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I am still thinking about Lady Xia’s pet gibbon, the first and last known representative of its kind, and the subject of yesterday’s post.  After I wrote about the interwoven fates of rice and trees and men and apes, I spent a long time looking through Ferrebeekeeper archives for the beautiful gibbon poem which I alluded to in the essay, but I came to realize that I never did write about it, so today’s post is another post about pet gibbons in ancient China. Bear with me, for the poem is an exquisite piece of history, and a remarkably soulful examination of pets…and of the winsome sadness of life itself.

The poem was written by Wen Tong (1019–1079AD), a scholar-artist of the Northern Song Dynasty who was famous for his bamboo paintings. Allegedly he could simultaneously paint different stalks of bamboo with both hands, and lovely examples of his work are still extant a thousand years after he painted them…as is poetry about his favorite pet (As an aside, medieval China featured a class of learned polymaths who were masters of writing, erudition, gardening, and “painting without financial reward”: there is no clear career analogy in the modern western world although the painting without financial reward part sounds rather familiar).

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Wen Tong wrote about his love and admiration for his pet, and the poem quietly reveals a great deal about the household mores and emotional norms of well-to-do life in the Northern Song dynasty (note how the painter has so many retainers that he just passingly assigns one to look after the gibbon).  It is a lovely and heartfelt window into a vanished world which is well worth examining line by line. As a poetic device, the back-and-forth switches from first person to second person keeps readers attentively off balance and yet draws them closer to both Wen Tong and his gibbon.  Although, the writer’s privilege and possessiveness shine through, so does his kindness, playfulness and curiosity (perhaps there is a reason he got on so well with his remarkable pet that we are still thinking about it all of these centuries later). However, the final stanzas transcend the writer’s time and place.  The poem speaks to the uneasy and fraught relationship we have with our fellow life-forms.  For animals have their own lives and hearts and spirits, no matter how much we want to love and possess them. Wen Tong also delves into the realm of the existential, questioning the apparently painful randomness of fate, which mocks notions of ownership and control.

Don’t let my clumsy words put you off reading the actual poem (coincidentally I have taken the whole translated work from “Altruistic Armadillos, Zenlike Zebras: Understanding the World’s Most Intriguing Animals” By Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson).  It really moved me greatly and I hope you will also find it to be equally enchanting and sad.

it really is extraordinary and I think it will move you

Last year a Buddhist Monk of Hua-p’ing, in the Min mountains,

Obtained a gibbon for me and had it delivered from afar.

On arrival he was already tame and accustomed to captivity,

And his swift and nimble movements were a delight to watch.

He would come and go as told, as if he understood my speech

And seemed to have lost all desire to return to his mountains.

Put on a leash he was not interesting to watch,

So I set him free and let him romp about as much as he liked.

On a moonlit night, he would sing, swinging from a branch,

On hot days he would sit by the flowers and doze facing the sun.

When my children were around or my guests showed their interest,

He would hang upside down or jump about showing his tricks.

I had told a man to look after all his needs,

So that he never even once lacked his seasonal food and drink.

Yet the other day his keeper suddenly told me the gibbon was ill.

He stood on my steps, the gibbon in his arms, and I went to look,

Offered him persimmons and chestnuts, but he didn’t glance at them.

Legs drawn up, head between his knees, hunched up with folded arms,

His fur ruffled and dull, all at once his body seemed to have shrunk,

And I realized that this time he was really in great distress.

Formerly you were also subject to occasional slight indispositions,

But then after I had fed you a few spiders as a remedy,

After having swallowed them you would recover at once.

Why did the medicine fail now, though given several times?

This morning when a frosty wind was chilling me to the bone,

Very early I sent someone to inquire, and he reported you had died.

Although in this world it is hard to avoid grief and sadness,

I was tormented by repentance and bitter self-reproach.

You could be happy only when near your towering mountains.

You had been yearning for far plains and dense forests.

You must have suffered deeply being on a leash or chain,

And that was why your allotted span of life was short.

I had his body wrapped up well and buried deep in a secluded corner,

So that at least the insects would leave his remains in peace.

Mr. Tzu-p’ing, my western neighbor, a man of very wide interests,

When he heard about this, slapped his thigh sighing without end.

He came to inquire several times, in deep sorrow over my loss,

Then, back home, he wrote a long poem of over a hundred words.

Reading those lines my lonely heart was filled with sadness.

Well had he expressed the grief caused by my gibbon’s death!

He also tried to console me by referring to life’s natural course, “That

Meetings result in partings, subject to the whims of fate.”

I took his poem out into the garden, read and reread it

Then, looking up at the bare branches, I burst out in tears.

There is some bittersweet news from China.  Well “news” is maybe a somewhat misleading word.  This is a small sad story within a sprawling epic story…within our story, in fact.

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In the geological age previous to this one, China was covered by a stupendous forest of bamboo and deciduous trees (it seems like a lot of our familiar tree families of North America might have originated there).  It was a tree world of pandas, elephants, tapirs, panthers, tigers, orangutans… and gibbons, the exquisite gracile “lesser” apes who are the true masters of swinging through forest canopies.

The vast rich forest was a perfect world for primates…and Africa’s angriest, sharpest lineage, the hominids, showed up 1.5 million to 2 million years ago.  These first hominids were Homo erectus, a comparatively benign lot, but not far behind them came other hominids with darker tastes, and then, approximately 120,000 years ago, Homo sapiens showed up,”wise man,” a tragic fire-wielding invasive species with an insatiable appetite for…well for food, actually.  Homo Sapiens brought agriculture to East Asia or perhaps developed it there.  Indeed there are suggestions that Homo sapiens might have evolved in East Asia out of the maelstrom of clever upright apes that were ambling around the place, and, though I don’t find the argument nearly as persuasive as an African genesis, a wealth of peculiar fossil finds and ancient archaeological discoveries mean it cannot be dismissed outright, either.

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Eight thousand years ago farms began spilling across what is now China.  These early Chinese farmers discovered the perfect food for humans–a delicious superlative grain which is still the staple food for most of humanity. But this is not the story of rice (I need to write about that later, because I love rice, and it might be the most important plant in the world); it is the story of what rice-farming did. Cities and kingdoms sprang up, and in 259 BC, the first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, truly unified China from the capital of Xi’an in the ancient land of Shaanxi.  Stories of Qin Shi Huang’s cunning and cruelty are as diverse as the stories of his unimaginable wealth and power, yet in the end all of his strength came from rice which sustained the teeming population of the Qin dynasty, and this rice came from the forest, which was cut down to provide agricultural lands and living space for what is still the world’s most populous region.

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We have excavated Qin Shi Huang’s tomb (universally known as the “Tomb of the Terracotta Soldiers”). The tomb compound was a whole necropolis city of wonders and archaeologists and scientists are still unraveling its wonders and unlocking its mysteries.  The compound included the tomb of Lady Xia, the grandmother of the first emperor of China, and, in addition to her corpse, her tomb included her pet, a gibbon. Gibbons were pets of the aristocracy in dynastic China (here is a particularly poignant and sad poem, which you should read after you read this post).  Recently a British primatologist was touring a museum of the finds from the first emperor’s tomb and the skeletal hand of Lady Xia’s pet caught his eye.  Subsequent research has revealed that the animal belonged to a gibbon species which no longer exists.  The first specimen known to science was found in the the tomb of the first Emperor’s grandmother.   The “new” gibbon is named  gibbon was named Junzi imperialis based on where and how it was found.

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There are no gibbons in the wild anywhere near Shaanxi today.  As civilization rose, the great forests fell and Junzi imperialis was surely a victim of habitat loss. The grain we must have to run our vast complicated societies cost it everything…and we didn’t even remember its loss.  In Chinese art, gibbons represent a pure and ideal existence…they are sort of emblematic of a Chinese version of Eden (that ancient allusion is one of the things that makes that poem so plaintive) yet I don’t think we realized just how appropriate is such symbolism.  Humankind has already driven a lot more primate species to extinction than we know about. It is worth remembering the cost of our previous success as we look at the future.   Our strength and knowledge grow greater, but our appetite grows too, and the world is not getting any bigger.  Think about Lady Xia’s gibbon the next time you have a bowl of nourishing rice.  People are reflected in their pets and the empty eye sockets of the little long-dead pet tells about our own greatness and our terrible failures.  What do you see in those dark windows? Is the future just more and more tyrannical emperors crushing peasants and cutting down forests to build luxurious tombs or can we learn something new about our own place in the world and maybe beyond it?

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