Tuesday, April 4, 2023

Mirror Lore & Celestial Connections in Shenmue | Part One

The Phoenix and Dragon mirrors lie at the core of Shenmue's story right from the beginning, with Lan Di and his henchmen seizing one of the mirrors from the Hazuki Dojo in the shocking opening scene of Iwao's murder. From there, Ryo stumbles upon a web of interconnected topics and events, ranging from the significance of constellations in the sky, to an imperial order made long ago.

In this series of posts, we will carry out an in-depth review of several inter-related elements and clues that Ryo learns along his journey in the course of the first three games and see how they fit together.

We'll also highlight a number of translation clarifications along the way, where the English version of certain lines gives a different (possibly even incorrect) impression from the original Japanese.

Spoiler Warning: This post covers story-related aspects from the first three games.

These are the topics we will be covering in today's post:
  • 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
We start our exploration with the Phoenix Mirror that Ryo discovers early in the first game in the basement of the Dojo.

Ancient Beliefs: the Guardians of the North Star

Ryo visits the Russiya China shop in Dobuita, and shows the Phoenix Mirror to the shop owner, Xiuyu Xia.

Xiuyu explains the significance that people in China attach to the Phoenix, and that it has a presence in the night sky:

Xiuyu: In China the Phoenix is the legendary bird of fortune... It's a guardian for the Sky Lord. 

Xiuyu examines the Phoenix mirror at the Russiya China shop

Xiuyu: The other guardian is the Dragon. In China, people consider the North Star to be the lord of the sky. Look, there. [pointing to a map on the wall] That is an old Chinese map in stone, see? It's a map of the Big Dipper from the Han Dynasty.


The old stone map of the seven-star Big Dipper on the wall
Xiuyu: On a moonless night... should you pray to the stars, your wishes shall be realized.

Shenhua is pictured praying to the stars, with the stars representing the Dragon and Phoenix above her in the night sky.
Xiuyu: The Big Dipper revolves around the immovable North Star. In China, the North Star is highly respected. For ages and ages, people have worshipped it. In China there are numerous fascinating legends about the stars.

Ryo: I see... Thank you very much.

In Western astronomy, the Big Dipper is not technically defined as a constellation but what is known as an asterism, which is a recognizable pattern of stars that is not a formal constellation but can often be part of one. In the case of the Big Dipper, it is part of the constellation Ursa Major (the Great Bear), as shown below. Positioned nearby is the North Star.

The constellations of the Little Bear and Great Bear. The Big Dipper is part of the Great Bear, while the North Star lies at the tail of the Little Dipper (Little Bear).

Xiuyu introduces another connection between the Phoenix and Dragon, as seen on the mirrors: the set of seven stars that we know as the Big Dipper are considered in China to represent the Dragson, with another set of five stars in a W shape representing the Phoenix. According to Xiuyu, the Phoenix and Dragon are the guardians of the North Star, which is itself considered to be a god - the Lord of the Sky.

The W-shaped set of stars representing the Phoenix is a constellation named Casseopeia. This picture shows the relative position of Casseopeia (the Phoenix), the Big Dipper (the Dragon) and the North Star (the Sky Lord):

Relative positions of Casseopeia, the North Star and the Big Dipper

Xiuyu's use of the word "immovable" with respect to the North Star refers to the fact that an unusual characteristic of this star compared to others is that it always stays in roughly the same place in the sky over the course of 24 hours.

The Han Dynasty, mentioned as the era in which the star map was made, was an imperial dynasty of China (202 BC – 9 AD, 25–220 AD). There do not seem to be further references to this era in the game, however, and is likely mentioned to highlight how far the cultural significance of the stars goes back.

The Big Dipper is mentioned several times throughout the games. Another instance is in Shenmue II, when Ryo and Ren are handcuffed together and lie low on the roof of a building overnight, and they observe the Big Dipper above. This is further foreshadowing of its importance in the story.

Shenmue II: Ryo and Ren observe the Big Dipper

The representation of the Phoenix as a guardian is also brought up by Oishi-san at his antique shop when he examines the Phoenix Mirror. While Xiuyu was not familiar with the mirror itself, Oishi-san has some knowledge on its background: he suggests that it is made of a special type of stone specific to Guilin in China; and that its creation was ordered by the emperor at the time:

Oishi: I think perhaps this type of precious stone is only found in the Guilin region... According to a book I once read long ago, an emperor ordered a sculptor from Guilin to engrave a guardian onto a stone mirror...The Phoenix on this mirror is a guardian.

    Oishi-san reveals information about the mirror from a book he once read

    The Xing Xiu and People's Fates

    Near the end of Shenmue II, when Ryo is at Shenhua's house (see our recent post), he notices a book there about constellations. When Ryo asks Shenhua about it, she explains that the Big Dipper is one of the "Xīng Xiù" (星宿, 28 traditional constellation groups defined in Chinese astronomy and astrology). She talks about a premonition she had recently when observing it:
    Shenhua: The Xingxiu are explained. The stars that affect the fates of people. The Big Dipper is one of them. The North Star is said to be the god that deals with death. 
    Ryo: The harbinger of death...
    Shenhua: When the North Star flickers, something bad happens... Like last night. I was watching the Big Dipper when I got this bad feeling... That's why I couldn't go to sleep and started singing. 
    Ryo: So that was why...
    Here we learn that the North Star is believed to be a god that deals with death, and that it can indicate death or misfortune.

    Shenhua talks her premonition while watching the Big Dipper

    Five Stars Corp.

    In Shenmue II, Zhu Yuan Da's mysterious trading business is named "Five Stars Corp". Could there be a hint contained in this name? Five stars is also the number of stars in Cassiopeia, the constellation that we learned represents the Phoenix guardian according to Chinese legend.

