Wednesday, April 19, 2023

Mirror Lore & Celestial Connections in Shenmue | Part Two

In this post we complete our investigation into the secrets of the Dragon and Phoenix mirrors and related lore surrounding them as revealed throughout the Shenmue games.

In Part One, we looked at the following topics:

  • Ancient Beliefs: the Guardians of the North Star
  • The Xing Xiu and People's Fates
  • Five Stars Corp.
  • Sword of Seven Stars
  • I Smell Treasure
  • The Chi You
  • The Mirrors & the Qing Dynasty

This time, we will go deeper into the mysteries with the following topics:

  • The Prophecy
  • Shenmue's Bad Ending
  • The Origin of the Mirrors
  • Photo of the Imperial Envoy
  • The Last Emperor: Pu Yi
  • The Purpose of the Verdant Bridge
  • The Envoy's Mission
  • The Scroll
  • The Cliff Temple
Spoiler Warning: This post covers story-related aspects from the first three games.

The Prophecy

A reference to the Dragon and Phoenix together also occurs outside of gameplay, in the prologue of each of the games in the series, in which Shenhua is heard reciting the prophecy (see also our comparison of the various versions of the prophecy to date).

This wording is from the Shenmue II version:
Shenhua: A Dragon shall emerge from the earth, and dark clouds shall obscure the heavens. A Phoenix shall descend from above, its wings will create a purple wind. In the midst of the pitch-black night, a morning star shall glisten, alone...

These words paint imagery of a conflict or dramatic event involving a Dragon and Phoenix in some form.

Shenmue's Bad Ending

The "bad ending" of Shenmue II and III also ties in to the words of the prophecy - if the player takes too long to progress through the game (although practically speaking, a deliberate effort is needed to bring this about), a special cut scene plays:

In the case of Shenmue II's bad ending, Ryo is shown holding the Phoenix Mirror as it glows and then cracks. Lan Di approaches wordlessly and Ryo's cry can be heard as the scene fades to black. Shenhua is then shown again on a rocky outcrop in Guilin at night. A strong wind begins to blow and the starlit sky clouds over as she utters the following words:
Shenhua: The Dragon calls the dark clouds, and hides the morning star. The path is closed, and the hope of meeting is lost.
As lightning flashes and a thunderclap is heard, she turns to see Lan Di, who holds the cracked Phoenix Mirror behind him.
Lan Di: I shall take your power, for the Chiyou.

The scene then fades to black and ends.

The Chiyou (or Chi You) could literally be referring to the name of a legendary Chinese monster that we saw in the previous part. However in the context of this scene, it may more probably be an abbreviated reference to the Chi You Men, the name of the organization of which Lan Di is one of the leaders. This is backed up by the fact that the English line in the Dreamcast version of the game has "Chiyoumen" (although the Japanese-language line simply has "Chiyou"). Thanks to Terry Tsoi and James Brown for this information.

The same scene on the Dreamcast has "Chiyoumen"

The bad ending in Shenmue III is similar to that of Shenmue II. In this case, it is Elder Yeh who utters similar words to Ryo, stating that "The path shall be sealed and all hope will be lost". Lan Di is then shown striking down Ryo as he says "I have the mirror. You have outlived your usefulness" as Shenhua watches helplessly nearby.

The Origin of the Mirrors

Towards the end of Shenmue II, when Ryo and Shenhua are walking along the Cloud Bird Trail to the Stone Pit, Shenhua talks about a village legend that involves mirrors made from Phantom River Stone:
Shenhua: I don't really know what that place is like. But I heard it's a stone pit for Phantom River Stone.
Ryo: Phantom River Stone...
Shenhua: Yes, the same stone as your mirror...
Shenhua: A village legend says the ancient Emperor had mirrors made from Phantom River Stone. But the rulers fought for the mirror, trying to get its hidden power... and some even lost their lives because of it.
Ryo: I didn't know there was such a legend.
Shenhua: I'm getting scared.
Ryo: Shenhua.
Shenhua: I hope nothing evil happens...

Translation note:

Shenhua's lines in the English translation, with the use of phrases like "ancient Emperor" and "legend", makes it sound as if this event happened many hundreds, or even thousands, of years ago.

However her words can be translated as follows, without such heavy emphasis on a great passage of time:

Shenhua: 村に伝わる話… 昔、皇帝の勅令で、とうか緑石の鏡が何枚か作られた。There's a story told in the village: a long time ago, a number of mirrors were made from Phantom River Stone by decree of the Emperor.
でも、その鏡に秘められた力を手に入れようとして、時の権力者たちが鏡を奪い合い、ある者は命まで落とした…って。But the rulers of the time vied with each other for the mirrors to obtain the power hidden within, and they say some even lost their lives...
While this still talks of an event that happened long ago, this allows for a timeline closer to the modern era than that one is led to believe based on the game's original English translation. This is important, because subsequent events in Shenmue III, which we shall look at next, relate to the early 1900s time period rather than truly ancient times.

