Update on June 19, 2012:
Xuetui-sensei in the comments section alerted me to these excellent blog posts by Dr. Andrew West on images of weiqi. The second post in particular does exactly what I had wanted to do in the future, but alas, it turns out that someone has already produced some really good work!
A Pictorial History of the Game of Go
Playing Go on a Chinese Chess Board
I have an amateurish interest in collecting historical illustrations of the board game weiqi 围棋, with the hope that these visual sources can someday supplement the more obvious genres such as game records (qipu 棋譜) in reconstructing how the game was actually played in late imperial China. I was fortunate to find three such illustrations during my recent museum visits in China, although these images turned out to be interesting in ways that I had not originally expected.
The first image comes from a set of four Ming hanging scrolls, each of which depicts one of the four arts of the literati: zither, chess, calligraphy, and painting (琴棋書畫). Belonging squarely to the genre of literati painting, its depiction of the game best fits my original expectation of what a representation of weiqi should look like.
The second image comes from a blue-and-white porcelain jar of the Ming dynasty. Portrayed around its sides are the images of two women engaged in the same four arts. What interests me here is the rather inaccurate depiction of weiqi. If you look carefully, the board only has black stones but no white ones. Also, the size of the board is 14×7, whereas the standard size of a weiqi board is 19×19.*
The third image comes from a Qing porcelain vase, also showing two women playing the game. This time we see both black and white stones on the board, but anyone who has played weiqi will see that the placement of the black stones make no sense at all. Also, the size of the board is 15×13, again a rather strange shape.
What are we to make of these last two images? Assuming that these women are not playing a totally different game, I think there are two possibilities. The first is that whoever illustrated the porcelain did not care about providing precise representations of what they were depicting. This seems to be the case of the second image, where the lack of white stones might be explained by the difficulty of depicting these stones when the only colors available were blue and white. Here, what mattered was that the viewers recognize that the women are playing chess, not to provide precise depictions of the details. The second possibility is that the illustrator did try to represent some details but had limited knowledge of what the game was about. This seems to be the case of the third image, where the illustrator did give a semblance of a weiqi board, but the particular placement of the stones suggests that he or she did not know the rules of the game very well.
Clearly, this kind of illustrations cannot serve my original purpose of reconstructing actual gameplay, but they lead to other interesting directions in thinking about who the illustrators were, who were the presumed consumers of the porcelain, and how a fundamentally elite game was perceived and represented among elites and non-elite alike. I’m not sure if I will ever be able to write something up with these weiqi illustrations, but for now, I plan to just keep collecting and indexing them. So if anyone comes across illustrations related to weiqi, please send me a quick reference. I appreciate references to items from any time and place, and I particularly like images that are not so famous and/or are on media other than paper.
*Although there were weiqi boards of different sizes, I believe the 19×19 board was fairly standard by Ming-Qing times, and boards that have different numbers of lines on each side are definitely unheard of.
Correction on June 19, 2012: The blog post by Andrew West discusses a curious 9×12 board.