Penglai (Alpha Mensae I)


The Master said, "He who exercises government by means of his virtue may be compared to the north polar star, which keeps its place and all the stars turn towards it."
- The Analects of Confucius, 2-1

The best rulers are scarcely known by their subjects;
The next best are loved and praised;
The next are feared;
The next despised:
They have no faith in their people,
And their people become unfaithful to them.
When the best rulers achieve their purpose
Their subjects claim the achievement as their own.
- Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

The carbon dioxide plant, an immense grey tensegrity tower stretching towards the sky, dwarfed the town of Liuhe. On the railway to the plant I saw the automated trains bringing in the rocks from the automated quarries, returning with the waste products, at least one every five minutes. As we approached Liuhe grew into a good-sized city of snow-covered buildings, many in the unique Leng style of cheap but sturdy geodesic domes. Some festival was apparently approaching, as colourful banners festooned many doors; despite the strong wind they just rippled slowly in the high gravity. Despite the cold, the wind and the dreary weather people were out in the streets, busily raising temporary environment domes or carrying packages. A group of children were playing a game with twigs of the yuantong, trying to hit each other with the irritating berries.
- Jonathan Ellis-Khayama, Interstellar Diary


Penglai was colonised by the Peoples Republic of China, a major national colonisation project with enormous support. The four colonisation ships were launched in 2034-2036, arriving in 2147. The innermost planet was named Penglai after the paradise island of the immortals.

The four ships set up four semi-independent colonies in the vicinity of each other. The idea was to adapt to local environments and to have the Penglai Colony Administration (PCA) coordinate and lead the governments. It was a giant social experiment, largely based on calculations and wishful thinking among Chinese bureaucrats. In time the plan turned out to be somewhat unwieldy: problems with lost transports, language confusion due to different dialects, resource shortages and unregulated movement complicated things seriously. The local governments gradually became more and more independent, despite the attempts by the PCA to keep everything on track. The PCA retained control over the defence forces and acted as a kind of UN with enforcement powers. Hao Chen, Daonin, Tsi Leng and Hsu Hsi became nations in their own right, and in 2183 they were formally recognised by the PCA.

In the relative isolation of Penglai, new ideas emerged. One of the most important was neo-Taoism, the synthesis of Taoism, the synergetics of Buckminster Fuller and complexity theory. It was developed by a researcher-artist named Yuan Guen and his students, and emerged to become an important influence in Penglaiese society, art and technology. While some offshoots resisted the PCA projects, the mainstream neo-Taoists embraced them wholeheartedly, developing better ways of using a minimal amount of matter and energy to change the planet.

Daonin and Hsu Hsi were the most successful nations, while Hao Chen (located on the mountainous Three Mountain Peninsula) became involved in a succession of internal conflicts, corruption affairs and outbreaks of violence, and Tsi Leng on the mineral-rich but cold-dry Lao plateau had a hard time developing its potential. To compound the problems the different colonies have Chinese of different nationalities, and language became a problem. The PCA several times had to organise raids against deserters who tried to sneak away and form their own colonies or hide in the ecologically protected zones of the southern hemisphere.



Adapting to Penglai was tricky. The day was too long, the gravity high, the air sometimes allergenic. This was solved by various medical treatments and some limited genetic modifications of children; the Penglaiese today tend to be short, stout, have a longer diurnal cycle and are highly resistant against many allergens. However, these measures were less implemented in certain districts, and other solutions such as exoskeletons are also in use. The neo-Taoist purity ideals contradict the adaptation ideas; there have been fierce debates on whether the modifications are a dangerous pollution of the bodies of the citizenry. In the end, the neo-Taoists split into a spectrum ranging from the small "School of Inner Alchemy" (named after the Taoist movement) which thinks that all the changes are negative and should not be given to children, and the more liberal "School of Outer Alchemy" which claims these changes really are part of the Way. An even more extreme group, the Hsien, claim further enhancements are the Way, but this view is disliked by most of the population. Overall, the Penglaiese value purity and perfection highly. A spotless design, a clean room, an illustrious career is regarded as ideals to strive for.

