Our Best Friends and Us

Reflections on the Manifold Relations of Human Beings and Animals
Thursday
9:00 am – 10:45 am
Room 4

  • Roderich Ptak, Chair
  • Markus Samuel Haselbeck, “Collecting the Inexistent—Mythical Creatures and Marvelous Birds in Early Qing Scientific Encyclopediae”
  • Phillip Grimberg, “Bestiarium Illustratum or Paintings as Documents—Animal Paintings at the Court of Emperor Song Huizong”
  • Marco Pouget, “Portents or Equals. Animals in Relation to Human Beings and Heaven in Wang Chong’s Lunheng
  • Raffaela Rettinger, “Birds of a Feather—The Changing Image of the Owl and Its Moral Instrumentalisation in Ancient and Imperial China”

Throughout the last few years, society’s view on our environment has strongly shifted; it is no more us humans alone, who are situated at the core of our world view, but our horizon has broadened, now also encompassing animals, plants and other forms of life as integral parts of our world. Animal ethics and environmental protection have made it necessary to review the complex relationship between us and other creatures. This shift alone clearly shows the need for further investigation of the relationship between us humans and our environment, both in the past and the present. The goal of this panel is to present conceptions of this relationship from three vastly differing epochs in Chinese history. Through their analyses of man-made media, i.e. literature, art, and philosophy, the three papers shall try to elucidate how humanity perceived of animals and reflected on them, during those times.

Markus Samuel Haselbeck, “Collecting the Inexistent—Mythical Creatures and Marvelous Birds in Early Qing Scientific Encyclopediae”

Animals have, since the beginning of time, occupied an important space in classical Chinese literature and sciences. People’s interest in the vast variety of creatures roaming all over our planet has sparked marvellous tales and collections of stories on fairytale-like animals in books like the Shanhai jing 山海經, the Bowu zhi 博物志 and many other examples from the zhiguai-genre. Early Qing Encyclopediae like Qu Dajun’s 屈大均 (1630–1696) Guangdong xinyu 廣東新語 or Song Guangye‘s 宋廣業 (Qing?) Luofu shan zhi huibian 羅浮山志會編, on the other hand, were trying to collect real information on topics such as natural phenomena, scientific explorations, geographical features as well as human, animal and plant life. Yet, taking a closer look at these Encyclopediae will quickly reveal several kinds of mythical creatures amid the real animals otherwise featured in those books. In this paper, I will set out to show how these creatures ended up in scientific literature and encyclopediae, and what implications this has not just on the understanding of animal life during Qing dynasty but furthermore on the relationship of humankind with other life forms.

Phillip Grimberg, “Bestiarium Illustratum or Paintings as Documents—Animal Paintings at the Court of Emperor Song Huizong”

Early on, animals like birds, insects, and fish, but also tigers, horses, and monkeys as well as a wide range of domestic animals have played an important role in Chinese painting, manifesting both symbolic and narrative qualities. Ever since the late Tang, nature, i.e. landscapes, became more and more popular as a subject among court painters and developed from a mere background motif to a fully-fledged genre during the early Northern Song period. Following this development, the painting of animals—and plants for that matter—became one of the most important subjects for the artists at the Imperial Academy of Painting (founded in 1104) under Emperor Huizong (1101–1125). In this paper, I shall try and show how and to what extend the naturalistic depiction of animals by Emperor Huizong himself as well as his court painters not only served an aesthetic purpose that was related to Daoist notions of naturalness and unsophistication but also demonstrates an almost documentary approach to the subject, echoing the Emperor´s proto-scientific interests in collecting, cataloguing, and antiquarianism.

Marco Pouget, “Portents or Equals. Animals in Relation to Human Beings and Heaven in Wang Chong’s Lunheng

How animals are treated is a crucial indicator of a society’s set of values. In modern times, animal ethics have coined terms such as “speciesism” or “anthropocentrism” to denote a society that places the human species in a supreme position. Ancient China seems equally as anthropocentric, relying on animals for ritual slaughter, food, medicine, transportation and agriculture. Animals were additionally viewed as signifiers of celestial will. Be they auspicious dragons or calamitous plagues of insects, in Han dynasty China, these animals were mostly reduced to their functions as portents. Their appearance and behaviour were made use of to illustrate philosophical and political arguments. In his monumental work, the Lunheng 論衡, Eastern Han thinker Wang Chong 王充 (27–97?) criticised the excessive superstitions and practices that had come to be associated with this omenology. Animals in Lunheng came to be assigned a different position in relation to humans and heaven. While they are still seen as useful for sage rulers to observe nature’s workings and determine political action therefrom, animals in Wang Chong’s view appear to exist out of themselves and without a predetermined role as portents. This, I argue, elevates them from their purpose-driven state. Wang Chong even seems to concede to animals the same position humans occupy between heaven and earth, with only the boundaries of their category (lei 類) separating them.

Raffaela Rettinger, “Birds of a Feather—The Changing Image of the Owl and Its Moral Instrumentalisation in Ancient and Imperial China”

Chinese tradition has ever since made use of animals as metaphors for human behaviour and gives them different moral understandings. While some are perceived positive, such as the phoenix or the swallow, others are interpreted negatively. A good example for such an understanding is the owl. While often associated as the bird of wisdom in the West, it came to symbolise being non-filial (bu xiao 不孝) starting with an entry in the Shuo wen jiezi 說文解字. From its first appearances in texts such as the Shan hai jing 山海經 and Shi jing 詩經, this paper explores how the image of the owl came to be, changed over time, and what might have led to these developments. A special focus lies on the utilisation of the owl for moral and political representation in works such as the Xunzi 荀子, or the Da dai li ji 大戴禮記 and their influence on later depictions in collectanea such as the Taiping guang ji 太平廣記 and the Ling biao lu yi 嶺表錄異. Here, problems such as the choice of characters and the utilisation of the owl’s image in philosophical and historical writings prove that the owl has a controversial stance in the Chinese tradition of using animals as a reflection of human behaviour.

Event Timeslots (1)

Room 4
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Reflections on the Manifold Relations of Human Beings and Animals