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October 2007

Return to the empire

In the period 2000-2004 I devoted considerable effort to creating web based literary opus called the Reincarnation Cycle. My original introduction to the cycle/game read:

Recently I have been reading a rather interesting book entitled Hamlet on the Holodeck which looks into the changes in literature made possible by the computer. Briefly, technology enables interactive, non-linear, participatory narrative. I decided to add my own little bit to the field.

Rather than doing still another fantasy based dungeons and dragons game world I wanted to do something different. What I came up with is The Reincarnation Cycle in which you live one life after another. In each life you are presented with various choices which affect how the current life turns out and what your next life might be.

The background is vaguely oriental and is modelled on the Chinese Empire. Following Hindu belief, however, history is cyclical and eternal. There is a great cycle of time; in your reincarnations you move from one age to the next in endless cycles.

The current implementation has a few hundred files; the technology is simple and is web based – you move from one file to another following links. In principle you can get off the cycle by seeking and finding enlightenment. Suggestions for improvements are always welcome. Over time I expect to elaborate it.

Like many on-going projects I worked on it enthusiastically for a while and then it gradually petered out as life took me in different directions. And, as with so many other projects that petered out, it has come to life again. In its own way, my life has seemed to be a reincarnation cycle of projects.

When the project died its transient death there were about 1200 pages, little text files that narrate a bit of a life, present choices to be made, and then move onto a new life. (If you like, you can explore the reincarnation cycle by going to the entry page.) Twelve hundred may seem like a lot of pages but it’s not, really. At the moment there 148 different lives with an average of eight pages per life. Some of these lives are very simple with one or two choices and a few are incredibly complicated with dozens of branching choices.

Approximately one hundred fifty choices for your next life seems like a great plenty. However it doesn’t work like that. One of my original decisions was to create a great circle of time, consisting of the four ages of wind, the Age of the East Wind (Spring), the Age of the South Wind (Summer), the Age of the West Wind (Fall), and the Age of the North Wind (Winter). The fortunes of the Empire wane and wax with the passing seasons. In turn each Age is divided into three parts, early, middle, and late, so that the wheel of time has twelve partitions. I suppose each partition should have its own animal sign, but I’ve never added that.

All of this wouldn’t matter except that I also adopted the rule that everyone’s next life is in the next division of the great wheel. This means that there is about a dozen choices for your next life. That isn’t the only limit. I have a general rule that men cannot reincarnate to women and vice versa. However either gender can reincarnate as an animal, and animals can reincarnate as either gender. This further limits the choices for a future life.

Incidently, male chauvinist that I am , I originally only had men and animals in the great circle of life. The ladies wrote in, asking where are the women? I spent quite a bit of effort on correcting that omission. This has had an odd side effect. In the first hundred or two pages the narratives for most of the lives were quite short and simple. With time I have elaborated more. As a consequence the lives of women are more wordy than the lives of men. Draw from this what conclusion you like. I still have about half a dozen lives of women to add to complete their presence in the cycle.

Why does it matter how many possibilities there are in the next life? It is like this: The quality and kind of choices you make in this life determines what sort of next life you will have. One way to look at it is that one has an essential nature (dharma if you like) that is altered by the choices you make. The quality of your essential nature is not measurable by a single number, i.e., there is no linear scale on which you slide up and down. Still, there is a general notion of up and down; choose poorly and you may up as a cockroach in your next life. Perhaps (and I have not spelled all of this out yet in my thoughts) there are several virtues that can rule your essential nature, and which rules your’s determines what sort of life you will have next with the station in that sort of life being determined by the quality of your virtue. All of this is in the background, of course, hidden from the person living lives through the cycle. The significance of this is that for the reincarnation cycle to work properly there must be many possible lives in each partition of the great wheel so that there are suitable choices for each virtue.

