Crane Frightens Kūnlún (鶴驚崑崙)

Of course you all know the 2000 wǔxiá film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon by Ang Lee. The film was a huge box office success and helped spread knowledge of Chinese wǔxiá fiction to the ignorant Western barbarians (er, us). For me, it was the initial spark that would eventually lead to the publication of The Celestial Empire.

The scenario of the film was inspired by the fourth novel in a five-novel cycle written by Mainland wǔxiá novelist Wáng Dùlú (王度庐, 1909-1977). Unfortunately, as far as I know, none of the novels have been translated into English. There is a 'bootleg' translation available on this blog for those who are interested.

Luckily for us French speakers, the first two novels in the cycle have been translated into French; each of them in two halves, so that's four books in total. Sadly, it looks like the third to fifth novels will never be translated. I am currently reading the first half of the very first novel, 鶴驚崑崙 (La vengeance de Petite Grue), variously rendered into English as The Crane Startles Kūnlún or as Crane Frightens Kūnlún. It's really a fantastic telling of life in rural Qīng China, and of the relationship between the various people at the heart of Jiānghú (江湖), the parallel world of the "Rivers and Lakes" (see TCE p9), most notably between members of escort agencies (biāojú 镖局, see TCE p41). It also sheds light on gender relationship under the prudish Qīng, and explains how the men from the Rivers-and-Lakes could go about armed to the teeth even though it was theoretically forbidden.

Heartily recommended to anybody who runs or plays in a Rivers-and-Lakes or even merely in a rural TCE game.


Outlaws of the Water Margin

This post is about Outlaws of the Water Margin— no, not the book: the role-playing game. Set under the Sòng in the milieu of the derring-do outlaws of the Rivers and Lakes, this is in my opinion the best 'Oriental' role-playing game ever. It was actually a combination of Outlaws of the Water Margin, for the immersive cultural context, and of Rome: Life and Death of the Republic, for the system engine and the layout, that spurred my working seriously on The Celestial Empire, whose manuscript had been sleeping in draft format for such a long time, in the first place.

The only problem is that Outlaws of the Water Margin has never been published. Paul Mason started to work on it years ago (before widespread use of the internet, when there still were paper rpg fanzines) and, Paul being the procrastinating perfectionist that he is, the fully-fledged game never saw the light.

Some draft versions of it did circulate as PDFs generously handed out by the author, but alas there isn't much left online.

Draft versions of the main chapter are available here. I don't know if these are the latest PDFs that have circulated, but it is a good start. Paul would also often discuss progress in the game in the pages of imazine, the fanzine that he edited and published until 2002.
The gaming system was extremely simple, efficient, and elegant. Success of an action would depend on an ability plus a modifier and the roll of 2D6 against a given difficulty; in case of success, the highest of the 2D6 would also give the degree of success. Today this is the bread-and-butter of a lot of games, but at the time (the mid-90s, when elegant design and a single mechanism to cover all game-related actions were almost unheard-of) this was quite a revolution.The game also stressed the importance of a PC's family and guānxi, again at the time when this was not exactly what game designers had in mind. Wealth was an abstract measure, not the exact computation of how many coppers and silvers the PC had amassed; again, something really, really revolutionary at the time.

Paul also made available the write-ups of a series of gaming sessions, which have also been extremely inspiring when I was writing TCE. The write-ups are available here.

Viktor Haag is known to have GM'ed an Outlaws of the Water Margin campaign, whose sole [as far as I know] campaign log-cum-fanzine is available here.

If you find more information about Outlaws of the Water Margin, please let me know!


Míng China Discovered America!

This is the claim made by pseudo-historian Gavin Menzies. While I do believe some of the theories he put forward in his first book, 1421: The Year China Discovered the World, I think that he's simply kept presenting more and more over-the-top theories in each of his following books.

Irrespective of their historical accuracy, though, his books are great fun to read, if only for the great ideas they provide for an ocean-going role-playing campaign using The Celestial Empire.

This article is about Gavin Menzies, his books, and his theories. As I said, I think it can be a fun source of inspiration, especially if you want to incorporate Fúsāng (扶桑) as a Chinese version of the continent of America in your TCE campaign.

New Rules, New Campaign

I am currently writing a new East Asian-flavoured role-playing game. This new book won't use the Basic Role-Playing System like The Celestial Empire does, but the Effect Engine (used in Monsters & Magic) by Sarah Newton.

Another major difference with The Celestial Empire is that the new book, whose working title is Oriental Monsters & Magic, will focus on a particular time period, namely the 16th century. Also, instead of having China as its central focus and depict the neighbouring countries from a Sinocentric point of view, Oriental Monsters & Magic will try and focus in equal mode on the four civilised countries that surround the East China Sea: Míng China, Joseon Korea, Muromachi/Azuchi-Momoyama Japan, and the Ryūkyū kingdom.

I have started a playtesting campaign for the new rules set in Míng China. You can find the campaign log here (beware, it's in French!).


The Live-Lively (shēngshēng 猩猩)

The Live-Lively (shēngshēng 猩猩 or 狌狌) are legendary creatures mentioned several times in the Classic of Mountains and Seas (Shānhǎi Jīng 山海經).

The Live-Lively are good-natured simian humanoids that live close to salt water; this is supposed to be because of their connections with the Dragon Kings that rule the seas as they otherwise do not have any particular aquatic capabilities. Their most striking feature is their huge mane of reddish hair. They also have a tail of the same colour, and strikingly white ears. The rest of their fur is either greenish blue (青) or black.

The Live-Lively adore rice wine and go to great lengths to obtain it from humans. They can swallow incredible quantities of liquor without any harmful effects other than being even jollier than usual.

They have a special power which is knowing the name of any person they interact with.

Shēngshēng inhabit the coastal areas of China and Japan, and most of the islands between these two countries. They may also sometimes be found in the mountainous areas of south-west China.

STR 3D6+3 (13-14)
CON 3D6 (10-11)
SIZ 3D6 (10-11)
INT 3D6 (10-11)
POW 2D6+6 (13)
DEX 3D6 (10-11)
APP 3D6 (10-11)

Move : 8
Hit Points: 11
Qì: 13
Damage Bonus: None
Armour: 1
Allegiance: Roll 1D100, 01-80: Daoism 1D6−4; 81-90: Daoism 1D6−2; 91-00: Buddhism 1D6−4
Morale: Mook

Climb 40%, Dodge 40%, Hide 15%, Jump 30%, Knowledge (Region [Own]) 50%, Knowledge (Sea [Local]) 70%, Language ([Majority language of region]) INT×4%, Listen 35%, Sense 50%, Spot 25%, Swim 80%.

Special powers:
- Double CON when resisting effects of alcoholic beverages.
- Know name. A shēngshēng  will know the name of any person who interacts with it. Leaving an offering of rice wine to a shēngshēng counts as "interaction".

Brawl 40%, damage: 1D3+db (crushing)

Hit Location Table
1D20 | Hit Location | Hit Point Value
Tail | 01-02 | 1/5 total HP
R Leg | 03-05 | 1/3 total HP
L Leg | 06-08 | 1/3 total HP
Abdomen | 09-11 | 1/3 total HP
Chest | 12 | 2/5 total HP
R Arm | 13-15 | 1/4 total HP
L Arm | 16-18 | 1/4 total HP
Head | 19-20 | 1/3 total HP 

The unpublished British role-playing game Tetsubo, set in a fantasy version of Japan, made the Shōjō (Japanese pronunciation of 猩猩) available as a player character race. The Shōjō were described as smaller than humans (at an average height of 1.3m), and as having the following beginning skills: Etiquette and Consume Alcohol.


Pénglái Island (Pénglái Xiāndǎo 蓬萊仙島)

adapted from Wikipedia
Pénglái Island is a mystical island in the eastern end of Bóhǎi Sea, along with four other islands where the Immortals live, called Fāngzhàng (方丈), Yíngzhōu (瀛州), Dàiyú (岱輿), and Yuánjiāo (員嬌).

This group of islands is the base for the Eight Immortals, or at least where they travel to have a banquet, as well as the Daoist sorcerer Ān Qīshēng, who knows how to brew the elixir of life. Supposedly, everything on the mountain seems white, while its palaces are made from gold and platinum, and jewellery grows on trees.

