Xin drew on the earlier game of Liubo to develop an early form of Chinese chess in the winter of 204–203 BC. The German chess historian Peter Banaschak, however, points out that Li’s main hypothesis “is based on virtually nothing”. He notes that the “Xuanguai lu,” authored by the Tang Dynasty minister Niu Sengru (779–847), remains the first real source on the Chinese chess variant xiangqi.

In my half-assed 5-minute Wikipedia/Baidu Zhidao research, I don’t see reference to the emperor of China sponsoring the invention of any form of chess. Could this be an inaccurate reference to Han Xin (韩信), who is connected to the history of Chinese chess (象棋)? If anyone has more info, I’d love to hear it. Is Kurzweil’s story about Chinese chess, rice grains, and exponential growth just another fake Chinese anecdote, or is there anything to back it up?

Chinese Chess, 中国象棋


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. My understanding of the origins of chess (where I got this info is lost on me) is that it came out of India, and that both Western and Chinese chess are variants that evolved as the original Indian game spread across the world.

    I haven’t played any sort of Indian chess, but Western chess and xiangqi are very similar — with the exception of the river in the center of the board, which is said to have come from an ancient baijiu-swilling dongbei ren prone to relieving himself mid-game just uphill from his matches.

  2. gregorylent Says: March 7, 2010 at 3:32 pm

    the rice analogy is a teaching story in many cultures.

    and so is “the singularity”, ta-da … it is a metaphor for what already exists in the unbounded field of consciousness , just projected outwards. it is a metaphor for becoming enlightened

  3. I’ve heard the story about the rice grains and exponential growth before, but featuring a European ruler rather than a Chinese emperor. I can’t recall who the European ruler was, but one or possibly both accounts would have to be wrong.

  4. I’ve heard the rice story too, but I seem to recall it was set in Egypt, or some other similarly hot and sandy country.

    The Chinese chess board does have 64 squares, like a Western chess board (although it is also divided into two halves by a “river”, and the chess pieces themselves are placed on the intersections rather than in the squares), so the story is numerically, if not historically, accurate.

  5. slowboat Says: March 7, 2010 at 8:41 pm

    The story probably came from the Heavenly Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge.

  6. I’ve heard the story more often in the setting of India or Persia. The grains can be wheat or rice. Wikipedia has an article on it:

  7. James Corey Says: March 14, 2010 at 2:30 am

    I agree, it seems like whenever I read anything about either the game of chess or the rice story, it’s origin is India or therabouts. I almost wish that whenever people write something that departs from the common perspective they would put a footnote to explain that it’s on purpose and has some reason.

    But then again, a person could say it was a trick to test whether a reader was bent on details rather than the larger picture. The problem is, it’s impossible to distinguish between someone that habitually does this on purpose, and someone that doesn’t particularly know what they’re talking about.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if, at various times historically when such knowledge was less common, enterprising individuals would upon hearing this story seek to repeat it. I guess I would bet money that the scheme has been repeated, but it would be hard to prove whether it was independent.

    Wouldn’t it be interesting to see numbers for how many of them were punished immediately (the intended victim is already familiar with the story) versus slightly later (the intended victim was not yet familiar)?

  8. Vanguard. Says: August 18, 2010 at 8:47 pm

    The reference to the Chess and the squares is simply to make a point about the ‘Singularity’ that is approaching it’s to do with exponential growth of computer power. Read the book, it’s good! If you’re interested in the future of technology and how it will impact us…

  9. Xiangqi, Chaturanga, Shatranj, Weiqi, and Liubo are chess predecessors. I remember playing Chinese Chess when I was a kid, but I never knew it as Xiangqi. I am still fascinated with strategy games and how they represent our species unique ability to plan ahead. I have also noticed over the decades how strategy is used in every aspect in life, from building a business to preparing any simple activity. I have developed several variations of chess and love the infinite possibilities in strategy game development. I hope you will check out game and provide some feedback, if you would like to see more variations on chess-like games.

  10. In my understanding, the game originally started in india, but it was called “chaturanga.” The game was then changes to “xiangi” which is the chinese version of the game.

    The game (chaturanga) eventually traveled to Europe, where the modern game of chess began to start.

    In my understanding, the chinese invented the game of xiangi, and European countries invented the game chess.

    Please correct me if incorrect!

  11. Long Quach Says: December 3, 2021 at 1:09 am

    It’s not called “image chess”. It’s called Elephant Chess 象棋. 象. That is a glyph of an elephant. 2 big ears, 4 legs, 1 tail, 1 trun,.

    Elephants are iconic of India. 象棋, Elephant Chess might as well be translated as Indian Chess. Like we say Spaggethi Westerns, Italian Westerns.

    Something else came from India, The Shaolin Temple.

Leave a Reply