Wednesday, March 13, 2024

Does the Chawan Sign in Shenmue Have a Historical Basis?

Today, we will do a deep dive into an iconic communication method seen in Shenmue: the Chawan Sign, which Ryo first learns about in Shenmue II (and is reintroduced later in one of the Shenmue III DLC stories). He makes use of the Chawan Sign to discreetly communicate with allies, by arranging teacups in a certain pattern in a public place, 

Arranging four teacups

Ryo is warned that placing them at the wrong location, or carelessly arranging them in the wrong pattern, can result in unwanted attention...

Trying at the wrong location may attract trouble

But was the concept of the Chawan Sign something that Yu Suzuki and team created purely for Shenmue, or did it have some kind of historical basis?

In this post, we will try to answer this question by looking at a possible sources of inspiration.

Chawan Sign: In-Game Explanation

Shenmue II

Ryo first stumbles upon a clue to the Chawan Sign from the symbol he finds on a scrap of paper that falls from a book he investigates in the Man Mo Temple library - the Wulinshu, the martial arts book authored by Yuanda Zhu (Zhu Yuan Da).

He then learns its meaning on seeking advice from Guixiang Lee at the Yan Tin Apartments:
Ryo: Do you know what this piece of paper is?
Guixiang: It's a Chawan Sign.
Ryo: Chawan Sign...
Guixiang: A secret code used among masters of the same school. This is the Chawan Sign.
Guixiang explains the Chawan Sign in Shenmue II

Ryo points to the piece of paper, which has the Chinese characters for "Heaven", "Dragon", "Earth", "Comrade".
Ryo: These characters... These characters were written in the letter to my father.
Guixiang: Heaven stands for time, Earth for place.
Ryo: Time and place. And Dragon and Comrade are?
Guixiang: Comrade is person, Dragon means actions.
Ryo: Why are these words here?
Guixiang: The cups' positions correspond to the letters. Start from the left cup, and move from Heaven to Comrade.
Ryo flips the paper over to show the symbol of four circles.
Ryo: What about this?
Guixiang: Probably a sign showing that he's Yuanda Zhu's friend*.   
Ryo: A friend of Yuanda Zhu...
Guixiang moves the cups into the same formation.
Guixiang: First, memorize the positions.
Ryo: Okay.
Guixiang: Place them and wait at places where people gather. If a friend* of Yuanda Zhu sees it, he'll give you a sign. Now try it exactly the way I showed you.

 *Note: the wording "friend" is used in the original Dreamcast version of the game. The Shenmue I & II re-release changed this to "associate".

The player is prompted to move the cups until successfully placed.
Guixiang: And then you wait. That's right. Now don't forget the pattern. There are other patterns that could be dangerous. Don't be careless and make other patterns.
Ryo: I understand I'll be careful. Thank you very much.

The story then continues with Ryo visiting various cafes and diners at which to try making the sign.

Shenmue III

The Chawan Sign was also incorporated into Shenmue III in the optional DLC called the Story Quest Pack. In this quest, Ryo assists Zhu's assistant, Zhang, to investigate whether the Chi You Men are operating in the vicinity of Niao Wu.

If Ryo requests it, Zhang gives him a refresher on the Chawan Sign:
Zhang: There are tables set up with four tea bowls in bars and restaurants around town.
Ryo: Four tea bowls...
Zhang: You have to line them up to match the paper.
Ryo: Okay.
Zhang: If my associates see them, they'll recognize you as an ally. They'll provide you with various information.

Ryo's notebook entry after meeting Zhang reads:

"Chawan Signs:
In a place with lots of people like a restaurant or bar, line up four tea bowls to match the drawing. I can use them to make myself known to Mr. Zhang's associates and send along all sorts of information."

Whereas Shenmue II used just a single Chawan Sign, the DLC story in Shenmue III involves multiple signs, with Ryo receiving a new sign to use periodically as the story progresses. 

Zhang refreshes Ryo on the Chawan Sign in the Shenmue III Story Quest Pack DLC

Chawan Sign Possible Outcomes

Making an Incorrect Sign

Despite the stern warning from Guixiang about the danger of arranging the cups incorrectly, in neither game does this lead to an adverse outcome - apart from the couple of hours' time lost waiting. For example, in Shenmue III, Ryo mutters "No good... Did I do it wrong? I should check the note again". 

Making a Sign at the Incorrect Location - What Happens?

In Shenmue II, in most cases if the sign is made correctly but not at the expected location, after waiting Ryo eventually says "This isn't the place. I should try somewhere else".