There is no pain and no winter; there are rice bowls and wine glasses that never become empty no matter how much people eat or drink from them; and there are magical peaches growing on Pénglái Island that can heal any disease, grant eternal youth, and even raise the dead.

As noted before, The Immortals of Kūnlún and the Immortals of Pénglái are separated by a bitter rivalry.


Qīng-Dynasty American Miniatures

The following are from China in Miniature; Containing Illustrations of the Manners, Customs, Character, and Costumes of the People of that Empire (Boston, 1833)


the battle of Talas

click to enlarge
The battle of Talas took place in July 751 near present-day Taraz in Kazakhstan between Táng China and the Arab Abbasid Caliphate. Written sources about the battle are very scarce, but it is believed that it pitted more than 20,000 Chinese troops against more than 10,000 Arab troops. Each side had an imprecise number of local allies. On the map on page 28 of The Celestial Empire, the location of the battle corresponds to the southernmost part of the province of Transoxiana, close to the border with Sogdiana.

This battle is surprisingly little-known in the West; yet it has marked the end of the westward expansion of China, setting a westernmost mark that no Chinese state has managed to attain ever since.

This battle has also a fundamental cultural and religious importance: it marks the start of the slow but steady Islamisation of Central Asia, a process that has taken about 1,000 years to complete, but which has left its mark deep into China itself: the Huí minority would have never existed hadn't the Silk Road fallen under Muslim influence after the battle of Talas.

Táng China and the Arab Abbasid Caliphate were the two superpowers of the 8th century AD yet, much like the USA and the USSR in the second half of the 20th century, they had avoided direct confrontation. Much like the USA and the USSR, again, each of them was however allied with a number of small buffer states located on the Silk Road, the main source of outside income for both China and the Arab empire.
The Táng empire (in yellow on the map above) was really made up of two major territories: China proper to the east, and Xīyù to the west, linked by a very narrow strip of land, the Héxī Corridor, which was under constant threat of the Tibetan empire. Xīyù itself was much more of a protectorate than a real province, even though it had a Chinese military governor and heavy military presence.
In any case, Talas, where the Chinese and Arab empires met, was very far from both China and the Arab heartland, and could only be reached by travelling through scorching arid lands (especially in July).

The Battle
The events that led to the battle are quite trivial: two aristocratic families squabbled for the succession to the throne in one of the city-states controlled by the Chinese in Xīyù. Or, according to other sources, two kinglets from two neighbouring city-states in Xīyù squabbled amongst themselves. Whichever version is true, the fact is that the Chinese governor of Xīyù intervened on behalf of one of the parties, beheaded the prominent members of the other party, and looted their treasure. This was seen as quite unchivalrous by the surviving members of the wronged party, who asked the Arabs for help. The latter obliged by sending a large army. Unfortunately, details of the battle itself are very, very scarce (even the exact location is unknown). Apparently the Chinese were tired and thirsty; in the midst of the battle, their Turkic allies switched sides, resulting in a massive Chinese defeat.

Despite the heavy Chinese defeat, the Arabs did not push their advantage because of inner trouble in the Arab heartlands that required that the troops be sent back. The Chinese tried to take advantage of this respite to rebuild their military power in Xīyù, but the Ān Lùshān Rebellion of 755-763 put a definitive end to these plans. It wouldn't be until under the Qīng, approximately 1,000 years on, that the Chinese empire reconquered its Western Regions.
A side effect of the battle of Talas was that, amongst the many Chinese prisoners of war, there were many papermakers who were brought to Samarkand where they were ordered to teach their handicraft. As a result, Samarkand became a flourishing paper-making centre of Central Asia and of the Muslim world. The scenario that (alas!) didn't make it into The Celestial Empire was about these Chinese papermakers having to flee Samarkand and return to China without being caught.


Osprey Sale

If you happen to live in England, you could do worse on 14 September 2013 than attending the One Day Osprey Extravaganza, where Osprey will be selling hundreds of Osprey books at knock-down prices.

This special event will be held in Oxford at the Osprey Towers, from 11:00 to 16:00.

Suggested Osprey titles for readers of the Celestial Empire blog:
Men-at-Arms 95: The Boxer Rebellion
Men-at-Arms 251: Medieval Chinese Armies 1260-1520
Men-at-Arms 275: The Taiping Rebellion 1851–66
Men-at-Arms 284: Imperial Chinese Armies (1) 200 BC–AD 589
Men-at-Arms 295: Imperial Chinese Armies (2) 590–1260 AD
Men-at-Arms 307: Late Imperial Chinese Armies 1520–1840
Warrior 125: Pirate of the Far East
Fortress 57: The Great Wall of China 221 BC–AD 1644
Fortress 84: Chinese Walled Cities 221 BC– AD 1644
New Vanguard 43: Siege Weapons of the Far East (1) AD 612–1300
New Vanguard 44: Siege Weapons of the Far East (2) AD 960–1644
New Vanguard 61: Fighting Ships of the Far East (1)
New Vanguard 63: Fighting Ships of the Far East (2)


the Chinese Legal System

Via Monsters & Manuals, I was directed towards an extremely interesting web-site about 'alien' legal systems, amongst which, of course, Chinese Law. I'll let you peruse this fascinating web-site.

A brief summary/excerpts:

 - The legal code itself is not so much an account of what is forbidden as an attempt to specify, for every possible offence, the proper punishment.

 - Detention is not a punishment: people are only imprisoned whilst waiting for their judgement. Also, both accuser and accused are imprisoned; this is done to discourage people both from interacting with the legal system and from making false accusations (see also Note 1 below).

 - Fines are not contemplated as punishment either, but only as a substitute for the actual penalty, if the family of the victim agrees.

 - Ordinary punishments (from lightest to harshest):
    - the cangue (to humiliate the culprit)
    - various numbers of blows by the light or heavy bamboo
    - penal servitude of various sorts and lengths of time
    - life exile at various distances from the convict's home province (see Note 2 below)
    - capital sentence (see Note 3 below)

 - The key person of the Chinese legal system is the magistrate. The population of his district can range from 80,000 to more than 250,000; the magistrate functions as the single representative of imperial authority, a combination mayor, chief of police, and judge. He has obtained the position by first doing well in the examination for the civil service [an examination testing not legal knowledge or administrative ability but the applicant's literary ability and knowledge], and then performing well in administrative positions at a lower level. He is assisted in his duties by a staff of lower level officials, some his own employees who move with him from place to place, some permanently located in the district. One risk of putting so much power in one pair of hands is that the magistrate may take advantage of his position to build local support and thus convert the centralised bureaucracy into a de facto feudal system. One way of keeping that from happening is to forbid a magistrate from being assigned to his own (or his wife's) home district, and to shift magistrates from district to district every three years.

 - By the mid-19th century, the Qīng are ruling a population of about 400 million and doing it primarily with a small bureaucracy of élite scholar-officials. One way of doing so is to sub-contract as much as possible of the job of controlling behaviour to other authority structures: the extended family, the lineage head, the village elders, the trade guilds, etc. (see Note 1 below).


1. “Shouted at and reviled by the magistrate, growled at and beaten by the constables, the position of the accused was a most unfavourable one indeed. Small wonder that having to appear in court was considered by the people at large as a terrible misfortune, an experience to be avoided if at all possible . … In general people tried to settle their differences as much as possible out of court, by effecting a compromise or by referring the case to one of the age-old organs of private justice, for example the council of the family- or clan-elders, or the leaders of a guild.” RH Van Gulik, Crime and Punishment in Ancient China, pp. 57-8

2. In Chinese beliefs, not being interred, after death, in one's home province is considered very bad because the dead might become a wandering ghost who tries to regain their home province.
Life exile may hence not seem a harsh punishment to us but it's actually harsh in the eyes of the Chinese of the time.

