Games of Chance

Liubo players
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Liubo players
China; Han dynasty (206 B.C.E.–220 C.E.), 1st century B.C.E.–1st century C.E. Ceramic, approx. 12 x 15 cm
The British Museum, 1933.1114.1a-c
© Copyright of the British Museum

From about 350 B.C.E. to 200 C.E., a game called liubo (“six rods”) was a veritable craze in China. It was played by the elite (and probably also by commoners) who took the equipment for the game to their graves. Liubo was represented frequently in ceramic models placed in tombs, depicted in pictorial stone reliefs, mentioned in literary texts, and featured as the subject of poems and common rhymes. Yet in the third century C.E., its popularity declined dramatically, and by the fourth century it had virtually died out, its rules forgotten.

In virtually all depictions or models of liubo games, the mechanism of play is six rods, which usually are shown laid out neatly in parallel lines on a playing mat or, rarely, in the progress of play, splayed out as if they have just been thrown. Since no dice accompanied the early boards, it is not certain whether rods or dice were used with them. It seems likely, however, that rods would have been employed, as these were a more elementary form of dice and probably were inspired by divination practices. The earliest surviving examples of these rods are lengths of split bamboo with one flat and one rounded side, the hollow side inlaid with copper wire. In addition to the gaming pieces, rods or dice, and a board, other items were needed to complete a full set of liubo paraphernalia. The most essential of these were tallies, which were used to keep record of the number of points won by each player.