The Celestial Empire as a stand-alone role-playing game

As written on page 3 of the rule book, The Celestial Empire is not a stand-alone role-playing game, since it was designed to be used with Chaosium's Basic Roleplaying (BRP) System.

However, if the gamemaster (GM) has decided to run a campaign game that does not use magic and wǔshù powers (like for instance a strictly historical game), then the GM can simply download the free BRP Quick-Start Edition. The latter includes all the basic rules needed to run a TCE game: character creation, skill use, resistance table, experience, combat, and spot rules.


High Level Magic

As written on page 83 of the rule book, The Celestial Empire has been written with Chinese fantasy and wǔxiá fiction in mind, neither of which feature exaggerated magical feats, at least not by the hands of mere mortals.

As a result, a GM who would like to run a campaign featuring powerful spell casters might be disappointed with the overall level of the spells presented in The Celestial Empire. This post will give some ideas to game masters who want “high level” magic.

The GM should procure the Chaosium monograph Basic Magic; this supplement contains a chapter called Divine Magic (p22), which describes a magic tradition much more powerful than The Celestial Empire's Battle Magic.

To remain in phase with The Celestial Empire's approach to magic, the Divine Magic from Basic Magic should only be available for campaigns set in China's mythical past, when Immortals would dabble in human affairs, or for really high-power campaigns in Imperial China centred on Chinese mythology rather than Chinese history or literature.

Here are a few ideas of who may cast which spells in a high power Celestial Empire campaign, targeted towards very powerful characters such as Tibetan reincarnate lamas, Daoist Celestial Immortals, or vampire-creating demonic sorcerers.

PC or NPC >> Suggested Spells from Basic Magic
Lama of Avalokiteshvara >> Spells provided by the ‘Sun God’ (p31)
Lama of Bhaisajyaguru >> Spells provided by the ‘Earth Goddess’ (p30)
Lama of Mañjushrī >> Spells provided by the ‘Moon Goddess’ (p31)
Lama of Samantabhadra >> Spells provided by the ‘Ruling Deity’ (p31)
Lama of compassionate Tārā >> Spells provided by the ‘Agricultural Goddess’ (p30)
Lama of wrathful Tārā >> Spells provided by the ‘Night Goddess’ (p31)
Daoist Celestial Immortal >> Spells provided by the ‘Storm God’ (p31)
Demonic Sorcerer >> Spells provided by the ‘Underworld God’ (p31)


the Shānhǎi Jīng (山海經)

This ancient (at least 2,200 years old) Chinese bestiary has been mentioned in yesterday's post as the epitome of the Chinese fear of the Mountains and the Seas. Literally translated, its title does indeed mean the Classic of the Mountains and Seas.

The book does not follow any plot. It simply describes various real and mythological locales along with their many fabled inhabitants, mostly monsters or people with strange customs. In this respect, it is very much similar to European mediaeval bestiaries. The Shānhǎi Jīng hasn't had much influence on Chinese fantasy or wǔxiá fiction; this is why I haven't used the creatures described in the Shānhǎi Jīng for The Celestial Empire. Some of them will appear in this blog over time, though.

A longer description of the book, containing some excerpts, may be found here.

The Shānhǎi Jīng is available in English in two editions:
  • Birrell, Anne. 2000. The Classic of Mountains and Seas, Penguin
  • Strassberg, Richard. 2002. A Chinese Bestiary: Strange Creatures from the Guideways Through Mountains and Seas, University of California Press


Mountains and Seas

The Chinese have always hated the mountains and the seas. Chinese civilisation originated in the basin of the Yellow River (Huánghé 黃河), more exactly in the squarish area between the Yellow River and the river Wèi (渭河), which is located more than 1,000km from the nearest sea.

This squarish area is a natural plateau of fertile (if highly erodible) soil. Even if this plateau is high above sea level, there aren't any real mountains there. It is like a gigantic piece of upheaved plains.

Another early centre of Chinese civilisation was the upper basin of the river Huái (淮河), again a very flat area, and again far from any coastal area.

Over time, Chinese civilisation spread eastwards to Shāndōng (山東), and southwards to Sìchuān (四川) and to the river Yángzi (揚子江), as explained on page 19 of the rule book. However, the Hàn kept clear of the mountains and of the seas during this expansion phase. This explains why the vast majority of China's ethnic minorities are mountain dwellers.

