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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.

Pagoda Trees in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn

In this part of the world, most of the truly spectacular flowering trees bloom in spring.  The redbuds, magnolias, cherry trees, and the empress trees all burst into blossom months ago. Do any trees flower in the very heart of summer?  Well, actually all sorts of trees flower now, but many of them have tiny blossoms or green flowers which are not easily seen.  The pagoda tree however (Styphnolobium japonicum) is not so modest: during the end of July and the beginning of August the trees can be found covered with bursting clusters of off-white flowers.

The Pagoda Tree or “Chinese Scholar Tree” (Styphnolobium japonicum)

Pagoda trees obtained their English name because they were planted around Buddhist temples throughout East Asia. The species name “japonicum” is a complete misnomer—the trees actually originate in China and were imported to Japan (where they first came to the attention of botanists).  In English the trees are also known as scholar trees or “Sophoras.”

Seed Pods on the The Pagoda Tree (Styphnolobium japonicum)

Pagoda trees grow slowly but they can eventually become large growing up to 10-20 m tall (30-60 ft) with the same breadth.  They are members of the sweetpea family, which becomes evident in autumn when the trees are festooned with strange long seedpods which resemble huge yellow snow peas. Like other popular ornamental city trees, the pagoda tree can tolerate high pollution and poor soil quality.

A memorial stone where the last Chongzhen Emperor hanged himself (the actual tree was uprooted and killed during the Cultural Revolution)

In China, the pagoda tree is esteemed for its beauty but it has a more sinister reputation than it does here. In 1644, a peasant army was storming the Forbidden City after conquering all Imperial resistance.  The Chongzhen Emperor, the last Ming Emperor, ordered a lavish banquet for all of the women of his family.  When the meal was finished he killed his wives, concubines, and daughters with a sword and then went outside and hanged himself on a pagoda tree.  The actual tree lived a long prosperous life but was uprooted and killed. Even the Chinese name 槐 is somewhat sinister, combining the characters for wood and demon.  This is partially because the pagoda tree does not suffer other trees to live near it in its native forests and partly because of harrowing old Chinese myths about families that died when living in houses made of pagoda tree wood.

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