Saturday, May 16, 2020

Bailu Village Secrets Part 1: Ema at Man Yuan Temple | Guest Post by Dave Matthews

Bailu Village Secrets Part 1: Ema at Man Yuan Temple | Guest Post by Dave Matthews

Hello Everyone! First off I'd like to thank Switch for the opportunity to post on Phantom River Stone and to share this with you all!

This is going to be the first in a series of posts examining Bailu Village in detail. Shenmue 3 depicts Shenhua's childhood home as an idyllic, rural, mountain community with a long history; one in which just about everyone knows everyone else, and nothing much changes day to day. It's a small wonder then that the coinciding events of the attacks on the village stonemasons and the arrival of Ryo Hazuki is of such keen (if wary at first) interest to just about everybody.

One of the key features that made Shenmue so distinct when it first released was the fact that Ryo could talk to every NPC he came across. These NPCs often had unique ways of responding to Ryo that made them feel like real people with lives beyond their relevance to Ryo's journey. Shenmue 3 by and large continues this tradition. In Bailu alone every villager that Ryo can speak to (which is the vast majority of them) seems to have a unique response to almost every single topic of investigation. Often these unique responses shed light on the villagers themselves, their relationships with each other, and their life aspirations.
Bailu Village

In addition to conversing with the locals themselves, a number of physical locations throughout the village reveal even more details about its inhabitants; some of which are very easy to miss on a standard play through. It is these locations that I'm going to focus on starting today with Man Yuan Temple – and in particular the racks of wooden wishing plaques, known as ema, inside.

The History of Ema


The tradition of hanging prayer ema is actually a Japanese custom with historical roots in Shintoism. In the Nara period in Japan (AD 710 – 794) worshipers would donate horses as offerings to shrines in the hope that since the horse was revered as the vehicle of the gods (kami), the kami would be more likely to listen and answer the worshipers' prayers. Horses were prohibitively expensive for most Japanese people of that era however, and over time clay and wooden sculptures came to be used. These sculptures in turn evolved into wooden plaques with a picture (e) of a horse (ma).
A wooden wishing plaque (ema) with a picture of a horse.
A wooden wishing plaque (ema) with a picture of a horse.
Source: https://zenpop.jp/blog/post/356/how-to-write-ema
Later as Buddhism integrated into Japanese life, many Buddhist temples adopted the use of ema, and ema are still an extremely popular tradition in Japan today. Pictures on ema diversified to more closely represent the wish being made. For example a wish pertaining to success in the New Year might depict the Chinese zodiac animal associated with that year. Topics for wishes run the gamut from success in education, success or happiness in the coming year, recovery from illness or overcoming a fear to requests for more pocket money or divine aid for a local sports team.
An ema depicting the rat of the Chinese zodiac.
An ema depicting the rat of the Chinese zodiac.
Source: https://theadventuresofworldwind.files.wordpress.com

Man Yuan Temple


Nestled within a beautiful bamboo thicket, Man Yuan Temple is one of the largest structures in Bailu.
Shenmu 3's Man Yuan Temple.
Shenmue 3's Man Yuan Temple.
The temple holds three ema racks. One of these racks holds the wishes selected by certain Kickstarter backers, the other two contain messages from the residents of Bailu.

The ema racks inside Man Yuan Temple.
The ema racks inside Man Yuan Temple.
While the idea of ema being in a Buddhist temple in China is not accurate from a strictly historical perspective, it does provide a simple and effective means of adding an extra layer of depth to Bailu and the people who live(d) there. There is a signed prayer ema from almost every interactable NPC in the village – including most of the venture area vendors! All are worth reading (perhaps between training sessions in the temple courtyard?), but below I've highlighted a few notable ones.

The front rack houses a few ema with anonymous messages that seem like they might be from travelers who visited Bailu over the years and a few messages that make note of important events in the history of the village dating all the way back to the eighteenth century:
An ema making note of an event affecting the village hundreds of years ago.
An ema making note of an event affecting the village hundreds of years ago.
Other historical (or likely historical) events marked by ema include:

- '1826. Gifted an article made from a wolf from Langhuishan.'
- 'Verdant Bridge completed. 1910.'
- 'I hope to pass the civil servant exam!'
- 'I have fulfilled my duties to the emperor and am relieved.' (Written by an ancestor of Mr. Yuan perhaps?)

