Long ago, in the near-forgotten distant past, Zhangwo was linked into the Nexus. The connections were tightly regulated by the powerful Xi-Lan Empire, which controlled the flow of "foreign" goods and information and was thus able to create a hydraulic empire. Villages which demonstrated loyalty received trade and cool machines; disloyal villages received nothing. The result was that loyal villages thrived and became more loyal, and disloyal villages died out.
Thanks to this strictly enforced unity, Zhangwo was united by a common religion (though of course local folk religions were also followed) and a common ethos. The religion preaches detachment, and a seeking of the essential unity of all things. It demands little from most worshipers, but monks are expected to follow a lifestyle of austerity, discipline, and strict training of the mind and body. As a result, Zhangwo became unusually advanced in the mysteries, but rather behind most other realms in the sciences, a pattern which continues to this day. The ethos of Xi-Lan was, on the other hand, strictly authoritarian and hierarchical. Each person is born to fulfill a specific function in the world, and their duties are defined by their functions. For example, it is the duty of a lord to serve his Emperor and provide for his vassals. If is the duty of those vassals to faithfully serve their lord. If the lord fails in his duty by either rebelling against the Emperor or abusing his vassals, the duty of the vassal does not change. So, if a lord rebels against the Emperor and is defeated, the lord is punished. If his vassals remained loyal to the Emperor and opposed their lord, after his defeat the Emperor punishes them too!
Most cultures in Zhangwo emphasize family and community over the individual. For example, arranged marriage is the norm, because marriage is seen as a union of two families, not two individuals. The husband and wife are representatives of their families in this union, not sole partners in it. In general, to put one’s own needs and desires ahead of one’s family, community, or lord is seen as the height of selfishness.
When the Nexus was broken, the Xi-Lan Empire lost its hold on its client states and quickly collapsed. After centuries of war, the realm stabilized into four main empires and a number of smaller states used by those empires to fight proxy wars. The Xi-Lan people themselves are held in contempt by nearly all, and are treated as second-class citizens or worse in each of the four great empires. Those empires are:
Balhaen, in the northeast.
Nifong, in the east.
Qisung, in the south and center.
Bharat, in the west.
The northwest consists of deserts and high steppes, with nomadic tribes but no real civilization.
People and Nations
All people in Zhongwo have dark hair and dark eyes. Except for the occasional albino, lighter hair and eye colors are entirely unknown. All cultures are rigidly structured and hierarchical along lines of class, ethnicity, family history, and birth order; sexism, oddly, is virtually unknown. People of all eight major races (one for each of the major empires, except Bharat has two, plus the Xi-Lan, the Horse Tribes, and the Sung) are found in every nation in varying numbers, but each of the main empires is dominated by one race.
Balhaen: The Balhaen people are shorter, slenderer, and paler than most other people of Zhangwo. They have almond-shaped eyes and, usually, round faces. The Balhaen people make up the majority of the population and the entire upper class; the largest minority is the Xi-Lan, who serve menial jobs as servants and laborers and cannot own land. The other major minorities are Qisung and Nifong, who may serve in the military (but not be officers) and own land (but not be nobles or civil servants). Ranks in the nobility (which includes provincial governors and local prefects and magistrates, as well as more traditional lords) are created by Imperial decree and handed down family lines to the eldest child, regardless of sex. Other governmental positions are determined by civil service exam, which is open to all ethnic Balhaens and often seen as the best way to increase one's social status. By custom with very nearly the force of law, the eldest child inherits the family title, land, business, etc.; the second-eldest goes into the military or civil service, the third-eldest joins a monastery, and the rest serve their elders until they marry into another household.
Little is actually forbidden in Balhaen, but anything which deviates from a strictly defined norm is frowned upon. People who do things which are frowned upon tend to have difficulty getting jobs and making friends, and attract the attention of the Dai Lung. The Dai Lung are a secret order arranged in a hierarchy of cells; each Dai Lung knows the name only of his or her immediate superior and immediate underlings (if any). When engaged in official business, the Dai Lung wear masks; it is rumored that the top member of the Dai Lung is either the Prime Minister or the Emperor herself. Without warning, the Dai Lung will appear in the dead of night and whisk "frowned upon" people from their homes, never to be seen again. Nonetheless, the people of Balhaen know that they enjoy greater freedom than any other nation, because virtually nothing is actually forbidden, and besides, the official state schools and theaters tell them so. The state schools and theaters also teach them about how the foolish people of other nations reject the obviously superior and happier Balhaen culture, and must sadly have the gifts of Balhaen culture brought upon them by force. All forms of entertainment other than the official state theaters, official state bookstores, and official state festivals are... frowned upon.
The Balhaen Empire's main exports are the rare plants and exotic foods found in its extensive jungles. Its main import is metal goods. Most citizens are farmers, hunters, or gather valuable plants from the jungles. It borders the Horse Tribes to the north and west, the ocean to the east and south, and the Great Desert to the southwest.
