Five Fists of the Middle Kingdom

Scroll One: The Five Fists Unite

Editor’s note: The writings that follow come from the original manuscript of Chinese archaeologist and anthropologist, Zheng Zhenduo. It has been translated and circulated in eight languages across twenty-five countries. Zheng Zhenduo’s original manuscript was written as a series of letters to the State Council following his appointment as head of the Cultural Relic Bureau (文物局), Director of the Institute of Archaeology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and literary research institute, the assistant minister of cultural department, committee member of State Council scientific program committee and Chinese Academy of Science philosophical social sciences, the vice-chairman of Chinese folk literature and art research council, etc.

Ancient Chinese mythology is a rich and diverse narrative. According to the myths regarding scrolls dated to around the Shang Dynasty (circa 1600 BCE), there was a time of tumult during pre-historical record that describe a potential threat to the safety of the world. This is not dissimilar with other cultures’ folk heroes. Chinese myth is curious in that multiple folk-heroes are indicated in this particular record, declared the “Five Fists of the Middle Kingdom.” The Middle Kingdom is a term for ancient China, which the reader may recognize from other Chinese mythology. The term will hereafter be used in place of “Ancient China.”

The Shang Dynasty’s influence shows in the record, considering the shape of the Middle Kingdom matches perfectly to the shape of the empire of the Shang Dynasty. At each end of the Middle Kingdom is a place where land gives way to chaos and adherence to an element: in the north, there are vast seas; in the south are vast plains of burning fire beyond a desert; in the west are great mountains that reach “unto the Heavens themselves”; and in the east is an endless forest.

Historical record shows that the heroes’ meeting was both inconspicuous and auspicious at once. The five original heroes of record – the Five Fists of the Middle Kingdom – found one another at a tea house called The House of the Golden Leaf in a town called Five Roads. The scrolls are specific about the names of the heroes, stating them as being: Heng Li, a tall woman disguised as a man and an expert with the three-section staff; Hou Liangbei, a mysterious swordsman with reserves of strong internal qi that manifests as “blade magic”; Kun Qiang, a guandao spear fighter from the “southern nomad tribes” (probably ancient Mongolia); Tai Wei, a woman who was well-trained with the butterfly swords and occasionally called the “whirling steel dragon” in later record; and Zhang San, a martial artist going by a fake name with a troubled past.

Following a tense initial meeting, the House of the Golden Leaf was attacked by “servants of bone worn by the aging breath of time,” which are further described as skeletal martial artists. This is a fairly unprecedented find. It is rare to see folklore regarding corporeal undead creatures in Chinese mythology. See my colleague Xia Nai (Ph.D)’s work for further information on this topic in his excellent book, “Wuxia Pre-History, Vol. III: A Bestiary of the Five Fists Myth Cycle” for further information on this creature and the other creatures that are described further.

The patrons of the House of the Golden Leaf were slaughtered despite the best efforts of the Five Fists. The description of the battle of the House of the Golden Leaf is an example of the artistry of early Shang Dynasty poetry. Heng Li threw herself into the fray with little thought to her own safety. This is a running theme throughout the work. Kun Qiang was grievously injured during this fight, but used a reserve of energy to bring himself back from the brink. Zhang San stood firm against the attacks of the skeletal monks. Liangbei wielded his sword expertly; Tai Wei was able to beat back several skeletons with a swirl of steel.

Following the battle, the heroes went into the streets of Five Roads to view a man wearing a blindfold and his cohort of five fighters killing guards and townsfolk with impunity. With great dismay, the Five Fists left Five Roads for the mountains and forest beyond the town.

The record here describes the journey through the forest in great detail, including information about the different kinds of wildlife that were in the woods at that time, which seems to be an example of early Chinese magical realism.

Near the end of the first scroll, the Five Fists of the Middle Kingdom, worn and tired from their grand battle in Five Rivers, stop at the foot of an ancient Taoist monastery (ed. this may be a later addition to the scroll, as Taoism was not common during the time period of the Shang Dynasty) to discuss their next step. They decide to travel to the Imperial City (a reference to Anyang?) to warn against the army of the dead. Following their discussion, the five heroes rested. Another lengthy poem describes the dreams and nightmares of Kun Qiang, who was given the ability to see spirits of the dead.

This is the end of the first scroll.

View
Scroll Two: A Purpose Received

The second scroll of the Five Fists saga begins with a poem declaring protection from the dead. It is an ancient peasant’s prayer which seems odd considering the general lack of literacy among the lower classes until the advent of the People’s Republic – class mobility was only accessible following the end of the weak Imperial era, as is evidenced by my own humble beginnings. (ed. Zheng Zhenduo was born to a poor rural family in Zhejiang province; his career began following the May Fourth Revolution)

Despite its origins, the prayer’s purpose is clear: the scroll describes Kun Qiang awakening before his companions to find a spirit clawing its way toward a hole in the ground. While normally this would seem inauspicious or even dangerous, given the nature of the hungry dead, Kun Qiang approached the creature and investigated the hole. The rest of the group woke up shortly after and questioned his motives. According to record, there was a battle of wits between Heng Li and Kun Qiang; the two of them mentally sparred about the theological implications of entering the temple and Kun Qiang only won this due to not wishing to listen to logic.

