Author’s notes: this sub borrows heavily from actual Chinese history and folklore (at least, so far as the legend section goes but a fair bit was just the author adapting real history to her own use). I was originally going to include 2 scrolls on the Period of the Three Kingdoms in Chinese history and the story of the legendary swords Gan Jiang and Mo Xie mainly to not clutter up the actual sub. However, the formatting issues involved made me change my mind. Now there will be two line breaks to separate out these bonus sections. Feel free to skip them if you’re not interested.
It is a set of two short swords (housed within the same scabbard) that weigh approximately the same but one (the female sword) is shorter than the other (the male sword) by a few Chinese inches*. Neither of these swords are ornately decorated but to a trained eye they show superb craftsmanship.
*The male sword is about 0.9m long in modern terms while the female one is about 0.8m in length
The Shuang Gu Jian is well-known as the weapon of Liu Bei, lord of the Shu Kingdom during the Period of the Three Kingdoms. The story of its crafting is not really known except for the speculation that it was crafted by a local smith as a special gift to Liu Bei for freeing the region Han Zhong from the rule of the villainous Cao Cao, lord of the Wei Kingdom. It was recently put forth as a theory that this set of weapons was actually the long lost set of swords Gan Jiang and Mo Xie crafted by and named after by the famous swordsmith couple in the era of the Spring and Autumn Warring States and somehow recovered by Liu Bei. Neither version could be proved (or for that matter disproved) since this legendary set of swords had long been lost.
After Liu Bei passed away, the Shuang Gu Sword went to his eldest son and successor Liu Shan. Later when Liu Can surrendered to the Wei court, he gifted the weapon to Cao Cao as a tribute. It was said that this greatly pleased Cao Cao, who subsequently kept the weapon of his strongest opponent lovingly among his personal collection of trophies.
Upon his succession, Cao Pi- surviving eldest son of Cao Cao, attempted to kill his younger brother Cao Zhi, who had been his chief rival in terms of contending to be the crown prince. The sequence of events from this attempt that culminated in the forming of the Seven-steps Verse is already well-known (see first scroll below). In addition, one text recorded (via oblique references) that after this unsuccessful attempt, Cao Pi gifted the Shuang Gu Sword to Cao Zhi. It was conjectured that such an action was done in mockery on the part of Cao Pi, using their father and his chief rival as analogies for himself and his younger brother respectively.
And from this point on, the whereabouts of the Shuang Gu Sword passed out of official records but periodically, rumours would surface of an extraordinary pair of swords that is similar to the Shuang Gu Sword. In each of these tales, this pair of swords confers a totally different yet similarly spectacular ability to its owner.
Amongst them, the most dramatic relates to that of the legendary Xue Cheng Yue in the era known as the Northern Song period, the leader of the rebels in the Northern part of the Dragon Empire that was held by the Jurchen invaders at that time (who adopted this particular name to declare his intentions of taking over the mantle of responsibility for repelling the Jurchen invaders from the patriotic general Yue Fei). However, it is hard to ascertain whether Xue Cheng Yue was an actual person that existed or merely a mythical figure that came about from the populace’s laments over the demise of the tragic hero Yue Fei at the hands of the villain Qin Hui. Consequently, there are two schools of thoughts divided on their belief regarding the authenticity of the ‘subsequent sightings’ of the Shuang Gu Sword. One firmly believes that the Shuang Gu Sword did surface from time to time and moreover that it is one of the remarkable weapons made from wishsteel that allowed it to adapt its properties to its owner. Meanwhile, the other stream maintains that these other weapons were in all probability simply replicas. As for the reported special properties, it was thought that they were merely embellishments that were wont to occur in these local legend/folklore type stories.