The uppermost echelons of Balhaen society are aware of the existence of other realms, and occasionally trade with them in a limited way. However, this knowledge is considered too dangerous for the population at large, so it is very much a closely kept secret, and the benefits of other-realm science and technology are kept hidden in the capital. Sparks are sequestered by the Dai Lung and kept in special facilities in the capital, as "honored guests."
Nifong: The Nifong Empire is spread across two archipelagos in the eastern ocean. It has the largest and strongest navy of the four empires, but the smallest population. Its land forces are quite small, but expertly trained and well-equipped. Nifong is the most homogeneous of the four empires -- the population is almost entirely the Nifong people, who are a little broader than the Balhaen and often have round eyes. Some men are able to grow mustaches or small beards, which the neighboring nations usually cannot. A very small number of Balhaen, Qisung, and Xi-Lang people live in the empire as very much second-class citizens, and very, very tiny numbers of traders from other races can also be found passing through. Nifong culture is quite similar to Balhaen, but with more laws, with strictly defined punishments and the rule of law (admittedly, rather brutal and unfair law), rather than secret police. Birth order does not define one's role *quite* so strictly -- first children go into the family business, but after that the children largely go into whatever pursuit they please. Also, the folk religion is thriving and quite diverse, so many people go into the service of a local spirit or minor god, rather than a monastery. Some temples belong to a specific family, much as a farm or a title might pass down a family line.
The existence of other realms is generally known to the educated classes of Nifong society, but there is little interest in them. Even other inhabitants of Zhangwo are barely worth paying attention to; what could aliens possibly have to offer? Sparks, on the other hand, are openly accepted and appreciated, which is one of the reasons Nifong's artisans and military are so respected.
Nifong does not trade much with its neighbors, but it is quite metal-poor, so it imports most of its metals. It occasionally exports metal goods, which are considered the finest in Zhangwo. Nifong is an island nation, so it is surrounded by the ocean on all sides; its closest neighbors are Balhaen to the north, Qisung to the west, and the various Sung principalities to the southwest.
The people of Nifong eat more fish than everyone else in Zhangwo combined. They are also the only culture to consider seaweed a food.
Qisung: The Qisung Empire is the oldest of the four empires, and the stablest. It also practices a form of hydraulic empire, much like the ancient Xi-Lan. In this case, the resource controlled by the government is water: Qisung is by nature rocky and dry, but crossed by several large rivers. The government-run system of irrigation channels and aquiducts makes most of the country inhabitable; any village that displeases the government is cut off. Unlike the other realms, only the uppermost levels of government are hereditary; everything from provincial governor on down is determined by the state civil service examinations. Although it has the largest population of any of the four empires, Qisung has the weakest military. It relies heavily on its natural borders (the Great Desert to the north, the ocean to the east, south, and southwest, and the mountains of the Roof of the World to the northwest.
The people of Qisung are broader and a little taller than the Nifong or the Baelhan, and more sallow-skinned. They are usually devoid of facial hair, and considered to be the finest artists, poets, and musicians. Similar to the Nifong, the Qisung take an approach of law, rather than custom plus secret police, to maintain order. In theory, Qisung is a meritocracy, with your path in life determined by a branching series of state exams. In practice, peasants generally can't afford even the lowest-level exam fee, and are therefore doomed to be peasants for life; successful artisans and landowners may rarely scrape together the money to send one child to exam school and thus lift that child one notch up the ladder; only the upper echelons of government service and old, rich families (who are generally the same people) can afford to keep advancing up the exam tree. And, of course, since "merit" was defined by civil servants highly educated in the theory of government, ethical philosophy, and classical Qisung literature, that's exactly what the tests test for.
Qisung is incredibly bureaucratic. Every moment of life is noted, recorded, licensed, and reported on by an army – larger than the actual military by far – of civil servants and clerks. A person’s entire life is stored in minute detail in the village center, the detailed village history is stored in the district center, and so on. One of the few Spark creations in widespread use in Zhangwo is Qisung’s many Statistical Engines, which compile detailed reports (made on punched cards) into higher-level summaries (also punched cards). It is rumored that half the Imperial City is underlaid by a vast system of tunnels containing an enormous, water-powered Statistical Engine. This Engine works night and day to compile reports, brought by riders from every province of the empire, into the summaries used by the Imperial Court to make its decisions.
As mentioned, Qisung is almost entirely surrounded by natural borders; only the foothills east of the Roof of the World separate it from the Horse Tribes to the north, however, and the Black River is the only barrier between it and the Sung principalities. However, it is close enough to trade with each of the other three empires, generally by sea. Its main exports are foodstuffs, especially rice, raw metals and other materials, and culture (art, poetry, etc). Its main imports are luxury foods, medicines, spices, and manufactured goods.
