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«(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 ...»

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Gibbons are supposed to be similar to recluses as they live in remote mountain forests. References to recluses can be found in many historical records. These recluses preferred a life in the countryside with small crop farming, hunting or collecting medicinal herbs. They loved the beauty of nature and tried to combine these activities with teaching, reading and writing. For that goal the yinshi declined an official career.

While Confucianism encourages the elitist intellectuals to participate actively in state management, some preferred the reclusive lifestyle and abhorred government employment. Two famous examples are Zong Bing (375–443), Wu Zhen 吳鎮 (1280–1354) and Shen Zhou 沈周 (1427– 1509). Sometimes someone decided to retire after a political career. One such example is Tao Qian. In his work “The Return” (“Guiqulai ci” 歸 去來辭), he speaks with enthusiasm about returning to a life close-tonature after a long period of office work. One of his kind is Wen Zhengming 文徴明 (1470–1559).

Some recluses tried to combine both lifestyles. Wang Wei 王維 (699–759) a friend of Li Bai, together the top poets of the Tang Dynasty, was dissatisfied with his bureaucratic work, but needed the financial rewards. In his poetry this sentiment can be felt. For Chinese intellectuals, reclusion represented an alternative way of life and is often closely associated with Daoism. The freedom that comes with reclusion Liu Yiqin 劉義慶 (403–44), a famous litterateur in Liu Song dynasty who authored the book “A New Account of Tales of the World” (Shishuo xinyu 世說新語).

Zhou Mi 周密 (1232–98), a litterateur in the Southern Song dynasty.

154 S. Ye & F. Heule enabled many to major achievements in Chinese elite culture: literature, painting, music, calligraphy, philosophy, and academic studies. (Li Chi, 1962-63). Though RvG knew the life of a recluse, he was an intellectual who always sought compatibility with his political career.

As a Western sinologist with his own knowledge background and scientific spirit, RvG surveys the reliability of several traditional gibbon themes in Chinese literature and artistic works.

The first theme, “The gibbon’s call is sad” (“Yuan xiao ai” 猿嘯哀) (TGIC 52), is one of the biggest themes of the literature on this topic. In the ancient poems and essays, the gibbon’s call was often related to

sadness and loneliness. As is evident in these quotes:

When the gibbons call thrice, tears wet one’s dress (TGIC 46).

–  –  –

Taiping Era (Taiping guangji 太平廣記):20 “Wang Renyu 王仁裕 (880– 956), who was a poet, soldier and musician (TGIC p64), was relieved of his duties in Hanzhong 汉 中 and crossed over into the Sichuan province. When he and his retinue halted in front of a temple on Pochung mountain, on the bank of the Han river, a troop of gibbons let themselves down, holding each other’s hands and feet, to drink from the clear stream” (TGIC 66). It is said that Wang set an imprisoned gibbon free and the animal in the wild recognized his master after a long time.

RvG points out that although gibbons do occasionally hang on each other in play, they do not deliberately form a chain in order to reach an object lying on the ground. The idea caught the fancy of Chinese writers, artists and artisans, as it suggests a group consciousness among the gibbons.

The third theme is suggested in the following: “The gibbon is better than the monkey, the former is clean, gentle and recluse, the latter is dirty, noisy, greedy and vulgar” (“Mei yuan su hou”美猿俗猴) (TGIC 58).

RvG thought this idea was pragmatic. Ancient Chinese literati like Wu Yun (“Poem of the Black Gibbon”) (TGIC 54-56), Li Deyu (“Poem of the White Gibbon) (TGIC 56-57), and Liu Zongyuan 柳完元 (773–819)21 (“Essay on the Hateful Monkey-breed” or “Zeng wangsun wen” 憎王孙 文) (TGIC 54-56). Each compared the quarrelsome and volatile monkey with the aloof gibbon (TGIC 56). The lament is evidently directed against the people at court who caused their patron’s downfall (TGIC 57). Wu Yün, Li Deyu and Liu Zongyuan contrasted the violent and vulgar monkey with the high-minded and well-behaved gibbon. So the monkey is described as greedy, cruel and undependable, and ugly in appearance” (TGIC 57).

