Home Opinion Eastern Roots, Western Fruits: Transplanting an Asian Treasure in America

Eastern Roots, Western Fruits: Transplanting an Asian Treasure in America

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By Robert McTeigue

American author Mark Twain noted that, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter. ’tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”  With that high standard in mind, I ask:  How would you distinguish between these two terms—“cultural appropriation” and “trans-cultural diffusion”?

In brief, the connotations of “cultural appropriation” might be better expressed by “cultural mis-appropriation.”  That is, a significant and treasured feature of a given culture is yanked from its original context and placed into an alien context in which its history and meaning are distorted.  Honorable people may disagree about what constitutes “cultural appropriation” even while they agree that cultural mis-appropriation is lamentable.

“Trans-cultural diffusion” on the other hand, is the spreading out of cultural features beyond the place of origin, and finding new life  in other contexts.  Forms of art, law, music and religion, for example have both given and received new life by various cultural transplantations.

One function of “Eurasian Perspectives” is to identify, reflect upon and discuss the cultural interactions between (generically speaking) East and West.  Of particular interest to me in this context is the exchange of board games between cultures and across centuries.  In this article, I will look at the game of Go (derived from the Japanese, and the most common name of the game in the West), known as Wei-Qi in Chinese and Baduk in Korean.  Originating in China, Go migrated to Japan, which became the dominant force in the game for centuries.  In the latter part of the 20th century, Korea began to play a significant role in the Go world, producing some of the mostsuccesful players.  In recent years, China has been seeking ascendancy in the Go world.  Taken together, China, Japan and Korea are known as “the Three Kingdoms of Go.”  What about the status of Go in the West, in particular, the United States?

Although I’ve been an avid player of board games all my life, I was only vaguely aware of Go until I stumbled upon the Manga/Anime series, “Hikaru no Go”, a classic coming-of-age/hero’s journey narrative about a feckless boy who discovers a passion and talent for Go, which changes his life.  The popularity of the Hikaru series revitalized the popularity of Go in Japan and brought Go to the attention of many Westerners, myself included.  The Hikaru series has become an instrument of the American Go Foundation to promote Go in American schools and libraries.   The long-term effects of these efforts remain to be seen.

The clearest evidence ofGo taking hold in American soil is the successful efforts of the American Go Association to develop a professional ranking system of Go players, similar to the ranks of professionals in China, Japan and Korea.  (There have already been American-born Go players who have become ranked professionals in Asian nations.  Michael Redmond ranked in the Japanese system, and Janice Kim ranked in the Korean system, are perhaps the most well known.) The culmination of those efforts was realized in the production of the first two “homegrown” professionals certified by the American Go Association in 2012, Andy Liu and Gansheng Shi.  As of this date, the AGA has certified five professional players.

The history of the slow and uncertain growth of Go in the United States since the founding of the AGA in the 1930s, and the more recent drama leading up to the first American-grown professional players, have been detailed in a recent and well-acclaimed documentary “The Surrounding Game.”The movie oscillates between past and present, East and West, as it follows the fortunes of a group of young American friends striving to become the first AGA-certified Go professionals.  The movie itself merits multiple viewings, and may aptly be described as beautiful, inspiring, poignant and even humorous.  My purpose here is to consider the documentary in light of our present discussion regarding trans-cultural diffusion.  What will become of Go, a game laden with Asian history, images and terminology, once it sinks deep roots into American soil?  How will it look, feel, sound, be spoken of, should it over time become fully translated into an American idiom?  The former U.S. Chess League morphed into the PRO Chess League a few years ago, joined by teams from around the world.  One can see that by design, this new worldwide chess league looks and sounds like an American sports phenomenon.  Could something like that happen to the game of Go in America?  And would that be to the game’s benefit, or to its detriment?

Americans, it is said, tend not to have the grasp of history and tradition that Europeans and Asians reputedly have. I remember pointing out Georgetown University to a friend visiting from Belgium, proudly noting that it is the oldest Catholic university in America—dating all the way back to 1789!  She paused, smiled, and finally said, “Well, that is somewhat old…”  Will Americans, can Americans approach the game of Go with the sense of appreciation, awe and even reverence that is so well documented in Asian cultures?  “The Surrounding Game” shows Americans speaking of Go with wonder, while playing and studying the game with great passion and determination.  But will there be a distinctively American style of Go?

When discussing board games and the differences between Eastern and Western cultures, a comparison of chess and Go is often made.  (See for example, “A Comparison of Chess and Go” by the British Go Association.)  William Pinckard’s classic, “Go and the Three Games” offers an account of why Go flourished in Asian cultures, chess in Western cultures, and backgammon in Near and Middle Eastern cultures.  A much longer and more scholarly account can be found in Peter Shotwell’s “Why the West Plays Chess and the East Plays Go.”  For our purposes, we can take a simpler approach.  In considering “Eastern Roots/Western Fruits” in relation to trans-cultural diffusion and the game of Go, I think it may be easier to consider the role of computers and the internet on the game of Go, rather than speculate on the long-term question of whether there will be a distinctively American contribution to the game.

Computer programmers have been studying chess and artificial intelligence for decades.  The computer program “Deep Blue” defeating chess world champion Garry Kasparov in 1997 was a major milestone in chess history.  Nowadays, it is impossible to become a serious player, much less a successful professional chess player, without computer tools and assistance.

It was taken for granted that computers could not play Go at a serious level because the board was so much bigger (19×19) than the board of chess (8×8).  A different approach was taken, and in 2016, “AlphaGo” defeated world champion Lee Sedol.  The full import of passing that milestone has not yet been discerned.

In both the world of Go and the world of chess, the globe-spanning connectedness of the internet may be of greater significance for trans-cultural diffusion than, say, the development of a professional ranking system of Go in the United States.  While the internet has had a depressing effect on local chess clubs, it has had an explosive effect for those who want to play chess or Go 24/7.  One doesn’t have to wait for a local club meeting to play a game, or recalling that bygone era when people without access to local clubs played games by mail; now one can play games, observe tournaments, receive instruction, and immerse oneself in the culture of the game of choice at any time, from almost anywhere in the world.  The more urgent question, then, concerns the effects of a worldwide trans-cultural diffusion of Go via the internet, rather than, say, the development of a professional system in one Western nation.

For example, American chess grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura, one of the strongest players in the world, is known to have developed an “unconventional” approach to the game because he grew up playing countless games online, rather than following the more traditional path of studying the history and literature of chess play.  Likewise, first U.S.-certified professional Go player Andy Liu, as described in “The Surrounding Game”, also developed an unconventional approach to Go after playing countless games online.  These two illustrations raise a challenging point:  What happens to a game like Go, steeped in history and tradition, when the trans-cultural diffusion transplants it into a rootless and unstable culture that exists only in cyberspace?  At what point will the computer be no longer a tool of the game, but a “game-changer”?


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