China is probably the oldest semi-continual polity in the world that anyone actually gives a shit about. Over the course of twelve major dynasties, a shitload of smaller ones, a bunch of big civil war punch-ups, one Communist dictatorship, and its current, ongoing, post-Communist oligarchy, this huge blob of East Asian grasslands/steppes/jungle/desert/mountains/everything and its billion inhabitants has had a tremendous, outsized effect on the world economy and the culture of surrounding nations.
Naturally, this has made it fertile fodder for tabletop gaming. From the Forgotten Realms to Golarion, few are the fantasy gaming settings without a "medieval China"-equivalent somewhere in the world. However, quite often, these Sure-Fine brand not!Chinas are about as well-researched and accurate as, well, their European counterparts, taking the broad cultural outline of a big empire ruled by a centralized bureaucracy and an all-powerful Emperor (who may or may not be a god / demigod) and a few specific trappings of architecture and dress to make what amounts to a China-based theme park for the adventurers to roam around in, seeing the sites, taking pictures, and fighting their way through that bestiary full of East-Asian monsters you never get to use.
There's nothing wrong with this, really, but there's nothing particularly interesting about it either beyond the novelty of playing a bunch of slack-jawed tourists in your adventuring campaign.
However, the other major influence China has had on tabletop gaming is through the medium of wuxia.
"'Wu' means martial arts, which signifies action, 'Xia' conveys chivalry. Wuxia. Say it gently... 'whooshah'... and it's like a breath of serenity embracing you. Say it with force, 'WuSHA!', and you can feel its power."
— Samuel L. Jackson, "The Art of Action: Martial Arts in the Movies"
Thank you, Reverend Jackson.
Wuxia is what China has instead of Tolkien. Just as the Western fantasy setting has got your dwarves and your elves and your dark lords leading armies to conquer the world, China has Jianghu, literally "the Land of Rivers and Lakes", implying a sense of freedom from both normal familial obligations and the tyrannic representatives of the Emperor. In the settings, corrupt civil authority forces noble wandering heroes to live like outlaws as they fight to restore order, learn secret techniques from old masters, are forced to battle their former best friends, etc. Just like Western fantasy, there's a lot of high-brow, literary stuff, but there's also a lot of entertaining trash pumped out to fill a public appetite for it. For instance, those cheap Shaw Bros. kung fu movies are wuxia, but so are films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero.
And, naturally, this genre has its own tabletop games.
The biggest success is probably Exalted, White Wolf's epic fantasy role-playing game. While there are, obviously, a shitload of other influences, from a corrupt cosmic bureaucracy and physical Realm in need of heroes to fix things to the super-martial arts and flowery naming conventions, Creation would simply not be recognizable without the trappings of wuxia. This is true even in a subtler sense: wuxia often focuses on tragedy and deeply-flawed heroes whose best intentions turn on them. Thanks to the Great Curse, all the exalts are, unless they do their utmost to defy their fates, doomed to destroy all they love.
Other games, like Legends of the Wulin and Feng Shui draw on the genre more overtly. Even if the latter is more about aping the whole spectrum of Hong Kong cinema than wuxia specifically, even the later "heroic bloodshed" films are basically wuxia pictures set in the modern day with guns instead of swords, cities instead of forests, and cops and triads instead of heroes and bandits. The "69 A.D." Juncture is pure wuxia though, with an Imperial Court strangled by the machinations of the evil eunuch-sorcerers known as the Eaters of the Lotus and a countryside lousy with their supernatural and mortal henchmen terrorizing the nation. And the text notes that the heroic Dragons are frequently destroyed and remade, heroes born beneath stars of tragedy who often go out fighting the good fight.
Wizards actually tried their own hand at a wuxia setting, the awesomely-named Dragon Fist. Running on an early, jury-rigged d20 engine with a lot of leftover AD&D parts, it was barely-functional, but fun as hell, and set in the land of Tlanguo, though it got no support at all after the initial release. (Boooo!)
Legend of the Five Rings is usually seen as a more "Japanese" setting than a Chinese one, and it's true that there's plenty of jidei geki DNA in Rokugani society, from its strict, stratified class system and militarism to its overtly-Japanese names and weapons, to subtle things like "void" replacing "metal" as one of the Five Elements. But, there's still plenty of Chinese flavor there. Various periods in Rokugani history were far more friendly to the wuxia mien, with bands of heroic ronin fighting the power against a corrupt shogunate in the hands of the Shadowlands. In particular, the Phoenix Clan endorses a philosophy that has far more similarities to daoism than anything recognizably Japanese, and Rokugan itself, as a land-bound empire that relies on a coastal breadbasket to feed a less-productive inland and a Great Wall along a border with a dangerous and barbaric foreign power to keep the heartland safe, is much more like China than any period in Japanese history.
- Pre-History Stuff: The aboriginal Chinese are displaced by what will later be known as the "Han." Confusingly, a dynasty of the same name is also coming up. The Han built one of the first civilizations on Earth, with block writing, metalworking, and advanced farming techniques.
- Shang: According to their own traditions, they took over for an even-earlier dynasty called the Xia, but we know fuck all about them. Anyway, the Shang had bronze, which, to use technical military parlance, made them the meanest bitches on the block for a long time, and they were obsessed with divination, going through huge heaps of bones and turtle shells for fortune-telling purposes whenever anyone did anything. Their nobles also had a habit of honoring ancestors by burying hundreds of slaves in their tombs. Eventually, they became engaged in too many wars, before being overthrown by...
- Zhou: The Zhou were a family from out in the boonies that moved onto Shang land and became vassals to the Shang. When they overthrew the Shang, they introduced the concept of a "Mandate of Heaven," issued by the cosmic forces of rightness. It was brilliant, in its own way: theoretically, each dynasty ruled by the Mandate. When they didn't do so well or justly, Heaven would withdraw the Mandate and give it to someone else who'd overthrown them. More-cynically, this meant that a successful rebellion was "proof" that Heaven had turned its back on the old order, and an unsuccessful one was "proof" that it wasn't time yet. Anyway, the Zhou had a good run, but the state's vassals started pulling apart during Spring and Autumn period, and eventually the whole thing fractured into a mess of warring states fighting for supremacy. This was known as Warring States period. At the same time, constant conflict and the need to innovate culminated in to the "Hundred Schools". The origin of both Confucianism and Daoism in some of their earliest forms was observed.
Early Imperial China
- Qin: Probably the shortest dynasty that people actually remember and care about, but it had the great emperor Qin Shi Huangdi, and he was emperor enough for an entire family line of most lesser dynasties. Uniting the nation by military force, the so-called "First Emperor" invented probably the first modern nation-state, standardizing culture, weights, measures, roads, and countless other things to ensure that the Chinese stopped thinking of themselves as being from Lu, Jin, or Wei and started thinking of themselves as Chinese. He's got a bad reputation as a crazed mass-murderer too, but that was mostly because he made enemies with the Confucians and the Confucians wrote the history books for two millenia and some change to come. He also "abolished history" by burning all the books not containing useful technical information, keeping only a copy of each one in his private library for the leader's personal use, which was promptly lost after his death. What he built barely survived him, but there's a reason the modern nation still bears his name. (...It's pronounced "chin." Goddamn pinyin.)
- Han: This one's so important it's still what the Chinese call themselves as an ethnic group. Roughly contemporaneous with the Roman Empire, with each being aware of the other without ever quite meeting. They seemed to think of themselves as opposite versions of themselves on opposite ends of the world. The Han was founded by a former Qin Sheriff who lost some of his prisoners during a convoy; realizing that the punishment would be death, he decided that he already had nothing to lose and instigated a successful rebellion against the Qin (this is why there is such a thing as too severe a punishment when it ceases to be a deterrent). Introduced the concept of a centralized bureaucracy offering positions to applicants who were judged by local officials based on the Confucian classics, the latter of which would survive until the Sui initiated reforms and the former of which didn't go away until the Emperor did. A hugely-prosperous, technologically-skilled, highly-advanced society, with a new coinage standard that, unfortunately, as part of a running theme, began to fall into weakness and decadence. First, the eunuchs, always resentful of their snipping, tried seizing power for themselves, only for military officers to storm the capital and slaughter them all, leading first to a tenuous military dictatorship, and then to, well...
- Three Kingdoms, and the Romancing Thereoff: The late Han dynasty and generation shortly thereafter was a great and heroic age. It was a time of larger-than-life personalities, brave generals, brilliant strategists, and masterful politicians. It is worthy of study both for historical/entertainment value and for inspiration in any good tabletop campaign that wants to have a military-political element. And it is the subject of one of the Four Classical Novels, the historical epic usually translated into "The Romance of the Three Kingdoms" in English, this being the reason of its fame. Unfortunately, it is also bastard complicated, so let's just say that one of the Three Kingdoms finally usurped the Han after using them as a puppet state for a while, and then conquered the others a generation later, all the while, after successive underage emperors, being a puppet to the founders of the next dynasty. Most gamers in the west know this period due to the Dynasty Warriors series.
