Wang Jiangjun is his name, and xiangqi is his game. For the last two years, 26-year-old Dan Milsap from Houston, Texas - aka Wang Jiangjun, Chinese for "Marshall King" - has been using Chinese chess to learn about Chinese culture and make friends across the board.
"Playing Chinese chess is a lot of fun, and interacting with Chinese people helps me to appreciate their culture more," Wang says. "Sometimes foreigners tend to stick together and only do things as a group of foreigners."
Wang, for one, has decided to stray from the insular laowai circles to mix it up with Chinese xiangqi buffs, becoming the first and only foreign member of Beijing's Jingshan Qiyuan Chess Club.
Wang first joined the club to learn how to better work the chessboard, but today, he's learning more about the Chinese people who play across from him.
"Any time you are active within the community, you become integrated into it," he says.
While Wang's limited Mandarin makes it difficult to verbally communicate with his fellow xiangqi aficionados, that doesn't keep them from conversing.
"Chess is a language in and of itself," Wang says. "There is no need for words because the movement of the pieces expresses the players' ideas directly."
Still, for Wang, it's a dialogue articulated through a good deal of pointing and gesturing.
Ma Mingxiang, the chain-smoking xiangqi guru of 50 years who manages the Jingshan club, can dethrone the less-experienced Marshall King in a Beijing minute, but he still hails Wang as a potential ambassador of Chinese chess.
"We hope he can become the Da Shan of Chinese Chess," he says, referring to the Canadian TV personality who won Chinese hearts by speaking perfect Mandarin. "We hope he will help us spread Chinese chess to other countries."
That's why they're working hard to help Wang improve.
"The other members are generally pretty nice about playing games with me," Wang says. "They will usually go for the win as soon as possible in the first game to establish their superiority, but then will go easy on me in all subsequent games to give me a chance to actually improve my game."
Wang's first xiangqi game was against his teaching assistant when he was working as an English teacher at a primary school in Beijing. The contest ended prematurely when his 6-year-old students arrived for class and mischievously rearranged the chessboard, but Wang was already hooked.
"It was time for class to start anyway, so all I could do was laugh," he says.
From that game on, Wang began learning xiangqi, piece by piece.
For him, the biggest challenge was remembering the meanings of the different characters carved into the discs that are used as game pieces.
"I used a marker to write the English translation on the pieces themselves and by the time the marks rubbed away from use I had no use for them any more," he says.
Wang's tutor, Ma Yuling, says Wang has learned a lot about Chinese chess since he first arrived at the club, but he has also taught his more xiangqi-savvy Chinese peers something about the game: Sometimes it's what happens across - not on - the board that matters most.
"Xiangqi is more than just a game," he says. "It's a way to make friends."
(China Daily September 13, 2006)