According to the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, the Shuang Gu Sword is a loyal weapon, much as its master Liu Bei. Allegedly, it would fly out of the grasp of Cao Cao of its own accord whenever he attempted to hold either of the blades in his hands. Nothing so dramatic was mentioned when this weapon was in possession of either Liu Shan or Cao Zhi. This was taken to be a sign that the Shuang Gu Sword did not find either worthwhile masters for itself even though they were not as repellent to the sword as the most heated foe of its rightful master.
Of the ‘subsequent sightings’ of the Shuang Gu Sword, most accounts did not delve into exactly what the special boons this legendary weapon gave to their owners. Where a property was mentioned, different versions arose. For example, in the Northern part of the Dragon Empire, it was passed down in legends that Xue Chen Yue held a set of blades that were bloodthirsty- it was said that the more blood they were fed, the more voracious their appetites grew, such that they would seek out bodies to cut down of their own accords. In the Southern, though, most believe that either he wielded a pair of swords that gave him the ability to mark his troops invisible or move like the wind in combat.
Behind the Scenes:
What nobody knows is that the Shuang Gu Sword is not truly ‘magical’. The crucial element in ‘activating’ such a weapon such as the Shuang Gu Sword is belief, belief in the weapon being magical.
This could work multiple ways depending on the underlying world. I’m just listing all possibilities that occur to me but there might be more:
1.Weapons such as the Shuang Gu Sword are essentially hoaxes. Any special properties arise simply because the owner and others believe they exist. The result is that the owner of such weapons gets a psychological boost that allows him/her to perform better in battle.
2.The magical properties of the blades come about due to a special material used in their crafting that allows them to ‘absorb’ beliefs and use such beliefs as fuel to augment the blades themselves or their owners.
3.Belief is the cornerstone of the underlying world, so much so that something that never existed before would come into being purely on the force of enough belief in its existence (the reverse goes for things that already exist). So it is with the magical properties of the Shuang Gu Sword.
- 1.A botched job: The PCs were asked to retrieve the Shuang Gu Sword by a client (possibly even a direct descendant of Liu Bei or that’s what he claimed anyway). When they returned with the prize, however, they were accused of having made a switch when the client found out that this legendary weapon was not magical at all. Now the PCs had to clear their names….
- 2.The chase’s on: The PCs recovered a set of blades just like the legendary Shuang Gu Sword in their adventures and then discovered that a mysterious group has been tracking them since….
Acknowledgement: Special thanks goes to Longspeak and MysticMoon who gave me pointers that helped me to complete the Special Properties section that I was really stuck on.
The Period of the Three Kingdoms
This is the period of ancient China that covers the period leading up to the official demise of the Han dynasty and the official founding of the Jin dynasty. Basically, it was the period in which the Han dynasty was intact only by name, with the administrative and military powers of various regions of China seized by local lords who referred to themselves as officials of Han but in effect were effectively acting as feudal lords. In particular, the name of this period came from the fact that three separates kingdoms (or states as they are often referred in translations) ultimately came into being formed from the series of constant internal warfare going on during this period and the co-existence of the these three kingdoms ensued for a substantial period of time. In the end, the Wei kingdom/state triumphed over the other two. However, the victory was short to last as grandson of Wei’s first councillor usurped power from the Wei rulers to ultimately found the Jin dynasty.
More details can be read up here.
The three Kingdoms
By order of level of power, these three kingdoms/states were: Wei, Wu and then Shu. The Wei kingdom claimed complete dominance of the North China Plain and half of the Chinese population. Wu, on the other hand, had its territory based on the regions south of the Yangtze (the longest river in China), which had always been the most fertile region for agriculture purposes and had the strongest navy force. Finally, Shu operated in the North-western part of ancient China that were easy to defend but hard to seize. While it might not be as rich in physical resources as the other two kingdoms, human talent (and possibly popular support) was on its side.