The Ema Written by Iwao


At this temple, Ryo receives an ema written by his father, Iwao, during his time training in Bailu twenty years prior. This is the ema Iwao wrote:
“Akane... I promise to return. Wait for me... - Iwao”
“Akane... I promise to return. Wait for me... - Iwao”
The message is for Ryo's mother, Akane, to whom he vows to return, and asks that she wait for him. Aside from finally learning the name of Ryo's mother, this ema is evocative of Iwao's state of mind at the time he wrote it. We learn from Chen YuQing, the resident monk at Man Yuan Temple, that Iwao traveled to Bailu almost twenty years prior to the events of Shenmue 3, but we do not know how long he stayed. Given that he came to train in martial arts, it is reasonable to assume that Iwao intended a very extended visit. These few words read to me both as an expression of Iwao's guilt for having left his wife alone for such an indefinite period of time as well as his resolve – affirmed in the presence of Buddha no less – not to waver from his obligation to her.

Ema of the Bailu Village Residents


“I wanna become a Tai Chi master, start my own school, get rich and famous, and get the girls! - Su Zixiong”
“I wanna become a Tai Chi master, start my own school, get rich and famous, and get the girls! - Su Zixiong”
The Su family of Sunset Hill is one of the oldest, largest, and most colorful families in the village. Included among them are the 'Chen Tai Chi Master' Su Zixiong who can be seen teaching children in the village square, and Su Yuzhen the down to earth, sisterly owner of the Sunset Cafe:
“Old Man Su Wenxu is always screaming. He should learn to zip it. - Su Yuzhen”
“Old Man Su Wenxu is always screaming. He should learn to zip it. - Su Yuzhen”
And of course there is Su Wenxu the pipe smoking, tall tale spinning family patriarch. Apparently ema can be an effective way to hash out a family squabble!
“The young generation has no manners! - Su Wenxu”
“The young generation has no manners! - Su Wenxu”
A number of ema are from residents expressing hopes and concerns about their relatives:
“I pray my grandson grows up strong and takes over the school. - Kong Mei”
“I pray my grandson grows up strong and takes over the school. - Kong Mei”
Kong Mei may present herself as a prickly old grandma running a general store, and she certainly is, but as her ema alludes, she has a rather ambitious wish for her grandson, Kong Zhuang. Perhaps there is more to this cantankerous shopkeeper than meets the eye?
“Unsure if I should force my grandson into charcoal making. - Lei Yanan”
“Unsure if I should force my grandson into charcoal making. - Lei Yanan”
Lei Yanan is one of the old charcoal makers (and backgammon enthusiasts!) living up in the Hermit's Nest. His rather bluntly phrased ema expresses a classic generational dilemma: pressure on the youth to take over the family business. On that score I suspect Yanan will run into a bit of friction from his grandson:
“I'll become the greatest fighter! - Lei Mingyang”
“I'll become the greatest fighter! - Lei Mingyang”
The temple also includes an ema from Shenhua's adopted father, Mr. Yuan, the man we spend the entire game attempting to rescue. Alluding to the prophecy, Yuan prays for Shenhua's continued health until 'that day' comes. Presumably 'that day' refers to the day that she meets Ryo (or the day they get to the cave) where Yuan in his letter to Shenhua entreats her to 'go with the one who holds the Phoenix'.
“I pray Shenhua stays healthy until that day comes. - Yuan Yunshen”
“I pray Shenhua stays healthy until that day comes. - Yuan Yunshen”
Still others express wishes of a more...intimate nature:
“I pray my hubby gains some pep to his step... in bed. - Wang Wen”
“I pray my hubby gains some pep to his step... in bed. - Wang Wen”

I hope you all have enjoyed part one of this examination of Bailu Village! If you haven't taken the time to explore the ema at Man Yuan Temple and put names to faces, I highly recommend it. For me at least, it's gone a long way to making Bailu, a location I already loved, feel so much more real. Stay tuned for Part Two in which we contemplate Martial Hall!

Sources used:
https://taiken.co/single/ema-boards-meaning-and-use/

https://theadventuresofworldwind.files.wordpress.com

Reader, Ian. “Letters to the Gods: The Form and Meaning of Ema.” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, vol. 18, no. 1, 1991, pp. 24–50. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/30233428. Accessed 13 May 2020.

About the Author

Dave Matthews aka SalsaShark has been an avid Shenmue fan since he first bought the game on Dreamcast (incidentally the first console he ever bought with his own money) back in 2000. 

To this day he's still working out the right words to describe just how much the series has impacted his life and philosophy for the past two decades. A long time lurker on the Shenmue Dojo forums, he has recently started actually posting, so feel free drop in and say hi!  He currently lives in Chicago, IL USA with his girlfriend and two friendly cats.

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2 comments:

  1. Fantastic read, thanks so much for the extra insight into these "ema" Dave! :)

    ReplyDelete