3. Capital punishment can only be carried out if confirmed by the Emperor. In all other cases, the sentence is commuted to another punishment.
There are many degrees in capital punishment: strangulation, decapitation, and the death of a thousand cuts. Again because of the Chinese belief that a mutilated body leads to becoming a guǐ in the afterlife, strangulation is deemed a lighter sentence than decapitation, which in turn is deemed less harsh than the death of a thousand cuts.
Capital punishment can also only be carried out at certain times of the year.
Hence, all in all, it seems that only about 10% of all capital sentences are actually carried out.


TCE Review on RPG.net

Wow... The Celestial Empire has just been reviewed on RPG.net and has received the following marks:
Style: 5 (Excellent!)
Substance: 5 (Excellent!)

The funny thing is that, although I am happy with what the reviewer wrote on the cultural part of The Celestial Empire, I disagree with him on most of the technical or game engine-related comments!


Fantasy Asia

OK, this is from a European perspective, so rather inconsistent with the Chinese bias I've chosen for The Celestial Empire, but it still may be fun, especially if you're leaning on a more 'high fantasy' view of frp.

The Travels of Sir John Mandeville is a 14th century European book describing the fantastical travels of one Jehan de Mandeville through a fictionalised version of South Asia and East Asia. Jehan de Mandeville's version of East Asia features the Christian kingdom of Prester John, and Tartary.

Via Phersu, I have retrieved a nice map of Asia that encompasses all the mythical places visited by Jehan de Mandeville. With little work, it could become a great high fantasy setting for East Asian adventuring.

Suggested gazetteer (using the key from the map):

 - Empire of Prester John. This is a large Christian empire practising Nestorian Christianity (see p39 of TCE). It might have a European-like social structure, in which case the GM should use a 'classic fantasy' or a European sourcebook (e.g., Crusaders of the Amber Coast), or it could have a standard Central Asian society but with a Christian touch.

 - Empire of the Grand Cham of Cathay. This is simply Yuán China as imagined by the Europeans of the time; 'Cham' is a mispronunciation of 'Khan', the title of the ruler of the Mongols. Tartary is Mongolia, Serica is North China, and Mangzhi [sic, this should actually be spelt 蠻子 Mánzi] is South China.

 - the Realm of Gog-Magog (“Here Be Monsters”). This land is separated from the civilised lands to the west by the Iron Wall, a Great Wall of China-like series of fortifications built by Alexander the Great to keep the monsters of Gog-Magog from invading the western lands. These monsters could be goblin-like, should the GM want to add elements of classic fantasy to an East Asian milieu, or they could be drawn from p123-6 of The Celestial Empire. Note that Gog-Magog is probably the inspiration behind the Shadowlands and the Carpenter Wall of the Legend of the Five Rings role-playing game, so you may also use material from that game to set adventures in the Realm of Gog-Magog.

 - Land of Perpetual Darkness (#3, Asia). This is the Forest of Darkness from various Central Asian legends. It holds many wondrous treasures but once one has entered it, it is extremely difficult to leave it. I would place it in Western Siberia (p28 of TCE) rather than in the Caucasus as on the map.

 - Griffon Mountain (#6, Asia). Er, Griffin Mountain.

 - Isle of the Unicorns (#7, Asia). It's actually inhabited by qílín, see p122 of TCE.

 - Vale Perilous (#8, Asia). This is a hidden valley in the Empire of Prester John inhabited by èmó (p116 of TCE), and ruled by mìngmó (p117 of TCE).

 - City of Birds (#9, Asia). This is actually a city of yǔrén (p123 of TCE), mistaken for birds because of their plumage.

 - The Bewitched Hills (#10, Asia). This is a rolling land so agreeable that any traveller arriving here loses any desire to leave it. In gaming terms, on the first day in the Bewitched Hills the traveller must roll his POW vs 13 on the resistance table. In case of failure, he cannot leave the country. In case of success, he may stay or leave, but the roll will be vs 14 on the second day, and so on.

 - The Terrestrial Paradise (#11, Asia). This is actually a huge caldera with a large vent in its centre that gives access to Agartha and to its capital city of Paradesa — the resemblance between the names 'Paradise' and 'Paradesa' could explain the equivocation!

 - Land of the Trees of the Sun and Moon (#12, Asia). According to Chinese mythology, the sun rises from a gigantic mulberry tree, called the Fúsāng 扶桑, in the far east. The sun then follows the leaning branch of the mulberry tree above the earth, up to the far western end of the Kūnlún Mountains, i.e., the Land of the Trees of the Sun and Moon.

 - Dog-Headed Men, Amphibious Men, Horned Men, Giant-Eared Men, etc. (various locations): These sound remarkably similar to the creatures described in the Shānhǎi Jīng (山海經).


Whistling Arrows

Whistling arrows are arrows whose head is made up of a hollow wooden or iron 'turnip' through which several holes have been drilled. Whilst flying, the arrow emits a whistling sound that is used as a signal for directing armies in battle, to confound enemies, to transmit messages, to show one's position, to scare away animals, etc. Whistling arrows (also called signal arrows) are extensively used by Inner Asian and East Asian peoples, most notably the horse nomads and the Chinese.

The 'turnip' is fairly large (3cm~10cm in diameter) and may break upon impact, depending on its material.

Stats for The Celestial Empire:

Deer-horn- or Bone-made Whistling Arrow
Value: Average
Damage: 0-1 (1D2‒1)
Chance of breaking upon impact: 60%

Wooden Whistling Arrow
Value: Expensive
Damage: 1-2 (1D2)
Chance of breaking upon impact: 40%

Metal Whistling Arrow
Value: Expensive
Damage: 1-3 (1D3)
Chance of breaking upon impact: 30%


Rìběnguó (日本國)

The Celestial Empire is centred on China and the neighbouring lands. I don't know how 'close' you feel that Japan (Rìběnguó 日本國) is to the East Asian mainland. It's certainly quite close geographically, but except for the ill-fated Mongol invasions of 1274 and 1281, for the Imjin War (1592–98), and for the Wōkòu raids on the maritime provinces of China and Korea, there haven't been any direct contacts between the East Asian peoples and the Japanese at the time periods covered by The Celestial Empire.

map of Rìběnguó
Mediæval and Renaissance Japan, however, are often popular with players of fantasy role-playing games. As a result, I am offering you a link to Sengoku Daimyo, a web-site devoted to this fascinating place and times. The web-site is maintained by Anthony J. Bryant, the author of Sengoku, the best feudal Japanese role-playing game ever, and of the following Osprey books: Early Samurai AD 200–1500 (Elite), The Samurai (Elite), Samurai 1550–1600 (Warrior), and Sekigahara 1600 (Campaign).

Take your time to explore the site... It is chock-full of great information.


Role-Playing in an East Asian Setting

The Celestial Empire is not my only venture into East Asian-flavoured role-playing. I've also GM'd in East Asia with other 'engines', and it's always been extremely satisfactory. I've never really understood this preference of mine for Oriental settings, but an old article I've recently (re)read may have given me the clue.

The 1994 RuneQuest-Con Compendium contains a long transcript of a panel that Greg Stafford presented about heroquesting. For those who do not know Glorantha, Greg Stafford's fantasy world, heroquesting is the ability for a character to interact with his culture's myths in order to gain powers. At a certain time in the seminar, an audience member says the following:

My problem with the mythical heroquest is that very few involve gangs of heroes doing something, except the Argonauts. Heroquests are almost always one guy in a spotlight, and the other people are usually made to follow orders. It's very rare that our 3 or 4 player characters all go off and decide they want to do this one thing.

 To which Greg Stafford answers:

The problem that you state that, of almost all these transformative myths and stories are about individuals... It's very rare, you know, to find a whole group of people doing this thing together.

Well, I guess that's it. I don't want to write anything too clichéd, but I reckon the big difference is, the West emphasises the individual whereas the East emphasises the group. As a result, Western myths and literature feature individual heroes (sometimes with a sidekick) whereas Oriental myths and literature feature groups. In the Journey to the West, you have a group. In the Investiture of the Gods you have several groups. In the Water Margin you have 108 named heroes. In the Romance of the Three Kingdoms you have three sworn brothers. Even in the Dream of the Red Chamber there are almost forty major characters. And I believe this translates well into role-playing: having a party of 4 or 5 characters comes quite naturally about when you are intent on re-enacting the kind of adventures described in Chinese fiction. On the contrary, the kind of parties one sees in 'Western' role-playing games feel quite artificial, unless you're playing the Fellowship of the Ring for the umpteenth time.