- Jin: Backstabbing, political maneuverings, coups d'état, internal conflict, corruption, political turmoil followed by clashes and war; successful and unsuccesful throne usurpings, military revolts, paranoia among royal family, more revolts and end to Jin rule.
- Northern and Southern: An age of civil war and political chaos complemented by a time of flourishing arts and culture, advancement in technology, and the spread of Mahayana Buddhism and Daoism. It should be noted that the Northern Dynasties were essentially barbarians and most of the Han fled south. Key technological advances occurred during this period, but more important was the spread of agricultural tech to the south, cementing their status as major taxgivers. The invention of the stirrup during the earlier Jin dynasty (265–420) helped to ignite the development of heavy cavalry. Advances in medicine, astronomy, mathematics, and cartography are observed by historians.
Medieval Imperial China
- Sui: The good: they reunited a divided China, and 1)successfully undertook such vast internal-improvement projects as the Grand Canal connecting the city of Beijing in the north to the city of Hangzhou in the south, a thousand miles away; 2) initiated the test reforms, which will slowly change China into the model state in Voltaire's eyes in the course of five hundred years. The bad: they were extravagant assholes and control freaks whose projects were built on a foundation of peasant bones mortared with blood. Fell apart after one emperor's repeated attempts to conquer Korea against dogged resistance and interference from the top broke the back of the army.
- Tang: The Emperor Li Yuan, who seized the capital from the Sui, is his dynasty in microcosm. When he took power, the people thought he would be the greatest emperor in their nation's history; energetic, brilliant, skilled at all manner of government, military, and artistic tasks. He stabilized the shaking nation. Then he turned into a paranoid, murderous asshole as he got older until he finally got deposed. Sounds about right. This is the age in which the Chinese invented gunpowder, and, at its height, it was also the richest, most-advanced, most-cosmopolitan society on Earth, rolfstomping basically every thing that crossed the great houses of the dynasty. Problem is such conquest was completed by governor-generals that can tax their lands, which allowed them to rebel quite easily. Once things started falling apart, a radical sect of Confucianism began attempting to purge China of "outside influences" and restore China to the good old days through teaching and circulating their works, including Christianity and Buddhism. Buddhism survived, Christianity (Nestorians) did not.
Second Age of Strife
- Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms: The period of political disunity between the Tang and the Song, known as the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period. During this period, five states quickly succeeded one another in the Chinese Central Plain, while more than a dozen concurrent states were established elsewhere, mainly in south China. During this half-century, China was in all respects a multi-state system.
- Song: Invading barbarians devastated a Tang dynasty that was already eating itself alive from within. After a brief but invigorating series of civil wars and abortive wanna-be dynasts, an opportunistic general seized control of a splinter state that begun uniting China, and would go on to overlap with the Yuan for a while until the Mongols finally finished 'em off. The Song dynasty was, no bones about it, a cultural and economic powerhouse. They invented such modern marvels as paper money, steam and water-powered industry, and mass production. They also created beautiful and marvelous art, like pots depicting ponds on which fish appeared when water was poured in, or rice that smelled like flowers while it was cooking. However, they were also weak politically and militarily, and their ongoing "sour grapes" stance toward most of their neighbors, combined with Neo-Confucian abhorrence at the thought of allowing merchants to do the fighting, prevented them from properly leveraging the economic advantages of their hyper-advanced economy to dominate them with "soft power," and their underdeveloped understanding of economics meant many of these advances were eventually abandoned by a society not ready for their consequences. Ultimately gave in to...
- Yuan: Goddamn Mongolians. Technically "started" by Genghis Khan himself, it only really became a Chinese-style dynasty when his grandson, Kublai Khan, set up his capital in Khanbaliq (later Dadu, modern Beijing). Like the Greeks and the Romans, the "conquering" Mongolians slowly resembled their Chinese subjects. Culturally, this was the beginning of the modern Chinese novel and drama, though always with the wary eye of Imperial censors lurking over the writers' shoulders. (This was nothing new, incidentally, though the volume sure was.) This was also the dynasty that brought China to the West's attention, partly due to the Mongol invasions threatening Eastern Europe, and partly due to Marco Polo's accounts of the reign of Kublai Khan. The Mongols generally imported nobles rather than using locals, so a variety of Middle Easterners were brought in to manage and police the Chinese nation, while Chinese bureaucrats were sent to the Middle East to manage and police it. This is the origin of the Hui people, Muslim descendants of intermarrying foreign officials and soldiers who maintain their faith today and served as some of the most disciplined and feared of all Chinese soldiers in future wars. Eventually, the Yuan proved how "Chinese" they'd become by going out in the traditional Chinese way: collapsing into a mass of squabbling warlords and decadence because of fiscal disaster. Notably, the fleeing Khan took the ancient Imperial Seal dating all the way back to ol' Qin Shi Huangdi himself with him when he went back to Mongolia, and no one's ever found where he stashed it.
