Jade Empire: The Water Dragon

By Shamus
on Apr 11, 2007
Filed under:
Game Reviews

Jade Empire spoilers ahead…

At first I thought it strange that the Water Dragon was in charge of water, and shepherding the dead. That seems sort of odd. It’s like a guy being in charge of Marketing, and driving the forklift. These aren’t jobs you’d expect to overlap. Now I kind of see how the two concepts are related. Or at least similar.

The Water Dragon.  She’s in charge of water. And dead people. Her operations are not running properly due to the <em>very</em> hostile takeover and subsequent downsizing of her department.
The Water Dragon. She’s in charge of water. And dead people. Her operations are not running properly due to the very hostile takeover and subsequent downsizing of her department.
In Jade Empire, when people die their souls are (normally) drawn to Dirge, where they pass through the gate and into their rest. I think just their energy passes back into the world while the spirit itself goes to the afterlife. I don’t know if you would call this reincarnation or not. (Dawn Star does, at one point.) In any case, the game makes it clear that the Water Dragon cannot create anything, only guide the dead to keep the cycle going. This is called “turning the Great Wheel”. The Great Wheel is like a water wheel, and as spirits pass through it turns, and the cycle of life & death continues.

Spirit Monks are given the ability to “bind spirits”. This power is supposed to be used on wayward spirits. Once in a while someone dies and decides to hang around and cause trouble instead of going to the afterlife. Usually this means they died under very unhappy circumstances. Spirit Monks are supposed to use their power to grab these ghosts and help them get where they need to go.


Then the Sun brothers (Emperor Sun Hai, Sun Li, and their youngest brother Sun Kim) show up and pervert the entire process. Sun Hai wants the power of the Water Dragon to end the Great Drought. As a side-effect he also gains her other, more important powers. He supplants her as the deity in charge of the water cycle and the spirit cycle, but he doesn’t continue her work. It’s likely he doesn’t understand or even know about her (now his) role in the spirit realm. All he wanted was the power to save his Empire. He got it, but broke the world in the process. The dead are all stuck and none of them can get to the afterlife. As a result, the world begins to fill up with angry ghosts who are compelled to go somewhere but can’t and who don’t understand what is wrong.

The cycle of spirits is a lot like the water cycle. If you could stop the water cycle (say, allow rain to fall but not evaporate locally) you might halt a drought in the region, but doing this would have a profound impact on other places. Sun Hai stops the spirit cycle – the Great Wheel – and so suddenly life is only going one way. I’m curious what would happen if his reign had continued. Would the world become so full of ghosts that it was uninhabitable? Ghosts had a habit of killing people once they went crazy enough, so once they reached a certain tipping point the population would have begun to drop off sharply. Ghosts would have begun killing people faster than they could reproduce, and eventually only ghosts would remain. Perhaps it would have taken a few more centuries, but this outcome was probably inevitable under his rule.

Sun Li only understands slightly more than his older brother. Once he has control, he speaks of “forcing” the dead to their rest. He’s probably taking about controlling the ghosts and preventing them from interfering with the living, but I doubt he was interested in becoming the shepherd of the dead and guiding them all through the gate, if he even understood it. What would have happened under his rule? The ghosts might not overcome humanity under his rule, but perhaps the lack of souls going to the afterlife would have caused a “drought” of new life. Perhaps mass infertility (or mass stillborn babies) would have been the result of this road.

I don’t usually get into the mythology of gameworlds. The pantheon of Oblivion / Morrowwind gets a big shrug from me. The gods of D&D don’t interest me at all. But I find the Celestial Bureaucracy of Jade Empire to be thought-provoking. It operates according to rules, some of which are explicit and some of which must be inferred, but there are rules. Deities exist to perform jobs, not collect worshipers, which makes interaction with them seem more interesting. I always thought the way some gods were always trying to recruit followers and bribe them into loyalty with miraculous favors made them seem kind of shallow. This makes them great for generating quests, adventures, and campaigns (which is the whole point of them, really) but they just don’t scratch my particular storytelling itch.

