ASC Luther Bean Museum chess set has interesting history

(11-21-2008)

Artifact of the Month

By Danielle Simpson

Currently residing in the Luther Bean Museum is an amazing piece of history that spans clear from rural Alamosa, Colorado to the Guangdong Provence of China. This piece of history is a hand-carved ivory Cantonese Chess Set donated by Colonel Charles and Mrs. Beryl Woodard which is believed to be Cantonese circa 1840.

The history of chess is a long tale that is believed to have been invented in 2nd century China, according to David Li in the Genealogy of Chess; however, it is not clearly mentioned in literature until the 7th Century. Chess then expanded to Persia (modern day Iran). During the 8th century it moved into Moorish Spain and continued to spread throughout Europe, Russia and England. About 1580 a major change happened to chess, an Italian made the suggestion that the Queen should be the strongest player on the board not the weakest, also the Bishop that previously had been very restricted became de-limited. The French referred to this new type of chess as "Echecs de la dame enragee" or "Chess of the maddened Queen." This new version spread throughout Europe except Russia who chose to play the older version for two more centuries. Currently, chess is a game that is played the world over with hundreds of national championships and competitors from around the globe competing to hold the title Chess Champion of the World. The leisure and activity associated with chess has made it a favorite lasting through generations.

The Guangdong Provence of China is where the museum's chess set is believed to have originated. The Guangdong Provence is also where Cantonese and its dialects are spoken. The majority of the population came south into the Guangdong Provence when the Mongols invaded from the north. Due to Guangdong's location along the coast it has been a major shipping and trade route for all of China. This especially peaked during the Opium trade of the 17th Century. This same trade led to the Opium Wars, 1839-1842 and 1856 -1860, this is also the time when this chess set was believed to be carved. The conflict exploded due to China attempting to resist British Imperialism and stop opium from coming into China. Also because of Guangdong central coastal location many of current modern day Chinese-Americans find they are descendants of those first immigrants from the Cantonese Provence.

The chess set that resides in the Luther Bean Museum is beautiful with intricate detail, and the ivory has been well cared for. The red pieces are in fact not red but dyed ivory, the ivory was dyed with cinnabar, a very common practice that began in China during the Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE) with carved lacquer ware. Cinnabar or cinnabarite is also known as red mercury sulfide or native vermilion, and was crushed into powdered form however the powder is very toxic so it was mixed with lacquer that would make it only dangerous if the pieces were dropped and shattered.

The ASC Luther Bean Museum has the Woodards to thank for such an amazing donation, the Woodards traveled all over the globe, it is unsure when this particular artifact was purchased by them but due to their sense of adventure and generosity Adams State students can enjoy this amazing piece of history that represents both Cantonese China and the diversity of cultural influences at Adams State College.

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