The ‘character sketches’ in this section is based upon a historical fiction novel titled Romance of the Three Kingdoms that tells the story of this era and is considered one of the four Classics in Chinese literature (to be accurate, I haven’t read the actual book but there are plenty of adaptations floating around in terms of dramas and games). As far as the events go, I think the book is fairly historically accurate but I don’t think the character profiles are. Anyhow, a Wiki article says that a famous Qing historian said that this novel is 70% history and 30% fiction. Going back to the topic on hand, in this section I’ll try to present the image of the various personages in the mind of a random Chinese.
Founder: Cao Cao
Depicted as a scheming and ruthless villain, epitomised in his famous saying “I would rather that I wrong the world than that the world having wronged me”. Cao Cao ascended to power after the Han Emperor fled to him for protection after fleeing the Palace where he was basically a figurehead (but alas, the Emperor was destined to suffer the same fate at the hands of Cao Cao). At the same time, he was kind enough to the populace such that it would not be bad to live as a citizen of Wei sans the general atmosphere of constant warfare.
The sons of Cao Cao were really not main characters. Cao Pi did not have a better reputation than his father and was also seen as less capable. I didn’t get an impression of Cao Zhi’s personality at all but knew that he had fame in the literary domain.
First Councillor: Sima Yi
Said to be magnanimous on the surface but in actual fact ambitious and suspicious, he was more than enough match to Zhuge Liang. Although a lot of people got the impression that Zhuge Liang was better as a strategist from the book, in actual history it might actually be the reverse.
Founder: Liu Bei
Widely proclaimed as being virtuous all around- being kind to commoners and followers, loyal to the Emperor etc. In particular, he was a distant relative of the Emperor although his family had long fallen into the common class. He was merely a shoe-seller before he rose to power, which contrasted with the founders of the other two kingdoms (who were both from a well-off family). It could be that this ‘underdog status’ was why he was often made the protagonists in stories featuring this period. For him, I shall note that he was depicted more as a scholar but from recent research I just found out that he was actually supposed to be a very capable warrior in actual history.
His son Liu Shan was made out to be an archetype character for incompetence. The impression was created from two things: 1) the fact that after the death of Zhuge Liang, he ultimately lost the Shu Kingdom i.e. he couldn’t hold things together by himself; 2) an idiom was invented by him: after he surrendered, Sima Zhao held a party for him and asked him whether he missed the Shu lands and he replied, “I’m quite happy here, I don’t miss Shu at all”. From this, the idiom that “Happy, not thinking of Shu” is born which means that someone is so happy that he/she forgets about their origins. In recent research I did, apparently this was a gross misconception. First, Liu Shan had ruled for thirty years without Zhuge Liang and as for that idiom, it was suggested that Liu Shan’s response was purely out of self-preservation motivations i.e. the question by Sima Zhao was obviously a test to see if Liu Shan still yearned for the position of being a King.
First Councillor: Zhuge Liang
The “greatest strategist” of the era, Zhuge Liang was absolutely dedicated to Liu Bei and his descendants. He was also proud in his way- Liu Bei had to visit him three times before he agreed to follow Liu Bei and there’s a Chinese idiom evolved from this particular incident.
General: Guan Yu
Sworn-brother to Liu Bei, second in seniority (Liu Bei was the eldest). Guan Yu is renowned for his brotherly loyalty as well as courage and military prowess. For the interest of Strolenatis, Guan Yu was renowned for having a beautiful beard.
General: Zhang Fei
Sworn-brother to Liu Bei, the youngest in seniority, a brute warrior was the overall impression.
Founder: Sun Quan
A sort of a middle-ground between the villainous Cao Cao and the virtuous Liu Bei. Not sure about personality but apparently Cao Cao had high praise for him, saying that a son like Sun Quan would be highly desirable.
Pre-founder: Sun Ce
Elder brother to Sun Quan Sun Ce died early (was assassinated) before the Wu kingdom came into being (and Sun Quan really succeeded him). He had great military prowess (had the nickname of “Little champion”). He was personal friends to the First Councillor of Wu, Zhou Yu.