Qisung openly recognizes the existence of other realms, but there are strict rules on what can and can't be traded, to prevent strange new ideas and tools from disrupting the harmony of life. Likewise, Sparks are greatly restricted in Qisung. They are allowed to operate independently, but closely monitored, with strict rules on what they can and cannot create.
Bharat: Bharat is rather isolated from the rest of Zhongwo, both physically and culturally. Always the outermost and least-tightly held region of Xi-Lan, it was least influenced by that Empire's culture, though actually the original source of its religion. Bharat does not have the same rigid code of social harmony as the eastern empires, though it does have a strict caste system. Its people are also quite distinct: Northern Bharati are significantly taller than the easterners, slender and brown-skinned, with more angular features, prominent noses, and round eyes. Southern Bharati are squatter, though not as short as the easterners, and very dark, but with similar facial features to the northerners. The two groups have their own (related) languages, but share a religion and most cultural elements. They eat very different foods however: northern food is plainer and coarser, and heavily features meat and dairy, while southern food is both spicier and sweeter, and relies more on fruits and vegetables. The northern highlands are relatively arid, though still quite hot; the south has both coastal regions and inland jungles.
Bharati culture is dominated by religion; unlike the other cultures, where usually one member of each family eventually joins a monastery, in Bharati culture virtually everyone spends at least a few years training as a beggar-monk. This practice is distinct from the priestly caste, who are more involved with local gods than the monastic religion.
Bharat has natural borders even more dangerous than Qisung's: the Roof of the World forms a near impassible boundary to north and east, and stormy oceans lie on all other sides. This isolation, and rich natural resources, have allowed it to develop in its own direction, away from the other remnants of the Xi-Lan Empire.
Bharat has a strict and very complex caste system. Each element of Bharati industry and culture is controlled entirely by one caste. There is a caste for innkeepers, a caste for painters, a cast for merchants, and so on. The castes are divided into four tiers (priests and philosophers; nobles and warriors; merchants, craftsmen, artists, and artisans; farmers, herders, and hunters), with a fifth, temporary bottom tier reserved for criminals, blasphemers, and the ritually unclean.
A person’s caste, and therefore career, is determined entirely from birth, unless that person marries into another caste. In that case, one person will maintain the household and care for the children while the other works; the one who works determines the caste of the household and therefore of the children. However, it is common for the marriage contract in such cases to stipulate that one of the children be raised as a member of the other caste.
All major life decisions are made by the family head (the non-working member of the oldest household in the family) or, if particularly important or disputed, a council of family heads within the caste from throughout the region. Marriage, and indeed physical contact of any sort, between members of different tiers is strictly forbidden and harshly punished, with members of lesser tiers likely to be beaten or killed and members of higher tiers having to undergo difficult, expensive, and often painful cleansing rituals.
The rule of the Bharati Empire over its citizens is actually quite loose and indirect. So long as the local noblemen collect the taxes and meet the troop and supply quotas for the Imperial armies, they have complete autonomy in governing their lands and underlings.
Bharat is the most open regarding the existance of other realms. It is not common knowledge as there are no useful gates known in Bharat, but it is a fact known to historians and other scholars. Sparks also generally have more freedom in Bharat. If there is to be a renaissance in Zhangwo, it will happen in Bharat.
Other Peoples: There are a number of other peoples in Zhangwo. Some live within one or more of the four empires as distinct ethnic groups, while others maintain nations of their own around the edges of the great empires, or in one of the more remote corners of the world. The three most prominent are described here.
As mentioned above, the Xi-Lan live scattered throughout Zhangwo. In most places they are a minority and an underclass. However, in villages and monasteries scattered across the Roof of the World, the remnants of the Xi-Lan live in relative peace and safety, though they are occasionally raided by both the Bharati and the Qisung. The Xi-Lan have similar features to the northern Bharati, but are fairly short and colored more similarly to the Qisung.
The Horse Tribes are a collective name for a number of nomadic warrior tribes who live throughout the Great Desert and the wide plains to its north and west, up into the foothills of the Roof of the World. The Horse Tribes were the only major people never to belong to the Xi-Lan Empire, and thus are regarded as barbarians by their neighbors. Though they only rarely leave their lands, when they do they are widely feared for their deadly skills with horse and bow. Unlike most cultures in Zhangwo, the Horse Tribes are quite misogynistic, even practicing marriage by capture. The Horse Tribes are similar in appearance to the Balhaen, but broader. They often grow rather impressive mustaches.
The Sung live in the swamps and jungles south of the Qisung empire. Physically similar to the Qisung, to whom they are closely related, the Sung are culturally similar as well, but more decentralized and less bureaucratic. The Sung have no central empire; many villages are entirely independent, while others are unified under local warrior princes. Scattered throughout the jungles are ancient temples to forgotten gods, predating the Xi-Lan, filled with the dark secrets of forgotten mysteries. Rumors abound that the Sung have revived these ancient forms of worship and dark rituals, and it is possible that some very few among them have, but in general most follow more or less the same traditions as the former Xi-Lan holdings.