Late Imperial China
- Ming: Founded by an illiterate peasant-turned-warlord, Zhu Yuanzhang, who stands aside such figures as Oliver Cromwell of England, Jeanne d'Arc of France, and the Prophet Muhammad of Arabia as one of the great completely self-taught military minds of human history, the Ming dominated the remains of the decaying Yuan empire with a mixture of brutal cunning and tactical genius. He went the way of Li Yuan by the end, but the dynasty he founded was the stablest and most-powerful China ruled by the Chinese in generations. It combined the economic power of the Song with the military might of the Yuan and the cultural sophistication of both into one of the grandest empires in human history. Politically, of course, they were rather repressive and authoritarian, but it was also a very literate society for its time, with openly-female writers and readers getting lots of cred. This dynasty also saw the absolutely epic world-journey of the eunuch-admiral Zheng He, that was the closest the real-world ever got to a sea-based Dungeons & Dragons campaign. Unfortunately, due to the influence of the Neo-Confucians, their own self-sufficiency and comparative sophistication compared to the rest of the world, and good ol' fashioned racist jingoism, Ming China was very isolationist and arrogant. This, combined with long-term peace, led to a decay of military strength, especially as they insisted on inventing their own kinds of firearm rather than importing cheaper European models, and pervasive corruption and eunuch-influence at the top rotted everything it touched. Humiliatingly, after three centuries, the dynasty came to an end not when the next one stepped up to the plate, but when a fucking peasant revolt got there first and the Emperor committed suicide, leaving a gap for the Manchus to back right into.
- Qing: As mentioned above, the semi-nomadic Manchu invaded China from beyond the Great Wall and took over as the Qing dynasty. When you learn about the Opium Wars, the Boxer Rebellion, and Spheres of Influence in middle school, this is the dynasty it all happened in. As the last dynasty, the Qing basically reached a point of such decadence and corruption that military budgets were spent on building palaces, and attempts to modernize and "Westernize" China as Meiji Japan did were met with unremitting hostility by entrenched political factions within the Imperial palace. It got so bad that even an Emperor could be arrested and killed for trying to fight corruption. Eventually, with China basically becoming a big cake being sliced up by stronger colonial powers, a young American Anglican named Sun Yat-Sen decided it was time to get rid of the imperial dynasties and establish a modern, Westernized, democratic republic. In 1912, the 7-year old Emperor abdicated (though he retained part of the Forbidden City and was paid an annual stipend), and the line of dynasties came to an end.
THIRD Age of Strife
- 'Republic of China (1912-1915): Sun Yat-Sen only became president with the help of Yuan Shikai, a Qing general who forced the Republicans to name him president if he made the Qing Emperor step down, with the support of most of the modernized Qing armies stationed in northern China and around the capital of Beijing. As promised, Yuan Shikai was made the new President of the Republic. A year later, having won national elections and taken control of parliament, Yuan further increased his power, such as making him able to name a successor by law. Sun Yat-Sen's chosen successor was assassinated by "persons unknown", and the same fate would befall those suspected by investigators of having some role in the assassination. All things pointed to Yuan Shikai being responsible, but no charges could be filed as all potential suspects and witnesses were dead. With an abortive revolt crushed in Southern China, and the mechanisms of government in his hands, nothing much could be done when Yuan declared himself the Hongxian Emperor.
- Warlord Era: Yuan Shikai's short-lived dynasty was defeated by a coalition of anti-monarchist armies from the south, and Yuan died shortly thereafter. However, rather than re-establishing the Republic, Yuan's defeat and death simply saw many of his followers take their own portions of the army and establish warlord states throughout northern China. One of these factions became known as the Beiyang Government and claimed itself the legitimate government of the Republic of China. Sun Yat-Sen's Nationalists retreated to the south and became warlords themselves, calling for war against the autocratic Beiyang. Dozens of lesser warlords proliferated throughout China's provinces, and the Beiyang government joined the Allies in World War I in the hopes of recovering territories taken by Germany and Austria-Hungary during the Qing Dynasty, mainly Shandong.
- Nanking Government of the Republic of China: Starting in 1927, over the course of one year, the Nationalist army broke the back of three major warlords of the north, nominally unifying China under one government. The remaining warlords resisted Nanking's concentration of power, causing even more bloodshed.
