Nie Weiping: Fight Like A Man | iAsk Top Leaders

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Our story begins with the China-Japan Super Go tournament of 1960.

A delegation of Japanese Go professionals visited China that year for the first “China-Japan Friendship Cup”. Unfortunately, China only managed to win 2 out of 30 matches even with Japan's extra “handicap” stones.

The contest was renewed the following year with Japan represented by 55-year old Ms Ito Tomoe, a mere 5-dan in Go's professional ranking system. She wiped out China's best Go players with 8 straight wins who, try as they might, apparently had no countermeasures to her strategy.

It was a national disgrace – because Go is much more than a game to Chinese culture.

A cultivated scholar of ancient times had to learn the “four arts” - music, Go, calligraphy, and painting – in which much of the confidence and pride of the Chinese civilization is conveyed. Indeed, the greatest Japanese Go player of his time left us this remark upon his defeat by the Great Master, Gu Shiyan, of the Tang Dynasty: “The greatest of a lesser country is no match even for the third greatest of a mighty country.”

It is not a remark about simply recognizing power in the realm of Go, but also in a broader cultural sense.

The defeat of China's best by a second-rate Go player from Japan was a shock to both China and Japan. It is reported some 9-dan Japanese Go professionals were reluctant to battle Chinese players without providing a handicap - tantamount to a disclaimer on their equal status.

There is a saying, “As the fortunes of a country goes, so goes its Go players”. The phrase paints a more brutal loss in 1961 than one of just “face” to a newly independent Chinese people in need of greater self-confidence.

A certain 9-year old Chinese boy was present when Ito Tomoe wiped out her Chinese competition. He can still recall clenching his fists in anger and his barely containable sense of outrage today.

“It wasn't just humiliating for the Go players, it was also a national disgrace.”

It was Nie Weiping.

“The Hero of Go Against Japan”

Nie Weiping's “journey through Go” was in fact quite accidental and entirely autodidactic in nature.

As he puts it, “My parents didn't teach me how to play, but I often observed them and naturally learned as time went by.”

Nie Weiping has a congenital heart condition and was therefore unsuitable for vigorous exercise. Thus, he had to content himself with mental games from a young age. Perhaps it was Nie Weiping's deep-seated competitiveness and stubbornness to defeat that plunged him into a “Go obsession”, and kept pushing him on from dawn to dusk or even until faint.

Two years later and the 11-year old boy had sent a group of “properly-educated” young Go players packing to win the Beijing Children's Go Tournament.

It was about this time that Nie Weiping's Go talents began to attract the attention of veteran commander, Vice-Premier of the State Council and Foreign Minister, Chen Yi. The remarkable youth became a fixture of the equally Go-enthused Vice-Premier's home, and the two often versed each other.

There came a day when the Vice-Premier invited the young man to a special feast and joked they would have to “say goodbye” for a time - as if about to embark on a mission of utmost importance.

The recesses of the Lop Nor Desert boomed with the shockwaves of China's first atom bomb that same year. The commander later told his young friend: the atom bomb is like the “9-dan” ranking in Go. China has the atom bomb, and is thus a “9-dan”, but we don't have anyone at that level in Go. But you will defeat Japan's 9-dans in the future.

These words had a great impact on the young Nie Weiping.

Fast forward 20 years and an enormous multi-generational effort from China's people later and the country was now experiencing rapid improvement in national strength and Go skills. The time for revenge had finally arrived.

It was 1984 and the first China-Japan Super Go was about to begin in Beijing.

The two countries had restored normal diplomatic relations by this time and the “small ball diplomacy” friendship game of old had now morphed into a “merciless” contest of strength. The tournament rules had been modified from a somewhat chaotic multi-person, multi-round system into a tough “1v1” eliminator with each side contributing 8 players.

This battle to “reveal the country's present fortunes” had captivated hearts around China. Then Vice-Premier, Fang Yi, attended the match in person while “Grandpa Deng” was reportedly glued to the TV for the live broadcast.

National pride at stake, both the Chinese and Japanese players would give it everything they had.

A Go magazine surveying readers before the event found 91% of Japanese respondents thought the Japanese were certain to win. Even 80% of the Chinese respondents believed China would likely lose. Sakata Eio, president of the Japan Go Association, further commented that Japan could win with just three players.