I really enjoy the Celestial Bureaucracy and have been playing around in a few of the Jade Empire’s key dialog trees, trying to squeeze out some overlooked insight into how the world of Jade Empire works. Great stuff.

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1624 comments. (That's 10 in Hexadecimal.)

From the Archives:

  1. Ace says:

    “Ghosts had a habit of killing people once they went crazy enough, so once they reached a certain tipping point the population would have begun to drop off sharply. Ghosts would have begun killing people faster than they could reproduce, and eventually only ghosts would remain.”

    I’m willing to accept the quest to prove you wrong on this.

    I agree wholeheartedly with you Shamus.
    Also, the thing surrounding the foxes and the multiple heavens appealed to me. If you’re going to do another JE post, please, make sure to write something about this, since I thought it was one of the most interesting things.

    – Ace

  2. Otters34 says:

    Awsome essay, espescially your long-term analysis of the consequences.

    But why was the Water Dragon decipted as a Human? why not a dragon?

  3. Apparently that kind of mixing of responsibilities for deities is not uncommon. In Japan, “Benzaiten” is the god of “wealth, music, eloquence and water”, for some reason.

  4. Itzchy says:

    The physical representation of the Water Dragon is a dragon, as a scene near the end of the game will show, but her spiritual representation is that of a human. Perhaps it’s meant to be a more calming effect on people and spirits, as most would probably freak out if a huge 100 foot Chinese dragon appeared in front of them.

    It’s either that explanation or the designers simply didn’t have room to fit said 100 foot dragon in cutscenes. Meh.

  5. The Gneech says:

    Well, spirits flow “down” to the afterlife and join with the cosmos (so to speak) the way raindrops flow down through streams and rivers to join the ocean … only to be raised up again as vapor and once again become rain.

    Not to mention the whole “life began in the seas” thing. ;)

    If ever there was a single element that meant life, it’s water.

    (Of course, water without fire is ice, which is not so great for life. And without air or earth it’s all just a giant shapeless nothing with stuff floating around in it … so the other elements are important too.)

    -The Gneech

  6. Jessie says:

    I always just figured that the Water Dragon could look like whatever the heck she wanted to look like, though I’m sure Itzchy’s point about the cutscenes has some validity.

  7. Samrobb says:

    Shamus – if you haven’t already come across these, you would probably enjoy the stories of Master Li and Number Ten Ox by Barry Hughart. He’s written three books set in ancient China – “Bridge of Birds”, “The Story of the Stone”, and “Eight Skilled Gentlemen”. All three are excellent and amusing stories.

  8. Anders says:

    I’ll second the Master Li stories, but I do think that only the first is truly brilliant, the other two merly good.

    The cosmology of Jade Empires was quite nice, I liked it lots. And the thoughts on what would happen if the wheel of life wasn’t restored quite thought provoking.I’m sure that neither of the Sun brothers would make it better in any way.

  9. Insanodag says:

    Well if you decide to read books set in ancient china, why not read books that are from ancient china. Outlaws of the Marsh(alternative title Watermargin) is a brilliant book, and the Black Whirlwind in the game Jade Empire is a homage(directly lifted, axes and all) to one of the characters in the book.

  10. Itzchy says:

    Being an ethnic Chinese from Malaysia myself, I’d agree wholeheartedly with Insanodag. Another fabulous one to read to steep yourself in Chinese culture and folklore would be “Journey to the West”.

    I realize that many, many people have probably watched some B-grade version of it before, but that doesn’t do it justice.

  11. Evil Otto says:

    “But why was the Water Dragon decipted as a Human? why not a dragon?”

    Partly due to the reasons others have listed above, but also partly because the designers didn’t want to give away who the mysterious spirit who kept appearing to you was. Later you figure it out, and at the end you see the dragon (or what’s left of her) in her “true” form.

  12. SimeSublime says:

    Like Evil Otto said. You’ll notice that they don’t tell you she’s the water dragon until you meet her in the forest, by which time they’d expect you’d have worked it out.