However, there are a few specific situations in which a special cut scene is triggered in Shenmue II:

  • At the Canton Cafe or Ling Ling Porridge in the Green Market Qr., or the Fu Jian Tea Shop in the Lucky Charm Qr.: after Ryo makes the sign and waits, the Poison Brothers make a sudden appearance and accuse him of "snooping around". A QTE fight takes place.
  • At the table near the duck stand in the White Dynasty Qr.: as Ryo waits after arranging the cups, his attention is drawn to a group of Yellow Head members threatening the little boy (Zhengye Luo) at the duck stand. Ryo goes to his defense in the form of a QTE battle.
  • At the Blue Sky rooftop beer garden at Fortune's Pier [only after Ryo has spoken to Fangmei and Eileen at Man Mo Bistro]: making the Chawan Sign triggers a cut scene where Fangmei and Eileen turn up. Fangmei recalls seeing the sign before at Dou Jiang Diner.
Shenmue III has special scenes in the form of optional secret rewards as part of the Story Quest Pack DLC. These signs, 13 in total, are entirely separate from the ones in the main quests. Each one has its own defined timing (and is available only at a certain point in the story) and location at which the sign must be made.

The rewards are commonplace items such as food items or magazines, and Ryo does not sound particularly thrilled to obtain them!

Secret Chawan Sign at the Prize Cafe during the fourth sign task: Ryo receives a copy of the Monk Maniac magazine

Check out BlueMue's comprehensive video detailing all these secret rewards.

Chawan Sign: Meaning

Before going further, let's briefly touch on the meaning behind the name. "Cháwǎn" is simply the Mandarin pronunciation of the written Chinese characters 茶碗, and literally means tea bowl or teacup. (As an aside, this word also exists in Japanese and carries the same original meaning, although these days it also more commonly refers instead to a bowl used for eating rice).

Chawan Sign: Historical Basis

As mentioned earlier, the Chawan Sign was introduced to Ryo as something used by martial artists of the same school to covertly exchange information.

It would seem to be rather inefficient as a means of communication. For a start, there is no guarantee that the sign will be spotted. Spending hours sitting at a table in a busy restaurant or bar with cups set out in front of you is likely to annoy the shop owner and draw attention to yourself as a poor customer!

Is the Chawan Sign a completely original concept created for Shenmue, or is there perhaps some historical basis or other form of inspiration for the concept?

Kenji Manga Series

Kenji is a manga series published from 1988 to 1992 that featured a young martial artist named Kenji Goh who has studied bajiquan from an early age. The characters in Kenji's name (拳児) mean "fist child".

Of particular relevance to this post pages in Volume 6 of the manga, reproduced below, which describe how secret codes were used by the those wanting to overthrow the Qing Dynasty and put the Ming Dynasty back in power.
"Opposing Qing and Returning Ming" meant overthrowing the Qing Dynasty and putting the Ming back in power. It also meant restoring the Han people's glory and annihilating other races.

"But the Qing Dynasty ruled with an iron first. If someone was know to be a member of the Tiandihis, they would be captured and killed. That's why the organization had to come up with all kinds of secret codes.

"When a Tiandihui member found himself in a foreign place during his travels, he would enter a tea shop, and position his cup and its cover like this. "I'm short on money", "I'm looking for a traitor", "I want to see this area's leader", and so on. Depending on how you put the cup and its cover it could mean different things. Reversely, if the codes match, he can recognize people who are his friends. There are many other codes. It was all for secrecy and conquering the Qing Dynasty".
Pages 27-28 (Volume 6 Chapter 2) of the manga Kenji describing secret tea bowl signs

The manga panels give an overview of the reason secret codes were needed, and although included in a fictional work, it turns out that these events - and use of Chawan Signs - were factual.

Qīng Bài Lèi Chāo

The use of Chawan Signs as a secret signaling system can be found in a historical Chinese text called "Anthology of Petty Matters During the Qing" (清稗类钞 / Qīng Bài Lèi Chāo) by Xu Ke. This anthology is an unofficial history of Chinese life during the Qing Dynasty period (1644 to 1911).

The chapter called "Secret Societies" (会党类 / Huì Dǎng) describes the historical use of Chawan Signs within the clandestine organization known as the "Three Harmonies Society" (三合会 / Hé Huì) in China - this was one of the names referring to branches of the Tiandihui mentioned in the Kenji manga seen earlier in this post.