What are these virtues? As I say, the background is vaguely oriental, so they are a mixture of Buddhist, Taoist, and Confucian concepts, as modified by Western prejudices and misunderstandings. Nominally enlightenment is the great goal and the escape from the eternal wheel of life. Here are some thoughts on what they might be (the eight virtues):

  • The first virtue is knowing one’s place in the world. For each station in the world there is a set of appropriate behaviours. For example, it is not appropriate for a cockroach to try to better itself. The nature of a cockroach is to live in filth and spread disease. Similarly it is not appropriate for a peasant to a noble. Ambition is right and proper, but only within limits.
  • The second virtue is morality. This covers the usual sins such as greed, cruelty, and dishonesty.
  • The third virtue is holiness. This is distinct from morality though one cannot (ordinarily) be holy and immoral.
  • The fourth virtue is clarity of self. This is an aspect that is mostly relevant for those well on the path to enlightenment.
  • The fifth virtue is dedication to one’s art or craft. This is the virtue governing artists and artisans.
  • The sixth virtue is wisdom. Foolishness is a fault; wisdom is a virtue. However no more wisdom of one is expected than can be found in one’s station in life.
  • The seventh virtue is caring and kindness. One can be good and moral and yet be indifferent to others.
  • The eighth virtue is respect for the universe, the gods, the tao, for the order of society, and for one’s ancestors.
However the Reincarnation Cycle is not a thinly disguised religious manual, nor a set of essays of ethics and morality, or any such thing, though, to tell the truth, I don’t have any good answer as to what it might actually be.

Among other things it is a collection of little stories. Some of these stories are interconnected. That is, in one life you might be one person in the story and in another you might another person. For example, there is an ancient set of jewels in the Imperial palace. Legend has it that it will be disastrous for the Empire if they are ever removed. There is a thief who steals them. There is the Empress’s maid who helps. There is a caravan master who finds them and restores them to the Empire. There is an interconnected set of stories about a blacksmith, his wife, the village chief and his wife, and various adulteries with various results. The cross connections can be quite intricate since the choices you are offered depend upon the choices others have made. They are not single stories; rather they are nets of stories with many frayed threads.

Where do these stories come from? For the most part I made them up. Many are rather obvious – they are the sorts of things that might happen in a peasant village, or in a palace, or in a shopkeeper’s family. Some, quite frankly, I stole. For example, one can find an analog of the story Joan of Arc in there somewhere along with the legend of Mulan. There is a governess in a gothic novel – this one isn’t taken from any particular story but rather from the idea of that genre. You can also find Cinderella’s evil stepmother in there somewhere. If, as you pass from life to life, you get the feeling at times that this all feels very familiar somehow there may be a very good reason for that feeling.

The Empire is a ramshackle sort of Empire. It draws on the Chinese Empire and on the Byzantine Empire. I have read Wittfogel’s Oriental Despotism and some of the many critiques. Like classical water empires the Empire has a large peasant class (perhaps 75% of the population is rural), a landholding class of nobles, shop keepers and merchants, a wide variety of artisans and artists, a large class of scholars and bureaucrats, a conscript army, and an Emperor sitting on the Jade Throne.

There is no Samurai class as in Japan, though there are martial artists and nobles. The nobility basically consists of families that have perpetuated established wealth and position through several generations. There are three major ways this can happen – through land holding, through mercantile success, and through bureaucratic position. The three paths have different imperatives and different conceptions of right behaviour. This is a source of conflict; it also is a source of cross fertilization.

The officials of the Empire include the Grand Vizier (I have never thought about what ordinary viziers do) who is sort of the prime minister of the Empire, the Chamberlain who manages palace affairs, the Grand Inquisitor who is the head of the equivalent of the Secret Police, Judges of Instruction, and Uncles of the Peace. Tax collectors are important in the scheme of things – all governments place the collection of taxes at the center of public morality. In the Roman Empire tax collectors were, in effect, given a quota of what they had to collect; they could keep anything above that quota that they could extract. I am a bit nervous about those Judges of Instruction – as I understand it their role is to teach malefactors as to the error of their ways and to instruct them as to how to reform. The methods of the Judges is left to the Judges; however the overriding rule is that if you are before a Judge of Instruction you must be guilty of something.

The reach of the Empire varies with the state of the dynasty and with the current age. The Empire is divided into provinces, with each province having a governor. The inner provinces are usually well under the control of the Imperium; however the outer provinces are often semi-independent. In hard times they may even fall under the rule of barbarians. There are no competing empires – the Empire is surrounded by barbarians. From time to time barbarians may sweep in, defeat the armies of the Empire, and establish a barbarian dynasty. As in China, barbarian conquerors are either absorbed or are eventually thrown out.