Fantastic Interactive Map of China

I have serendipitously found an amazing interactive map of China that lets you superimpose a variety of indicators over a 'Google Maps' kind of map of China. The map is consistent with the boundaries of China as of the end of the 20th century (i.e., PRC + ROC) meaning that, except for some borderland areas, it covers pretty much any region that the GM may use as the setting of his or her Celestial Empire campaign game.

Just click here, remove the already-superimposed grid, and experiment with:
 - religious sites
 - minority place-names
 - mountain peaks and passes
 - historical places: Míng garrisons, Qīng courier stops and routes, Míng/Qīng postal stations, exam seats, sections of the Grand Canal, Táng prefectural & county capitals,
 - vegetation

Postal routes and courier stops in Qīng China
Edit 24/02/2016: the interactive map has moved here.


the Big Swords Society (Dàdāohuì 大刀會)

Period of Time
late Qīng

The Big Swords Society (a.k.a. Big Knives Society in English) is a network of traditional peasant self-defence militias, widespread in North China during the Qīng Dynasty, and noted for their reckless courage. Their members are drawn from small-holders and tenant farmers, who organise to defend villages against roaming bandits, warlords, and tax collectors. In spite of its apparent secular aims, the Big Swords Society has a religious foundation in Chinese folk religion; its Grand Masters claimed to make the members invulnerable to bullets by magic.

Much like the Elders' Society, the Big Swords Society becomes active against the foreigners' encroachment at the end of the Qīng. On 1 November 1897, members of the Big Swords Society attacked German Catholic missionaries in Shāndōng. In retaliation, the German East Asia Squadron caused mass destruction (burnt villages, etc.). This swayed the local members of the Big Swords Society even more into an anti-foreign mood, paving the way for the Boxer Uprising a few years later.

As described above, wealthy peasants with a penchant for sword-fighting and vigilantism.

- Must be sponsored by someone who is already a member of the Big Swords Society.
- Wealth level must be at least Affluent.
- A fighting skill in cold weapons of at least 65%.

- Allegiance in Chinese folk religion +10
- New skill: Knowledge (Group: Big Swords Society) at a starting value of 25+3D6% - Can be used to find shelter, recognise fellow members, etc., but it only works in the region where the character underwent his initiation, as the various branches of the Big Swords Society are quite independent of each other.

- Must take part in the defence of one's village


the Elders' Society (Gēlǎohuì 哥老會)

Period of Time
late Qīng

The Elders' Society is a loose network of mutual-support groups that draw their members from the notables of a given region. Geographically, the Elders' Society originated in Sìchuān and Dàlǐ, in reaction to the Tàipíng Rebellion (second half of the 19th century), then expended into the rest of China at the end of the 19th century. The aim of the Elders' Society groups is to maintain the traditional structure of rural society, and to fight off foreign influence, especially Manchu and Christian influence. The Elders' Society of a given area will 'protect' the local peasants by controlling the local Folk religion temples and the local village militia forces.
At the end of the Qīng, the Elders' Society engages in several uprisings across China, most notably in South China in 1870-1; in the 1890s, the Elders' Society fosters anti-Qīng and anti-foreign sentiment in the lower Yángzi region. The Gēlǎohuì organises abortive revolts in central China in 1900, 1904, and 1906.

As described above, despite its focus on the protection of peasants, the Elders' Society attracts wealthy landlords and prominent members of the local élite.

- Must be sponsored by someone who is already a member of the Elders' Society.
- The new member must qualify as a 'well-to-do person', either through his wealth, or through his profession, or through his status.
- A single Knowledge skill related with the region must be at least 60%.

- Help from fellow members: after his initiation, the new member is considered as kin to the other members.
- Connections in society, since most members of the Elders' Society are well-connected notables
- New skill: Knowledge (Group: Elders' Society) at a starting value of 25+3D6% - Can be used to find shelter, recognise fellow members, etc., but it only works in the region where the character underwent his initiation, as the various branches of the Elders' Society are quite independent of each other.

- Must help fellow members
- Must defer to the judgement of 'resident elders' (dāngjiā)
- Risk of death penalty if caught by government agents


Maitreya, Millenarianism & Mòfǎ in the RPG Review

Issue 19 of the RPG Review is out. The RPG Review is a free, downloadable Australian gaming magazine devoted to RPGs, be it reviews, gaming theory, adventure supplements, gaming aids, industry gossip... Each issue has a central theme. The latest was 'the Apocalypse'.

Míng-dynasty Maitreya

Why am I mentioning this on the blog of The Celestial Empire? Well, the reason is that issue 19 of the RPG Review features an article by yours truly titled Maitreya, Millenarianism & Mòfǎ (p42-43), which is actually an expansion of my original April A-Z Blogging M-letter entry. Enjoy!


Spanish-Language Review of The Celestial Empire

The Celestial Empire has received a lengthy review by RuneQuest aficionado 'Cronista' on his Mundos Inconclusos blog.

I find his review spot-on, especially with regards to the shortcomings of TCE. What I can add to the defence of The Celestial Empire is that this very blog exists to improve/clarify the material presented in the book.


Jade Boy

In Chinese folk religion, Jade Boys are divine servants of the Jade Emperor, acting as his ears and eyes in Heaven and on Earth, since the Emperor never leaves his heavenly palace.

A Jade Boy simply wills himself somewhere, and he is instantly transported to that place, unless some exceptionally strong magic prevents him from doing so. Since both the Orthodox and Heterodox Daoist traditions recognise the suzerainty of the Jade Emperor, and since a Buddhist would not interfere with the Jade Emperor's will, such magic must necessarily be of demonic or foreign origin (or both).

A Jade Boy can grant any wish, provided the Jade Emperor empowers him to do so. What usually happens is that, during an errand on Earth, a Jade Boy will meet a mortal in dire need of help. After having enquired about the needs of the person, and if he is moved by his or her plight, the Jade Boy will usually travel back to Heaven, wait for an audience with the Jade Emperor, and expose the person's problem and the solution he has thought of. If the Jade Emperor agrees to the solution, the Jade Boy is allowed to travel back to the petitioner and grant him or her a wish. Petitioners helped in this way are obviously always pure-hearted people with high an Allegiance score (>50) in one of the purely Chinese allegiances (Chinese folk religion, Daoism, Heterodoxy).


the Khitans

The Khitans (in Chinese: Qìdān 契丹; in Korean: Georan) were a nomadic para-Mongolic people, originally from Mongolia and Manchuria, appearing in historical records well before the Táng. The original ethnic centre of the Khitans seems to have been Inner Mongolia. The Khitans were one of the foremost steppe peoples, and exerted enormous influence on northern and Inner Asia until the 13th century, yet they are very little known outside of the restricted circle of people interested in East Asian history. The current name of China in several languages stems from the name of the Khitans (e.g., Bulgarian and Russian: Китай; Kazakh: Қытай; Mongolian: Хятад), as well as the ancient name of 'Cathay' formerly used in most European languages (see my earlier post about Bento de Góis). This is testament to their importance at the time.

Under the Táng, the Khitans were vassals to either the Táng or the Türks, depending on the balance of power between the two, or to the Uyghurs when the latter replaced the Türks as the main steppe power.

After the Ān Lùshān Rebellion (755-763), the Khitans did not take advantage of the weakening of the Táng but remained peaceful vassals of the Uyghurs. In 916, in the interregnum between the Táng and Sòng dynasties, the Khitan khan Ābǎojī (阿保機) declared himself emperor; for the very first time in their history, the Khitans became a united nation. In 926, the Khitans conquered much of the northernmost part of Ancient Korea, and absorbed it into their empire. In 935, the Khitans conquered the so-called 'Sixteen Prefectures' (which correspond to the province named 'Liáo' on the map on p28 of The Celestial Empire). In 947, the Khitan Empire adopted Buddhism as its state religion and a Chinese-like strong central government, and was re-named the Liáo Dynasty (Liáo Cháo 遼朝). The Khitan script was modelled in imitation of the shape of Chinese characters. At its height, the Liáo Empire stretched from Manchuria in the east to the Tarim Basin in the west. To the people along the Silk Road, the Khitan Empire was "China", since all the Chinese goods they saw came from it — hence the naming patterns for 'China' mentioned in the introduction of this post.