The tournament as it unfolded demonstrated Japan's supreme confidence was not entirely groundless.

Japan's “super pro”, Kobayashi Koichi, won 6 straight games against his Chinese counterparts following a round 7 debut in dramatic fashion. Only one Chinese player remained, Nie Weiping, but Japan could still count on Kobayashi Koichi, Kato Masao and Fujisawa Hideyuki - three of the very best “super” 9-dan Go players, of which the strongest, Fujisawa Hideyuki, had been awarded Japan's lifetime honor of a “Qi Sheng” (or “Saint of Go”).

This grinding 1v3 would have left the Chinese with a mere 12.5% chance of victory on favorable even odds per match.

In dire straits, Nie Weiping found the strength to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat and ended the tournament with a beautiful triple win.

The one who held defeat at bay – and the best Go player in China

A century of shame rebuffed, students from Peking University poured into Tiananmen Square that very night with slogans proclaiming the “revitalization of China”; thousands excitedly took to the streets to share with tears: China won!

As for the three Go professionals defeated by Nie Weiping? They shaved their heads and offered a national apology to the Japanese people.

Nie Weiping would go on to claim 11 successive wins in the first four China-Japan Super Gos from 1984 to 1987, on which he rescued the Chinese team on no less than three occasions, including his 1986 performance when he won five games in a row against Japan's very best Go professionals although bereft of teammates and the lone holdout. It was a legendary moment of Go history.

“I was like the 'backbone' and the 'gatekeeper'. I felt like I was standing over the precipice in every game, but every game ended with my feet back on solid ground until I finally defeated some of the very strongest opponents, one-by-one”, as Nie Weiping tells it.

“I'm not that amazing, actually. There are a lot of young Go players now who can think more quickly or precisely than I can”, Nie Weiping is humble about his past with iAsk, “But my win was a really big encouragement for China at that time, which added a bit of a legendary quality to my story and that has also been a great honor for me.”

Nie Weiping was awarded the title of “Go Sage” in 1988 - the only Chinese Go professional in the world to receive it.

Japan's Go players developed a kind of “Nie Weiping phobia” to an extent in the years that followed, catapulting Nie Weiping into a “people's hero” across China. On one occasion, Nie Weiping went to report on his story to those at Qinghua and Peking University but ended up being carried by cheering students across campus; an aged veteran of the Laoshan front-lines presented Nie Weiping with a letter: “We fought at the front for you to defeat Japan's Go players at the rear.”

This encouragement set off an unprecedented course of 'Go fever' throughout China. All universities established Go Associations, the finest in which joined China's political, commercial and cultural elite 20 years later, and greatly assisting in Go's continued promotion. Any discussion on the history of Go must creditably rank Nie Weiping foremost by contribution to the game's widespread popularity.

The China-Japan Super Go was held 11 times until 1996, of which China ultimately scored 7 major wins against Japan's 4; China's GDP also went the way of her Go tournaments: surpassing Japan's GDP in a meteoric rise to stronghold of global economic strength.

“As the fortunes of a country goes, so goes its Go players.”

“I'm happy to do whatever helps Go”

Nie Weiping today is no longer a young man fighting on the front lines as backbone of team China. He has successfully retired and would prefer to “help more in the background” to pave the way for a better future for China's up-and-coming Go players.

In reality, improving at Go is largely based on peer interaction and learning as befits the very highest “battle of wits” humans can play.

Nie Weiping is keenly aware he could not have raised China's flag on any podium if he had been forced to rely on himself.

The “Go Sage” Wu Qingyuan of the Minguo era offers a good example of that.

A pioneer of modern Go theory, Master Wu was considered invincible in his day and often made short work of the very best Japanese opponents in unbeatable “ten-game matches”. He was a dazzling “shooting star” in the world of Go in China.

Yet the comet's departure left a Chinese Go community still mired in decline, and which continued to lose again and again to the Japanese players.

Future Go professionals in the new China all studied Wu Qingyuan's game records, but were nevertheless helpless against the attacks of elderly Ms. Ito Tomoe in large part to their inability to play against or learn from him.

Essentially, the “Go Sage of the Showa era” chose to migrate to Japan in his heyday. Players in China had no opportunity by which to meet Master Wu; nor could those afterwards travel back in time to converse with him nor resolve any questions.

