Chinese Civilization is one of those rare cultures that is simply too big for a rule set to capture well. I wrote about this problem earlier this year in my look at Emperor: Rise of the Middle Kingdom. That game tried to embody all five thousand years of ancient and medieval Chinese history with the result that it had no voice or perspective at all.
Did it feel like China? I was never sure. Even though the Caesar games were not Rome, they were Roman enough to be persuasive. Pharaoh and Children of the Nile fudged a lot of stuff about Egypt, but by tying everything to the cycle of the river they made games that felt as authentically historical as any more serious wargame or simulation. Where Romance of the Three Kingdoms has a clearly historic Chinese voice, Emperor never really communicates how it sees Chinese civilization. It’s worse than an error-filled stereotype of marble filled Rome; it’s a bland melange of elements that doesn’t speak to any understanding of The Middle Kingdom.
It’s not there are not stereotypes about Chinese national character. You have the whole Confucian deference to authority, the allegedly inscrutable nature of their culture and society, the traditionalism…all things that might lend themselves to a national interpretation in a game if only China wasn’t so damned big and its history didn’t defy every expectation you have of it.
Age of Empires reveals the problem that size gives you. The Chinese culture they let you play is the Shang – a very early Chinese dynasty that predates unification of what we know as China. The Shang flourished for 500 years near the end of the second millennium BC. A good long rule with a strong culture and the beginnings of Chinese imperial civilization.
So why does the game manual talk about all Chinese dynasties right up to the Qin and have wall building as one of the special Shang skills in the game? The manual makes it quite clear that they are referring to the Great Wall and other post-Shang fortifications. The Great Wall is ancient China’s greatest monument, so it has to be reflected somehow – but it is not Shang.
RTSes aren’t even very creative about how to reflect the Chinese even when they do settle on a trait. What does everyone know about Chinese people? There are a helluva lot of them. So a population bonus of some sort is a default setting. In Age of Empires and Age of Kings, the Shang and Chinese start with extra villagers. In Empires: Dawn of the Modern World, Chinese commoners cost less. In Rise of Nations, Chinese citizens are created instantaneously (as are scholars and and commerce units) and all their cities are classified as “large”.
The very size of Chinese culture and history, with so many periods to choose from, makes it impossible to really pinpoint an era or attribute to highlight. With Britain you have the Elizabethan and Victorian ages, and their immense imperial legacy. With France you have the court of Versailles and the Napoleonic Age. Russia has the rapid expansion of the 18th century and the Soviet era of being a superpower. Even if you could settle on a Chinese era that is out of the ordinary in being really cool or powerful (the Tang Dynasty gets my vote), what do you do with it?
Part of the problem with capturing China’s national character is that it is tempting to see them as the civilization that could have but didn’t. It was an empire far more advanced than much of medieval Europe, fielded huge armies and received tribute from as far away as Zanzibar. Zheng He’s treasure fleets, the printing press (for a written language with hundreds of characters), gunpowder, advanced agriculture and canals…At various parts of its history, China had the centralized government, manpower and know-how to expand forever, but it didn’t. A popular pseudo-historical book argues that China must have discovered America because they were certainly capable of doing it. (The Asian Dynasties expansion for Age of Empires III did a decent job using this alternate history as an opener for its story based campaign.)
But that wasn’t how the Ming rolled. If you already live in the richest and most advanced culture in the world, why bother with barbarians? China fell to Manchu invaders, became the sick man of Asia and was exploited by Europe and then a Japan that modernized faster and then we reach the present – Communist despotism and sweatshop to the world. To Western eyes, it’s a tale of failed potential more than a story of greatness surpassed. The Greek legacy is culture, the Roman legacy is order, the Chinese legacy is “what if?”
The new Europa Universalis 3 expansion, Divine Wind (terrible, terrible name – kamikaze or no), tries to capture the stasis of Ming China by modeling its politics as a competition between three factions, each with different priorities. The Eunuch faction prefers to reach to the outside world, so only it will let you place colonists and merchants – strong diplomatic leaders favor them. The Temple faction wants to export the Confucian way so this is the only faction that can declare war – strong military leaders will lean to Temple. The Bureaucratic faction is the only faction that can deal with China’s infrastructure and build new structures in provinces – strong administrative rulers will prefer the bureaucrats.
Events pop up every now and then that can let you strengthen or weaken the ruling faction, but the sum result is a Ming China that moves very slowly. It can’t accrue a large overseas empire – you start with the eunuchs in power but the policy sliders heavily favor temple and bureaucrat drift. You need magistrates to construct buildings in Divine Wind, so you won’t go nuts with China’s wealth anyway, but you will slowly amass a huge treasury with nothing to spend it on because of restrictions on who can build anything and the tight cap on your military.
It’s an interesting way to model this retrenched part of Chinese history even if it does put gameplay burdens on Asian great powers that were also a factor for many European nations. Russia, for example, had competing factions through its history, some preferring a more Western outlook, others resisting reform. And the court politics of the Ottomans are legendarily brutal.
But China as an avatar, China as a nation, still eludes me. One of the world’s greatest and most fascinating cultures with a history as deep and rich as many that I know better resists the National Attribute Pigeonhole either because its Golden Ages lacked that burst of military glory that epitomize how games model Spain or Rome or because or because of the lingering feeling that its Golden Age was deferred – that if it had been more European, it would have been somebody.
Next up, another great monument building civilization, the one that we think about when we want to imagine a culture that awes you with what it builds – Egypt.