1989 / 3月
Chuang Po-ho /photos courtesy of Chuang Po-ho /tr. by Peter Eberly
To style ancient China a veritable kingdom of fantastic animals would hardly be going too far. From their depictions in myths, stone drawings, and the Shan-haiching, or The Classic of Mountains and Seas, the world at one time would seem to have been filled with imaginary creatures, and the rulers and sages of far antiquity are often portrayed in half-human, half-animal forms. With the advance of human civilization, the prominence of imaginary animals has gradually declined, but fantastic creatures such as the dragon, a symbol of the numinous, still appear in every corner of our daily life.
Imaginary animals have in no way been forgotten by modern man. In films, they have appeared constantly throughout the history of the medium, from King Kong to Godzilla to the latest robot and computer monsters. No matter whether they represent good or evil, no matter whether they are close to reality (such as animals or insects of exaggerated size) or completely fictitious fabrications of the mind, all reflect our curiosity about the unknown, and all are expressions of the power of the imagination.
Which is simply to say that, despite the advances of civilization and the growth of reason, mankind still fantasizes about monsters.
A major proportion of children's toys, for example, have monsters as a theme, and along with the expansion of our knowledge of the universe we have created countless fantastic creatures to populate it.
But in the world of ancient times, it is safe to say that no other country created such strange and such varied animals of the imagination as China.
And the imaginary animals of ancient times were not playthings but were symbols of the culture and world view of the Chinese people.
Man and beast are often viewed as opposing concepts, as though the nature of personality were divided into the levels of bestial, human, and divine, and as though man, in the middle, strove to raise himself to the level of the gods while spurning that of the beasts.
But animals happen to have many abilities that man lacks or envies, such as the flight of birds in the air, the swimming of fish in the sea, and the superior running, jumping, carrying, or fierceness of various animals on land, as well as the ability even of some of the smaller ones to dig holes or to climb walls better than he, so that man both fears (or hates) and reveres the nature of beasts and may raise them to the level of gods. This is the origin of many imaginary animals that serve in the role of guardian deities.
This point reminds me of a recent news report on television that said a hippo in the Kaohsiung zoo had been injured by malicious visitors who had thrown more than a hundred stones at it, some of them over 10 1bs. in weight. The phrase 'a person no better than an animal' came to mind, and since Kaohsiung is my hometown, I felt particularly ashamed.
Today, as many rare and precious animals are rapidly approaching extinction, if mankind cannot control his oppression of other living species, we may indeed come to live in a world in which the only animals that exist are imaginary ones.