Whereas Europe is dotted with old ports by the sea, and old cities situated on protective peaks, China's ancient cities are all plains cities, far from the sea. Shànghǎi, for instance, has really been created by the British and the French in the 19th century.

As befits a people who dislikes the mountains and the seas, the most famous Chinese bestiary is called the Shānhǎi Jīng (山海經), literally the Classic of the Mountains and Seas, because the mountains and the seas were expected to house a variety of monsters.


Chinese Jews

1. Origins and first traces

Jewish settlers from Persia are documented in China as early as the 7th or 8th century AD. Relatively isolated communities developed through the Táng and Sòng dynasties, most notably in Kāifēng 開封.
As with Buddhism, Islam, and Nestorianism, yet again a "Western" religion had travelled to China on the Silk Road.

The earliest hard evidence for the presence of Jews in China is from the 8th century:
  • A business letter written in the Judaeo-Persian language by a Chinese Jew requesting the help of a fellow Jew to sell a lot of mediocre quality sheep. At the time, Jews resided in special enclaves that were set aside by the Chinese for foreigners in what was called the Western Regions (Xīyù 西域, roughly corresponding to Turkestan, Dzungaria, Sogdiana, and the Tarim Basin on the map on page 28 of The Celestial Empire)
  • A page of Jewish prayers for the Day of Atonement (from Gānsù)

In the 9th century, an Arab writer mentions the Radanites, Jewish merchants travelling between Western Europe and China.

In the 10th century, another Arab writer mentions in his chronicles the killing in Canton in 878 of 120,000 Western merchants, among others Jewish, by the Huáng 黃 rebels.

In 1286, Marco Polo notices the prominence of Jewish traders in Dàdū 大都 [present-day Běijīng].

The Portuguese soldier of fortune Galeote Pereira, incarcerated in China from 1549 to 1561, notices that the Chinese legal system provides for "Moors, Gentiles and Jews" to be tried on equal terms with the Chinese.

2. Evolution

A living community

The 1489 Kāifēng stone monument states that the congregation began to build the first Kāifēng synagogue in 1163. It is also reported that in 1163 Ustad Lièwéi 列爲 was given charge of the religion (Ustad means teacher in Persian). The synagogue was completed by a study hall, a ritual bath, a communal kitchen, a kosher butchering facility, and a sukkah. Further steles were added in 1512 and in 1663.

The Kāifēng Jews produced a great number of written materials and books, up until the 18th century.

The Kāifēng Jews had several rabbi lineages

The Kāifēng Jews' creed was similar to any other Jewish community in the world

The Kāifēng Jews practised polygamy and Levirate marriage (the practice whereby a man must marry his sister-in-law if his older brother, her husband, dies without fathering children).

The Kāifēng Jews did not proselytise, but any Chinese woman who married a Jew had to convert to Judaism

Children received both a Chinese and a Jewish name

The community was known by their Hàn Chinese neighbours as adherents of Tiāojīnjiào (挑筋教), meaning, loosely, the religion which removes the sinew (a reference to Jewish dietary laws)

The Golden Age of Chinese Judaism

Under the Yuán, Jewish holidays were publicly recognised, along Muslim ones.

The Jews had the privilege of carrying a Chinese surname (which was usually forbidden for foreigners). This privilege had been granted in 1420 after a Jew had successfully thwarted a plot against the Míng. It is debated whather these seven Chinese surnames have or don't have a relationship with Jewish surnames. The seven surnames are: Ài (艾), Shí (石), Gāo (高), Jīn (金), Lǐ (李), Zhāng (張), and Zhào (趙).

Outcome: Assimilation

Usually, whenever an individual succeeded in the imperial examinations, he would be appointed in a province different from his own province. A Jew having passed the imperial examination would hence find himself completely isolated from his community. The result of this isolation would be assimilation, if not for him, at least for his children. It is known that many Jews passed the imperial examinations.

The use of a Chinese surname, the obligation under the Qīng to wear the pigtail as a sign of submission to the ruling Manchus, the adoption of the Chinese custom of foot binding on young girls-- all these customs led to assimilation into the Hàn (or sometimes Huí) community.

In 1500, the Míng enforced a ban on free travel within and without the Celestial Empire. This cut off the Chinese Jews from Jews in Central Asia.