Although they had become Sinicised and had adopted a Chinese-style government for their sedentary subjects, the Khitans did maintain part of their nomadic lifestyle: the court of the Liáo emperor moved between its various capitals; rather than build palaces, the nobles lived in luxurious tents. Contention over succession was resolved amongst brothers by violence, nomad-style.

the Sòng and Liáo Empires

From its very beginning, the Sòng Dynasty was hostile to the Liáo, and used military force in an attempt to recapture the Sixteen Prefectures. However, Sòng forces were repulsed by the Liáo forces who engaged in aggressive yearly campaigns into northern Sòng territory until 1005 when the signing of the Chányuān Treaty ended these northern border clashes. The Sòng were forced to provide a yearly tribute to the Khitans of 100,000 ounces of silver and 200,000 bolts of silk. These border clashes feature prominently in the Míng novel the Water Margin (chapters 83-89 of the 100-chapter version).

The Sinicised Khitan Empire of the Liáo remained a major player in north-east Asia until 1125, when it was defeated and destroyed by the Jurchens (see p30 of TCE). Most relics of the Khitan culture were destroyed when the Liáo Empire fell. Tombs were disinterred in acts of revenge by the Jurchens, which had been oppressed during the Khitan reign.

The remnants of the Liáo Dynasty escaped the area towards the Western Regions (Xīyù 西域), establishing the short-lived Kara-Khitan Khanate, which fell to the Mongols in 1218. That was the end of the Khitans. No later people has been established as their descendents, and their language also died out.


[A-Z April Blogging] [Z] Zájù 雜劇

Zájù ("mixed entertainment" or "variety play") was a form of theatre extremely popular under the Yuán. Under the Mongol dynasty, Chinese culture, and especially written production of books, etc. was kept under heavy surveillance by the foreign overlords. As a result, much of Chinese culture (not only entertainment) went oral. The Yuán is the dynasty that saw the development of religious theatrical plays, which became an essential part of Chinese folk religion (see p39 of The Celestial Empire).

Zájù is one of these forms of art. It combines narrated and sung parts, with the addition of acrobatics, dance, singing, and mime. The roles are usually clearly recognisable, with recurring characters (the villain, the clown) recognisable by their flamboyant make-up.

Since the establishment of the Mongol dynasty has resulted in the abolition of the Civil Service Examination, scholars, physicians, and astrologers can be found in a zájù troupe. Unemployed scholars would write zájù librettos, known for the intricacy of their verse forms, not only to vent their frustration, but also for mere commercial reasons, as a class of nouveaux riches produced a constant demand for plays. Some literati would become fully-fledged playwrights.

Zájù declined and went out of fashion under the following dynasties; it became especially stultified under the Míng, when all zájù librettos had to pass government censorship. By the time the Míng dynasy fell in 1644, zájù was no longer performed at all and it survived only as a genre of literature, i.e., zájù plays ended up being only read, not played on stage!

A travelling zájù troupe can be the ideal adventurers' party for a TCE campaign game, giving a rationale for travelling from one town to the next and experiencing new encounters. Training for the acrobatics parts of a zájù play is a good cover for martial arts training. The sung arias of a zájù play can be used to convey secret messages to members of the crowd.


[A-Z April Blogging] [Y] Yǒnglè Encyclopaedia

The Yǒnglè Encyclopaedia (Yǒnglè Dàdiǎn 永樂大典) from the early Míng is the largest non-electronic encyclopaedic work of all times.
The writers of the Yǒnglè Encyclopaedia incorporated 7,000 to 8,000 earlier works, cutting them down into single-themed excerpts, and re-arranging them under single word entries, like a modern encyclopaedia. This was in complete contradiction with earlier standard Chinese practice, which was based on classifying encyclopaedia entries by broad subjects such as language, government, music, etc.
The Yǒnglè Encyclopaedia is named so because it was compiled under the express orders of the Míng Emperor Yǒnglè (永樂). His requirements were that the work should encompass all pre-existing knowledge, that its compilers should not "be afraid" of length, and that no expenses should be spared to purchase the rare Sòng and Yuán manuscripts deemed necessary for the compilation work.
Work itself started in 1403 at Nánjīng University (Nánjīng Guózǐjiàn 南京國子監), and was mostly carried out by unknown scholars with a reputation for vast knowledge, rather than by court scholars. Research work was carried out by over 2,000 literati until 1407, and the Yǒnglè Encyclopaedia was finished in 1408. It consisted of 11,095 books, occupying roughly 40 cubic metres. Many of the scholars involved were eventually rewarded with high-profile offices, although some others fell into disgrace.

Because of the sheer size of the Yǒnglè Encyclopaedia, it wasn't block-printed but hand-copied, with very few copies available. These hand-written copies were lost or displaced by the end of the 16th century. However, many fragments remained available throughout China, as well as many of the earlier works that had been used to compile the Yǒnglè Encyclopaedia, and which had been archived in various imperial libraries. It is assumed that the equivalent of 90% of the Encyclopaedia was still extant under the Qīng, who started collecting the fragments in the Hànlín Academy in Běijīng for their own purpose of writing a Qīng-era encyclopaedia. Alas, the Hànlín Academy was destroyed by fire during the looting of Běijīng by Western troops at the end of the Boxer Uprising, and the Yǒnglè Encyclopaedia was definitely lost.

Scenario seeds:
- (Míng) The PCs are paid by a scholar involved in the compilation of the Yǒnglè Encyclopaedia to recover the only version left of a rare Sòng book. They must travel to a remote mansion where the eccentric owner of the manuscript lives, convince him to sell it, and then bring it to Nánjīng. On their way to Nánjīng, a band of outlaws paid by a rival scholar try to steal, or even destroy, the book.
- (Míng) Two ancient texts used to write the Yǒnglè Encyclopaedia entry on a rare medicinal plant are contradictory. The PCs must travel to a forlorn place and bring back to Nánjīng, under pain of death, an old Daoist hermit believed to know the definitive answer on the subject. The problem is that the hermit is long dead...
- (Qīng) Emperor Qiánlóng wants his own encyclopaedia! The PCs must travel throughout China to find the missing fragments of the Yǒnglè Encyclopaedia. This could be the MacGuffin of a larger capaign game with several unrelated episodes set in different cities.
- (Qīng) The Foreign Devils are burning the city! The PCs are a group of devout Confucians who try to save the remaining books of the Yǒnglè Encyclopaedia from the inferno of the Hànlín Academy.


[A-Z April Blogging] [X] Xīyù 西域

Xīyù (西域) in Chinese is a generic term for 'the West'. Depending on the time period and the extent of Imperial China, it may have meant different things.

Under the Táng, Xīyù was everything beyond the city of Dūnhuáng (燉煌) in Gānsù and the nearby Jade Pass (Yùmén Guān 玉門關): the 'Western Regions', i.e. the oases of the Tarim Basin inhabited by non-Hàn people but under the suzerainty of China; or Central Asia in its entirety; or even anything west of the Jade Pass, and most notably India, as in the Great Táng Records on the Western Regions (Dà Táng Xīyù Jì 大唐西域記), the travelogue written by the 7th century Buddhist monk Xuánzàng (玄奘).

After the Ān Lùshān Rebellion (755-763), the Táng lost control of the 'Western Regions', which became alternatively controlled by the Tibetans, independent city-states, or controlled by local warlords (of various ethnicities).

Under the Southern Sòng, the 'Western Regions' were controlled by the Qìdān.

Under the Yuán, the 'Western Regions' were conquered by the Mongols, like almost all the other provinces covered by The Celestial Empire. The resulting 'Pax Mongolica' brought prosperity and safety of travel to the Silk Road. Xīyù became a significant cultural and trade conduit between East Asia, the Indian subcontinent, the Islamic world and Europe.

