Letters From Home

Letters for the newly promoted Sergeant Liu Haofeng.

The Secret History of Xianjing

Congratulations on the field promotion, Sergeant Liu. I know it's been a hell of a year, but your last mission was a real blow to our enemies. Thanks to the intelligence you recovered, we managed to confirm the worst: these bastards have international connections. They're working with criminal organizations, cults, and foreign operatives to recover things better left slumbering. While I know you are still relatively new to reading, I would like to discuss the big picture. I know I've summarized it multiple times, but I'd like to tell you what only a handful of people in the world know. This is the secret history of Xianjing, as best as I have recovered it. Destroy this letter after you have read it, for we cannot risk our enemies getting ahold of this.

The Empire of Xianjing occupies a continent with the same name, but it is not the first civilization to do so. Thousands of years ago, there existed the progenitor of all human civilization, the One Great Nation. While we have not recovered any solid mentions of what they actually called themselves, they were not big on humility. The people of that era consorted with otherworldly beings, including known malignant entities. There are several mentions of a being called the God-King, sometimes referred to as Ten-Tei. We can't confirm if they are the same entity, but they're used interchangeably in most of the documents we found so far. He, she, or it is typically referred to as having four underlings. Given all of them are supposed to possess fearsome powers, the fact I am still alive probably means we haven't encountered them, if they are still around. It's tempting to think they're all dead, but honestly, there are things in existence that easily endure the passage of ages. I personally hope it stays that way.

This era ended quite suddenly, and quite catastrophically. While this One Great Nation established outposts and influence across the globe (and perhaps beyond), something brought it all crashing down. Given the references to people stealing the power of gods and otherworldly entities, I'm sure we were lucky to not be there. Their architecture and artifacts stand out no matter where, or when, you find them, and I have yet to hear of a less harmful one. Paranoia is a good survival trait when these matters are concerned. In the eons after the Nation's fall, we see the rise of known history. Our ancestors likely learned that same lesson on those cursed relics, perhaps hiding or destroying them deliberately. People moved on, the past faded to mythology, and societies rebuilt, ignorant of all that came before. Our enemies refer to this period as the Reconstruction. The city-states that formed the basis of the Seven Nations appeared a few thousand years ago, likely long after all trace of the Nation passed into mythology.

Now comes the part I learned in school. The Seven Nations fought each other, trying to recruit the brightest minds, greatest artists, and most brilliant generals. A poet of the era compared the contrast of these kings waging savage warfare to patronizing artisans to spring and autumn. Eventually, the mightiest of these states, Lian, managed to secure a nominal political leadership over the others, with their Queen claiming the Hegemony over the others. She ruled in name only, as a decade after her rule, civil war erupted once more. Five more hegemons reigned, each less potent than their predecessor. Eventually, the state of Qufeng conquered the others, but their leader did not claim the title of Hegemon. Instead, she declared herself Empress. While her reign was only a few decades, it was far more influential than a century of weak Hegemons. This forceful Unification of the Seven Nations would have been impossible without the First Empress. Some say she used dark artifacts, but she could've easily just used her spies and armies, given how powerful they were.

The Empress' heir was deposed, leading to a brief civil war. Following the ascension of State of Yian over the militaristic State of Qi, most political conflicts became relatively bloodless. A few knives in the backs of nobles and bureaucrats were tolerated, lest the land plunge back into total war. This period led to the current ruling dynasty, and the adoption of the Three Departments and Six Ministries we know today. At the top is the Emperor or Empress, and beneath them are the Secretariat, the Chancellery, and State Affairs. State Affairs includes Personnel (civil service), Revenue (taxes), Rites (research and religion), Justice (law), Works (infrastructure), and War (that's us). The Imperial Family's been progressively more removed from actual decision making, leaving only bureaucrats and nobles to make, implement, and review policy. It's been great for them, but not for everyone else. The structure worked well when it was open to all citizens, rather than slanted to favor inbred kin of today's nobles. After all, nepotism is the reason for a lot of the intrigue. As bloody as battlefields are, I prefer them to backstabbing politicians. At least in war, it's clear who the enemy is.