Photo of the Imperial Envoy

This connection with the Emperor is expanded upon much later in the game. Jumping ahead to Shenmue III, Ryo discovers a photo at Man Yuan Temple that shows a group of people in Bailu Village, carrying banners decorated with motifs of the Dragon and Phoenix.

Ryo also notices that the Phoenix motif seen on the banners is an exact match with the one carved into the Phoenix mirror.

Ryo comparing the Phoenix on the mirror to the banner in the photo

He asks the resident monk about the photo:
Monk: That photo is said to be of an imperial envoy, dispatched to Bailu Village by the emperor himself.
Ryo: What are the crests of these banners?
MonkThey represented the will of the imperial family. A dragon for the emperor, and a phoenix for the empress. It is said that the emperor of the time revered the dragon and phoenix greatly.

Translation notes:

  1. The line "They represented the will of the imperial family" does not appear in the original Japanese at all. The Japanese line has "その紋章・・・龍は皇帝を鳳凰は皇后をあらわすといわれ", meaning "The dragon is said to represent the emperor and the phoenix the empress". Perhaps at one point this line was present in the Japanese but was later adjusted without the change being reflected back to the translated line.
  2. The use of the verb "revered" in the last sentence also represents a difference. The English translation has "It is said that the emperor of the time revered the dragon and phoenix greatly"; the Japanese line (当時の皇帝は、この龍と鳳凰を好んで用いられたと聞きます) says "It is said that the emperor of the time was fond of this dragon and phoenix". At first this seems a curious way to express the emperor's attitude, but we shall soon see below a reason as to why this is the case.
  3. The Japanese wording (皇帝の使い) refers to a representative sent on behalf of the emperor, accurately translated as "envoy" in the English line. However, if this is overlooked by the player, the photo alone may give the impression that the Emperor himself visited Bailu Village although this was not the case.
Ryo then returns to Shenhua's house to show her the photo, pointing out the Dragon and Phoenix design on the banners. 

Shenhua notices that there is a date written on the back of the photo:

Shenhua: This is the Verdant Bridge. [Examining the back of the photo] 1910, the second year of Xuantong... That's the year it was finished.

It appears that Shenhua is familiar with the year that the Verdant Bridge was built, perhaps from village lore.

The Last Emperor: Pu Yi

Importantly, the writing on the photo provides a name for the Emperor mentioned by the monk at Man Yuan Temple: based on the era name Xuantong, the real historical figure was named Pu Yi.

Assuming that the Emperor in Shenmue is based accurately on the historical character, two points of particular interest stand out regarding the year 1910, when the imperial envoy is said to have visited Bailu Village.

One is that Pu Yi was born in 1906 and became emperor at the age of two in 1908. This would make him only around the age of 4 years old at the time the mirrors were commissioned. His age is not made clear during the game, but it would explain the monk's curious phrasing above (using a more accurate translation of the Japanese line) that he was "fond" of the dragon and phoenix.

Monk: It is said that the emperor of the time was fond of this dragon and phoenix.

Pu Yi was still a child in 1910

The second interesting point is that Pu Yi was the last emperor of China, as the eleventh and final monarch of its last dynasty, the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). His reign lasted only a couple of years. The end of the Qing Dynasty has significance as it is referred to elsewhere in the story, as we shall see later in this post.

This connects nicely with the information from Zhu Yuan Da in Shenmue II seen above, who spoke of the mirrors being a "key" to treasures for the revival of the Qing Dynasty.

The Purpose of the Verdant Bridge

Next, Ryo speaks with the elderly Mr. Su, who tells him that the Verdant Bridge was built by the villagers themselves to welcome the imperial envoy. He mentions that he was there among the crowd of people as a boy, along with Mr. Sun.

Su: I was just a boy, mind you, but I recall that an imperial envoy was to come to the village. The bridge was built by the villagers as a way to welcome him. The bridge you see today was built for the envoy's arrival. I remember it vividly. It was a hot summer's day, and the envoy's clothing was quite ostentatious!
Su does not remember much more, however, and so Ryo visits Mr. Sun who he tracks down to the abandoned temple.

The Envoy's Mission

After Ryo bribes him with buns and wine, Mr. Sun agrees to answer his request for information about the Verdant Bridge. His initial description is similar to Su's, but he goes on to answer Ryo's further question about the envoy's purpose:
Ryo: Why was the envoy sent to Bailu?
Sun: That's the question, isn't it? For Phantom River Stone mirrors.
Ryo: What does a mirror have to do with this?
Sun: That envoy was on a mission to get mirrors made by the greatest stonemason in China. They came by decree of the emperor.
Ryo: And who was the stonemason?
Sun: His name was Yuan Liushan, and he stood above the rest. He lived in Bailu. He was Yuan's grandfather.
Ryo: I see, so that's the connection...