    Perhaps this hints at a connection of some sort between the enigmatic Zhu and Lan Di, a man who is associated throughout the game with dragon symbolism.

    The Five Star Corp. office in Kowloon

    Sword of Seven Stars

    A more obvious case connection with a constellation is with the Sword of Seven Stars that Shenhua's father leaves for her in the Stone Pit. Named according to the number of stars in the Big Dipper, it is inscribed with the seven-star pattern of the Big Dipper on its blade.

    The Sword of Seven Stars

    Taking a closer look at the model of the sword that appears in the game, it can be seen that the hilt design consists of a phoenix, whose wings form the cross-guard, its tail running along the grip. Embedded within its tail are a pattern of red decorative jewels in a pattern of the stars of the Big Dipper, details that are easily missed during gameplay.

    The sword incorporates both the Phoenix and the stars of the Big Dipper

    I Smell Treasure

    The association of the mirrors with treasure of some kind is something that has been hinted at since the first game.

    Yamagishi-san has this to say about the Phoenix Mirror that Ryo has uncovered in the basement at the Dojo, when he sees him at Sakuragaoka Park.
    Yamagishi: The Phoenix is a sacred bird of legend. But this has an ominous feel... In China there are many treasures that contain both good and bad fortune. This is called 'The Secret of Yin and Yang'. You'd best be careful. This may have something to do with your father's unfortunate death.
    His words are rather general, however, without specifying exactly how such treasures relate to the mirror.

    Yamagishi-san tells Ryo about the mirror at Sakuragaoka Park

    The Chi You

    A key character that tells Ryo about the significance of the mirrors, and their combined effect, is Master Chen at New Yokosuka Harbor. Unlike the Dobuita shop owners with whom Ryo consulted, he recognizes it on sight:
    Master Chen: Ah, the Phoenix Mirror. Yes, it's made of Phantom River stone.

    He then passes on information that he was told by someone by the name of Zhu Yuan Da (Yuanda Zhu):

    Master Chen: A long time ago, Zhu Yuan Da once told me... When the Dragon and Phoenix meet, the gates of heaven and earth will open... and Chi You will resurrect itself on Earth. It's a legendary Chinese monster that will devour this world of ours. It appears Lan Di will try to make use of both mirrors...
    Ryo: What will he try?
    Master Chen: That, even I do not know. But you mustn't allow him to get that mirror. Be careful and stay alert.
    The words "when the Dragon and Phoenix meet" could be interpreted as meaning that the two mirrors being combined in some way, but it is unclear whether the legendary monster named Chi You is to be taken literally or figuratively.

    The Mirrors & the Qing Dynasty

    In a memorable cut scene at Ren's hideout in Shenmue II, Zhu Yuan Da reveals that the Dragon and Phoenix mirrors form a key of some kind:
    Zhu: When this Phoenix Mirror is paired with the Dragon Mirror, the two form a key. A key to the treasures hidden away in order to revive the Qing Dynasty.
    He places the single mirror in Ryo's possession, the Phoenix Mirror, on the table and blows smoke from his pipe across it. To Ryo's amazement, the light pattern of the Big Dipper appears in the smoke.

    The Big Dipper appears in the smoke above the Phoenix mirror

    Zhu: These seven lights indicate the location of the treasure.
    Ren: Where is that?
    Zhu: A single mirror is not enough. Only when combined with the light pattern from the Dragon Mirror, will we know.
    Ren: There's no way of finding out with only the Phoenix Mirror?
    Zhu: There is a clue. You must go to Guilin.
    Ren: Guilin?
    Zhu: There is a place where Zhao and Iwao trained when they were young.
    Ryo: My father?
    Zhu: Go to Bailu Village, in Guilin. The mirrors are made of Phantom River Stone found only in that village. The descendants of the one who made the mirrors live there too. You might find more information there. Lan Di is headed there as well.

    In this scene, we learn that, according to Zhu, the two mirrors must be used together to form a complete light pattern that is a "key" to the location of treasures that have been hidden away. The exact nature of these treasures is unclear, but Zhu indicates that they are for the revival of the Qing Dynasty. 

    The Qing Dynasty (1636-1912) was the last orthodox dynasty in Chinese history. The historical name of the last emperor of this dynasty is Pu Yi, the Xuantong Emperor. This era name will crop up again later in the story and we will talk about this a little later in this exploration.

    However the explanation given by Zhu seemingly contradicts the story Master Chen told Ryo, when he stated that Zhu told him that the mirrors may lead to Chi You resurrecting itself on Earth.

    Is someone lying, or do these these two explanations in fact refer to the same thing?

    Mind Map: Lore Examined in Part One

    Even at this point, there has been a lot of lore to digest, so to make it easier to visualize how the various pieces of the puzzle fit together, I have created a "mind map" diagram to show how the various concepts, events and clues relate to each other.

    The blurred elements will be filled in as we progress through Part Two of this series.

    Mirror Lore Mind Map (direct link to image provided in the main text)

    The diagram has been saved as a high resolution image to retain the text detail, and will benefit from zooming in close! Tap on this direct link to the image for easier viewing and zooming.

    Related Watching:

    The Shenmue Dojo has started a fantastic new video series on Shenmue Lore in a livestream format, hosted by James Brown. In this first episode, James talked through the above blog post as well as digging into related lore and talking points. Chat interaction with viewers adds to the enjoyment. Watch it below!

    Continue to Second Part

    We continue the exploration of the Mirror lore in Part Two.

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    1. Fantastic mind map. Cannot wait for the unblurred parts!