It's clear the best days were centuries ago. You know, about four centuries ago, things were a lot better than they were today. We had infrastructure that you can only see scant traces of today, outside of a few museums or workshops. Our ancestors found ways to domesticate lightning in the same way we domesticated animals, making it illuminate their homes and run their machines. They investigated ships that could fly through the air, or vessels that could travel under the waves. They even had thinking machines and artificial humans, according to some accounts. Some even say they merged their machines with magic, but if so, it was just another technology to them. They interacted with the rest of the world in a confident, unafraid manner, all when the rest of the world was a barbaric backwater. Every child had an education and living standards like today's nobles. Unlike today, their armies were not staving mobs of poorly trained peasants. The most celebrated warriors of that golden age trained themselves to have superhuman powers, able to fight with blades, bullets, and bare hands. These warriors led units of highly trained troops into battle, where a small unit could easily destroy an enemy army. It's like Xianjing learned from all that went wrong during its past, and tried to rectify it. Sadly, it didn't last.

It started with the plague, followed by the first infestation. A plague of unknown origin ripped through the land, ripping through teeming cities. Back then, cities had better sewage systems and medicine, but this plague was far more virulent than they anticipated. The plague resulted in an economic collapse, but it might've been endurable. The first infestation ruined that. Today, we know of annoying land crustaceans called rust monsters, and we are able to deal with them. Back then, they were not. The infrastructure, industry, and inventions, which took centuries to build, were literally turned to dust in less than a decade. Those that the rust monsters spared, neglect and disorder destroyed over the coming years. Those superhuman martial artists, some corrupted by power, tried to seize their own petty fiefdoms of the collapsing country. They fought what was left of the government, and each other, before being officially declared dead. The superhuman masters went underground, creating the direct forerunner of today's Jianghu.

Our society might have recovered from that, had we competent leadership at the time. But you can see the same trends at play: nepotism, corruption, and waste. The next few centuries brought about a relatively quiet decay, save for the brief Restoration a century ago. An adventurous member of the Imperial Family, Prince Zhu, wanted to see the rest of the world. He commissioned a popular naval commander, Admiral Shang He, who recently returned from a pirate-quelling mission down south. Prince Zhu demanded that the world be reminded of the powers and glory of Xianjing, so Shang He put together the last great exploration effort: the treasure fleets. Overtly, these were missions to explore our ancient charts and show our flag around the world. Covertly, Prince Zhu and Shang He were concerned with their enemies at court getting ahold of Old World artifacts. So, they traveled the world as a means of finding safety, with the Prince living at sea to avoid the intrigues of his relatives. When the fleet returned after their second circumnavigation of the world, their enemies caught up with them. The fleets were scrapped, the Admiral reassigned to an ignoble post, and the Prince forcibly locked in the palace for his "own protection" until his death. Real shame, since Shang He and his top officers were from Lesejing, back when it was called the Garden of the Empire.

Since then, the nobles have gotten worse. The government is largely useless and corrupt, save as a vehicle to enrich the bureaucrats and their minions. Some among them lust for the dark powers of the past, aided by corrupt martial artists. To recruit minions, they hold illicit tournaments, offering powerful artifacts and treasure as prizes. The most ruthless and capable become their enforces and secret police, who get dispatched abroad hunt down more sources of power and to quell dissent. A handful of martial artists resist them, but we cannot challenge them openly. As corrupt as the government is, the rest of the population is unaware of Jianghu. The government fears the people discovering their own power, as well as internal reform. The nobles and bureaucrats all have to maintain a unified front for the public, lest the game end. Despite this, I still have hope.