The end of trade along the Silk Road impoverished Chinese Jews to the point that the very same Kāifēng community who had fiercely refused to sell their original Hebrew Bible to the Jesuits in 1723, sold it to Canadian Christian missionaries in 1850-51. It was also observed by a Chinese Protestant who was sent from Shànghǎi to visit Kāifēng Jewry in 1850 that they did not keep Sabbath, nor the commandment of circumcision.

The many rebellions that shook China during the 19th century also led many Jews into assimilation. The Tàipíng rebellion of 1850-64 was particularly decisive.

The role of Confucianism

One of the forces of assimilation was Confucianism. Jews had adopted some Confucianist customs such as burning incense, which they did in their synagogues.

The process of studying for the imperial examinations was time-consuming and costly; this secular education had an adverse effect on Jewish studies.

The 1489 Kāifēng stele explains that the fundamentals of Judaism and of Confucianism are the same.


Water Margin (Shuǐhǔ Zhuàn 水滸傳)

The Water Margin is a picaresque novel written under the Míng 明 but based on material from the Yuán 元. It tells the many adventures of the famous Shāndōng 山東-based “108 outlaws” of the Sòng 宋. The outline of the story and some of the characters have vague historical bases, but most of the stories-within-the-story present in the narrative of the novel are based on early popular tales.

The Water Margin is a much beloved novel, as are its characters, in all the Chinese sphere of influence in East Asia. It is also one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature. The novel is remarkable for its many protagonists and for the way in which its early chapters appear as independent narrations centred on one given character, which slowly get intertwined as the main story unfolds. It is highly recommended that any GM of The Celestial Empire read the book to get a taste for the way the Chinese envision adventurous characters. Players are also advised to read the book to capture archetypes for Chinese heroes.

In the Chinese sphere of influence, the Water Margin has been rendered as film, TV series, comic books, children's books, video games, operas, radio shows... This is testimony to its immense popularity. Just as any Western kid recognises Robin Hood or Zorro, any East Asian kid recognises Shǐ Jìn 史進, Lǐ Kuí 李逵 or Wǔ Sōng 武松.

As mentioned above, the novel begins with what may appear as independent stories in their own right; however, all these stories end up with the protagonist being framed by a greedy official or an unscrupulous merchant and having to seek refuge in the shadow world of the Rivers and Lakes (Jiānghú 江湖, see page 9 of The Celestial Empire). Once the main characters have become outlaws, the main character of the Water Margin, Sòng Jiāng 宋江, a lowly magistrate's clerk, makes his appearance in Chapter 18. The interesting thing with Sòng Jiāng is that he is not strong (he's not a martial artist), he is not particularly bright (he's but a petty official), he is not heroic (he has fled because he has killed a woman); however he embodies yìqi 義氣 (see page 9 of The Celestial Empire) so well by his many actions that he attracts all the other outlaws until they form a sworn brotherhood of 108. This is the apex of the Shāndōng heroes. After several unsuccessful military assault against their stronghold, the Emperor must eventually grant them amnesty. The second part of the novel starts with the bandits now a fully-fledged military unit of the imperial army. Unfortunately, all their old foes conspire to have the Emperor send them quell revolts or fight nomad invaders, until only a handful of the original 108 outlaws are left alive.

The best English language version is probably Sidney Shapiro's Outlaws of the Marsh. For those who read French, I strongly recommend the superior French translation Au bord de l'eau by Jacques Dars.


Siddhaṃ (Xītán 悉曇)

Siddhaṃ is a South Asian alphabet that was used to write Sanskrit texts in North India during the period 600-1200 AD. When Buddhism dwindled in India, the use of Siddhaṃ was passed on to China with Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna Buddhist texts along the Silk Road. As a result, Siddhaṃ script is the only South Asian alphabet that is only used in East Asia and not in South Asia.

Mahāyāna Buddhism considers that the meaning of a text is of paramount importance, hence the great deal of translation work conducted under the Táng in China. On the contrary, Esoteric Buddhism places a lot of emphasis on the sounds contained in a given text, considering that they carry a hidden meaning that would be ruined by the translation. As Chinese characters are not suitable for writing the sounds of Sanskrit, the Siddhaṃ script has been preserved in Tantric Buddhism to conserve the original pronunciation of mantra.