The fourth theme is thus stated: “The arms of a gibbon are interconnected at the upper ends, and in this way the animal is able to lengthen one arm by pulling the other in) (“Yuan tongbi” 猿通臂). RvG cites a story written by Zhao Yi 趙翼 (1727–1814)22, a scholar in the

Qing dynasty:

–  –  –

This conception was popular in ancient China. Both famous novels, Water Margin23 and Journey to the West24, have a character named “The Interconnected-arm Gibbon” (Tongbi Yuan 通臂猿). In the former, Tongbi Yuan is the nickname of a hero in The Marshes of Mt. Liang; in the latter, a divine monkey has magical capabilities.

RvG thought it was a strange old fantasy. This false impression must have been caused by the truly incredible speed with which a gibbon reaches out with one arm while keeping the other close to its body. In present-day primatology an explanation of shoulder hyper flexibility is to be found in its unique anatomy [Ankel-Simons, 2007].25

The meaning of RvG’s research regarding the Chinese gibbon

Above we have already introduced RvG’s distinctive vision and unique contribution to Chinese gibbon culture. His vision reflects the idea of an overview of all the fields the junzi is interested in: not only literary and artistic, including aesthetics, but also zoological and anthropological; he is not even afraid of mentioning the supernatural aspects attributed to the gibbon. His contribution to modern sinology is his tenacious endeavor to bring all the material on the subject together and apply his analytical ability. It is not only the categorization of books and drawings from the end of the second half of the 20th century in the backward China of those days that impresses the modern reader who is accustomed to electronic data collections and random digital expert opinions but also the sublime writing skills that open a totally new landscape with hidden treasures. The most important thing is not the conclusion he draws, but the methods he applies. Let us see how he performs his research on the Chinese gibbon material in more detail and consider the effects for future workers in the fields he elaborates.

Water Margin (Shuihu zhuan 水滸傳), written by Shi Nai’an 施耐庵 (active 1296–1371) in the end of Yuan dynasty and the beginning of Ming dynasty.

Wu Cheng'en 吳承恩 (ca. 1500–ca. 1582) wrote the Journey to the West (Xiyou ji 西游記) in the Ming dynasty. Chinese Classics, Classic Novel. Trans. W.J.F. Jenner.

2003. Foreign Languages Press. http://www.chinapage.com/monkey/monkey.html In primatology brachiation (from ‘brachium’, Latin for ‘arm’), or arm swinging, is a form of arboreal locomotion in which primates swing from tree limb to tree limb using only their arms. During brachiation, the body is alternatively supported under each forelimb. This form of locomotion is used exclusively by the small gibbons and siamangs of southeast Asia.

An Evaluation of The Gibbon in China 157 From a macroscopic perspective, RvG’s research on the gibbon creates a model for other scholars’ study of animal culture. Most Western scholars study the gibbon from the angle of zoology possibly in connection with environmental questions, whereas RvG’s viewpoint is from the angle of cultural history. His research is based on the intertwining relationship of human being and gibbon and reveals the deep cultural factors of some phenomena about the gibbon. His way of doing research inspires many later scholars. Some examples include Roel Sterckx and his essay “The Animal and the Daemon in Early China” (Sterckx, 2002) and Robert Joe Cutter’s “The Brush and the Spur: Chinese Culture and the Cockfight” (Cutter, 1989).

RvG’s research on the gibbon supplies other investigators with both scientific and practical methods. One of RvG’s ways is by citing ancient texts and images as the source of basic material from which to create evidence. RvG collects a range of data from poems, essays, novels, notes, and local annals. He gives the impression that he has read them all and in part translates them into English himself (for separate publications).

In TGIC the transcription of many ancient Chinese texts can be found.

Although there are a few mistakes in those quotations, his efforts (from seeking and selecting to combing out and typesetting) are inspirational.

Thus, those messy raw materials become persuasive evidence in his book. RvG also uses a mass of images in his book, from the inscriptions on bones or tortoise shells of the Shang Dynasty to the gibbon paintings of the Song, Yuan and Ming dynasties. In total there are 58 pictures.

The pictures in grayish tones are of a fair quality and fit for a first encounter for many of us to enhance discussion (at present, digital mega-pixel pictures allow the visitors of museum websites to explore them at an even deeper level). They are all, taken together, interesting visual evidence for RvG’s elaboration of the role of the gibbon in Chinese culture. The accompanying essay, partly type written and partly handwritten Chinese characters, is serious yet highly readable.

The other aspect is the raising of animals in order to obtain firsthand material. RvG raises four gibbons in captivity in order to observe their habits and lifestyle. This was then a fairly common practice in the style of the junzi. He also records the gibbons’ call and attaches the disk to his book. He hopes that every reader can enjoy the gibbon’s graceful call. Meanwhile, he creates a new social scientific research program that combines text, pictures and acoustical information, in order to motivate the reader’s sense organs and elaborative faculty. Beyond a doubt, he is successful in this effort;

although, nowadays researchers would leave this aspect to primatologists and zoological gardens.

158 S. Ye & F. Heule

RvG’s impact on modern Sinological discourse about the gibbon

The following question can be posed: as a Western scholar, why was RvG so interested in the Chinese gibbon culture? We propose three primary reasons.

First, his consistent adoration of the Chinese culture and his dream to be a Chinese style scholar-official, a junzi. This kind of emotion can be found throughout his whole life. As we have mentioned above, the gibbon is the gentleman in the animal kingdom, its image is similar to the traditional Chinese scholar-official.

In TGIC, RvG illustrates the position of the gibbon in Chinese culture along with the exposition of an array of material during three historical episodes he develops four ideas on gibbon worship and corrects wrong readings of four themes in ‘gibbon-ology’. Here, there is enough evidential material to corroborate his proposition that gibbon research in its broadest sense is important and should be continued with enthusiasm. It is possible that RvG in his last publication before he died echoes an even more serious tone viz. a) concern for the vanishing world of the old style junzi and his traditional values; b) concern for the future of the gibbon in the virgin forests of Asia; c) care and concern for the proper conservation of fragile old paperwork of samples of calligraphy, books, etc.; d) concern for the situation of the world during his time in the midst of international conflicts; and, e) personally experienced end of life sentiments, as he had read many times, for instance, in the poems of Li Bai.

Second, his respect and fascination with Laozi, the philosophical concepts of Zhuangzi and Chinese eremitic culture. The essence of Daoism and Zhuangzi’s philosophy is returning to nature and inaction expressed by the concept of “no action” (“wuwei” 無為), meaning ‘Do nothing and everything will be done’. Because the character-traits of the gibbon accord with Daoist aesthetics thoughts and many Daoist recluses raised the gibbon to be their partner as pet animals, RvG established a link between gibbon and Daoist recluses. Tao Gu 陶榖 (circa 950) (Tao 2007), an official-scholar in the Song Dynasty, records an anecdote in his historic note Records of the Unworldly and the Strange (Qingyi lu 清異 錄), the Daoist Li Daoyin 李道殷 who lived on the Hua Mountain kept a black gibbon whom he called Bitong 臂童. He had made for him a nest high up in an old pine tree, and there the gibbon slept; this he called ‘Perch of lofty verdancy’ (TGIC 73).

Last, but not least, the deep personal affection for the gibbons that he raised. Robert van Gulik’s son Willem said the only time he saw his father weep was the time when Popo died (Popo was one of the gibbons he raised).

An Evaluation of The Gibbon in China 159 In 1967 two important monographs were published on the gibbon.

One is RvG’s “The gibbon in China” (Gulik, 1967), the other is Desmond Morris’ The Naked Ape (Morris, 1999). The former focuses on the gibbon’s humanity and Chinese gibbon culture and the latter reveals the animal origin of mankind, in the line of Darwinian evolutionary thinking. Both of these publications are based on the intrinsic relationship between the gibbon, and the ape in general, and the human race. While they are both opposite and complementary to each other, they mutually testify their respective reasonability. They both pioneered and set a standard.

In conclusion, RvG and his work on the Chinese gibbon both deserve a place in modern Sinological discourse. To that end, a wider presentation of RvG’s TGIC is fully deserved and further studies should be promoted. Literature and art and all the other fields disclosed in TGIC should be studied by both Chinese and western scholars in cooperation.


Allen, Joseph R (Ed). 1996. Book of Odes. Trans. Arthur Waley, New York: Grove Press.

Ankel-Simons, F. 2007. Primate anatomy (3rd ed.). Academic Press, 49–53.

Birrell, Anne. 2000. “Shan-hai-ching”, The classic of mountains and seas. NY: Penguin Books.

Chan, Wing-tsit and Adler, Joseph. 2000. Sources of Chinese tradition. Columbia Univ.

Press, 2nd ed.

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