Tsi Leng is located on the Lao Plateau, which covers much of the continent Hanxiang. The climate is harsh, with cold northerly winds blowing for much of the year and occasional sweeping fires. Still, the plateau is the most mineral rich part of the planet, with huge resources of everything from copper to rare earth metals. Tsi Leng never had any real capital, since the widespread settlements and outposts were tightly connected through the net; just like on Nova instead a virtual government did as well as a physical. Decisions are made through an invisible virtual bureaucracy where the bureaucrats are widely dispersed but connected; it is sometimes jokingly called the Celestial Bureaucracy. While this has given Tsi Leng one of the most flexible governments on Penglai, it has not been enough to get the nation competitive. People have whenever possible moved down to the other nations, and the brain-drain to Daonin is serious. The huge PCA projects merely provide work, there have been little energy or manpower left to develop the potential of the plateau. Penglaiese joke that Tsi Leng is the place where nothing has ever happened and never will.

Hao Chen is a rainy, mountainous peninsula. Due to the high gravity rain falls heavier, making people loath to go outside without protection. Most cities have at least covered walkways and streets with glass ceilings. At first the sub-colony was quite successful, becoming a major supplier of heavy manufacturing equipment and cultured meat (China had solved the problem of keeping people supplied with protein in the 2020s by culturing meat in nutrient tanks instead of as inefficient grazers; this has become a staple on Penglai to a much larger extent than it ever did in China, in fact Penglaiese often prefer cultured meats to natural ones). But in 2189 the government was toppled by a serious corruption scandal (including sex, murder, abuse of power and many juicy details) leaving a major power vacuum. The PCA moved in too late, several dissenting fractions jockeyed for power and the "compromise government" the PCA set up found itself opposed from all directions. Over the span of a few years it weakened more and more, despite strong PCA support, and in 2193 the rising level of street violence grew to civil war. The "Dirty War" as it became called lasted just for a few months. The PCA used its influence to open the borders of Hao Chen so that anybody who wanted to leave for the other colonies could do so; this quickly bled the Hao Chen economy dry and drained away most of the non-aligned people. Then the PCA gave its full support to one of the strongest fractions, the Three Yard Guanxi, and made it the new government. Unfortunately the émigrés did not all move back as intended to rebuild the land, and a complicated process of semi-forced relocations, changed citizenships and minor terrorism gave the PCA leaders gray hairs. In the end some enclaves of ex-Hao Chen people remained in Hsu Hsi and Daonin, in time becoming important in planetary trade and industry despite the imposed borders. Hao Chen slowly recovered, but the government remained shaky. Several times it has fallen, only to be restored after more or less devious manoeuvring among the "fractions", the different groups that try to rule the peninsula. To make matters worse, many of these fractions now have complex ties to the other colonies, the underworld, terrorism or even the PCA in various ways. Hao Chen is an unstable nation, something the rest of Penglai deeply regrets. However, cynics say that it fulfils an important role: the other colonies export all their trouble to Hao Chen.

Daonin is the star among the nations of Penglai. Blessed with a fairly pleasant climate, good farming and a concentration of the intellectual capital, it is the richest and most dynamic nation. Most of the rains that plague Hao Chen pass right overhead, releasing their water in the interior mountains instead on the coastal plains. Several deep and powerful rivers pass through Daonin, which is often called the Land of Bridges. The capital Hung-Ching is the major city on the planet, with the premier universities, largest corporations and the Electric City, an area where many of the rich and famous have congregated. The Electric City got its name from a popular song in the 2220s; it is a park-like area where unassuming but very, very expensive buildings overlook the canyon of the Ao river. Many people have flocked to Daonin from the other colonies and form important subcultures; in addition the inhabitants are known to be less rigid and traditional than the other nations and take a pride in inventing new outrageous styles. Unlike the other colonies Daonin is fairly pro-PCA, at least officially.