In gaming terms, a calligraphed Siddhaṃ syllable plays exactly the same role as a mandala: it can be used to replace a mudrā while casting a spell, and also as a focus to store power points, by members of the Mìjiào 密教 and Mìzǒng 密宗 sects.

Edit (7 May 2013): I have found an extremely interesting and lengthy article about Siddhaṃ on the Sino-Platonic Papers scholarly site: Siddham in China and Japan. Enjoy!


Today's post has been inspired by a recent thread on the RuneQuest mailing list that has focused on the garrote, an assassination weapon infamously used by the Thugs.

I don't know if this has any historical bases (sorry), but in The Celestial Empire, the garrote would ideally be used by assassin retainers (cìkè 刺客, as described on p49 of the rule book) because it is a weapon that can easily be hidden on oneself.

Now there is a word for garrote, in Chinese: 絞死 (jiǎosǐ), so the idea of cìkè using it may not be as far-fetched as it seems.

The 'stats' (there isn't much) for garrote are on p253 of BRP. Basically, the table refers the reader to the effects of choking on the victim, which are described on p218 of BRP.

I would like to add the following, as inspired by the RuneQuest version of the weapon:
  • In melee, the hit location rolled must be the head or no damage is done, but if the victim is completely unaware of the attacker, the head will be hit automatically. Once hit, the garrote stays in place turn after turn, but successful attacks must be made to do additional damage. Give all successive attacks a +20% chance to succeed.
  • To dislodge the attacker, compare the STR+DEX of the victim against that of his or her opponent, and make a successful attack on the Resistance Table. If 20% of the score needed is rolled, the garroter is thrown to the ground. If the victim fumbles, the garroter may roll additional damage against the victim.
  • Once the garrote is in place, the attacker has the option to immobilise the victim rather than kill him or her, as per the entanglement rules on p196 of BRP.


I will take advantage of today being Friday the 13th to write a few words about Chinese superstitions. As mentioned several times across the rule book, Chinese people are extremely superstitious. Confucian characters less so, but the scholar who scorns superstitious commoners during the day may very well go in disguise to the home of a necromancer during the night...

Many Chinese superstitious are based on homophonous Chinese characters.
The main superstition revolves around the characters for 'death' 死 and for the number 'four' 四 being both pronounced [sɨ]. The number four is hence avoided at all costs in writing, conversation, etc. (much like the number 13 in the US).
Superstition is not always negative, however: the character for 'prosperity' 發 is pronounced [fa], which is similar to the pronunciation of the number 'eight' 八: [pa]. The number 8 is viewed as such an auspicious number that many Chinese go to great lengths to secure a "number eight" in whatever they are doing.
The characters for 'surplus' 余 and for 'fish' 魚 are both pronounced [y], so fish are considered to be lucky. That's why fish feature so highly in Chinese art, and lots of Chinese people have pictures of fish on their walls. In the same vein, lotus flowers and boxes are associated with weddings because they are both pronounced [xɤ] – the same as the character for 'harmony' 和. In some areas, it was traditional to empty seeds or fruit onto a newly wed couple's bed because fruits and nuts contain the character 子 which also means 'son'. Jujubes and chestnuts are particularly lucky because they are the homonyms of 'early son' and 'produce a son' respectively. Bats are auspicious because the word sounds the same as 'happiness' and deer are because they sound the same as 'wealth'.

Many other superstitions are based on colour.
Red and gold are both extremely auspicious. Red is extensively used at weddings, birthdays etc. However, writing in red can be seen as offensive because it is the colour used for the ink that scares away guǐ-monsters on Daoist amulets.
White is the colour of death and is thus avoided. Yellow is the colour of the emperor and is hence forbidden for anyone else.

Jade is highly valued, and not only for its beauty. According to Chinese superstition, jade can also bring good fortune and ward off evil spirits, hence the popularity of jade pendants and bracelets.


Wordle for the 'Religion' chapter

I have processed the Religions section of The Celestial Empire (pages 35 to 40) through Wordle. Here is the result:
Wordle: The Celestial Empire - Chapter 'Religion'

(click on the picture to enlarge it)


Bāo Gōng (包公)

In Confucianism and in Chinese Folk religion, Bāo Gōng (Lord Bāo) is the God of Justice. As is often the case with Chinese Folk religion and its many apotheosised heroes, Bāo Gōng is the deification of an historical figure: Bāo Zhěng (包拯, 999–1062), a famously incorruptible judge from the Sòng dynasty.