- People's Republic (aka Communist China): This is the era of history that, for better or worse, most Westerners are familiar with. To make a long, winding, and rather complicated story short, nearly everything in China nowadays can be traced to the efforts of one man; Mao Zedong, the leader of the then-outlawed Communist Party of China. Beginning in 1927, he warred against the nationalist government under Chiang Kai-Shek. Although they put their war on hold to kick the Japanese out of their country during the Second World War, by 1949, the nationalist government was pushed back to Taiwan (where they still rule today), and mainland China was unified under the communist red flag. For the next 50 or so years, the Chinese would play an interesting role in the Cold War between the USA and USSR; first as allies to the Russians until the Sino-Soviet split in '69, then as sort of-friends to the US after Nixon negotiated an agreement with them. As for Mao, historians are notably divided on his record as a politician. While it is agreed the man was a brilliant general, literally writing the book On Guerrilla Warfare, the mixed reaction comes from his rather disastrous socio-economic policies. (and by that, we mean left around 72 million Chinese dead, from a mixture of starvation, political purges, and a ten-year period of anarchy that made the Reign of Terror look like a birthday party because it was legal for people to tell armies to hand over their weapons). His detractors will claim utopian stupidity, malicious tyranny, or a mix of both, while his supporters usually will make the claim that he just made honest mistakes. Nevertheless, his successors felt that the country was going to implode if they pursued any of Mao's hard left policies any further, so now we're in a weird state of limbo where a country that's still being ruled by the authoritarian Communist Party is pushing the country more and more towards capitalism. But don't suggest China will become a democracy anytime soon. The last time they tried that twenty-five years ago, things didn't turn out so good for everyone involved.
There's a lot of it, and it's surprisingly relevant.
In Western antiquity, there were supposedly four "classical elements," namely air, fire, water, and earth (The Greeks also included aether, but because was an ethereal material that existed beyond earth it was usually left out). You know this. Don't pretend you don't, it's in fucking everything. But, in classical China, there were five: fire, water, earth, wood, and metal. And, just as all of Europe copied the Greeks, all of Asia copied China, with varying degrees of fidelity. Japan, for instance, had void instead of metal and air instead of wood. This more-or-less introduced the idea of "opposing" elements and elemental weaknesses, via a complex web of interactions. Think how boring and tactically-flat so many games would be if certain kinds of damage didn't work better on certain enemies!
Many games play with this alternate elemental system. Aside from Legend of the Five Rings, Pathfinder and the Dresden Files RPG both offer variant rules using it instead of the classics. It certainly makes for an interesting change.
Meanwhile, let's talk about religion. While Christianity has its own traditions of warrior-monks, usually represented as clerics or paladins, the Chinese tradition is arguably the most distinctive. Two of the three major Chinese religions/philosophies, taoism and buddhism, emphasize meditation and discipline, which is strenuous to both the body and mind. Thus, they invented systems of exercises to strengthen both, called "kung fu," or, literally, "hard work." Then, when they needed to act as local militias defending against marauding bandits, it turned out having intense mental focus and physical stamina made them damn good fighters, and the rest is history. And that, ladies and gentlemen is where the modern D&D monk came from.
In particular, taoist practices emphasize the existence of a kind of underlying substance of which everything is made, called qi. Qi is a kind of... energy field, created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds you get where this joke is going, right? Anyway, in Exalted, qi and essence are almost literally the same thing, and the monk and its various similar classes in D&D have "ki pools" that offer fancy new abilities.
Anyway, the Chinese also envisioned Heaven as containing a system, a Celestial Bureaucracy mirroring the one on Earth, that kept the world running according to various agreements and contracts between the gods. Most tabletop settings have similar rules, regulations, and restrictions on the gods to explain why they subcontract out to adventurers, and though most of the gods and personalities of, say, the average D&D campaign setting have more to do with Western paganism than anything recognizably Chinese, the system of how they operate is more Chinese than Western simply because they can't just do as they please.
In more general terms, Chinese religion is a pretty mixed bag that leaves most outsiders confused. Yes, there are the three "main" religions of Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism, but they're all considered inclusive of one another, so it's possible to be a practitioner of all three. Furthermore, you've got the myriad traditions of the ancient Folk Religion, centered around heaven and ancestor worship. Even after the communist purges, ancient folklore and superstition still has a strong influence among the common people, a fixation on luck being one such example. Another such superstition lead to the creation of "hopping vampires"... which are exactly what they sound like. Ok, they're more like zombies with extreme rigor mortis, but you get the idea. Anyways, if you want something that deviates from Western Mythology, the Chinese have an interesting set of ideas.