This secret society developed a unique method of communication during tea-drinking rituals, by arranging tea bowls to convey specific messages among its members. Chawan Signs were a kind of symbolic language that allowed members to discreetly share information, express loyalty, and signal various intentions without the need for verbal communication.

When society members unexpectedly encountered someone they didn't know and wished to determine if they are fellow members, Chawan Signs were one of the ways of testing the person's reaction to assess their authenticity.

A page from the Qīng Bài Lèi Chāo describing the use of Chawan Signs in secret societies during the Qing Dynasty

Different types of tea bowl patterns were utilized, such as single lines, shapes resembling certain written characters, and various geometric arrangements. This covert communication method enabled members to recognize each other and exchange information without drawing attention to their connection with the organization.

Here are several of the Chawan Signs as described in the text. Interestingly, one is named the "Sword of Seven Stars" while two others called "Restore Ming" and "Anti-Qing" suggest overthrowing the current dynasty as was mentioned in the Kenji manga pages.
Double Dragons Compete for the Jade Sign:
This sign consists of one teapot and two tea bowls. A candle is first placed elsewhere, and then the two tea bowls are arranged side by side. The tea is consumed after this arrangement.

Character "品" (Pǐn) Sign:
The two lower tea bowls are moved to be level with the upper one before drinking.

Character "山" (Shān) Sign:
Similar to the previous sign, the tea bowls are rearranged to form the character "山" (Shān) before drinking.

Heroes Enter the Stockade Sign:
Four tea bowls are arranged, and the person takes the two closest bowls for consumption. If the person opposite moves the bowls, the individual must also move their bowls accordingly. If the person opposite places the bowls behind, the individual must move and then drink.

Four Corners Sign:
Four tea bowls are arranged, and the upper and lower bowls are moved to form a straight line before drinking.

Restore Ming Sign:
In this sign with five tea bowls, the central bowl is lifted, and the tea is poured into it before consumption.

Anti-Qing Sign:
With five tea bowls, only the central bowl has tea. The tea in the central bowl is abandoned, and the tea from the other four bowls is poured into the central bowl before consumption.

Mutual Help in Times of Trouble Sign:
A plate with four bowls is used, and an extra teapot and bowl are placed outside the plate. One bowl from outside the plate is moved inside, and the tea is drunk.

Five Tiger Generals Sign:
With one teapot and five tea bowls, the tea is returned to the pot, and then poured into the central bowl for consumption.

Ancient Figures Sign:
In this sign with one teapot and six tea bowls, the two end bowls are placed above and below, forming the character "中" (Zhōng), before drinking.

Six Sons Guarding Three Passes Sign:
With six tea bowls arranged in two columns, the upper bowl in the center is moved to the top, and the lower bowl is moved to the bottom, forming a diagonal character "中" (meaning "middle"), before drinking.

Seven Goddesses Descend from the Sky Sign:
Seven tea bowls are used, and the leftmost bowl represents selfishness and should not be drunk. The remaining six bowls can be consumed.

Sword of Seven Stars Sign:
Seven tea bowls are used, arranged in four vertical columns and three horizontal rows, forming the first sign. The left and right ends cannot be taken, only the two bowls at the top can be drunk.

Fifteen Bowls Sign:
Fifteen tea bowls are used, with fourteen forming a circle and one in the center. The tea in the center bowl cannot be taken, only the tea in the outer fourteen can be drunk.
From the above, some interesting features can be noted compared to the way the Chawan Sign is implemented in Shenmue:
  • There is a wide variance in the number of tea bowls that may be involved in a sign, involving up to as many as 15 tea bowls. The teapot itself, or another object (like a candle) may also form part of the sign.
  • Whereas the process in Shenmue consists of simply setting up the pattern and waiting, some of the situations above involve drinking with a "person opposite", in order to test their loyalty or make a coded request or communication.

Final Comment

In this post we looked to find possible sources of inspiration for the Chawan Sign in Shenmue. 

Surprisingly, we found it to have a documented historical basis going back to the Qing Dynasty period when it was used for coordination among those looking to overthrow the reigning regime.

Guixiang's mention of "danger" in Shenmue II gains deeper meaning, given that historically making the wrong sign or revealing your true loyalties ran the risk of exposing yourself as an enemy leading to possible death.

Another reference to these coded signs can be found in the well-known martial arts manga series called Kenji, which in itself is said to contain several parallels and overlaps with Shenmue (this is a topic that I will be covering in a future post).

As we have seen, the Chawan Sign seen in Shenmue is in fact based on historical signals used by secret societies in China, where tea bowls served not only as vessels for refreshment but also as tools for communication and allegiance.

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