Perhaps this was for the best; logically, the group should have traveled on toward the Imperial City as was discussed. Instead, they climbed down the hole, which led into a maze-like tunnel system beneath the temple. This may be a reference to a temple near the illegal rebel state of Tibet; this would not make sense, as the Lidao Temple was constructed during the Han Dynasty prior to the uprising of the Yellow Turbans. I have sent my team to investigate the temple in question for veracity.

The passages under the temple led into a burial site, discovered first by Tai Wei. This burial chamber was through a thin passage first explored by Kun Qiang. Perhaps due to theological differences to Taoism at the time (ed. again, Taoism not being common during the Shang Dynasty, this is highly unlikely – especially given that Kun Qiang is described as a practitioner of Shangqing in the fragments that remain of the scrolls. This Taoist sect did not come to be until the early Qin Dynasty) there were no bodies stored in the burial chamber. The burial site contained, instead, a series of spirit tablets with an ancient language written upon it. This is clearly a reference to the record of the Monkey King, who discovers a similar script in his journeys to the west.

Heng Li took note through making a rubbing of the characters. A lengthy description is made on how this is done. Considering that Chinese were the first to develop this method of copying text, this may be one of the first descriptions of collecting rubbings from historical artifacts. Following her collection, the group continued on into the rest of the bowels of the temple. The group reached a door that contained fifteen silver studs that were warm to the touch.

A poem describes the studs and the care taken by the Five Fists of the Middle Kingdom at discerning the meaning of the door and what could lie beyond it. Zhang San is given more thought in this particular poem as he employed certain skills that the others did not have to try to decipher the order and arrangement of the metal studs. Eventually, the poem describes Tai Wei placing her blades in between the seam of the double doors and the group leveraging their weight to pull it open. A pagoda lay beyond the door in an empty room with a large chandelier containing crystalline lights.

The group fanned out and Kun Qiang approached the pagoda. A booming voice erupted around them. An auspicious being appeared, a spirit of “great and terrible beauty, reinforcing the mandate of heaven.” This spirit was a fu dog, similar in appearance to the ones that sit outside of the ancient temples throughout China. This creature initially believed the Five Fists were there to steal from it. After the Five Fists placated the beast, it declared that it wished to fight them to comprehend their worth. This is a common theme in Chinese mythology – especially regarding martial artists.

Poetry is written about the fight, and a lengthy, epic poem. This is one of the longer scrolls, describing the battle in great detail. As the heroes beat back the defenses of the spirit, it doused all light and attempted to engage them in the darkness like a coward. Tai Wei, Zhang San, and Kun Qiang created sources of light to ward away the darkness. The first two used lanterns meant to aim light (ed. this type of lantern was not invented until the middle Song Dynasty and is possibly another embellishment), while Kun Qiang used his qi to call upon a spirit of flame to create light. After they discovered the location of the fu dog, the heroes charged into battle against it.

The fu dog declared them cease and introduced itself as Yi Wu (see Li Ji’s dissertation on Yi Wu in “Court of Heaven: Fu Dogs of Myth”). The fu dog explained that the sé of Fuxi had been taken by a blind man. A long description of Fuxi is written in this scroll, possibly one of the first explanations of the creation of humanity in early Chinese record. The description also includes the songs played upon the sé, which include a song that was being guarded by Yi Wu, the Song of Water. According to legend, this song had the ability to raise the dead. Yi Wu cautioned against allowing the blind man to acquire all of the five songs of Fuxi, as it could unmake the world. This is where the Five Fists of the Middle Kingdom receive their true purpose as saviors of the world.

After Heng Li and Kun Qiang ask Yi Wu questions (Heng Li is defiant and pompous in this exchange and Kun Qiang shows deference, which seems to be thematic to both of them – this is potentially a depiction of the forces of Yang and Yin, respectively, in the organization of the Five Fists), Yi Wu bursts into mystical energy, creating five sets of bracers that fit themselves to the wrists of the Five Fists. These bracers were designed to ward off damage and to make the skin more resistant to blade and fist. One bracer has been uncovered in a set of ruins which could date back to this period, possibly serving as a potential reference for the writer of the scrolls.

The group left the underbelly of the temple following this and emerged into the mid day. They decided to travel along the wilderness outside of the roads until they reached the next town, in case they would find their enemies on the road. This is where the second scroll ends.

View
Out of Character Note on Adventure Log Posts

Hello!

As a bit of explanation, the campaign of the Five Fists of the Middle Kingdom takes place in mythic China. Since it is a game that relies heavily on Chinese mythology and other influences of a similar nature, every adventure log post will be written as though it is being uncovered or explained by an anthropologist or archaeologist describing a myth cycle of ancient China. Despite the relatively conversational tone of each of the following posts and the “supposedly,” “legend has it,” and “according to myth/lore/legend/folklore” types of statements, these will be a record of what happened during the sessions.

View

I'm sorry, but we no longer support this web browser. Please upgrade your browser or install Chrome or Firefox to enjoy the full functionality of this site.