As bad as it is, Xianjing is a place worth fighting for. Our land was first to invent gunpowder, the printing press, the compass, paper, and electricity. We provided for the weakest, and gave ample challenge to the strongest. We improved upon the past, moving beyond mindless fear of the unknown. We turned our bodies into the most powerful weapons in the world, a force that could take on armies. Even today, after centuries of decay and ruin, Xianjing still has more advanced society, technology, and military than the rest of the world. However, we cannot wait for history to repeat. We cannot wait for these corrupt bastards to take down the people and the country we fight for. No more God Kings. Even if we have to stop them one by one, we still need to fight. We are soldiers, and this is the true war we should be fighting. When I die, it will either be in a land I'm proud to call my own, or in service to saving it. I know I can count on you, Sergeant.

-Captain Ren

The Devolution of Warfare

Well, Sergeant Liu, you asked for an explanation on that collection I showed you, and you are going to get one. I know the repeating rifle I showed you was an interesting relic, but bringing such weapons to the current army has proven to be a difficult task. It is not enough to have new ideas, but to find an institution receptive to them. Despite my extensive search, the Imperial Army is not one of them. Even if they were, there are a number of other problems that would have to be resolved beforehand. We no longer have the prosperity of the ancients, so we must make do with the best we have. As much as I'd like to give you the most powerful weapons I know of, we all have to make do with what we have. As you travel abroad, keep in mind you may encounter stranger methods of combat and warfare. Not all weapons you have to fear are those pointed at you.

To return to the original topic, how did a nation with the most advanced military, built around supporting superhuman combatants, collapse? Despite Yi's history, it is not because the army of that era was too dependent on superhumans. On the contrary, it was more than capable of defeating superhuman combatants and supernatural threats, even with only mundane equipment. The army of that era prized creativity, ingenuity, and daring, as opposed to the current stagnant, bloated mess. Even if their technological advantage was negated, they were more than capable of adapting to changing circumstances. An old account of the Pacification of the Blue Witch was more than telling on this. It was not merely firepower or numbers, but adaptability and courage that won the day. I've done my best to instill those virtues in those under me, but there are limits.

Now, you might think repeating firearms of this era were the dominant weapon. That is untrue. The artillery was the goddess of the battlefield back then, and they had artillery with far longer range and power than the crude weapons of today. The guns and explosives of that era used special mixes of chemicals, which were a closely guarded secret, even back then. Too many alchemists since then have blown themselves into smithereens trying to rediscover these. Suffice to say, though, the small arms of the era were not only guns. The ancients also used crossbows and melee weapons, in situational roles. The dominant form of warfare was that of suppressive fire: ranged troops would cover the battlefield with a volley of projectiles, forcing the enemy to take cover. Following this, allies would flank to a position where they could take down the pinned enemy, sometimes even with melee weapons. This style of warfare required rapid fire projectile weapons, a lot of ammunition, and lots of training. However, a few things happened that caused warfare to shift away from his paradigm.

The first was the development of two types of body armor, both trivially easy to fabricate. The lighter one was a fabric able to stop several bullets and slower-velocity arrows before they could puncture skin. The second was the adoption of new kiln-fired ceramics into metal armor. As the same material used to make statues, this harder armor was able to shrug off much of the artillery shrapnel. This created both light and heavy body armors, which significantly lessened the lethality of ranged combat. These armors were cheap enough that even rural peasants could produce them, and they still do, even today. Many of the superhuman martial artists developed techniques specifically to counter volley fire and explosives, further lessening their power. As a result, repeating firearms, air guns, and crossbows, once the primary weapons for much of the army, were relegated to glorified niche weapons. The true shift though, happened around the end of the golden age, with the plague and first infestation.