No amount of pure theory could convey the essence of Go. Moreover, competition against the very best is necessary in any sport. One has to fully examine existing tactics and improve on the field to update existing formulas.

The later greats of the Chinese Go community, including Chang Hao and Gu Li, benefited from Nie Weiping's mentoring and could thus test out their boldest conceptions live, enabling rapid improvement and greatness on the international scene.

In fact, 23 world and national champions have come through the Nie Weiping Go Academy.

The achievements of later generations must stand on the shoulders of giants, and there must be people willing to cultivate those giants.

Reviewing the moribund experiences of Japanese Go players after the 90s must look in large part at the abrupt break in talent over this period - Japan was left without national champions once the “6 super pros” departed from the scene.

Nie Weiping could be considered a true pioneer to Go's growth in China when viewed from this perspective.

“There are at least double the number of Go enthusiasts in China today than 30 years ago,” Nie Weiping says frankly to iAsk's camera, “I haven't tried to tally it, but the atmosphere around Go today is so good it's hard to imagine - thousands of children are learning Go in many schools around China.”

Go in China has in fact entered a virtuous cycle: general enthusiasm around Go attracts more participants, this creates “A leagues” to train Go professionals, some of these professionals are very successful and thus attract more interest.

An opening ceremony was held in Guiyang in May 2017 at the Guizhou HQ of the Nie Weiping Go Academy bequeathed by New Horizon Health. As a sponsor for “Nie Weiping Go Mentor”, New Horizon Health Co., Ltd. has contributed funds to charitable Go classrooms in Guiyang and the further popularization and promotion of Go in China.

“China would have been ranked second in Go skills 30 years ago, and now we are number one”, Nie Weiping says with certainty.

The level at which Go is being played now in China eclipses that in Japan and South Korea after a multi-generational effort. Six of the best Chinese Go professionals of the new generation, including Zhou Ruiyang and Chen Yaoye, managed to win all six of the world's biggest Go tournaments in 2013 (the Yingshi Cup, Samsung Cup, LG Cup, Chunlan Cup, Bailing Cup, and Meng Baihe Cup), and even a “dream sweep” in the Meng Baihe Cup - all 8 of the top finalists were Chinese.

Simply put, China's skill at Go in the global community is as firmly cemented as in ping pong.

Every story has to end with a twist. Just as China had unlocked human Go's “bulletproof” setting, artificial intelligence put that mastery under existential threat before we could pop the champagne.

An upgraded AlphaGo 2.0 easily defeated China's best Go player and representative of the highest level of human skill, Ke Jie, in Wuzhen in 2017. Ke Jie assessed the matter in an interview afterwards that: AlphaGo had overturned a lot of our theories about Go and, “Looking at previous formulas now seems ridiculous.”

Humanity had arrived at many theories about Go after several thousand years of real-life practice only to be told by artificial intelligence that, “Sorry, it's all wrong.”

This signified the end of an era in Nie Weiping's eyes.

“AlphaGo’s mastery of the match as a whole and general point-of-view is far above any human being. Deep Learning has launched its Go skills to heights we never imagined”, Nie Weiping states plainly, “Humanity will never win it back”.

But Nie Weiping is no pessimist. From his point of view, the emergence of AI also heralds the arrival of a new, and great, era for Go.

“Google’s AlphaGo raised global awareness in an unprecedented way. We had hundreds of millions of viewers from all over the world. Where else could we have found so many interested viewers? A lot of people in a lot of places, Europe, Africa, and so on, didn’t even know there was such a thing as Go. Now this human-AI match has popularized the sport to an enormous extent”, Nie Weiping said to iAsk, “Also, humanity’s Go skills have been massively improved by the AI on the whole, which is also very good thing actually from the game’s point-of-view.”

“I’m always up for anything that can benefit Go.”

From cancer fighting legend to cancer prevention ambassador

Many know of Nie Weiping as a “Go Sage”, far fewer that he is also a battler against cancer.

Nie Weiping’s dramatic weight loss in the first half of 2013 motivated the Go Academy to somehow get him to go to hospital. A check up later and Nie Weiping found himself with rectal cancer and that in a late stage condition.

Nie Weiping’s tumor was 10 cm long. The average person’s rectum is 12 to 15 cm long. It was extremely serious.