First Councillor: Zhou Yu
A handsome man, not only personal friends to Sun Ce but also his brother-in-law (the two of them married a pair of sisters who were renowned beauties, not sure brother-in-law’s right term or not but there, I’ve spelt it out to be sure of no misunderstandings). He was a capable strategist and really helped to make the Wu kingdom secure. The book somehow made out that he was really petty and jealous of Zhuge Liang’s talent, so much so that his last words in death was “Since Yu’s already born, how come Liang is born too?” In some versions, it was said that he died out of such jealousy. In reality, he died from illness.
The story of the Seven-step Verse
The story of the two sons of Cao Cao having a feud and the elder brother wanting to kill his younger siblings is real. The actual details can be found here. The only thing I would like to add is that I got the impression that it was through the intervention of their mother that Cao Pi ultimately spared his younger brother Cao Zhi rather than the fact that he was moved by the actual poem composed by his brother.
The Legends of Gan Jiang and Mo Xie
There are actually two sets of legends about the swords Gan Jiang and Mo Xie. One is more a lone hero type of legend while the other is a love epic.
The Hero legend
Gan Jiang and Mo Xie were citizens of the Kingdom of Chu (more like a province of China in modern terms). Being famous smiths, they were asked to craft swords for the Lord of Chu. It took them three years to finish and the product was a set of two swords. The slow completion time angered the Lord and made his mind turn to killing. Meanwhile, Mo Xie was about to give birth. Hearing of the Lord’s plans, Gan Jiang told his wife, “I took three years to finish the sword crafting for the Lord. He is angry and will surely kill me when I go to him. If you give birth to a son, then tell him the following when he grows up: look towards the mountain in the south once he sets foot outside the door, there’s a conifer tree growing on top of a stone, the sword is at the back.” Then he went to the Lord with the female sword only. Like Gan Jiang expected, the Lord was very angry and asked for a detailed examination of the sword. The sword examiner told the Lord, “The product should be a pair of swords, this is only the female one, the male one is missing.” This made the Lord even angrier and he order Gan Jiang killed.
The son that Mo Xie gave birth was named Chi (meaning Red). When he asked about his father, Mo Xie told him the words left by Gan Jiang. Thus Chi found the male sword and plotted to have vengeance on the Chu Lord. At the same time, the Chu Lord had been dreaming of a boy whose eyebrows are spaced wide apart, who swore vengeance on himself. Consequently, he put out a bounty for such a boy. Hearing of this news, Chi fled deep within the mountain. There he met a wandering swordsman who asked him what was the matter when he found Chi crying. Chi told him everything and he told Chi to give him the sword and his own head and said that he would help Chi to get his vengeance. Chi agreed and committed suicide. Chi’s corpse held both his own head and the sword in his hands but his body stood rigid. The wandering swordsman promised to not let him down and only then did his body fall down.
The swordsman presented Chi’s head to the Lord of Chu, which made the Lord overjoyed. The swordsman told the Lord that Chi’s head is the head of a brave warrior and that is should be cooked in a pot. The Lord followed his advice and yet Chi’s head remained intact even after three full days’ cooking. Moreover, the head actually jumped out of the cooking pot and stared angrily at the Lord. The swordsman said, “Lord, this child’s head cannot be cooked. Please come besides the pot and then I’m sure that the head will be cooked.” The Lord believed him and immediately walked to the side of the pot. The swordsman suddenly swung his sword towards the Lord and the head of the Lord fell into the cooking pot along with the sword. Then the swordsman beheaded himself and his head fell in too. Then all of the three heads in the pot were cooked and it was possible to distinguish between them. In the end, the pot of “head head” soup was separated into three equal portions and buried under the name of “The Tomb of the three Lords”. Now this tomb can still be found within the province of Yu Nan.
The Love Epic.