Under the Míng, there was an initial effort of expansion and re-conquest towards Xīyù that was halted at the disastrous Battle of Tŭmù, after which the Míng Dynasty started the isolationist politics for which it's remembered; the Great Wall of China was built under the Míng. The Silk Road was abandoned and replaced with sea trade routes. After the Battle of Tŭmù, the Western Regions became alternatively controlled by the Tibetans and various Mongol tribes. They were retaken under the Qīng.


[A-Z April Blogging] [W] Welkin Lords

Mother Golden Light
The Welkin Lords (Tiānjūn 天君) are a group of ten very powerful Daoist Immortals (xiān 仙) who side with the Shāng camp in the Míng historico-mythological novel The Investiture of the Gods (Fēngshén Yǎnyì 封神演義) that narrates the war between the Shāng and the Zhōu, in the 11th century BC, which supposedly saw the involvement of mythological beings (xiān, vixen spirits, dragons, tǔxíng...) on each side of the conflict.

The Welkin Lords usually reside on Golden Turtle Island (Jīn'áo Dǎo 金鰲島). Each of them owns a magical weapon called a 'trap' that is able to dispatch whole armies. In The Investiture of the Gods, the Welkin Lords are nonetheless defeated by the Daoist Immortals who side with the Zhōu camp. For The Celestial Empire, we shall assume that, in spite of their defeat during the Shāng‒Zhōu conflict, the Welkin Lords were able to resume their place amongst the Daoist Immortals.

Here is the complete list of the ten Welkin Lords:

Qín Wán (秦完), owner of the Heavenly Destruction Trap
Mother Golden Light (Jīnguāng Shèngmǔ 金光聖母), owner of the Golden Light Trap
Dǒng Quán (董全), owner of the Roaring Typhoon Trap
Yuán Jué (袁角), owner of the Frigid Ice Trap
Zhào Jiāng (趙江), owner of the Earthly Fury Trap
Sūn Liáng (孫良), owner of the Bleeding Blood Trap
Bái Lǐ (白禮), owner of the Vehement Flame Trap
Yáo Bīn (姚賓), owner of the Soul Snatching Trap
Wáng Biàn (王變), owner of Red Water Trap
Zhāng Shào (張紹), owner of Red Sand Trap

In later times, the Welkin Lords are considered as being allied with Heterodoxy and/or with the Xié sect.

See also p98-9 of The Celestial Empire, under Xié Sect.


[A-Z April Blogging] [V] Vajrayāna Buddhism

Historically, Buddhist teaching in Asia has been spread in three distinct waves, corresponding to three different ways of envisioning enlightenment.

The first wave, called Hīnayāna, corresponds to the original teachings of the Buddha (see p37 of The Celestial Empire). Game-wise, Hīnayāna Buddhism is mostly restricted to the southern provinces of the map on p28 of TCE, and in particular to the Tai-speaking peoples of the campaign (see p22 of TCE).

The second wave, called Mahāyāna, corresponds to a later stage of Buddhism that incorporates devotional practices and ideals of compassion from much later on than the original teachings of the Buddha (see p38 of TCE). Game-wise, Mahāyāna Buddhism covers the eastern half of the map on p28 of TCE, and in particular the Sinitic world, i.e., China, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. Most of the Buddhist sects and schools described within TCE are Mahayanic.

The third wave, called Vajrayāna, or Tantric Buddhism, corresponds to yet a later stage of development of Buddhism based on esoteric writings called tantra. This latter stage emphasises esoteric teachings, including normally frowned-upon practices such as sex, or magic, or the consumption of meat or alcohol, under the strict guidance of a teacher however, see p39 of TCE. Vajrayāna Buddhism also makes use of alchemy, yoga... the aim is to attain enlightenment more quickly. In geographic terms, Tantric Buddhism is restricted to the provinces in the centre of the map on p28 of TCE: Buryatia, Outer Mongolia, Inner Mongolia, Amdo, Central Tibet, Ladakh, Sikkim, Bhutan. This does not mean, however, that Vajrayāna Buddhism didn't reach China — on the contrary: it has a rich history of presence there, even though it has always been the religion of a minority of people.

As written on p91 of TCE, Early Tantric Buddhism, known as Mìjiào (密教), was just one of the many Buddhist sects active under the Táng. Just like the Mahayanic Buddhist sects, it arrived to northern China via the Silk Road at the beginning of the Táng Dynasty. Early Tantric Buddhism received sanction from the emperors of the Táng Dynasty and was mostly popular within aristocratic circles and at the court. After the fad for Mìjiào passed, it disappeared as a stand-alone sect, but it had had time to influence the other Táng Buddhist sects, and in particular Early Chán (p90 of TCE) and Tiāntái (p92 of TCE).

A first revival of Vajrayāna took place under the Yuán, because it was the state religion of the Mongol Dynasty, see p93 of TCE. Suppressed under the xenophobic Míng, Vajrayāna resurfaces under the Qīng, again as the state religion of the Manchu Dynasty. From the Yuán onwards, however, Vajrayāna in China is felt as a foreign religion, or as the religion of ethnic minorities (e.g., the Tibetans). The only Chinese Buddhists interested in Vajrayāna are those versed in magic practices, e.g., the use of the magical Siddhaṃ alphabet.


[A-Z April Blogging] [U] University

In the West, the first universities were born at the time of the emergence of urban town life, and concurrently with mediæval guilds and similar institutions. Universities started out as specialised "associations of students and teachers with collective legal rights usually guaranteed by charters issued by princes, prelates, or the towns in which they were located" (Wikipedia). It was clearly a phenomenon that was concomitant of the explosion of communal freedom and urban life, a bottom-up evolution. In the Islamic world, universities were created around famous mosques thanks to endowments by wealthy families, so it was also more of a bottom-up phenomenon.

the Běijīng Guózǐjiàn
In contrast, and since well before the Táng, universities in China had been created and controlled by the government, clearly in a top-down endeavour. These institutions of higher learning were established in the capital city (or cities) of each dynasty: in Cháng'ān and in Luòyáng under the Táng; in Dōngjīng, then Lín'ān, under the Sòng; in Běijīng under the Yuán. Under the Míng and under the Qīng, there were two universities: one in Nánjīng and one in Běijīng (Míng), one in Chángshā and one in Běijīng (Qīng). This system ended in 1898 with a reform aimed at introducing western-style education in China.

These state-sponsored universities were called Guózǐjiàn 國子監 and aimed at imparting traditional Confucian learning and knowledge to a selection of students.

The Běijīng Guózǐjiàn was first established in 1287 during the Yuán Dynasty, and subsequently enlarged several times, attaining its present dimensions during the reign of Emperor Qiánlóng of the Qīng Dynasty. One may enter the compound through the Highest Scholarship Gate. Inside this gate is a glazed tile memorial archway with bell and drum towers to the east and west. Directly in front of the gate is the famous Jade Disc Hall. The square pavilion, which stands in the centre of a circular pond, has a double-eaved roof surmounted by a gilded sphere. The pond is crossed by four marble bridges and provided on four sides with stone spouts in the shape of dragon heads. It was here that the emperor came occasionally to expound the classics to an audience composed of civil and military officials from the imperial court and students of the Guózǐjiàn.
Behind the Jade Disc Hall stands a huge library. The complex contains six other palaces with dormitories and classrooms. The complex is flanked by the Confucius Temple (Kǒngmiào 孔廟) and the Yōnghé Lamasery (Yōnghé Gōng 雍和宮).


[A-Z April Blogging] [T] Túnbǎo 屯堡

Busy day today, so mostly excerpts from Wikipedia here.

Túnbǎo village
The Míng conquest of Yúnnán was the final phase in the Chinese Míng dynasty expulsion of Mongol Yuán dynasty rule from China in the 1380s. A huge force of 300,000 Hàn Chinese and Huí Muslim troops were dispatched to crush the Yuán remnants in Yúnnán in 1381. After the defeat of the Yuán loyalists (who were also mostly Huí), the Míng Huí remained in Yúnnán as hereditary military colonists. Thousands of te Hàn soldiers also decided to stay in the area. They married local women of Miáo and Yáo descent, and over time began to call themselves Túnbǎo 屯堡, "fortress Chinese", in contrast to newer Hàn Chinese colonists who moved to Yúnnán in later centuries (16th-18th).
Túnbǎo work as farmers and practise their own religion, which is an amalgam of Buddhism, Daoism, and Miáo and Yáo religion (see p30 and 32 of The Celestial Empire). They have their own temples.


