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Shénzhōu

To put it simply, Shénzhōu ("shen-zhoo") is the mythical China found in stories of the ancient past, a land where flawed-yet-brave heroes protect the common folk from bandits, evil magicians, and Yao Guai (monsters, "yow gwy"). The Imperial Bureaucracy is a tower of stability and support, but corruption runs rampant in that tower's shadow.

One significant change from "historical" Shénzhōu, in the name of more enjoyable roleplaying, is that this Shénzhōu is a more egalitarian and diverse land. Women occupy positions of authority, from the Bureaucracy to bandit camps; LGBT+ folks face less hostility; and while most people are of Han stock, many other ethnicities can be found. In other words, this Shénzhōu is as much The Man With the Iron Fists as it is Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Shénzhōu is divided into nine provinces, but most people discuss it in terms of directions. Going counter-clockwise . . .

The South

The lands to the south are generally temperate and in places even tropical. Southwestern Shénzhōu is sparsely populated though among the most ethnically diverse regions, with various indigenous tribes and their descendants living in remote locations on the large plateau that dominates this region. To the extreme southwest a vast mountain range establishes a clear border between Shénzhōu and its neighbors. This region boasts ample natural resources, but with the sole reliable trade route being the Da Jiang (“Great River”), much of the region is undeveloped. The remoteness of this area makes it an attractive haven for rebels, exiles, and other groups who cannot survive in more populated regions.

Moving east along Shénzhōu’s southern border one finds many farms, forests, and ever-increasing population, especially along the Da Jiang. Small villages give way to towns and eventually vast coastal seaports. These southeastern regions boast many officials and a strong government presence, but the distance from the capital and a tradition of strong regional cultural identity gives the whole area a more independent feel than the central provinces. Pirates and smugglers are common sights in the ocean waters near the southern coasts.

The East

The provinces to the east tend to be more civilized, particularly along major trade routes such as the Silk River and Jade Road. From rural farming communities and smaller cities, the land eventually becomes heavily populated near the coast. It is here you will find the province of Zhōngzhōu ("zhohng-zhoo"), home of the imperial capital and emperor’s palace.

Citizens in the central east are used to the constant presence of imperial officials, magistrates, and the emperor’s eunuch advisors. This creates an environment of stability and order, but this also hinders the freedom of many inhabitants. Those seeking more independence travel west to wilder lands such as Jiāngzhōu.

Toward the southeast, the distance from the capital and a tradition of strong regional cultural identity gives the whole area a more independent feel than the central provinces. Pirates and smugglers are common sights in the ocean waters near the southern coasts.

The North

As one heads north, the land moves from rich farmlands to barren tundra, hills, and evergreen forests. In addition to the mountains that provide a natural barrier in the northwest, a Great Wall of interconnected fortresses has been constructed to protect Shénzhōu from barbarian raiders in the north. Large settlements are rare, though many small villages dot the landscape.

Northern provinces are filled with hard people used to hard living and many of the people can claim descendants both from Shénzhōu and the barbarian lands beyond. Many workers and craftsmen toil to maintain northern defenses, some of who are criminals sentenced to hard labor. Along the sea the region becomes more temperate and pleasant, but it still remains less hospitable than the coastal regions to the south.

The West

The western area is dominated by Jiāngzhōu (jee'yong-zhoo) Province, a border region known for bandits, gangs, and corrupt officials, which is the default location of a TianXia game.

Jiāngzhōu is not the most populated province in terms of permanent residents, but has a large transient population due to trade along both the Jade Road and Silk River. This constant traffic makes Jiāngzhōu a chaotic place filled with traveling merchants, mercenaries, and spies. Banditry and crime is rife in the region, with many small towns and settlements controlled by various criminal organizations. These bandits often clash with local trade houses and security companies who hold sway in other parts of Jiāngzhōu. In truth, many of these supposedly legitimate organizations are little more than bandits themselves. As merchants and thieves fight over land, trade, and gold, the common people suffer under the weight of corruption and lawlessness.

This conflict draws all manner of wandering warriors and hired killers. Some are looking for work, others see Jiāngzhōu as a place to escape their past, and still others hope to take advantage of the lack of one ruling authority to hide from past troubles. Monks and priests are also common emigrants, seeking to enlighten or exploit the populace depending on their nature. Scholars, doctors, entertainers, spies, courtesans, and even dispossessed nobility also sometimes come to Jiāngzhōu, all drawn by necessity or opportunity.

Important landmarks include:

Băo Jiāng Locations

These are a few of the interesting places inside the city of Băo.

Religion

The three most common religions in Shénzhōu are:

None are exclusive; many people pay at least lip service to all three. All three roughly agree on cosmology (gods, planes of existence, etc.); for details, see Spirits, Beasts & Spells, pp. 16-21. There are as many irreligious (or even anti-religious) folks as there are truly pious ones, with the vast majority falling somewhere in between.

Note: While these were obviously adapted from Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism, they are fictional faiths designed to fit into this setting. Any differences are intentional, not discrepancies.

Social Classes

People in Shénzhōu are generally thought to be grouped into four categories. In rough order of ascending social importance these are: nong (peasant farmers), gong (craftsmen), shang (merchants), and shi (noble scholars). Shi are clearly the more respected and powerful of these classes, comprising the nobility and various ministers. However, the wealthiest shang can rival or exceed most shi in power. Likewise a famed gong might be more highly thought of than your average shang.

Wu (warriors) are a special case. Many shi over the years have been great warriors, but in an effort to promote civil service and the image of stability, Shénzhōu favors downplaying martial skill as part of the social order even while praising a particular swordsman or general. This has helped lead to the creation of the Martial Arts World (Jianghu), a subculture of warriors and martial artists that is both romanticized and avoided by many in normal society.

Monks and priests exist outside this social order completely, but are usually well respected by all for their wisdom and spirituality. Monastic orders with high levels of Kung Fu proficiency are often thought of as part of Jianghu, or at least as spiritual associates.


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