Five Fists of the Middle Kingdom
For time immemorial, the South has been dominated by tribes of wandering nomads. The culture of the South, along with its general ideology and fairly rigid belief in a mix of deities (“Little Gods”) and Taoism (“the Mandate of Heaven”) comes from a mixing of traditional Imperial beliefs and tribal local belief systems. There were once Ten Tribes that maintained the South prior to the Unification. All but four of these tribes have settled into cities, and one tribe has been destroyed utterly in recent memory.
Following the Unification, most tribes settled into the semi-permanent cities that can be seen when visiting the edge of the Great Southern Desert. Several tribes still exist and maintain the old nomadic way, wandering through the Desert and its outskirts. Though the tribes speak to their autonomy, they are all still considered Imperial citizens. Tribes often do not have money for taxation, and when visiting cities for more supplies, or otherwise meeting with Imperial magistrates or other members of the bureaucracy, they trade them crafts. It is said that if one goes far enough south into the Southern Desert that the sand begins to turn to glass due to the enormous heat. Glass work from the South is thus highly prized, especially by warriors and those who would put on a display of internal ferocity – as it is believed that Southern Sandglass is the epitome of Yang qi, beyond woodcrafts made in the east.
Southern language is also derived from the original Ten Tribes, with its emphasis on colorful adjectives and adverbs. One adage is that it takes a Southerner one minute to say something in his native tongue that an Imperial speaker could say in ten seconds. Southern language evolved from tribal poets and singers, of whom great respect was accorded – and still is, to some degree. Throat singing and wind instruments were often the most common forms of entertainment due to the relative ease in transporting the latter, and showmanship of the former. Southern throat singers are regarded with curiosity and often are brought to the Imperial City to entertain the nobility when it is in favor by the courtiers.
About twenty-five years ago, the Yi Ping Jin Sha Ma Ren (Heaven’s Ordained Harmonious People of the Horse, often simply called the Jinsha, or in common parlance, the Horselords) Tribe was wholly wiped out in a sustained attack that cornered them into a barren part of the Southern Desert. Without access to water and grazing land for their cattle, the tribe slowly withered away and was destroyed. There is still little evidence as to who destroyed the tribe. More suspicious Southerners who know of the event say that demons from the Molten Forge emerged to destroy the tribe. Others believe that bandits followed them and managed to prevent them from escaping, despite their fame as the best light cavalry in all of the Middle Kingdom. Indeed, many soldiers came from the Jinsha, filling out the Middle Kingdom’s armies as horse archers and reconnaissance units to aid the more regular heavy cavalry and chariots. Their last known location was deep in the southwestern heart of the Southern Desert, and very few have attempted to seek out the answers to this question. It is said that the Jinsha Ma Ren’s founder was taught the “Way of All Things,” and was meant to police the lands between the living and the dead. This knowledge has become rumor, but most older people who remember the Jinsha Ma Ren knew them as staunchly religious figures. Stories were told of them coming into villages at night to chase away the dead.
The largest of the remaining tribes, the Qiu Shi Rong Xiang Wei Ma (the People of History’s Autumnal and Auspicious Might, known as the Xiang tribe), number at about ten thousand, splintered into anywhere between fifty to seventy-five roving bands. The Xiang tribe is known for its lasting endurance and ferocity in combat, preventing them from being waylaid by bandits or travelers. They mostly keep to the northeastern regions of the Southern Desert, and it is rumored that they often go into the Land of Smoke and Ash as a coming of age ritual. Members of the Xiang tribe are notable for their large stature and disdain for horsemanship. Even the women of the Xiang are taller than most men in the Middle Kingdom. The Xiang tribe also has the distinction of being the most common image of the Southern Tribes. They have a tendency toward barbarism, and it is rare that members of the tribe learn basic literacy. This shortcoming has allowed many magistrates and tax collectors to trick the Xiang into giving more than their fair share to the Imperial coffers. Whether this wealth winds up in the Imperial City or simply lines the pockets of the local magistrates is a hotly debated topic in the South.
Of the remaining tribes in the South, the Jiang Hui Ju Bao Gang Ma (the People of the Treasured River’s Hale Chrysanthemum, usually called the Ju Bao tribe) are perhaps the oddest and the smallest. They are known for their strange inventions and, despite relative lack of regular resources, ability to produce strange and wondrous objects bordering on the magical. It’s rumored that the Ju Bao have qi sorcerers hiding among them, but these are largely unsubstantiated rumors. Imperial census estimates show there are probably about three thousand Ju Bao in about sixty affiliated clans traveling without much direction – often considered aimlessly – throughout the upper parts of the South. Stereotypes say that the Ju Bao are eccentric and strange, often considered mad when met by others. Their most famous invention is the Chu-ko-nu, the repeating crossbow. There are also tales of large ships seen “sailing” on the sands of the Southern Desert designed by the Ju Bao. Again, these are unsubstantiated rumors spoken by the half-dead travelers that manage to make it into one of the towns or cities clustered around oases.
Finally, the Zhi Ma Zheng Yayun Tu (the People Who Hold the Wisdom of Heaven’s Paths, or the Yayun Tu tribe) round out the middle of the other two, at about five thousand members split into twenty-five tribes numbering about 200 each. They are the most spiritual of the Southern Tribes, and much of what is known of the South’s religion and culture comes from them. It is said that when Fu Xi made the world, He gave the Yayun Tu tribe the auspicious order to map and chart the qi gong lines throughout the world. Despite this holy purpose, they are often unwelcome in cities, being thought of as tricksters and charlatans. Most Yayun Tu are considered untrustworthy except in matters of religion. The Yayun Tu tribe believes this to be a divine curse levied against their people for a great disservice done to the people of the Middle Kingdom during the Unification by their ancestors. Truthfully, the Yayun Tu tribe has never been trusted, either prior to the Unification or now. They are generally persecuted by locals until they move on, and generally travel between Southern cities rather than heading into the deeper Desert.