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Sunday, May 23, 2010

MUIRHEAD`S MYSTERIES: SOME EXTRAORDINARY CHINESE REPTILES

Today I am going to take a look at some extraordinary legends relating to Chinese reptiles, from G.vLanning`s book Wildlife in China (1911).* Chapter LV `Reptiles`.

Lanning commences with the Chinese alligator:

'Books on natural history need not to be very old to be innocent of all knowledge of the Chinese alligator, the existence of which was not even suspected in Europe till within recent times. During my residence in Shanghal there have been three occasions, if I remember rightly, when alligators have been found in the river or on its banks. The biggest measured but 8ft. In one instance some six or eight were said to have been brought here by a Siamese barque, [I wonder if anyone has studied the similarities between these Chinese alligators and ones once found in Siam, i.e Thailand?-R] the captain of which thought to dispose of them to the Chinese. Failing in this he turned them adrift in the river…One was caught in the Old Dock, and another, which had so far forgotten himself as to be found in the very early morning in Broadway, was also taken. The species seems to be entirely of the fish eating kind.' (1)

'With regard to snakes, the Chinese not merely assert,but firmly stick to the assertion, that there are certain kinds of snakes with feet, a survival here of a similar old belief in Europe that, before the little episode in the Garden, before the little episode in the Garden, before “Man`s first disobedience and the fruit of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste brought death into the world and all our woe,” the serpent stood upright. [Interestingly, about the time this book was published a “snake with legs” was reportedly found in Kowloon, Hong Kong, according to an English language newspaper-R] I used to combat the feet idea as quite nonsensical. But many years ago as the result of a little incident at the Hills, I ceased to wonder and contradict. I was in search of rare ferns one day on the hillside, when I saw moving swiftly through the undergrowth what I took to be a new snake. It was only about 18 inches long, with a body thickness of about the size of one`s little finger. I killed and examined it. Sure enough there were four legs, very short, but still unmistakeable. It was, of course a lizard - of what species I cannot say. But I never ridiculed the Chinese belief in legged snakes after that.' [I would have thought with Chinese records of natural history going back hundreds of years the Chinese could distinguish between a snake with legs and a lizard, surely?-R] There are several other sorts of lizards which I have come across in my wanderings, but I have only seen one more specimen of the kind just named, and that was under a foot in length.' (2)

Lanning then discourses on Chinese snakes:

'Only once have I come across a specimen of the curious snake known as the “Iron-wire snake,” one of the burrowing family. The Chinese have a belief about these that if they coil themselves round a man`s finger or the tails of animals it is impossible to remove them, that strangulation of the member results, and sloughing takes place till it drops off. “The China Medical Missionary Journal,” Vol.XV. p.303 gives the following description:” The snake is about 6 inches long, shaped much like a common earth worm, has about the same diameter, a triffle smaller perhaps, and darker in colour.” This answers precisely to the specimen I saw. That described was seen in Foochow, mine in Chekiang [east China-R]. ,on the hills at Chapoo…Southern China, of which I have no very intimate knowledge, is said to be rich in reptilian of almost all sorts. Of the reptile life of Hong Kong we have,of course, a more or less complete knowledge. There are at least seven species of snakes, one of them a python which is common but, as a rule, not of any very large size considering its kind. Occasionally, however, we hear of one large enough to cause note to be taken of it in the press. Cobras are numerous in some parts. Some years ago one was found on the verandah of Gen. Black`s house on the Peak. The cats were playing with it. Another species to be avoided is a bright-green pit viper, Trimeresurus graminens, which has the honour of belonging to the same family as the rattlesnakes. One was killed some years ago, as I find in my notes, which measured 3ft. In 1894 cobras were so plentiful that the Government paid 50 cents a head for them, a custom which would probably lead to breeding if continued, the Chinese being always ready to earn an honest penny. One of the very poisonous sea-snakes before referred to, a species of Hydrophis, is found in the waters round Hong Kong. Ashore they have also species of the iron-wire snake, classically named Typhlina, which burrows under stones and into the soil.' (3)


1 G.Lanning Wildlife in China (1911) p.222
2 Ibid pp 222-223
3 Ibid pp 224-225


Image Source: `Alligators in China: Their History,Description and Identification`. A.A.Fauvel.Shanghai 1879 p.24


* Available on abebooks at £16.45, amazon.co.uk £11.87 (not including postage.Cheapest prices.)

Devo Gates of Steel

Twist away the gates of steel
Unlock the secret voice
Give in to ancient noise
Take a chance a brand new dance
Twist away the gates of steel

Twist away, now twist and shout
The earth it moves too slow
But the earth is all we know
We pay to play the human way
Twist away the gates of steel

1 comment:

Dale Drinnon said...

Snakes and lizards are commonly placed together in their own order and as set apart from the other reptiles as Squamata. It is not always so easy to tell them apart and I have heard elderly women locally referring to ordinary skinks as "Snakes"

There are not supposed to be any alligators in Siam, but there is a specific kind of Siamese crocodile. More to the point, "Alligator" is also common usage for C. porosis and some individuals of this species are said to be found in Chinese rivers on occasion (Source: Richard Freeman) There is independant archival evidence for a much larger type of Chinese alligator (to 30 feet long), but those references could conceivably be to that species.