Hsu Hsi (originally called Yangko) is located on the fertile Linyi island in the southern Yellow Sea. It is a nearly flat island, which has some flooding problems when the winds become too strong. Many of the buildings and cities are built on heavy concrete foundations or inside geodesic domes. It was here Yuan Guen worked, and neo-Taoism is also strongest here. When the nation became independent a radical anti-PCA neo-Taoist group, the Cinnabar Alliance, tried to gain power but were rebuffed by the sitting government. However, over time they gradually won influence, and in 2235 they actually managed to reach the presidency. One of their first acts was to rename the nation, and then they began a program to undercut PCA influence. The PCA, wise of the mistakes it had done in Hao Chen did a surgical political strike against the Cinnabar Alliance, succeeding in removing the leadership and putting a moderate fraction back in power. The other nations supported the move (more or less), and in the end the radical reforms were removed, except for a few popular ones like the name of the nation. The strike was fairly unpopular in Hsu Hsi, and the nation has remained both unwilling to submit to the PCA and fairly independent to this day. The large oceanic installations of the Yellow Sea are often based on Linyi, so the island reaps great economic benefits from every new construction regardless of who pays for it.

The core of Penglaiese politics are the guanxis. A guanxi is a personal network, a bit like old school ties but with stronger Confucian and hierarchical implications. A subordinate friend is obliged to help his superior in all things, and can expect the help and protection from the superior. Certain guanxis become extremely powerful, ranging over the whole colony and enabling the leading members to influence just about everything through their widely distributed net of obligations. The PCA originally tried to prevent this by setting up the four sub-colonies in isolation from each other, but the result was that guanxis gained much stronger local control (an additional factor to their independence), and once the policy was softened guanxis began to spread internationally. In order for anybody to rise above the national political level they need support from the international guanxis, which by now dominate the PCA.

The PCA always thinks big. They believed that more colonists would be forthcoming once word of their success reached the Earth, and they began to plan for an interplanetary future. They also had plans to make Penglai more terrestrial, by changing the local climate. The various projects instituted from the start consumed tremendous resources, but also became useful rallying points for the different colonies. The atmospheric modification units in the New Yellow Sea and on the Lao plateau converted carbonates into huge amounts of carbon dioxide in an attempt to warm the planet, while a great orbital catapult was constructed near Daonin. Another area where Penglai developed was materials science; the Daonin project and the needs of the colony necessitated the development of light, strong, flexible and cheap materials. In time designer materials became a major product, including smart materials with noticeable computing power, ultra-strong composites and moving gels.

An artform that has emerged and become almost a national obsession is alife (artificial life) simulations. They range from minimalist cellular automata to open-ended baroque worlds where creatures develop, behave and evolve. Among neo-Taoist thinkers alife simulations are a way of better understanding the Tao; through experience in creating alternate worlds we come to a deeper understanding of our own. In many places old people can be found playing The Game of Life, an abstract game based on the ancient simulation and Go. Practical applications of alife have subtly infiltrated many uses: traffic flow is influenced to maximise the efficiency without any noticeable intrusion, weather control is becoming practical and everyday objects are often partially evolved in simulations.



The Penglai Colonial Administration is still going strong. It is a huge bureaucracy with many departments, officials willing to organise/interfere with the national governments and subtle power-gaming between different guanxis, departments and views. Most of the higher administration is (officially) located on the big orbital station Shun-Xie (often called "Heaven"), but many departments are located in immense bureaucratic arcologies on the ground.

Evoltech is a consortium selling evolved software, alife and other products of complexity engineering offplanet. It is busy gaining connections with Nova AI companies and Atlantean micro-trading software.