The rust monster spread destroyed industry as well as infrastructure. The precision machine tools and the factories were among the first targeted, and in the disorder that followed, weapons factories were a high-priority target for many of the petty tyrants and warlords, who often destroyed them instead of allowing them to fall into enemy hands. The expertise necessary to rebuild them was often incomplete or non-existent. A few exceptions, such as the Nanyang Armory, continued to produce advanced weapons, but the lack of demand caused them to focus on more traditional weapons. The armories continued suffering a gradual decline of parts necessary to maintain their machine tools, and they too fell back on hand-tools and traditional craft. While some records exist, most of the documentation is incomplete or relies on other parts that no longer exist. Complex systems fail in complex ways.

As Xianjing rebuilt, many of the replacement soldiers were conscripts from rural or backwater communities. It was necessary to train a large number of raw recruits with simple weapons. Contrary to certain stereotypes, it was harder to train musketeers and gunners than archers. With a gun, you needed the proper reloading sequence, aiming, and not blowing yourself up in a misfire, and then doing all of it on a battlefield. A clumsy musketeer not only blew themselves up, but also those standing shoulder to shoulder, packed in close formation. In contrast, military archers were primarily needed for volley fire, rather than precision sharpshooting. So, sharpshooters largely were trained on crossbows, and a blend of musketeers and archers helping provide volley fire. Musketeers were used to break enemy shock troops and cavalry, while archers were used for indirect fire at massed armies. Infantry with spears and pikes protect ranged troops while moving or reloading. Even this rudimentary combined arms approach is sufficient for most of the steppe barbarians, bandits, and disorganized rebels we have to fight. Keep in mind our abyssal training standards mean that most Imperial armies would be incapable of victory, unless against such grossly inferior foes.

There's also the corruption issue. Most units in the Xianjing Imperial Army exist only on paper. The funding for these units goes to corrupt officials who pocket the change, like the late General Fei. The upper ranks are largely relatives of the aristocracy, and they would rather deflect responsibility than take it. Even if a reformer was to suggest improvements or just enforce the standards we have, they'd either be demoted or reassigned to some ignoble post. There's a few minor exceptions, but the political will for any military improvements are not there. Let me give you an example.

Say I was to convince a superior officer to let me equip a squad of troops with repeating rifles. Assuming permission is even given, I'd still need a large amount of funds, which we'll say I've somehow acquired. First, I will need to find an artisan or workshop able to produce them. These all rely on precisely hand-crafted parts, which must be of consistent steel alloy, or else they will misfire or jam. Then, I need a workshop that can produce large quantities of gunpowder, which must be stored and transported safely. That's even before the large quantity of ammunition I'd need for training purposes. But let's say I manage to overcome all of those boundaries. The rifle squad still needs additional ammunition and spare parts while deployed.

To equip and train a repeating rifle squad would essentially ten times cost as much as a comparable number of musketeers. Furthermore, there is a way to make crossbows comparable to repeating firearms in range and power. It's a trick I know you've seen, back when we drilled for open terrain warfare. Remember attaching firework rockets to our standard crossbow bolts? Our traditional firework rockets, which are ubiquitous, cheap, and easy to mass produce even by peasant households, provide a few advantages. Instead of a loud bang and a muzzle flash, you just get a hissing sound similar to leaking air. The rocket accelerates the bolt, adding velocity as it accelerates. At a comparable range to a repeating rifle, the rocket-assisted bolts have almost twice as much power. All you need is a small friction strip on your crossbow. You don't even need a particularly powerful crossbow, either. It works just as well with my weak hand crossbow and standard repeating crossbows.

That is why I am issuing you some of our more reliable tools for your overseas expedition. The cult we battled has friends abroad, who are trying to sell them something nasty. We need to cut out the cancer at the source. I know you keep your heavy armor in good order, and your trusty hammer is ready for blood. If you need to fight at a longer range, I am issuing you a repeating crossbow with some rocket bolts. I am sure, based on the provided instructions, you can figure out how to make them. I do not know how the foreigners will fight, or what issues you may encounter. But I do know you are a survivor. Accomplish your mission, and I will throw you a big celebration on your return. For now, focus on the fights we can win. Good luck, Sergeant.

-Captain Ren