Thursday, April 27, 2023

Mystery Location in Photo at Shenhua's House Identified? | Shenmue II

Last year, we posted an article about an unidentified photo that can be glimpsed at Shenhua's house in Shenmue II.

The photo can be partially seen on the desk in Shenhua's father's room, in the pile where Ryo finds the plans for the Phoenix and Dragon mirrors. But there is no way for the player to move the other papers aside to examine it, and Ryo makes no comment about it.

It is, however, possible to view the full photo by accessing the game files directly, which looks as below. It appears to be some kind of outdoor scene with arches, trees, and some kind of structure in the center:

The mystery photo uncovered

In our post about this photo, we posed the question of why this photo would have been present among the design documents (albeit largely obscured), whether it had any significance and - most of all - whether such a location exists or existed in real life.

Well now, a possible candidate for this mystery location has been identified!

Recently, we published a two-part series that covered some Shenmue lore, especially that relating to the stars and the mirrors:

There are several hints and clues that a real historical figure - the last emperor of the Qing Dynasty, Pu Yi - plays a significant part in the story of Shenmue. In Shenmue III (although he is not mentioned by name) it is revealed that the emperor was the one who ordered the creation of the Dragon and Phoenix Mirrors, in the year 1910. Curiously, he was only a child at the time.

Then, in a post on the Shenmue Dojo forums, a user by the name of Arinar posted some interesting research and historical facts about Pu Yi's life - and one photo in particular caught my attention:

Doesn't this look familiar? The features are remarkably similar to the mysterious photo in Shenhua's house in Shenmue II: the trees, rounded arches, central pillar and basin. The central pillar is part of a decorative fountain, and although horizontal fountain tiers are not readily visible in the Shenmue II image, that could be explained by water spray covering them.

The real-life location of this photo is in the city of Tianjin at one of Pu Yi's former residences, where he lived after being expelled from the Forbidden City in Beijing in 1924.

Tianjin is south-east of Beijing, and lies to the north of the city of Cangzhou (the city with the Iron Lion, a place that is very likely to have future significance in Shenmue). Furthermore, Yu Suzuki himself also passed through Tianjin during his 1994 China Research trip that led to the development of Shenmue, and it is entirely possible he actually visited the residence himself.

In the game, the photo is never properly shown to the player, so perhaps it was included almost as an Easter Egg, a subtle link to the fact that Pu Yi was the one who commissioned the Mirrors (and hence this photo was placed amongst the plans that the emperor's envoy provided to Shenhua's stepfather's grandfather). 

Historically, Pu Yi did not move to this residence until much later than the game's 1910 time period in which the mirrors were commissioned (and the residence itself was not built until later). so clearly its use is not factually based. It may instead have been more of an inspiration as an image that represents the child emperor's imperial residence.

Overall, the visual similarities and other links form a compelling case for the location of the image at Shenhua's house representing the residence of Emperor Pu Yi, one which was based on the garden of Pu Yi's actual historical former residence in the city of Tianjin. 

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