Friday, 26 February 2016

Xu Fu, the Elixir of Life, and the Queen Country

Back in December 2014 I wrote this:

Imagine a vague fantasy simulacrum of medieval China, seen through a lens of Borges's "The Analytical Language of John Wilkins", Marco Polo's accounts of his expeditions, Coleridge's "Kubla Khan", Calvino's Invisible Cities, and the legend of Prester John. Basically, picture what people in Europe of the middle-ages thought China was like, then layer on top a big slathering of romanticism, add a hefty dose of orientalism, together with a sprinkling of complete ignorance, and bake in an oven of Umberto Eco.  
Then imagine that to the East there is a strange mountainous island which is permanently shrouded in mist and populated by militaristic, violent natives; innumerable ghosts and weird spirits; nature-based demigods; and dragons with underwater palaces in its seas. It is called the "Queen Country", but nobody knows why. Legend has it that in the North there resides a great Black Turtle, in the South the Vermilion Bird, in the West a White Tiger, and in the East an Azure Dragon. It's the Japan of the Nara period, but seen from the eyes of what people in our real-world China of 750 AD might have thought of it.  
Now imagine what would have happened if Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson had this in mind, rather than Greyhawk, when they'd designed D&D. It's called Queen Country and it's what I'm going to publish after Yoon-Suin.

That was quite a ballsy statement in retrospect. It isn't going to be what I'm going to publish after Yoon-Suin, it turns out. But still, I have plans for Queen Country.

Today I came across the legend of Xu Fu, an ancient Chinese sorcerer who was sent across the sea to discover the elixir of life, and is said to have ended up in Japan. According to the wikipedia entry:

The ruler of Qin, Qin Shi Huang, feared death and sought a way to live forever. He entrusted Xu Fu with the task of finding the secret of immortality. In 219 BC, Xu Fu was sent with three thousand virgin boys and girls to retrieve the elixir of life from the immortals on the Penglai Mountain, including Anqi Sheng, who was purportedly a magician who was already a thousand years old. Xu sailed for several years without finding the mountain. In 210 BC, when Qin Shi Huang questioned him, Xu Fu claimed there was a giant sea creature blocking the path, and asked for archers to kill the creature. Qin Shi Huang agreed, and sent archers to kill a giant fish. Xu then set sail again, but he never returned from this trip. The Records of the Grand Historian says he came to a place with "flat plains and wide swamps" (平原廣澤) and proclaimed himself king, never to return.  
Later historical texts were also unclear on the location of Xu's final destination. Sanguo Zhi, Book of Later Han, and Guadi Zhi all state that he landed in "Danzhou" (亶州), but the whereabouts of Danzhou are unknown. Finally, more than 1,100 years after Xu Fu's final voyage, monk Yichu wrote during the Later Zhou (AD 951-960) of the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period that Xu Fu landed in Japan, and also said Xu Fu named Mount Fuji as Penglai. This is the "Legend of Xu Fu" in Japan as evidenced by the many memorials to him there.

I was greatly taken with this, and also with this:

It makes me want to set Queen Country in an earlier time frame: the Japan of the Jomon Period, but seen through the lens of fantasy Chinese adventurers from across the sea. A place of hunter-gatherer tribes with strange burial mounds living on an island where gods and monsters are real - and in some distant corner of it, Mt Fuji, a Shangri-La-type location which has the source of eternal life...

(Weirdly enough, according to the Japanese wikipedia article, there is a twist to the legend of Xu Fu which suggests the sorcerer in fact represents one of the lost tribes of Israel, Joseph. But that is probably one twist too many.)


  1. I would play there. A little tougher to get a group to all sign on together in the intent to actively avoid western European tropes, but it might be fun to try.

    Jomon period, especially. Many of my verisimilitude problems with default-D&D fade when I rethink my settings as Iron Age rather than high medieval. And if that works, why not even earlier?

    1. Yeah, I think that's true - although games like Feng Shui and whatnot manage it.

    2. I have the same problem with High Middle Ages D&D. But take it to early Iron Age, Bronze Age or even Stone Age and it seems to glide a lot easier. Partly that is the greater distance of the players from the tropes and getting rid of clerics.
      This Xu Fu legend and set up is gold although any pseudo Chinese setting needs a corrupt Mandarin bureaucratic city as a base.

    3. Yes, one idea I had for this game (it goes back a long way) was that the players start off each session in a corrupt Mandarin bureaucratic city, sail across the sea to Jomon or Yayoi era Japan, have an adventure, then return. And each time they seem to end up somewhere they haven't been before. But that's totally story-gameish.

  2. Xu Fu sounds like a great NPC encounter. He's looking for the secret of eternal life, and can't return home until he finds it.

  3. I once took a course on Chinese Art in which this story was discussed, and I've never forgotten it. With regard to Pengli, I've usually seen it depicted as 'mist enshrouded' in paintings, and the secret of immortality, in one account, was supposedly a mushroom. Unless I'm full of crap (quite possible, this class was 10 years ago), this legend was popular during the Song dynasty and many court painters from the period depicted it. This stuff is devilishly hard to google, as most of the real scholarship is either locked away in an expensive textbook or written in Chinese. If I run across any notes or old textbooks, I'll share what I find.

    1. Thanks. I've been looking for Japanese sources. There are quite a few statues of Xu Fu (the Japanese call him Jo Fuku) here and there throughout the country, with various towns seeking to 'claim' him as their own.