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Tuesday, April 05, 2011


Hello folks,

I was recently sent a 27 page pamphlet from the Chinese Studies Library(CSL) in Oxford which I had never come across before- I found it on the Bodleian Library`s On-line catalogue. It is called `Debating the Strange: Records of Animal Anomalies in Early China` by Roel Sterckx Institute for Chinese Studies University of Oxford. There is a footnote to the front page which says the paper is a slightly revised version of a lecture presented at the Department of Chinese Studies of the National University of Singapore on 7 November 1998. The CSL kindly e-mailed me the whole paper a few days ago for free when I explained to them I couldn`t afford to visit the Bodleian as planned. Seeing as unicorns have featured very recently on the Cryptozoology Online blog I thought I`d summarize the four pages on the unicorn as follows:

There is a subheading in the text: `Transcending the boundaries & merging the species` which includes: ` Having explored some of the main internal components of the anomaly account, I will now illustrate how strange animals figured within a philosophy of change and transformation which characterised early Chinese thought. The animal anomaly was an embodiment of changing circumstances, and a great deal of the discourse on animal prodigies hinges precisely upon the notion of a transgression of boundaries and received or implicitly accepted categories such as inner versus outer, central versus peripheral, the wilds versus the “ domesticated” or “ cultured order”, in other words a transcendence or flaw within the socio-biological order.` (1)

Here is a summary of the example of a white unicorn as such a transcendence of a boundary (Chinese characters have been omitted)

A most explicit exposition on the observance of a freak animal appears in a memorial submitted by Zhong Jun on the occasion of the capture of a white unicorn in 122 B.C.E. According to Ban Gu`s ( 32-92 C.E.) account of events, Zhong Jun joined the entourage of emperor Wu on a sacrificial procession to Yong when a white unicorn was captured. The report of the capture of the unicorn echoes the appearance of a unicorn to Confucius at the Chunqiu. The significance of the event in 122 B.C.E can be derived from the fact that the reign year title was renamed yuan shou. The creature in question was reported to have one horn and hooves cloven in five segments. At a strange tree was found with branches sticking outwards to join again on the trunk. The discourse on the event preserved in the Hanshu follows the standard structure of anomaly episode: the emperor holds the two phenomena to be strange, solicits advice from his ministers,upon which Zhong Jun presents him with a reply:….Now this animal from the wilds has united its horns to clarify its common root (with you).All the branches that adhere to the inside(of the tree) demonstrate that there is no outside. When there are responses like these, there is bound to be the untying of the hairknot, the cutting off of the left sleeve, the wearing of cap and belt and the dressing in Chinese garments and there will be those will be those who receive `cultural transformation`…(2)

The opening lines of an accompanying sacrificial hymn which marked the occasion, known as the Bail in zhi ge “Song of the White Unicorn”, reiterates the symbolism of Zhong Jun`s memorial. When we examine the discourse in this memorial, it is noticeable that in same way that changing and portentous animals echoed social, dynastic, and cosmological change, the hybrid animal in Zhong Jun`s memorial embodies the merging of the animal-like barbarian tribes of Han.. …………. The five tribes, symbolized by the five hoofs of unicorn, coagulate into one single antler- Sima Xiangru refers to the captured unicorn as “the beast whose pair of antlers butt as one” (shuang ge gong di zhi shou – which symbolises Han`s unification. Sinicising the outer regions is tantamount to “ domesticating” the barbarians as one domesticates animals. (3)

1 Sterckx R Debating the Strange: Records of Animal Anomalies in Early China pp 15-16

2. Ibid pp 23-25
3. Ibid pp 25-26

1 comment:

Dale Drinnon said...

Thank you Richard. I was one who posted about Unicorns recently and it just so happens that it has turned out to be my most-viewed story of all so far. I have held off adding a new blog after it because it was doing so well.

The Chinese Unicorn (Ki-Lin or Qirin)is ordinarily said to be multicoloured or mottled. Late in Chinese history it became conflated with the giraffe, as you have written before. But the ordinary reports have it with a reddish brown back, white belly and cream-coloured or yellowish spots. the horn and hooves are commonly stated to be black. My candidate animal did indeed have two horns, one larger and one smaller, which grew together and looked like they were one cleft horn in the middle of its head. Having five hooves is peculiar, though, and in different passages it sounds as if one person says that means a hoof divided intoi five digits and in another it sounds as if it means five legs.

If there was such a creature as the "Common" Qirin, this one was not of the usual sort. It was for one thing perhaps an albino and for another either had a freakish extra leg or else a freakish extra toe. Either mutation is well-known enough in more usual animals such as ordinary goats or deer. So the whole event does not need to have been imaginary. On the other hand, since it is interpreted as a specific omen, the story may have been modified to fit the meaning that was desired. In other words, if a fifth leg was needed to import a certain meaning, a nonexistant fifth leg could easily have been added to an riginal report in the retelling.

Because of that factor in the reporting, it is hard to say if a valid sighting was involved or how much an actual sighting may have been modified to make the proper portent out of it. It may have been only an oddly deformed but otherwise ordinary goat that was seen and made into a significant event by much ballyhoo.

Best Wishes, Dale D.