The Hsien, "the immortals", is the underground transhumanist-neo-Taoist movement. They are individualistic and opposed to the hierarchical Penglai society with its taboos on human enhancement. Originally a group of radical neo-Taoists in Daonin, they were suppressed when they broke against the genetics laws to improve themselves. Their core belief is that the human body and mind can be perfected by neo-Taoist principles, genetic engineering, symbionts and training. Over time they have developed into an underground network working against the PCA and blamed for terrorist activities across Penglai; untangling what is real Hsien activities, unrelated groups, rumours and propaganda is very hard. Their secret leader (or leaders) are referred to The Great Sage, Equal of Heaven (a reference to Sun Wu Kong, the rebellious monkey king in Chinese legend who perfected himself and sought to overthrow the Jade Emperor of Heaven).

The Association of Free Enquiry began as a scientific association working for academic freedom. Over time it changed, and it has now become a part of the Penglaiese academic establishment rather as an oversight group and special interest organisation working closely with the PCA Education Department.

Lung Fusion is the largest Penglaiese energy corporation. It has won many contracts for building atmospheric converters, powerplants and energy networks. It is aggressively expanding, using profitable deals with the PCA as well as opportunistic alliances with various guanxis to further its growth.

The Order of I is a neo-Taoist/post-Confusianist conservative religious group. I is a concept in confucianist ethics denoting acting right in any situation without any thought of personal gain. They wander around, preaching neo-Taoism and promoting their own religious values. Many regard them as moral busybodies, more interested in explaining to others what they are doing wrong than changing anything themselves.


In architecture, organisation and planning Penglai tends towards the huge and monumental. Everything is built to last, with big safety margins and heavy foundations. At the same time the ideas of neo-Taoist synergetics are prevalent: the immense should be built as elegantly and lightly as possible, often exploiting unusual symmetries and interlocking parts. Combined with a resurgence of traditional Chinese baroque (dragons, ornamental lattices, bodhisattvas etc) the result is a very unique style mixing old and new, robust with elegant, heavy with light.

Personal clothing tends towards the warm and practical. Coats are cylindrical affairs with thick arms, not unlike old Russian bojar coats.


45-point syndrome

Disease caused by local microrganism; the immune system wastes energy in attacking certain spores, making the victim tired and susceptible to other diseases.


Thanksgiving feasts held in honour for help from authorities, organisations or celebrities.


Insight, the sudden realisation of how things are. The goal for most neo-Taoist meditation.


"Golden lotus", term for alife simulation.

Dai gut le si

"Big kumquats and money pockets"; Cynical term for big PCA projects. Originally traditional Cantonese new years greeting, but the term has drifted.

Guanxi A social network.


Foreigner, somebody strange and not from Penglai. Somewhat archaic term.


Immortal, a member of the underground neo-Taoist transhumanist movement striving to become more than human.


"After heaven", the world after arrival on Penglai as opposed to the pre-colonial world (Hsien-tien).


The Great Plan, the terraforming project.


The Dragonkings; poetic term for the gridrays and other big sea animals.


Heavy lifting vehicle used in constructions around the New Yellow Sea.


"Abstaining from eating grain". Practice among some neo-Taoists to never eat anything but tank-cultured algae, vegetables and meats (as well as abstaining from alcohol and fat); this is considered both physically and spiritually healthy.


Mountain-tower, one of the atmospheric converters.


The intestinal symbiote used by many to adapt to Penglai.

Those Above

The PCA.


Heaven, The Highest. Ironic term for the PCA.


Mandate of Heaven, term used for the relationship between the PCA and the national governments.


A popular form of meditation consisting of concentrating on evolving alife patterns.


Somebody from Hao Chen, refers to the persistent rains.


The Ten Thousand Things; all of existence, everything there is.


Emptiness, non-being, synergy. The ideal of neo-Taoist engineering.


Total population: 16,144,202. Hao Chen: 5,209308. Daonin: 5,967,446. Tsi Leng: 1,241,861. Hsu Hsi: 3,725,587. Life expectancy at birth: 119 Earth-years.


PCA Yuan. The four colonies have their own scrips of lesser value.


