“Zheng He sailed the ocean blue in fourteen hundred and thirty two.”
The Chinese discover the New World and all of history is changed. The Ming Dynasty becomes the world's sole colonial power, unleashing its vast population on the Pacific islands and the western coast of the Americas. For the next three centuries, all the world's wealth flows into Asia.
Wealth, like power, breeds corruption. Confucian scholars lose influence as power shifts from the Ministries to the merchant class. The West Asia Trading Company secures contracts to administer all Chinese colonies, and the Jinyi Wei (secret police) control all information that reaches the Emperor's ear. One inch at a time, these shadow forces usurp imperial power.
They say the sun never sets on the Middle Kingdom, but it casts deep shadows. On the high seas and the far-flung frontiers, an enlightened few dream of a better world. Gewu Scholars build fantastic machines, cure the sick, and kick ass with an empty hand. Clockwork Youxia defend the weak with feats of spring-powered strength and alchemically-enhanced alacrity. Zen Psychologists help the lost find their path and make sure the corrupt get what they deserve.
According to the Neo-Confucian principle of "gewu," true understanding of the Tao can only be achieved through objective investigation of the material world. However, gewu scholars do not pursue the kind of easily-communicated, academic knowledge you might expect. Rather, they achieve a more profound comprehension of the fundamental forces that shape the universe. This, in turn, allows them to intuit everything from the best treatment for an infection to the best way to build a steam-powered automaton. They are masters of all trades.
They are also masters of kung-fu, as derived from their comprehension of physics and biomechanics. They call it The Empty Hand. Scholars know precisely where to strike a bone in order to break it and how to lever a joint so as to pop it out of place. They can effortlessly redirect an opponent's momentum to make them gravity's bitch.
It doesn't stop with physics and medicine, either. Gewu science has also unlocked the true power of Chinese alchemy and feng shui. On the cutting edge of technology, you'll find inventors who can harness lightning, levitate objects, predict the future, and reanimate dead tissue. It's not magic, but only the most enlightened minds know for sure.
In these times of corruption, the only things a man can rely upon are his sword and his honor... and his steam-powered limbs, iron skin, and telescoping eye. After the West Asia Trading Company destroys the Shaolin temple, hundreds of highly-trained warriors are cast to the four winds. Many befriend scholars who treat their injuries and/or use them as guinea pigs. Thus, mechanically augmented and alchemy-enhanced swordsmen wander the globe.
Unlike the Youxia of legend, these warriors do not sail lightly through the air. No, these guys are HEAVY. They can leap great distances, to be sure, but they leave an impact crater when they land. Most end up with increased strength, fast healing, and lightning reflexes, but each has a special trick or two up their sleeve.
Youxia are guided by a strong moral compass, but it rarely points in the direction that the West Asia Trading Company would prefer. The Youxia are such a problem for colonial governors that the Jinyi Wei has started augmenting their own elite soldiers. Cyborg-on-cyborg violence has shaken many a colonial province to the ground.
While the scholars look outward for enlightenment, students of the Buddha look inward and the truths they find inside the human mind are no less profound. Zen psychologists learn to control their bodies and minds to an almost superhuman degree. They believe that ignorance is the source of all suffering and self-knowledge is the only path to salvation.
Meditation focuses the mind to achieve hyper-awareness of one's self and one's surroundings. Zen Psychologists can hear an arrow's approach and snatch it out of the air. Masters can listen in on every conversation in a crowded bazaar and recall them verbatim. They learn to control their breathing and heart rate such that they can remain underwater for hours or stop blood loss from a wound by force of concentration.
When opposed, a Zen psychologist allows her enemy to defeat himself. They are adept at profiling and can usually talk their way out of most confrontations, but violence is sometimes unavoidable. Their fighting style consists of almost prescient dodges, blocks, and counter-attacks that turn their adversary's every weakness against them. They exhaust the aggressive, unbalance the strong, disable the quick, and confuse the dull-witted. Consider it a lesson in the value of self-knowledge.
Dawei opens his mind and takes in every detail: Ten men and two women, all with augmentations of one kind or another. The big one carries a meat cleaver the size of a cow; his entire exoskeleton must be steam-powered. Several of his friends have trouble maintaining eye focus, a sure sign that their Qi has been altered to quicken their reflexes. Others have the throbbing, overgrown scar tissue of ginseng junkies. No, there's no way he can take them all at once.
The big one is showing off for his woman, describing for her the indignities he plans to inflict on Dawei's corpse, but there's something strange about her body language as she fawns over him. She's not just flirting with him, she's displaying herself for the rest of the group... for one person in particular.
"Quite colorful," the Zen psychologist cuts in, "and I'm sure the sight of you crushing my skull between your ass cheeks would normally be more than enough to reinforce your alpha male status, but tell me... how do you save face when your female is sleeping with your lieutenant?" The gang's social machinery seizes up like an autogyro in a sandstorm. Now, it'll be just Dawei against the mountain of meat. Still not a fair fight, but the Buddha teaches compassion.
Not all practitioners of gewu science are the scrupulous sort. Some sell their services to the military or the Jinyi Wei. Others use their knowledge to exploit the ignorant. These dark arts are perversions of Taoism's most noble pursuit. They are the Hack Tao.
Hackers don't have the same enlightened, all-encompassing knowledge of science as true gewu scholars. They just know a few tricks. Some are flesh mechanics who can turn a simple soldier into a walking armory, though such augmentations tend to malfunction in surprising and spectacular ways. Others know how to concoct phony cures, usually for ailments they themselves have caused (by tainting the village well, for instance).
Arguably, the most dangerous are those who fake spiritual powers like being able to communicate with the dead. Such con artists get their hooks into people of wealth or power and prey upon their deepest insecurities. Not only that, they also perpetuate belief in the supernatural. Scholars and Zen psychologists spend a lot of their time debunking this bullshit.
A notorious pirate ship called the Wokou's Revenge wages war on the West Asia Trading Company. Its captain is a Zen psychologist and brilliant naval strategist who’s always two steps ahead of the law. His first mate is a Youxia who wields a sword as big as a galley oar. The ship itself is festooned with advanced weapons and gadgets. Their quest is to break the Company's stranglehold on the empire by disrupting the flow of New World silver into its coffers.
Great Places to Cross Swords:
Great Swords to Cross:
Great Places to Fight the Man:
Great Men to Fight:
Great Places to Rebel: