«(SERAS) Southeast Review of Asian Studies Volume 35 (2013: 141-160 An Evaluation of Robert van Gulik’s The Gibbon in China and its Place in Modern ...»
(SERAS) Southeast Review of Asian Studies
Volume 35 (2013: 141-160
An Evaluation of Robert van Gulik’s The
Gibbon in China and its Place in Modern
Shanghai Normal University
Erasmus University MC Rotterdam
The Gibbon in China: An Essay in Chinese Animal Lore (长臂猨考) is the first Western
monograph that studies ancient Chinese gibbon culture systematically.1 It is also
Robert van Gulik’s last sinological treatise. Robert van Gulik (Gao Luopei 髙羅佩) is greatly interested in Chinese culture. His detective novels, the Judge Dee series, are especially famous in China. His research on ancient Chinese sexual life, philosophy, lute, inkstone, painting and calligraphy are in-depth and insightful. But his research on Chinese gibbon culture has not got enough attention in academia.
Only a few scholars pay attention to this book so discussion about it is rare in Western academia.
It is a challenge to give a brief overview of Robert van Gulik’s (hereafter RvG) records because he is an extraordinarily multi-talented Dutch sinologist. His career combines outstanding achievements in three areas, “[a]ny-one of which would have sufficed to distinguish an ordinary person: a diplomat who served on important posts as a Netherlands envoy; a sinologue scholar, one with extraordinarily wide-ranging interests and knowledge; and an author-artist, creator of the immensely popular Judge Dee novels and the illustrations for them.”2 This paper was presented at the year 2013 meeting of the SEC/AAS conference, sponsored by the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, in Wilmington, North Carolina, USA. Jan 20, 2013.
James Cahill, “Judge Dee and the Vanishing Ming Erotic Colour Prints”, Orientations November 2003, Volume 34, Number 9, p.40. Van Gulik based his material on the 18th century book titled Cases of Judge Dee (Di Gong An 狄公案).
The Judge Dee character goes back to the historical figure Di Renjie (狄仁杰, Dí Rénjié) (c. 630–c. 700), magistrate and statesman of the Tang court. More on Judge Dee detective stories: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Judge_Dee_stories 142 S. Ye & F. Heule In The Gibbon in China (hereafter TGIC), RvG starts his account from the earliest traditions of Chinese culture. Traditional Chinese culture in this sense means both the ancient and the classical cultures from the Shang to the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1912. An institution important to the continuation of high cultural standards was the examination system (keju 科 舉).The abolition of this system was effectuated in 1905 (Franke 1972).
Throughout his life, RvG had as his personal goal participation in the classical Chinese traditions. That is why he explores them in extenso.
In traditional Chinese culture, the gibbon is considered the gentleman in the animal kingdom. Its image is similar to traditional Chinese scholar-officials (shidaifu 士 大 夫). These scholar-officials were civil servants appointed by the emperor of China to perform day-to-day governance from the Han Dynasty to the end of the Qing Dynasty in 1912, China's last imperial dynasty. These officials mostly came from the well-educated men known as scholar-gentry (shi 士). These men had earned academic degrees by passing the rigorous imperial examinations and were trained in both calligraphy and the Confucian texts.
Since only a small fraction of them could become court officials, the majority of the scholar-gentry stayed in local villages or cities as social leaders. The scholar-gentry carried out social welfare measures, taught in private schools, helped decide minor legal disputes, supervised community projects, maintained local law and order, conducted Confucian ceremonies, assisted in the government's collection of taxes, and preached Confucian moral teachings. As a class, these scholars represented morality and virtue. Although they received no official salary and were not government officials, their contributions and cooperation were much needed by the district magistrate in governing local areas and receiving contributions from the imperial dynasty (Weber 1951 and Chan 2000).
RvG takes the position, after his analyses of the classical books and paintings on the gibbon, that the gibbon is depicted as taking a moral leadership position, metaphorically comparable to that of the recluse (yinshì 隠士), among the monkey clans and other animals in its forest canopy habitat in the remote mountainous areas. The gibbon is a lesser ape while monkeys are lower on the hierarchical ladder of primates;
hence, gibbons (yuan 猿) are not monkeys (hou 猴) (TGIC 33). RvG chooses the gibbon because the animal has been an example of the shidaifu expressed throughout Chinese history in both art and literature.
The gibbon also caters to the aesthetic taste of the Chinese scholarofficial with Taoist beliefs; thus, the gibbon represents a kind of simplified society that he highly values. During the many years of RvG’s professional life he is interested in and gains access to books, paintings, An Evaluation of The Gibbon in China 143 artifacts as well as the real animal (in and around his home).
Furthermore, he joins the elite class that shares these ideas and actual pleasures with him. Among the scholar gentry it was not customary to criticize openly the political system of the moment; however, by setting the good example of the gibbon, RvG takes the opportunity to give his opinion of a better society in just the same way other literati did in the Chinese tradition that he idolizes.
TGIC is the first Western monograph that studies the ancient Chinese gibbon culture cross-disciplinarily by researching literature, history, zoology and art. He cites the literature from the Shang, Zhou and Ming dynasties comprising three thousand years of Chinese poetry, essays, and historical notes on the gibbon. He focuses on the gibbon’s status in the hearts of the Chinese literati and discusses the relationship between the gibbon and humanity. Thus, his approach is both original and pioneering.
A distinctive vision on a broader Chinese gibbon culture In order to give a detailed account of the changing of the cultural image of the gibbon, RvG divides the history of ancient Chinese gibbon culture into three periods.
First period: early recorded history to the Han Dynasty (1500-202 BCE) In the beginning of this period, the imagery of the gibbon is vague and mixed with that of monkeys, orangutans and other primates (TGIC 18People in the Shang Dynasty had no precise understanding of the gibbon. All they knew was a generalized image of a monkey. The big gibbon (kui 夒) was respected as one of the earliest ancestors and totems by the people in the Shang Dynasty. RvG differentiates between and analyses the inscriptions on bronze objects, oracle bones and tortoise shells of the Shang Dynasty and archaic words of the Zhou Dynasty (18and 20-21, respectively). He performs textual research on five primates in the book Erya 爾雅 (Coblin 1993), the first dictionary in ancient China (TGIC 32), such as xingxing 猩猩, feifei 狒狒, rouyuan 猱蝯 apes like the orangutan, baboon, and gibbon, on the basis of which he then claims the gibbon’s existence in ancient China. The problem is that our ancestors did not have a clear idea of the differences obtaining between gibbons and other primates. He cites verses from the Book of Odes (Shijing3 詩經), Songs of the South (Chuci4 楚辭), and Classic of the The Book of Odes (Shijing 詩經) is the first collection of Chinese poems. It is the 144 S. Ye & F. Heule Mountains and Waters (Shanhaijing5 山海經). The Shijing and Chuci are considered to be important sources of Chinese literature. The great poet Qu Yuan 屈原 (339 - 278 BCE) is the founder and representative writer of Chuci. Shanhaijing is the first fantasy book that records intensively the mythic and primitive thinking of historic China (Birrell 2000 and TGIC 26). The book chapter “South Mountain Jing” (“Nanshanjing” 南山經) of the Shanhaijing says that, “[t]here is a mountain named Tang-ting three hundred miles eastward. There are many Yan trees and white gibbons in the mountain”. In the Qu Yuan poem “Mountain Ghost of Nine Songs” (“Shangui jiuge” 九 歌 山 鬼) he mentions the gibbon, chirping at night. This is the earliest description of the gibbon’s call and also the beginning of the literary theme “the gibbon’s call is sad”. In fact, we may conclude that RvG’s opinion that the gibbon existed in early China and that the idea that was a subject of admiration is correct.
Second period: From the Han Dynasty to the end of the Tang (202BCE -907 CE)
In this period RvG postulates that the gibbon’s image is poeticized, mystified and gentlemanized. RvG cites and quotes from the work of many poets in order to underline his contention that the gibbon is a figure that frequently appears on the scene. The gibbon is an eminently suitable theme for romantic verse as the animal is the bearer of sentiments, the sound of nature in its most prominent way. Nowadays we might call this an example of eco-poetics as they express environmental consciousness.
RvG is also concerned about the real and material world in his explanations; however, he is also interested in the metaphysical aspects of the gibbon in literature. He searches various religious texts including both folk and natural religion. The vast amount of literature is proof of the interest in Chinese culture in the creation of good and bad powers.