The terrestrial measures are officially used, locally the Chinese calendar in various forms is used for dates. The day has 32 hours (with 14 leap minutes). In Daoling and Tsi Leng people live in 24 hour shifts, using hormone supplements to avoid jetlag. The Chinese calendar, being lunisolar, had to be adapted to the long period of Yue (139 Earth-days, or 104.25 Penglai-days) by dividing it in three months of 34 or 35 days. The penglaise solar year is 201.7 days, making it slighly less than six months long.


A yellow star on a red background, surrounded by a black dragon holding it. The four subcolonies have flags with their names written in black Chinese characters on a red background.


There are three other planets in the system; gas giants named Turtle, Carp and Dragon. The PCA has for a long time planned to exploit their resources, especially by extracting energy from the radiation belts. So far nothing has happened, but there are outposts around all of them.

Penglai has a single moon, Yue. Yue is just 584 km in diameter, orbiting 600-900,000 km away in a rather eccentric orbit. This is the location of the PCA naval base.

Penglai orbits 0.8 AU from the sun, with a period of 0.736 earth-years. It has a diameter 15,281 kilometres, density 1.2 earths. The surface gravity is 1.421 g. The day is 32 hours long, necessitating either alterations of the biological clock or living in shifts. The axial tilt is 15 degrees.

The surface is 70% water, with several fragmented continents; overall the planet is quite mountainous but the mountains tend to be low due to the high gravity. The largest continent is Hanxiang on the northern hemisphere, with the extensive Lao plateau (where Tsi Leng is located). It sends out a rocky peninsula called the Three Mountains, the site for Hao Chen (capital Xiuyang). Around the peninsula lies the New Yellow Sea, with many offshore platforms and atmospheric conversion units. To the south lies the continent Dengdian, with Daonin on the extensive coastal plains (capital Hung-Ching) . To the southeast, on the island of Linyi lies Hsu Hsi (capital Nung-wu). The other continents (Lienru, Tienhu, Goufanglei) and major islands are largely uninhabited.

The weather is cool, with large icecaps on the poles and few truly warm summers even at the equator. However, whenever the vegetation is dry it can be ignited, and fires are a constant danger even in winter.


Most life is in the seas, but the continents are covered with sparse vegetation and low-built animals. The biology uses amino acids not suitable for terrestrial life; the two biospheres are quite unpalatable and uninteresting for each other. However, some plants produce violent allergic human reactions, especially the spores in the waist-forests of Ten-Chong. Another problem is bacteria that produces carbon monoxide; they are mainly found on the sea bottoms or in the soil, making it essential to have a monoxide warning device in certain areas when the wind is not blowing.

Sea-life is at least as varied as on Earth, ranging from microbes to the immense gridrays (sometimes called sea-dragons), filter-feeders a hundred meters across that rarely enter the Yellow Sea. Most animal life is based on a double-spine body plan, with two spines and segmented bodies. Land animals tend to look like centipedes or snakes. Among the most unusual are the jumpers: armoured creatures that jump up high in the air and drop down on their prey, crushing or immobilising it. They are an irritating pest to humans, as they often attack pets or small machines despite that they cannot eat them.

The ecology of Penglai is complex, and the terraforming complicates things further. The terraforming stations create local algae blooms, which initially were seen as an undesirable side effect but eventually turned into a great way of producing raw biomass for the food tanks. However, the plankton attracts the gridrays and other filter-feeders, which tend to get hurt when they collide with intakes and structures. It has also caused a decrease in carbon monoxide production nearby, which is desirable for humans but not good for the intermediary ecological layers. Another effect of the increase in temperatures is the rapid spread of rock blossoms, a tropical plant that has spread further from the equator on southerly mountainsides. This worries many ecologists, but control through both traditional ecotech and neo-Taoist methods have made it controllable and an useful way of binding meltwater. Overall, the terraforming changes the ecology but not out of control. Whether this is desirable or not depends on ones philosophical views, and is a constant point of contention between neo-Taoist environmentalists and the mainstream, as well as beween Arcadians and the PCA.