So Ryo now knows that the mirrors were crafted by the grandfather of Yuan, Shenhua's stepfather.

Elder Yeh, although she had been unwilling to speak initially when Ryo was alone, eventually talks about the bridge when Ryo visits her together with Shenhua. They pass the Phoenix mirror to her, and she confirms that the envoy's mission was to give plans for the mirrors to the stonemason.

Elder Yeh
Yeh: The envoy gave the design for the mirrors to Yuan's grandfather.
Shenhua: That must have been the mirror design we found at the house...
Ryo: Which matches the pattern in that photo we found at Man Yuan Temple.
Shenhua: And the relief we found at the quarry.

A more suitable translation for the word "pattern" might be "crest", being in reference to the fact that the Phoenix carved on Ryo's mirror was an exact match with the Phoenix crest on the banners being carried in the photo.

Regarding the mirror plans that Shenhua says they found at the house, these were of course the ones discovered by Ryo at Shenhua's father's desk at the end of Shenmue II.

At the bottom left of the plans, the single character can be seen stamped in red - this is the Chinese character for Yuan (袁), signifying Yuan's grandfather who was commissioned to create the mirrors.

The Scroll

A reference to treasure, or treasures, reappears again in Shenmue III.

Shenhua and Ryo uncover a scroll in the bell tower at Bailu Village

After Ryo and Shenhua retrieve the scroll from the bell tower at Bailu Village, they take it back to Elder Yeh's house where she explains the meaning of its drawing:
Yeh: Shenhua dear, what do you see on this scroll?
Shenhua: Well, there's a dragon and a phoenix...
YehI'm certain of it.
Shenhua: There's also some treasure...
Yeh: So, if the dragon is the emperor and the phoenix the empress, the treasure is the hidden treasure in their palace.
Translation notes:

  1. The English "I'm certain of it" is only a partial translation of the Japanese line, which translates more fully as "Yes, there's no doubt - this is it." The impression this gives is that Elder Yeh has prior knowledge of the scroll and is now sure in her own mind that this is indeed what Ryo and Shenhua have found.
  2. The translation "hidden treasure in their palace" is misleading as it sounds almost as if there is a palace in this mountain location. The Japanese phrase (皇室の秘宝) is merely describing the nature of the treasure, and so this line would better be translated as "the treasures of the imperial household".

Ryo passes her the Phoenix mirror once more:
Yeh: The Chi You Men is desperate to find this mirror. For together, the Phoenix and Dragon Mirrors are the key to hidden treasure.
Translation note: the word in Japanese for the treasure (秘宝) may also be translated here as "the treasure" - based on the flow of this conversation, it is likely that Elder Yeh is talking about the treasures of the imperial household. The line would then become:
Yeh: The Chi You Men is desperate to find this mirror. For together, the Phoenix and Dragon Mirrors are the key to the treasure.
The last part of the drawing on the scroll shows steep mountains:

Shenhua: The last picture extends out into a mountain cliff.
Yeh: Hmm... Mountain cliffs... It seems that the treasure at the heart of this calamity is hidden in those mountains.
Shenhua: This is a lot to take in...
Ryo: What could these pictures possibly mean?
Yeh: My dear, I believe you hold a map to the treasure.
Here Elder Yeh explains that the Phoenix and Dragon Mirrors are a key to the treasure and hence are highly sought-after by the Chi You Men. And yet, at the same time, the scroll also seemingly serves a similar purpose in pointing to the location of the treasure - it is not clear whether the scroll is also an essential item in finding the treasure.

Translation note: One small point is that in the Japanese the word "map" is not actually used with regards to the scroll. From the Japanese wording (秘宝のありかをしるしたものに間違いなかろう), this line translates as:
Yeh: It surely describes the location of the treasure.
The drawing shows steep mountains and cliffs. Note that no buildings can be seen in the scroll illustration. This leads to a slight inconsistency with the contents of a conversation that is held later on with Shenhua's stepfather, which we'll see next.

The Cliff Temple

In the Shenmue III epilogue, Shenhua's father has a conversation with Ryo on the boat as they leave Niaowu.

He reveals that the two mirrors were at one time kept in a cliff temple, but were put in the care of Zhao Sunming - Lan Di's father - at his request, to keep them falling into the hands of the Chi You Men:
Yuan: The Dragon Mirror and the Phoenix Mirror were once locked away in the cliff temple. But someone had their eye on them. They were the Chi You Men. Zhao Sunming wanted to retrieve the mirrors before they fell into the wrong hands. The mirrors were entrusted to him. Several years later, Zhao died under mysterious circumstances. His only son, Longsun, was raised by the Chi You Men.