[A-Z April Blogging] [S] The Shàn

14th century Shàn King
The Shàn (傣 Dǎi in Chinese, see p32 of The Celestial Empire) are a Tai people originally from Yúnnán. Their first polity was a Buddhist kingdom called Jǐnghóng Golden Palace in the 12th century. The Shàn were displaced southward in the 13th century, at the time of the Mongol conquest. Their language is very closely related to Thai and Lao. They practise Hīnayāna Buddhism, and keep sacred groves next to their villages. This forest is the taboo place that the protective spirits/gods of the village inhabit.

The Shàn are traditionally wet-rice cultivators, shop keepers, and artisans. Wet-rice fields account for the vast majority of farmland in all Dǎi regions. The semi-tropical climate, rivers and fertile alluvial valleys form an ideal environment for wet-rice growing. Other local products include tea, sugar cane, tobacco, and camphor, as well as tropical fruits which are harvested in abundance. In addition, the dense forests produce large amounts of much sought-after medicinal plants.

After their migration to the south and their settlement in Upper Burma, the Shàn have founded several petty kingdoms collectively known as 'Shàn States' (see map on p28 of TCE) between the 13th and the 16th century. After the 16th century, the Shàn came under the suzerainty of the Burmese kingdoms of the lowlands.
The Lao kingdom of Lan Xang, farther east, also had a significant Shàn component.

Those Shàn who didn't migrate southward and stayed in Yúnnán after the Mongol conquest recognised the suzerainty of the Chinese Empire; much like the Tǔjiā, they were ruled by their own hereditary chieftains in exchange for providing troops and suppressing local rebellions whenever needed.


[A-Z April Blogging] [R] Ryūkyū Kingdom

The Ryūkyū Archipelago is situated half way between Formosa and Japan, and is made up of several subtropical islands, the largest of which is Okinawa 沖繩.

The Ryūkyū Islands formed an independent kingdom known in Chinese since the fourteenth century as the Liúqiú Guó (琉球國). The Ryūkyū Kingdom played a central role in, and thrived from, the maritime trade networks of East and Southeast Asia: the Míng Chinese policy of hǎijìn (海禁, "Sea Bans") did not apply to the Ryūkyū Kingdom. The official language of the kingdom, as in much of East Asia, was Classical Chinese; the vernacular language was Ryukyuan, a language related to (but different from) Japanese. Although independent, the Ryūkyū Kingdom was a 'tributary state' in the Sino-centric Chinese worldview, much like Joseon Korea. Many Ryukyuan officials were descended from Míng-era Chinese immigrants.

The Ryukyuan religion was a mix of ancestor worship and shamanism. Due to the Chinese influence, Buddhism, Daoism, and Chinese folk religion came to influence Ryukyuan religious practice. Some characteristics of Ryukyuan religion that may be of interest for a Ryukyu-based game of The Celestial Empire:
1- All shamans are female, but these shamanesses are very specialised:
a- some communicate with, make offerings to, and, at times, channel ancestors, local gods and more powerful deities. They are central to any organised community. Even though they are, in game terms, shamanesses, socially speaking their role is akin to that of a priest.
b- some others communicate with the dead when in trance. They are closer to the standard Asian shaman in aspect, from a social point of view, and also in how a shamaness discovers her powers in her youth ('shamanic illness', near-death experience, visions...)
c- some others yet are fortune-tellers, or officiate at weddings or funerals, mixing Buddhist prayers with native rituals.
2- Spirits and magical creatures such as yāoguài (p112 of TCE), dragons (p120 of TCE), guardian lions (p126 of TCE), and ghosts, are very present and of paramount importance
3- An emphasis on the fabrication and the use of amulets, talismans, etc.
4- Lóngmài (ley lines) strongly influence Ryukyuan magico-religious practices.

Japanese were prohibited from visiting the Ryūkyū Islands without shogunal permission, and the Ryukyuans were forbidden from adopting Japanese names, clothes, or customs.

Under the Míng, however, the Ashikaga Shogunate sent Buddhist priests from major temples in Kyōto, and four Japanese Buddhist temples were constructed in the second half of the fifteenth century. Later, when the Ryūkyū Islands were controlled by the Satsuma domain of Japan, all forms of Buddhism other than Zen [Chán] and Shingon [Esoteric Buddhism] were proscribed by the Satsuma lord.

The nationhood status of the Ryūkyū Kingdom was totally compromised in 1609 when the Satsuma daimyō of southern Japan invaded the islands. Although in reality controlled by the Satsuma, the Ryūkyū royal government formally ruled until 1879, and the Kingdom retained its trading, religious, and cultural ties with China. In 1879, the Ryūkyū Kingdom was formally annexed by Japan; a governor was appointed to administer the islands; Japanese was introduced as the official language.


[A-Z April Blogging] [Q] Qelong Valley

The imaginary Qelong Valley in Cambodia is the setting of the upcoming sandbox-like supplement The Valley of the Lost Shell, by Kenneth Hite, for the Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Role-Playing game. If you are unfamiliar with LotFP, its supplements specialise in dark, even sinister, fantasy tales approximately set in 16th- or 17th-century Europe. The Valley of the Lost Shell is going to be LotFP's first foray into an Asian-flavoured setting.

click to enlarge

Here is a brief presentation of The Valley of the Lost Shell by Ken Hite himself:
"The Valley of the Lost Shell is a classic 'exploration' adventure, set in a wet, poisoned sandbox. [...]  I see the Qelong Valley as a land of steam, smoke, mist, fog – high grasses and low mangroves, like the Dead Marshes or Beowulf’s fen country. All of this grows not in a placid pastoral Olden Tyme, or even a gently corroded Dark Age, but in the path — or technically on the sidelines — of a great and incomprehensible war. Houses and farms are burned, villagers gaunt and feral. Dogs whine over the carcasses of their masters, then tear out the intestines to feed themselves. Men kill each other for a handful of rice, or for a woman who can be beaten into cooking it. All around, sorcerous echoes and explosions ripple the skies, but as a constant drumbeat of vile thunder, not as anything aimed at anyone in the same country. The Qelong Valley has been poisoned by accident and forgotten by its killers. Only the scavengers remain, and the worms that grow in the corpse.
Magical fallout, the elephant lich, the hundred-mile-long naga, the Lotus Monks, the insect-possessed myrmidons, and so much more... different than anything LotFP has done so far, that's for sure."

Elephant lich? Hundred-mile-long naga? Lotus Monks? Colour me interested :-)


[A-Z April Blogging] [P] Pastimes

The cultivated Chinese gentleman-scholar is expected to master four pastimes:

1 — Calligraphy (書 shū)
2 — the Game of Go (圍棋 wéiqí)
3 — Painting (畫 huà)
4 — Playing the Lute (琴 qín)

Calligraphy falls under the skill of Literacy (Classical Chinese), as explained on p59 of The Celestial Empire. One's calligraphy is thought to convey one's personality. As a result, an ugly writing is a social catastrophe. There are many different calligraphy styles, corresponding to different time periods and/or to different expectations (a regular style will convey mastery of the brush strokes, a cursive style manual dexterity). The brush, ink, paper, and ink stone are the essential implements of calligraphy. They are known together as 'the Four Treasures/Jewels/Friends of the Study'. The GM may want to add exceptional implements that give a bonus to the character's Literacy (Classical Chinese) skill.

The relevant skill is Gaming. The game of go predates the Táng dynasty. In Imperial China, for some reason, the game of go is considered as a refined pastime, whereas chess (象棋 xiàngqí) is the game of the masses. See also the section titled 'Entertainment' on p17-8 of TCE.

The relevant skill is Art (Chinese Painting). Chinese painting is mostly an extension of calligraphy since its highest form, brush painting, uses a single brush and black ink only. Other styles add colour and usually concentrate on a recurring theme: birds and flowers, landscapes, the four seasons...

