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Han dynasty bronze mirror with TLV pattern British Museum Han TLV Mirror.jpg
Han dynasty bronze mirror with TLV pattern

The pattern found on the surface of Liubo boards is also found on the most common type of Han dynasty bronze mirror, known from their distinctive markings as TLV mirrors. There is some debate over whether the Liubo pattern on these mirrors was simply decorative, or whether it had a ritual significance, or whether perhaps the mirrors doubled as portable Liubo game boards. Zhou Zheng has pointed out that one TLV mirror dating to the reign of Wang Mang (9–23) has an inscription that includes the words "Carved with a Liubo board pattern to dispel misfortune" (刻具博局去[祛]不羊[祥]), which suggests that the main purpose of the Liubo pattern on mirrors was ritual, and that the pattern had a special significance beyond game-playing. [26]

Liubo coins

The Liubo pattern is also sometimes found on the reverse of Wu Zhu coins. Such coins were not used as currency but were probably lucky charms. [27]


A Han stone sundial overcarved with a Liubo board pattern Stone sundial with Liubo markings.jpg
A Han stone sundial overcarved with a Liubo board pattern

In 1897 a Han dynasty stone sundial was discovered in Inner Mongolia which had been overcarved with a Liubo board pattern. [28] The only other complete Han dynasty sundial, in the collection of the Royal Ontario Museum, also has a Liubo pattern carved on it. It may be that the sundials were repurposed as Liubo boards by carving the Liubo pattern over the original sundial markings, or it may be that the Liubo markings were added for some unknown ritual purpose.

Divination boards

In 1993, a wooden board with turtle divination diagrams and prognostications on one side and a Liubo diagram and forty-five prognostications on five topics on the other side was excavated from a late Western Han tomb at Yinwan in Donghai County, Jiangsu. [29] The Liubo diagram is too small to have been used for playing Liubo, and is covered with the sixty terms of the sexagenary cycle which are written all along the lines of the Liubo diagram, in a similar way that the turtle diagram on the other side of the board is filled with the sixty terms. The prognostications under the Liubo diagram are headed with one of nine terms that correspond to the words of an enigmatic, mnemonic rhyme about Liubo written by Xu Bochang (許博昌) during the reign of Emperor Wu of Han (141–87 BCE); Lillian Tseng (Zeng Lanying) argues that these are the names for particular points on the board (the two lines of the "V" mark, the two lines of the "L" mark, the two lines of the "T" mark, the circle or line between the corner and the central square, the outside edge of the central square, and the inside of the central square). [30]

Schematic diagram of the Yinwan Han dynasty Liubo divination diagram, showing the positions of the sixty terms of the sexagenary cycle (following the corrections of Zeng Lanying) and examples of the nine board positions: A=fang Fang  "square"; B=lian Lian  (pan Pan ) "edge"; C=jie Jie  (jie Jie ) "lift"; D=dao Dao  "path"; E=zhang Zhang  "stretch"; F=qu Qu  (jiu Jiu ) "bend"; G=qu Qu  (qu Qu ) "curve"; H=chang Chang  (xuan Xuan ) "long"; I=gao Gao  "tall" (terms used in Xu Bochang's rhyme given in brackets if different). LiuboDivinationDiagram.png
Schematic diagram of the Yinwan Han dynasty Liubo divination diagram, showing the positions of the sixty terms of the sexagenary cycle (following the corrections of Zeng Lanying) and examples of the nine board positions: A=fāng 方 "square"; B=lián 廉 (pàn 畔) "edge"; C=jié 楬 (jiē 揭) "lift"; D=dào 道 "path"; E=zhāng 張 "stretch"; F= 曲 (jiǔ 究) "bend"; G= 詘 ( 屈) "curve"; H=cháng 長 (xuán 玄) "long"; I=gāo 高 "tall" (terms used in Xu Bochang's rhyme given in brackets if different).

Li Xueqin has suggested that the board was used for divination by matching the day to be divined to the corresponding sexagenary term on the Liubo diagram, and then reading off the corresponding prognostication according to the position of the sexagenary term on the Liubo diagram. [31] However, Lillian Tseng points out that the divination could also be done the other way round, by looking for the desired prognostication (for example an auspicious marriage day), and then all the days on the Liubo board that were written on the position corresponding to the term heading the prognostication would match the desired prognostication.

It has been theorized that the placement of the sixty sexagenary terms on the points of the Liubo divination diagram indicate the possible positions for placing pieces when playing Liubo, and that the sequence of the terms across the divination diagram reflects the path to be followed around the board when playing the game (starting at the north-east corner and ending at the north side of the central square). [32]

Famous Liubo players

Liubo players inside an Eastern Han model pottery tower Liubo players in pottery tower.jpg
Liubo players inside an Eastern Han model pottery tower

The following is a list of famous people who are recorded to have played Liubo:

  • King Mu of Zhou (reigned 977–922 BCE), who according to the apocryphal Travels of King Mu once played a game of Liubo with a hermit that lasted three days. [33]
  • Duke Min of Song (宋湣公), who in 682 BCE got into an argument with Nangong Wan 南宮萬 whilst playing Liubo with him, and was killed by Nangong Wan when he hit the duke with the Liubo board. [34]
  • King Anxi of Wei 魏安釐王 (reigned 277–243 BCE) and his half-brother Lord Xinling of Wei 信陵君 (died 243 BCE). Once when the two of them were playing Liubo a message came that the beacons on the northern border had been lit; King Anxi wanted to stop the game and discuss the situation with his ministers, but his brother told him not to worry as it was only the king of Zhao on a hunting trip, and so they continued playing. The king was worried and could not concentrate on the game, but after the game was over news came that it was indeed the king of Zhao out hunting. [35]
  • Jing Ke (died 227 BCE), the failed assassin of Qin Shi Huang, once had an argument with Lu Goujian (魯句踐) over a game of Liubo, and had to flee for his life. [36]
  • Emperor Jing of Han (reigned 156–141 BCE), who when he was crown prince became angry during a game of Liubo with the Prince of Wu, and threw the Liubo board at the prince, killing him (cf. Rebellion of the Seven States). [37]
  • Liang Ji (died 159), who according to his biography was fond of playing Liubo.
  • Li Guangyan (761–826), a Uyghur general who was presented with a girl who was trained in the arts of "song, dance, music and Liubo". [38]
  • Liu Min (895–954), a Shatuo Turk and founder of the Northern Han kingdom, liked to play Liubo and gambling games when he was young. [39]

Confucius famously did not approve of Liubo. In the Analects he grudgingly allows that playing Liubo and Go is better than being idle, [40] and according to the Kongzi Jiayu (Family Sayings of Confucius) he stated that he would not play the game as it promoted bad habits. [41]

See also

  • TLV mirror  – Type of bronze mirror that was popular during the Han dynasty in China
  • Mandala

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Met, Earthenware figures playing liubo, Han Dynasty.JPG
A pair of Eastern Han dynasty (25–220 CE) ceramic tomb figurines of two gentlemen playing liubo