Wildlife in Asia: Cultural Perspectives

By John Knight | Go to book overview

1

ATTITUDES TOWARDS WILDLIFE AND THE HUNT IN PRE-BUDDHIST CHINA

Roel Sterckx


Introduction

In contrast to the extensive literature on the perception of animals in the cultures of Mediterranean antiquity, animal culture and man’s attitude towards the animal realm is a relatively understudied topic within the field of Chinese cultural history. 1 Evidence suggests, however, that animals figured prominently in early Chinese culture. In addition to their practical role in husbandry, the hunt, transport and human consumption, animals were used as victims in sacrificial religion, figured as agents and objects in ritual practice and served as symbols and metaphors in the creation of social models of authority Moreover, the animal realm also provided a rich thesaurus for the expression of fundamental social, moral, religious and cosmological ideas. But whereas the student of early Greece and Rome may find recourse to a large body of primary texts that deal with animals in a more or less exclusive manner—ranging from the proto-zoological treatises of Aristotle to Xenophon’s Cynegeticus (‘Hunting Man’)—the sinologist finds himself having to sift animal references from a large and disparate corpus of texts, including literary historiographical and philosophical writings. 2

A prominent feature of early Chinese texts is that they reflect an aporia on the animal world as a distinct realm of knowledge. In the extant sources from the pre-imperial and early imperial eras, there appears to have been no conscious effort to dissociate discourse on the animal realm from the literary contexts in which they appear (by say integrating them into separate canons). Part of the explanation for this has to be attributed to the broader paradigm in which the Chinese perceived the animal world and nature in general. The classic Chinese perception of the world did not insist on clear categorical or ontological boundaries between animals, human beings and other creatures such as ghosts and spirits. Consequently, the demarcation of the human and animal realm was not perceived to be permanent or constant, and the fixity of the species was not self-evident. The natural world was not understood as an ‘objectified’ reality that

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