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.