Yuan goes on to talk about the cliff temple that Zhao visited - note that part of the English translation is inaccurate: 
Yuan: The cliff temple that Zhao visited.
RyoThat's where we found the scroll.
Yuan: I heard the Chi You Men have taken it over.
Ryo: So Lan Di is there...
Yuan: Most likely with the mirror.
Translation notes:
  1. The first line sounds a little abrupt in the English translation here. It is intended to have the sense of "About the cliff temple that Zhao visited..."
  2. As has been noted within the Shenmue fan community, the second line here is unfortunately an incorrect English translation. The Japanese has "巻物にあった寺か", which means "The temple that was on the scroll?", referring to the scroll they found in the bell tower.
A corrected version would be:
YuanAbout the cliff temple that Zhao visited...
RyoThe temple that was on the scroll?
Yuan: I heard the Chi You Men have taken it over.
Ryo: So Lan Di is there...
Yuan: Most likely with the mirror.

Furthermore, although Ryo is quick to associate the cliff temple with the picture on the scroll, I wasn't able to see a temple in the picture shown during the game, and Elder Yeh does not mention one being present (in Japanese or English), so this appears to be an inconsistency.

One fan theory, put forward by James Brown in his recent lore podcast episode - see the end of the article - is that the mountains where the cliff temple is located may be the same ones that were illustrated on the hanging painting in Shenhua's house in Shenmue II (although it is no longer present in Shenmue III's portrayal of her house):

The mountains in the painting at Shenhua's house (Shenmue II) are not dissimilar to the ones in the scroll.

In Shenmue II, Shenhua says that the mountains are located "somewhere in Guilin" and that "those who set foot in these mountains have never returned" - perhaps this rumor came about after the Chi You Men took over the temple. This may be something for which we will need to wait until Shenmue IV to have confirmed!

With the introduction of the bell tower scroll to the story, we now have two items that are both said to indicate the location of the treasure: the Mirrors and their light pattern, and the scroll showing steep mountains where there is said to be a cliff temple.

In the chapter concept art revealed by Yu Suzuki at the GDC 2014 event, one shows a temple built into a cliff. A real-life model for the cliff temple was identified by Shenmue researcher extraordinaire SergeyNest / Shenmue Unofficialthe Hengshan Hanging Temple. Check out his fascinating post on the Shenmue Dojo forums for more information.

The seventh Chapter Tile revealed by Yu Suzuki at the GDC 2014 event shows a temple built into a cliff.

Final Comments

There is the possibility that certain story elements may have been adjusted or changed by Yu Suzuki and his team for the third game, but even so I was surprised at the level of consistency of the clues and underlying background across the games given the intricacy of the interconnecting elements.

There were one or two contradictory elements, such as the nature of the "treasure" (with Master Chen, Zhu Yuan Da and Elder Yeh all having differing descriptions of what this treasure consists of) - I believe this may be deliberate, and that one of these participants is slanting the truth for their own purpose. 

Elder Yeh's comment that the scroll's picture describe the location of this treasure also gives pause, given that the pair of mirrors is also considered to be a key to finding it. Perhaps the scroll is a general clue to moving onwards towards this goal, and the mirrors in the end are what will be required.

When playing the first two games, I had assumed that the mirrors were truly ancient and had been carved many hundreds of years ago. However, with the extra information learned in Shenmue III (and a review of the English translations) I believe these were always meant to have been created in the early 1900s as described, during the reign of China's very last emperor Pu Yi. It is intriguing to consider that the emperor at this time was merely a child.

In fact, there is an anecdote linking Yu Suzuki and the 1987 movie The Last Emperor, which was about the life of this very same child emperor who ruled at the end of the Qing Dynasty. This is an extract taken from our translation of the report on Suzuki's 1994 China Research Trip that provided rich material for the story of Shenmue, when a guide is showing him around Beijing:

Extract from our translated article on Suzuki's China Research Trip

This may well have marked the moment of inspiration for the emperor's inclusion in Shenmue, to be developed further in the remaining games.

Please feel free to leave opinions and theories in the comments!

In an upcoming post we will also be publishing the full version of the "mind map" that attempts to represent the connections between people, things and events we have talked through in these two parts on a single diagram.

Related Watching:

In the second episode of the Shenmue Dojo's series on Shenmue Lore, James Brown talked through an early-access preview of the contents of this post. As always, it was a thoroughly enjoyable and thought-provoking discussion with the livestream participants. Watch it below!

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