Playing the Lute
The relevant skill is Perform (Play: Lute). Contrary to other popular Chinese instruments, rumoured to be of Central Asian origin, the Chinese lute is felt as both a native instrument, and as the province of the literati. Countless books have been written by gentlemen-scholars on the art of playing the lute, and inability to play it correctly can bring social stigma. Like-minded performers gather in qín schools. The GM may develop these in a way similar to clan associations or secret societies.

The Four Arts of the Chinese Scholar (四藝 sìyì)

Success in any of the above skills can give a bonus to an Etiquette or a Status roll, if the target is a cultivated person, of course — a bandit isn't likely to be impressed by a beautiful piece of calligraphy.
Playing the Lute can also relax one's mind, and success in this skill can give a bonus to a Mental skill roll.

Obviously, failing any of the above yields a negative modifier equal to the expected bonus.


[A-Z April Blogging] [O] Orang-Tionghoa

Orang-Tionghoa is the name given to ethnic Chinese in the Malay Archipelago. Tionghoa is the Malay pronunciation of Zhōnghuá (中華: 'Chinese').

Trade and military expeditions have put China and the Malay Archipelago in contact since under the Yuán. However, the first mass emigration of Chinese to the Malay Archipelago takes place under the Míng. The settlers emigrate from South China and mostly speak Cantonese, Hakka, Mǐn, and Wú (p22 of The Celestial Empire). This emigration is not sanctioned by the Míng who, on the contrary, try to restrict maritime trade as much as possible. As a result, although some of these overseas Chinese are traders and merchants, most of them actually practise agriculture or mining.

The life of the Orang-Tionghoa is based upon the importance of Clan Associations and gōngsuǒ (p101-2 of TCE), and also upon the existence of secret societies (p102 of TCE). As a result, they do not really intermingle, which explains that, many centuries after having left their homeland, they are still divided along regional lines and have kept their original dialect as their vernacular language. One exception is the overseas Chinese who settled in the area of the Strait of Malacca; some of them did intermingle with Malay women, and they speak a Mǐn-Malay creole dialect. In terms of religion, overseas Chinese have the same religious beliefs as their continental brethren, with some local peculiarities, especially in terms of folk religion, with different local deities and apotheosised heroes than on the Mainland.

The regional divisions amongst overseas Chinese lead to a complete lack of ethnic solidarity. On the contrary, there is much evidence of inter-clanic clashes, culminating in the Larut War of 1861-1874 in the centre of the Malay Peninsula. The Larut War (actually a series of four wars) is fought between two secret societies, a Hakka one and a Cantonese/Mǐn one, over the control of mining areas. The wars are only stopped by the intervention of the British.


[A-Z April Blogging] [N] Neo-Confucianism

Neo-Confucianism is a Chinese intellectual movement that becomes prominent under the Sòng. It originates with both a fresh rediscovery of ancient texts, and a will to distantiate Confucianism from Daoism and Buddhism. Although it is considered as a philosophy born under the Sòng, its origins are really with Lǐ Áo (772-836 or 841), who was a nephew and a disciple of Hán Yù (768-824). Neo-Confucianists borrowed the terms of Lǐ 理 (principle) and Qì 氣 (see p4 of The Celestial Empire) from Buddhism and Daoism but re-interpreted them in a more rationalist and secular way, using metaphysics as a mere guide for developing a rationalist ethical philosophy.

Zhū Xī
The major figures of Neo-Confucianism are Zhōu Dūnyí (1017-1073), whose comments on the Yìjīng (the Book of Changes) using Daoist terms are the seminal Neo-Confucianist work, and Zhāng Zǎi (1020-1077 or 1078), who meditates on the meaning and characteristics of Qì and builds a whole new system of metaphysics based on it. Other major figures are the brothers Chéng (Chéng Hào, 1032-1085 and Chéng Yí, 1033-1107 or 1108), who profess the study of the Dào (Dàoxué) through the Investigation of Things (géwù), essentially an academic form of observational science, based on the idea that Lǐ lies within the world, and Zhū Xī (1130-1200), whose extensive commentaries on the Classics and on the 'Four Books' of Confucianism (the Analects of Confucius, the Great Learning, the Doctrine of the Mean, and the Mèngzǐ) become the basis of Neo-Confucian orthodoxy for the following eight centuries. Lù Xiàngshān (1139 or 1140-1192 or 1193), a rival of Zhū Xī's, is another Neo-Confucian thinker of note. He founded the Neo-Confucian School of Mind, the second most influential Neo-Confucian school after the School of Principle founded by Zhū Xī.

The term 'Neo-Confucianism' is of Western origin. The Chinese use Rújiā for Confucianism, and Lǐxué for Neo-Confucianism, i.e., two completely different phrases without any common term. In The Celestial Empire, despite the many differences between Confucianism and Neo-Confucianism, they will be considered as the same 'Allegiance' in gaming terms.


[A-Z April Blogging] [M] Maitreya, Millenarianism & Mòfǎ

Original Buddhism (before it became corrupted by folk religion and devotional practices) did not contemplate any deities, but only enlightened beings, whose role was to lead mankind to enlightenment, and not to be worshipped. 
In Buddhism, each cosmic era is hence supposed to have its own Buddha who leads mankind to salvation. Śākyamuni is the Buddha of the present cosmic era. Maitreya (Mílè 彌勒) is the Buddha of the next era. Theoretically, people of our era should be following Śākyamuni's teachings, Maitreya's are for the future. However, Mahāyāna Buddhism has introduced the notion of mòfǎ (末法): with the passing of time, people do not understand Śākyamuni's teachings any longer and hence cannot attain enlightenment. As a result, Mahāyāna Buddhists have turned to other Buddhas for salvation: Amitābha, through devotional practices, or Maitreya, under the guise of a millenarian cult that expects the imminent advent of the future Buddha Maitreya to start a new era of universal salvation.

The cult of Maitreya starts in North India and spreads to China and Japan through Central Asia where it is extremely widespread before the rise of Islam.
In China, Maitreya's cult is popular under the Táng and the Sòng; after those dynasties, Amitābha and Avalokiteśvara (Guānyīn) become more popular, and Maitreya's millenarian influences become the sole province of syncretic sects, secret societies, and even rebellions.
Syncretic sects:
- White Lotus Society (p38 and p94 of TCE)
- other short-lived syncretic Buddhist/Manichæan sects
Secret societies:
- the various secret societies that have branched off the White Lotus Society (see p102 of TCE)
- the Red Turban Rebellion under the Yuán
- the millenarian rebellion led by Pǔ Fǎ'è (普法惡) in Sìchuān, under the Míng
- the White Lotus Rebellon under the Qīng
- the Boxer Uprising under the Qīng


[A-Z April Blogging] [L] The Legendary Police Woman

The Legendary Police Woman (茶母) is a 2003 Korean drama (TV series) set in Joseon Korea. The series follows the investigations and the adventures of Jang Chaeok (張彩玉), a young Damo, who tries to unravel the mysteries of a counterfeit money ring and of an outlaw-led rebellion. Her investigations are hindered by her being a member of the Nobi class, whereas the counterfeiters are from the nobility. In Neo-Confucian, patriarchal Korea, this leads to all sorts of complications.

In parallel, Chaeok falls in love with her superior, a member of the lower nobility, at a time when such a romantic relationship is simply unthinkable.

The TV series also features a host of well-developed and interesting supporting characters, and vivid detail about the operations of the police force in Joseon Korea, incl. forensics, undercover operations, combat training, etc.

Later on in the story, one of the supporting characters (a rebel leader) acquires some importance, and the TV series focuses on the story of his life as an orphan adopted by a village of lepers. This leads the viewer to a fascinating side story of people living in complete autarchy and isolation simply because of their disease.

This drama was one of the most expensive ever to be shot in Korea, and I recommend watching it, if only for the beautiful period scenes, and for the strong representation of the Joseon caste system, police methods, and overall urban and country life.

If you're interested in Joseon Korea, I also recommend the film Untold Scandal, which tells the same story as The Dangerous Liaisons, but set in Korea at the turn of the 19th century, and the period thriller Blood Rain, also set at the turn of the 19th century. Exotically enough (for East Asia!), both films feature Catholic characters.