"ALL THE PEOPLE HAVE FLED":
WAR AND THE ENVIRONMENT
IN THE MID-SEVENTEENTH CENTURY
In the eighth month of 1642, residents in a northern ward of the city of Guangzhou were startled by the appearance of a tiger just outside the city wall. Residents of the northern suburbs had not seen a tiger there in decades – maybe a century. Villagers in neighboring Shunde county had reported a tiger attack in 1627,1 but for the city of Guangzhou itself the last reported tiger attack had been in 1471.
The appearance of this tiger so near the great metropolis thus was unusual. But so too was the way in which the residents handled this unusual tiger. In all of the other recorded incidents of tigers approaching towns or villages in Lingnan, the villagers had the same reaction: to kill the tiger. Now, killing a tiger is no small matter. Certainly, a marksman with a rifle could do it, but seventeenth-century guns weren't called "fowling" pieces or "blunderbusses" for nothing. So too could an archer with poison arrows kill a tiger, but men with that kind of skill and weapons usually were in the army, not at home tilling the vegetable patch. No, the way unarmed villagers approached a tiger was en masse, advancing on the animal behind a thicket of spears and lances until the tiger was cornered and netted. The tiger was then killed, dismembered, and its various body parts sold.
Like most civilized people, seventeenth-century Chinese appropriated nature by making it into commodities. And there was a market demand for nearly all of the tiger's body parts. In Lingnan, tigers were hunted, and not just after an attack on villages. Their pelts were valuable, and other body parts were believed to have regenerative properties.2 According to an 1839 report in the China Repository, "Virtues are ascribed to the ashes of the bones, to the fat, skin, claws, liver, blood, and other parts of the tiger, in many diseases;
1Guangzhou fuzhi, 1879 ed., juan 79: 10a.
2 In the twentieth century at least, tiger bones ground into potions or placed in liquor are believed
to enhance longevity, while preparations from the penis are believed to increase a man's potency.
The trade in tiger and rhino parts is such a current problem that the government of the People's
Republic of China has banned trade in tiger parts and rhinoceros horn. See the news report in
The New York Times, Sunday June 6, 1993, p. 19.