  13. Jos says:

    Getting into this discussion pointlessly late and without much to add, but still, I loves me some Jade Empire and the Water Dragon is probably my favourite character, so here goes…

    The Water Dragon appearing to the player as a human. Well, she doesn’t, not quite. There are scales all along her neck and on the back of her hands. And about her hands, are those fingers? They seem to have a certain… talon-like quality to me. She’s human-shaped, but she’s clearly not human in the way Zin Bu could be considered human.

    I’m not sure if this woman-with-scales shape is the true form of her spirit or soul. The Celestial Bureaucracy does not seem to shy away from human or human-like forms, we never really get to see the spirits of the gods we meet, so who knows?

    Personally, I think the Water Dragon’s spiritual form is a matter of convenience. From what I can tell, she’s a very hands-on goddess who had a relatively close relationship to those who served her. It would be easier for the Water Dragon to appear before her Spirit Monks in the form of a human rather than that of a giant dragon. Spirit Monks might understand giant dragon language, but they certainly understand human language so that would make giving orders and just generally communicating easier.

    Perhaps in time the Water Dragon began to view herself as both the giant dragon and the human-like spiritual form, but I got even less proof of that than of my other guesses.

  14. Gary Cai says:

    Welcome to the wonderful word of Chinese folklore and deities. In the Chinese culture, be it medically or artistically or whatever, there is a balance. A yin-yang that flows. One cannot live without the other(s); disturbing one will not leave the other(s) still.

  15. Dragomok says:

    I’m surprised that you, Shamus, are (or rather – were) surprised by the fact that – within this setting – stopping reincarnation would cause “drought” of the new life. I find this implication completely obvious.
    Well, I admit, I’m… erm… a strange lil’ fellow (I started to ponder the implacations of European concept of soul existing for infinity when I was eight, not to mention trying to imagine what universe looks like if the space is infinite).

    What really bugs me, is that the Great Wheel concept implies that there is finite maximum number of living beings that can exist in a given time (unless the deistic Great Dragon somewhen returns). I wonder how would Jade Empire’s humanity (and aliens, perhaps) react when faced which such sitution. How would it affect social structures? Would people perform mass murders so they could have children? Would the birth rate be so small that goverments would take away each and every newborn child and raise it in a strategical, heavily-protected institution?

    Now, come to think of, that would make a really, really setting for a story.

  16. Templarjedi says:

    There are too many pieces missing from this puzzle, really.

    For example:

    1. What would happen if a deity itself would show some spine and step beyond their “traditional role” and do something else, just “be” for example…(this wouldn’t necessarily mean they become “evil”)

    2. What is the nature of a spirit?

    3. Are spirits different than their power/s?

    Etc etc etc… :)

    Spirits follow cycles, but some may choose not to. Some spirits do not go mad (Bladed Thesis for ex.), and accept very well the simple status of just being a spirit, with the benefits that status provide. So, some spirits are “tidy” :)

    Let’s focus on the concept of Enlightenment (Samadhi), which means, for any being, exactly to be released from rebirth cycles, the real freedom and sound purpose of any spirit!

    Attaining Enlightenment is achieved through meditation on one’s true nature, reflecting and transforming one’s point of view. It requires a sort of “learning”. Do you really need a physical body for such a thing? NO. The game shows that spirits do not require a body in order to learn and change their points of view (example: Ren Ming)

    The question what will happen to the living, will they be invaded by ghosts that never find their rebirth cycles, is tricky and unsolvable if you overlook Enlightenment. By reaching Enlightenment the spirits will be free, no longer be bound to anything: no rebirths, no cycles, no bodies, no will of others (be they gods or demons or whatever).

    So there is your answer. The spirits, as long as they don’t reach Enlightenment, are prone to have limitations just as the living ones. Empires exist as long as limitations exist. Any not-enlightened being could be part of an Empire and, therefore, submit to a hierarchy and be ruled. The material body is only a tool, not a necessity of expression/evolution (which culminates in Enlightenment).

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