I am not settled on the nature of religion in the Empire. The predominant religious themes are along the lines of Buddhism, confucianism, and Taoism. There is no monotheism as we understand it in the West. There are monasteries and convents, mostly dedicated to the preservation of learning and to quietistic approaches to enlightenment. There are travelling monks, some of whom are the rankest of scoundrels.

At the heart of the examination system are the Analects. These are a series of writings that analyze ethics and morality and prescribe proper behaviour. The bureaucratic class takes them as guidelines for administering the Empire. The origin of these writings are obscure. There are hints that they have been written and rewritten over time. I like to think that there never were any true originals, that the analects have always existed in adulterated form throughout eternity.

There are various forms of public service. The most notable of these are the Sisters of Mercy. This is a monastic order of women. It has convents and nunneries; however the Sisters of Mercy go out into the world and help the needy. There doesn’t seem to be an exact equivalent for men. From time to time cults based on reform spring up. Upon occasion they achieve great things but in the end they come to nothing; the Empire is immune to reform.

There are two other organizations of women that I will mention. The first are the Houses of Forgotten Women. These are places where women of position whose are losers in some quarrel within the Emperium are sent. In times of prosperity their imprisonment can be quite pleasant; in hard times it can be quite grim. The women within a House of Forgotten Women are cut off from the world – the fates of husbands, children, and family are a matter of speculation and wistful yearning.

The second is the Sisterhood of the Sword. This is an idea I borrowed from Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover novels. The Sisterhood is an organization of mercenaries who are women. They contract with the Empire to serve as auxiliaries. They also serve as guards for merchants and for caravans. They are bound by oaths that they will never yield their integrity to a man.

The status of women within the Empire may not be entirely satisfactory to advocates of women’s rights. A man may have several wives, but only if he can afford to support them. The Emperor also may have several wives; however only his first wife has the title of Empress. In addition to his wives, an Emperor is expected to maintain a harem of concubines. Emperors have been deposed for remaining faithful to but a single woman. For all but the wealthy, however, marriage is a matter of one man and one woman.

Prostitution is legal; the flower district in large cities can be quite luxurious. On the other hand existence within a sailor’s brothel is less pleasing. The status of women varies with the age. In prosperous ages there are many opportunities for women; in troubled times the rights of women contract.

So where is all of this going? in more melodramatic words, Whither the Empire? My answer is that I don’t know. The Empire and the lives within the Empire are an ever expanding project without visible boundaries. I’m afraid that the scope of the project might be beyond me. To be totally artistically viable the size should be five or ten times as great as it is now. I suppose it is unlikely that I shall ever produce that amount of material but I wouldn’t be surprised if the content were greatly expanded. One inducement is that each little story makes it easier to add embellishments.

I would like to include more details about the Empire and how it works. These sort of details are not central to the lives of its citizens. (As a note, we can take the view that the Empire only has one citizen, a person who lives through all of lives of the Empire is its eternal circle.) My focus has always been on the individual lives rather than on the sociology of the Empire. It would be interesting to flesh out the actual structure.

Some of my readers have asked for more fantasy elements, more dungeons and dragons, so to speak. I rather feel that this would be a wrong move. If the oriental empire I have constructed is a western fantasy, still it is not at all a D&D fantasy. The Empire has its mythology and if some of the lives edge into that mythology, they are at most products of tales of taoist immortals and not at all products of extruded fantasy production.

One other thing that people ask is: what is the path to enlightenment? People have been asking that question for thousands of years. They have been getting answers, too. The answer is that I know what the path is within the reincarnation cycle and how to reach it, but at this time the scope of the reincarnation cycle is too limited; there is too much that must happen before the path to enlightenment can exist.


Wittfogel, Oriental Despotism
Austin Trappin Wright, Islandia
Harry Turtledove, Krispos Rising
Harry Turtledove, Krispos of Videssos
Timothy Brook, The Confusions of Pleasure, Commerce and Culture in Ming China
Confucius, The Analects
Hans Christian Andersen, Fairy tales
Janet H. Murray, Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace
Bernardo Bertolucci, The Last Emperor (1987 film)
Wang Dulu, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Eiko Ikegami, The taming of the Samauri

More material about the Empire

Land tenure in the Empire

This page was last updated October 1, 2007.

Richard Harter’s World
Site map
October 2007
Save our prairies! View the You Tube video here.