To the Chinese, it is the moon, mountains, water and also the gibbon that appear in mystical roles. Both the position of man in the Universe and the identification of the Self are vital aspects of the conceptualization of nature in religion.
In the realm of religion in China three main movements can be distinguished briefly: the native Chinese tradition, Daoism, and, after source of Chinese literature. (Allen 1996).
Songs of the South (Chuci 楚辭) is an anthology of Chinese poetry by Qu Yuan 屈原 (340–278 BCE), a great poet in the Warring States Period (475-221BCE) (Hawkes, 1959).
Classic of the Mountains and Seas (Shanhai jing 山海經) is the earliest Chinese geography book containing myths and legends.
An Evaluation of The Gibbon in China 145 the Qin Dynasty (221–206 BCE), Buddhism. In the course of many centuries the meditative and socially oriented Daodejing 道德經 was combined with both the ecstatic and individualistic mysticism of the Zhuangzi 莊 子 (369-286 BCE), with its beliefs and practices for longevity, and Buddhist insight on meditation, mind analysis, and doctrines of karma and reincarnation. Later developments in Chinese religion and philosophy include Inner Alchemy, Ch’an Buddhism, and Neo-Confucianism (Underhill 2012 and Kohn 1991).
In biological classification the gibbon is placed at the top level of neuro-social complexity categorized in the group of apes together with the human species. RvG was aware of Darwin’s ideas in this respect. In the gibbon RvG sees human-like qualities in the best possible way, i.e.
the qualities of the gentleman (see above my remarks on shidaifu) that Confucius or Kong Fuzi 孔夫子 is portrayed as embodying in the Analects (Lunyu 論語) thereby becoming an integral part of Chinese culture.
RvG in this way presents several famous poets like Tao Qian 陶潛6,
also called Tao Yuan-ming 陶淵明 (365-427 BCE), who writes:
The belief that the gibbon’s call is sad appears in many poems and becomes a conventional literary motif that has existed in Chinese culture for more than two thousand years.
Many poets have contributed to the creation of the poetical gibbon, Tao Qian 陶潛 (365–427 BCE), the famous poet of the Eastern Jin dynasty (317– 420 CE).
Bao Zhao 鲍照 is the famous litterateur of the Southern Dynasty. He wrote Fu (賦) poems, a form of Chinese rhymed prose.
146 S. Ye & F. Heule the role of the gibbon as an iconic figure in poetry. As a form of anthropomorphism, the poetical gibbon is the carrier of human sentiments like anxiety or excitement in situations of danger, e.g.
travelling in a small boat in the fast flowing current between high rocks, the worries about the shortness of life, homesickness and longing for a lost lover or faraway friends. In short, the gibbon stands in for the troubles of life in general.
The animal also reflects the Daoist adoration of nature as well as the sound of nature itself. In the many poems RvG cites, it can be read that waterfalls, streams and mountains have magical and supernatural powers of their own. The natural phases of the climate (e.g. rain, wind and sun) and musical instruments such as the flute or the ‘old’ seven stringed ‘lute’ (guqin 古琴) are also used to convey emotional power, but RvG suggests that the gibbon adds its own voice or speaks for nature in the poetic tradition.
The poets also use the gibbon to emphasize nature’s beauty. This animal is the heart of nature, the vital presence that brings nature to life.
The Gibbon can also be understood as playing the role of a soul mate to the human being who is often depicted roaming around often without a definite purpose. While the gibbon finds his home in the forest canopy, man often seems homeless, in a state of war with his own kind and nature.
It was especially Li Bai 李白 (701–62)8 who contributed much to the development of the poetical gibbon by pouring a plethora of emotions and spiritual insights about life into his poems. He described
his excitement when he took a boat trip:
In the poem “Looking for a monk and not finding him” Li Bai accentuates the imagery of the poet in a lonely place, a place in which everything seems to be in vain. Suddenly the mist disappears, rain looks like flowers musically falling from the sky. Then the gibbon calls. He becomes aware of and filled with the beauty of nature.
RvG thinks that Li Bai’s poems on the gibbon describe the spiritual, surreal and aloof gibbon, so these poems adequately represent the ancient Chinese gibbon literature (Versano, 1999).