Chinese Folk religion is a religion without an organised clergy. As a consequence, worship to Bāo Gōng is not performed by professional priests; his temples are built and maintained by wealthy residents of the neighbourhood, and obviously by the local judge and any other officials residing in the area.

Popular worship to Bāo Gōng is conducted through representations of Chinese opera with an actor disguised as Bāo Zhěng, and through the fictionalised accounts of his deeds as told by travelling story-tellers.



As explained on p37 of The Celestial Empire, an arhat is, in Hīnayāna Buddhism, a person who has reached the state of nirvāna and who has thus managed to escape the cycle of suffering and rebirth: saṃsāra.

Since the main form of Buddhism practised throughout Imperial China is Mahāyāna rather than Hīnayāna Buddhism, arhat are much less important in Chinese religion than in early Buddhism. However, specific groups of arhat are often portrayed in Chinese arts, such as the Sixteen Arhat or the Eighteen Arhat.

The Five Hundred Arhat would adorn richer and larger temples, often under the shape of man-sized statues each having their own different features, to show that the temple had the means to hire such a large group of talented artists. There are also instances where the Five Hundred Arhat would be represented in sets of paintings, again to decorate rich and large temples.

In Chinese: 羅漢, Romanised as luóhàn


Spring and Autumn Annals (chūnqiū 春秋)

Note: not to be confused with the Spring and Autumn Annals of Master Lǚ — see an earlier post.

The Spring and Autumn Annals cover the major historical events from 722 to 481 BC. This text holds high importance in Chinese literature because scholars in Imperial China held it to be written by Confucius himself.
Also, the importance of the book is such that the period of time chronicled therein (the first half of the Eastern Zhōu dynasty) has come to be known as the Spring and Autumn Period.


Spring and Autumn Annals of Master Lǚ (Lǚshì chūnqiū 呂氏 春秋)

This is a collective encyclopædia compiled in the 3rd century BC. It is a massive work, which comprises 26 juǎn (巻 "scrolls; books") in 160 piān (篇 "sections"), and which is divided into three major parts:
- 紀 Jì The Almanacs
- 覽 Lǎn The Examinations
- 論 Lùn The Discourses

It covers a vast range of topics, beginning with the seasons, the corresponding phenology and the integrative correlation of all appearances in the universe, and treating all different matters in state and society, economy, military, and behaviour. It thus serves as a handbook for a person in a high position to better understand the correlations of all things on earth. The language of the Lǚshì chūnqiū is very vivid, especially by the use of parables and allegories and the many semi-historical stories reported.
Because the book had been categorised as a "miscellaneous book" it lost attraction for long centuries. Only under the Qīng did scholars again become interested in this comprehensive manual.

As a consequence, the Spring and Autumn Annals of Master Lǚ can be considered as a very rare work in campaigns set before the Qīng, and the GM can use it as a "treasure item" for scholarly-oriented characters.
A player character who peruses the volume for one full day, and who then rolls successfully under Literacy (Classical Chinese) before the use of any Mental skill will receive a bonus of 2d3×10% to the character's score in the skill; for Communication skills, the bonus is 2d3×5%.


The Buddha of Infinite Light, Amitābha is the most popular Mahāyāna Buddha after the historical Buddha himself, and possibly the most popular Buddha in folk religion. Amitābha possesses a paradise called the Pure Land, located in the western part of the universe, in which he welcomes anybody who was devoted to him during their life. Those reborn into the Pure Land (birth occurs painlessly through lotus flowers) will escape saṃsāra by receiving Amitābha's teachings.

Devotion to Amitābha starts spreading throughout China in the 4th century AD. In 402, the Chinese monk Huìyuǎn 慧遠 founds a Mahāyāna sect, which is the main precursor of both the White Lotus Society 白蓮 and Pure Land Buddhism 凈土.

Because of his popularity, Amitābha is very often depicted in Chinese art, and his statues and paintings are common throughout China in Buddhist temples. Amitābha is usually represented with thumbs touching and fingers together (see picture), either alone or flanked by two bodhisattvas.

Chinese name: 阿彌陀佛, Romanised as Ēmítuófó or Āmítuófó


Chinese house

This fantastic site enables you to explore a wealthy Chinese home typical of the Qīng dynasty. Enjoy!