“I had rectal cancer. Although we have access to great medical resources today, my illness was found too late. It was at stage 4, that is, the stage you can’t save someone”, Nie Weiping seems unfazed at the topic of his illness almost as if it happened to someone else.

Top rectal cancer experts gave their advice. Physicians’ opinions were divided into two camps, one in favor of a conservative approach to treatment and the other an operation, which held enormous risk. The vast majority of physicians, including the hospital director, recommended a conservative course of treatment and to not operate.

“‘Conservative’ sounds nice, but to put it less nicely it means, ‘Let's not treat it, but leave it totally up to luck.’” Nie Weiping puts it bluntly to iAsk, “That’s not in keeping with my personality. Waiting to die isn’t my style at all. I have to resist it. I have to fight.”

Thus Nie Weiping firmly rejected the conservative approach.

From his point-of-view, the decision to operate was like Go’s version of a “Hail Mary” often played at key mid-game moments. “Sometimes you have to commit to a bold move when things are not going well. If you succeed, you win. If you don't succeed, you die.”

It’s a game of wits with a very strong “all or nothing” sense of strategy and Nie Weiping is unrelentingly stubborn when it comes to defeat.

All of his fights have been rather desperate affairs since he first snatched victory from the jaws of defeat in 1984’s China-Japan Super Go when victory seemed so very far. As a “last hope” of the people, Nie Weiping has had to steady his nerves before against powerful opponents but yet with miraculous outcomes.

The desire to “fight like a man” is a basic aspect of Nie Weiping’s personality.

Nie Weiping was not afraid of the operation and apparently drowsily talked about a “five of clubs” on leaving the theater. He later joked he must have dreamed he was playing bridge.

Nie Weiping underwent another 9 rounds of chemotherapy. It might have proved too much for some but not the 61-year old who even kept his hair. Even his nurse remarked on his somewhat “saintly disposition.”

“I’m totally committed to Go in China. It's not just something I want to do for myself. I'm very fortunate that I ended up risking this move.”

A recovered Nie Weiping attributes his success against cancer to luck and attitude, “I am very fortunate. I ended up with a great doctor, and I had a good attitude. In the end, the treatment was basically successful.”

But he’s also blunt about the necessity of early prevention to treating cancer. “You mustn’t end up like me, having to fight for my life after getting a stage 4 cancer. It’s best to eliminate it from the getgo.”

Life is like a game of Go from Nie Weiping’s perspective, in which every person’s life represents a unique board. Early screening can be approximated to a match in that getting a good start - quickly discovering and treating a cancer - enables a good and healthy life.

Nie Weiping has taken this attitude into his role as New Horizon Health’s brand spokesperson since March 2016, and he has also been an ambassador for greater public awareness of early cancer screening and testing via several “West Lake Match Forums”.

The Changweiqing is a new non-intrusive, pain-free, non-invasive, and home-based colorectal cancer early screening and testing service that works with multi-target molecular (FIT-DNA) testing technology to analyze three molecular markers in stools closely connected with colon cancer (including blood, gene mutation and DNA methylation), and is able to detect advanced adenomas over 1 cm (pre-cancerous lesions) and colorectal cancer lesions to quickly uncover and effectively treat colon cancer.

“China continues to grow in strength and prosperity, but we still have a lot of work to do in managing cancer prevention and treatment more effectively. I'm thrilled China has an early cancer screening company like New Horizon, and it certainly is good news for the public, and a good thing of benefit to China and her people”, Nie Weiping told iAsk.

In terms of his hopes 10 years down the track, Nie Weiping is sure Go in China will have reached new heights by then and that, “We have a vast country and many more children learning Go than in Japan and South Korea. We keep getting better over time, which has been very obvious.”

“There may be a lot more people with cancer in China 10 years down the road, but I think that as we keep seeing more and more early screening companies like New Horizon, which keep getting better and better at what they do, people in 10 years will no longer fear cancer as we do now.”

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Gloria Ai
Gloria Ai is the founder of iAsk Media and the founding manager of iAsk Capital, and a former venture partner at the Softbank Asia Infrastructure Fund. She serves as the international brand ambassador to her hometown of Huangshan, and was Forbes 30 Under 30 in the Media, Marketing & Advertising category. She is a graduate of Harvard Kennedy School and Peking University. Prior to founding iAsk, she served as a financial news correspondent for China Central Television in New York.