He's short and plump, and thick glasses ride down his snub nose. Though he's only 36, he suffers from a heart condition so grave that during long matches he must play with an oxygen bottle at the ready. But Nie Weiping is a national sports hero in China, his somber face so familiar to the public from newspaper and magazine photographs and from television appearances that he can scarcely walk down the streets near his small apartment in south Beijing without attracting hordes of well-wishers and autograph seekers. He is paid this homage—as well as the regular government salary of 200 yuan a month ($54)—because he's a master of weiqi, the board game more popularly known in Japan and outside Asia as go.
Nie's fame in his land far exceeds that of any European chess master in his country and certainly that of, say, Bobby Fischer in the U.S. And that's as it should be, say aficionados of weiqi (pronounced WAY-chee), who contend that their game is to chess as theoretical physics is to long division. Whatever the relative merits of the two games, the obvious differences between them—weiqi is played with black and white "stones" rather than various pieces, and is more a game of capturing territory than an opponent's men—are probably less significant than the subtle ones. Says Ben Gross, a San Francisco psychiatrist now teaching in China, who's a veteran chess player and a novice at weiqi, "There's the same tension and stress in the two games, the same sort of life-and-death decision-making, but chess is a much more concrete game. Weiqi is more intuitive."
And, say experts on games, weiqi is the most physically and mentally exhausting of all the sedentary games. Nie has lost as much as 12 pounds during a match. Eight hours hunched before the weiqi board, he says, is the equivalent of playing two soccer matches on the same day.
While chess, as far as anyone has been able to determine, wasn't invented until the sixth or seventh century A.D., weiqi has been traced by some historians to the time of the Emperor Shun (2255-2206 B.C.). It remained pretty much a Chinese pastime until 754 A.D., when Japan's ambassador to China, Kibi Daijin, presented his emperor, Koken Tenno, with a weiqi set. The Japanese quickly became adept at the game and renamed it igo, which was soon shortened to go. It has been widely and incorrectly thought of as a Japanese game ever since. And not without reason, for most weiqi/go masters are Japanese. There are, for example, 71 players in Japan today who have achieved the nine-dan, or ultimate, level of mastery; only nine Chinese can claim that distinction. The best of them is Nie.
Much of Nie's popularity in China rests on his Japan-bashing. His first victory over a Japanese nine-dan player came in 1974, when he was only 22. Two years later, in his first tour of Japan, he won five of six matches against top players. He has led Chinese teams to victory the past three years in the annual China-Japan Challenge Series. Last year he was literally a one-man gang after his eight teammates were quickly eliminated. He won five matches in a row to pull out a 9-8 Chinese victory. The most notable of them, a 6½-hour encounter with the Japanese master Takemiya Masaki, is considered by many experts to have been the finest played in this century.
By the time he was nine, Nie Weiping had learned weiqi from watching his father, Chun-kong, play. He soon achieved that indefinable mastery of poetical and mathematical techniques required of a master and attracted the attention of Chinese national champion Guo Tisheng, who moved in with the Nie family to train the young Weiping. Weiping won the national title in his age group in 1965, but four years later he fell victim to the anti-intellectualism of the Cultural Revolution and was sent to work on a state farm near the Soviet border, far from his native Beijing. There he worked 10-hour days, which undoubtedly affected his already fragile heart, but when the workday was done, he played weiqi in secret, his left hand matched against his right. He was allowed to return to Beijing in '72 and began studying under Chen Zude, a nine-dan player from the disbanded Chinese national team who was then obliged to work in a factory. In '74, with the Cultural Revolution on the wane, Nie challenged a Japanese nine-dan player, Miyamoto Naoki, who to that point had won six straight matches on a playing tour of China. Nie defeated Miyamoto in a grueling 10-hour game. It was, he says, "the turning point" of his career.
Nie lives with his wife, Kong Xiangming, an eight-dan player and a three-time women's national champion; their seven-year-old son, Yun-cong, also a player; and Kong's father in a modest but artfully appointed four-room apartment in Beijing. The ambience of Nie's home draws upon the four Chinese arts—music, calligraphy, painting and weiqi—and, incongruously, one American one. Above the bathroom door is a plastic figure of Mickey Mouse and on the bedroom door, one of Daisy Duck. Kong plays the piano, and the magnificent calligraphy and painting of Fan Zeng decorates the walls. For relaxation, Nie plays ferocious bridge—he's the sometime partner of Deng Xiaoping, the No. 1 man in the People's Republic—and watches soccer, a game he follows with the passion and prejudice of an American pro football fan.
And his game still challenges him. "It's ever changeable, always requiring great resources and skill," he says. "It's like strong tea." But victory isn't so sweet anymore and, he complains, "As in racing, there's always the next match to be played." There's also the probability that his weak heart may prevent him from competing into old age, as weiqi masters traditionally have. The game played at such a high level over many years can drain the body as well as the spirit. Kawabata Yasunari, the Japanese Nobelist in literature and a lifelong go fanatic, wrote of his fictional champion in The Master of Go:
"The waves that passed through his shoulders were quite regular. They were to me like a concentration of violence, or the doings of some mysterious power that had taken possession of the Master. The effect was the stronger for the fact that the Master himself seemed unaware of what was happening. Immediately the violence passed. The Master was quiet again. His breathing was normal.... I wondered if this marked the point of departure, the crossing of the line, for the spirit facing battle. I wondered if I was witness to the working of the Master's soul...."