Gan Jiang and Mo Xie are inseparable, whether as swords or individuals. The pair of swords are separately named for their crafters- Gan Jiang, the male sword, is named after the husband. Similarly, Mo Xie, the female sword, takes the same name as the wife. It was said that the smith Gan Jiang was very diligent while Mo Xie was a tender loving wife. Whenever Gan Jiang was working at the forge, his wife Mo Xie would be fanning him and swiping sweat for him.
When Gan Jiang was commissioned to craft a sword for the Lord of Chu, three months had gone past but the “essence of steel” used for the crafting wouldn’t melt. Gan Jiang sighed and Mo Xie cried. If the material wouldn’t melt, then the crafting would be a failure. And if the crafting failed, Gan Jiang would be killed by the Lord. But Gan Jiang could think of no failure and could only sigh.
Then one night, Mo Xie suddenly smiled. Seeing her smile, Gan Jiang became afraid. For he knew why she smiled. Gan Jiang told Mo Xie, “No, don’t do it.” Mo Xie said nothing but merely smiled. When Gan Jiang woke up, he found that Mo Xie wasn’t besides him. Broken-hearted, he hurried to where he knew Mo Xie was. What Gan Jiang saw was Mo Xie standing atop the forge like a fairy. Mo Xie saw the shape of Gan Jiang rushing towards her from afar in the morning light and smiled. She heard him yelling her name, in a bare croak. Mo Xie was still smiling but tears fell down her face at the same time. Gan Jiang was crying too. With a bleared vision, he saw Mo Xie falling. The last words he heard was “Gan Jiang, I haven’t died, we will be together yet….”
The material within the forge melted and the crafting was successful. Two swords, one male and one feminine, came out and Gan Jiang named them for himself and his wife. Gan Jiang only gave the Lord of Chu Mo Xie and kept the only sword himself. This news was soon heard by the Lord and he sent warriors who laid siege to Gan Jiang. In despair, Gan Jiang surrendered. Then he opened up the container in which he stored the male sword and asked, “Mo Xie, how can we be together?” The sword suddenly jumped out of the container and became a beautiful white dragon that soared away. At the same time, Gan Jiang also disappeared and the Mo Xie sword that the Lord of Chu kept besides him also disappeared simultaneously.
Meanwhile, within a desolate region thousands of miles away, there appeared a young white dragon in a big lake called Yan Ping Jing (modern Nan Ping within Fu Jian). This white dragon was beautiful and kind, summoning the most opportune climates for the local citizens. As time went on, this desolate region grew rich from good climate and rich crops, so much that the local city changed its name from “Poor city” to “Abundant city”. Yet, the locals often found that the white dragon was always looking up as if waiting for something on the surface of the lake. Some even saw that its eyes often contained tears.
Six hundred years had gone past. Through pure chance, the Mayor of Abundant City dug out a stone container hidden underground when he initiated reconstruction of the city wall. Within the container, there laid a sword that had the name Gan Jiang engraved upon it. The Mayor was overjoyed and carried this legendary sword besides him always. One day, when he went near the Yan Ping Jing, his sword suddenly jumped out of the scabbard on its own and into the water. Amidst his shock, the water roiled and then two dragons, one white and the other black, surfaced. The two dragons gave several nods to the Mayor in rapid succession and then twined their necks together in intimate movements. Then both of them sunk down into the water and disappeared. Then local citizens of the Abundant City discovered that the white dragon who always look about with tears in its eyes in Yang Ping Jing and rumoured to have been seen for six hundred years was no longer there one day. The next day, however, an ordinary couple moved into Abundant City. The husband was a very good smith but he only took commissions to make farming equipment and turned down any orders for crafting weapons. When he worked at the forge, his wife would always be found besides him either fanning him or wiping sweat for him.
Of particular interest is that the bit about Mo Xie sacrificing herself to quicken the crafting process is supported by scientific evidence. Specifically, it was found that the large amount of phosphorus contained within human bones (I think it’s within bones but not sure) can act to quicken the smelting process.