Flash of Steel header image 2

The Chinese National Character

December 18th, 2010 by Troy Goodfellow · 12 Comments · Feature:Nations, History

What this is about, including full list.

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.


12 Comments so far ↓

  • The Babylonian National Character

    […] Comments The Chinese National Character on National Charactersdoctorfrog on Catching Up on the PortfolioSam11235 on Three Moves Ahead […]

  • Peter S (Mind Elemental)

    Interesting post, as always!

    The Shang always struck me as an odd choice for AoE. Why not the Han, who are at least contemporaneous with Rome and let you bring in the Three Kingdoms era as well?

    This is one of those moments where I wish I knew more about Chinese history. The bits and pieces I have picked up indicate that there’s a lot of potential in focusing on individual eras — Paradox has covered off a lot of them already, but how about, say, a Tang-era Silk Road trading game, or an East Asian version of Pirates! ?

    And then there’s a LOT of potential in the modern day, at least in theory. Imagine Victoria 2 played as present-day China. You’d have to finish the job of modernising a nation that is the second-largest economy in the world, but still very poor per capita. Along the way, you’d have to manage both booming metropolises (Shanghai etc) and a still-developing hinterland; deal with social inequality and environmental destruction; and of course, manage political reform and relations with the outside world. Of course, we’d never actually see that game — not for another 50 years, at least — but we can dream, right?

  • Victoria Dixon

    I’m guessing they didn’t do the Han precisely because of the Three Kingdoms. ROTK is covered in so many games already, they probably thought they’d get lost in the shuffle. However, doing a game based on the end of the Song Dynasty (Outlaws of the Marsh has loads of potential on both the commoners and the court level), the Tang Dynasty and the Ming are also rife with material. I agree, Zheng He makes for a fascinating read.

    Again, it’s just a guess, but they might have picked the Shang because relatively little is known about that period in comparison to, say, the Han. They might have viewed that lack of information as giving them a license to imagine and invent history. However, even invented history must be based in fact. ;D

    You had some outstanding points in here, though I’m a writer and not a gamer. Thanks for sharing!

  • Peter S (Mind Elemental)

    Hmm, the notion that Big Huge Games chose the Shang BECAUSE of their obscurity rather than DESPITE it is an interesting point, Victoria. I’d figured they’d have gone the easy route of ‘who would the players have heard of?’ (which would have also opened up the Qin).

    Rereading Troy’s post, the more I think about it, the more I think a present-day China game would address a bunch of the points raised. That’s probably getting a little close to the treacherous territory of real-world politics, though…

  • RitalinGamer

    I think the difficulty with assigning game stats to China in a game like Civ is that it has had all of the strengths at one point or another in its history. Militaristic? It’s had plenty of badass armies and fighting. Industrious? See the Grand Canal or the Great Wall or the way they churn out stuff today. Organized? Heck yeah. Commercial? During the middle ages, internally, and these days making money is sort of their “hat.” Seafaring? See Zheng He, at least until they decided to undo that whole idea.

    It’s sort of the same problem you have with modeling any other superpower, like the US or Britain – strong societies tend to be strong in everything at once.

  • Troy

    Peter, it was Ensemble that did AoE, not Big Huge.

    The reason they chose the Shang in the first place is no great mystery. The original idea for AoE was to cover the very early civilizations – none of the popular classical Civs would have made the cut since the motivating conception was the birth of man and the birth of cities. Note that there are no Romans or Carthaginians until the expansion.

    They eventually decided that they needed more recognizable nations than the Egyptians, so Greeks and Persians were added. But they never changed the Shang to the more familiar Han.

  • kongming

    I don’t think Britain or the US are hard to model in the same way that China is. It’s exceedingly easy, in fact, to come up with some broad stereotypes for those two that could translate into game mechanics. China as a sociopolitical entity has been around for literally thousands of years, it’s on a completely different scale. You can’t compare them.

  • Peter S (Mind Elemental)

    Whoops, I stand corrected on Age of Empires. And thanks for the explanation! That is interesting to learn.

  • Ginger Yellow

    I think one aspect of “Chinese national character” could be very productively addressed in strategy games, namely the tension since at least the Qin dynasty between the urge for unification/centralisation and the forces pushing for decentralisation/balkanisation (eg the sheer size of the country, ethnic, linguistic and religious divisions). This is the sort of thing that could be quite well handled by EU3s system of sliders and stability costs for reforms, I’d have thought. I haven’t played Divine Wind yet, but I’m looking forward to it.

  • Asian video game law links (reference only) | Gamers Rights Law

    […]  (Article attempting to decribe “the Chinese national character”) […]

  • ChineseHistorian

    “that if it had been more European, it would have been somebody.”

    That’s just offensive not to mention highly narrow-minded. You blame China because you can’t identify any of her virtues when you should blame your own ignorance and superficial understanding.

  • National Characters

    […] America 2. Aztecs 3. Babylonians 4. Chinese 5. Egyptians 6. English 7. French 8. German 9. Greek 10. Indian 11. Mongolian 12. Roman 13. Russian […]