Header image courtesy of National Palace Museum (via Facebook)
Chinese folkloric animals are experiencing the international limelight in the hit film series Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Gracing the silver screen as one of many magical creatures that protagonist Newt Scamander comes across is a radiant crossbreed of a lion and a tiger, known as the zouwu (騶吾; zau1 ng4) or zouyu (騶虞; zau1 jyu4).
In the film, prancing along Parisian streets, the zouyu wreaks havoc until zoologist Scamander captures it. Well-received as it is, the modern-day remake is a far cry from the kindly beast revered in old Chinese literature, fraught with discrepancies in looks and demeanour. Sit tight for a crash course to this Chinese creature’s origins and stories.
According to the mythical canon The Classics of Mountains and Seas (山海經; saan1 hoi2 ging1), the zouyu is native to the ancient vassal state of Lin (林氏國; lam4 si6 gwok3), believed to situate in the northwestern region of old China. In its appearance, the prized zouyu is as noble as can be—made up of a lion’s head, a tiger’s torso, and a five-coloured long tail, the creature is considered a powerful, terrestrial king of animals.
While some narratives insist that the creature wore a snowy coat adorned with black patterns instead of stripes, it does not detract from its regal aura. Endowed with an authoritative air, it’s no wonder the zouyu’s name is also associated with ancient Chinese officials who oversee nature and its inhabitants.
With the perfect genetic combo, the ancient Chinese considered the zouyu to be a beast like no other. Beliefs bestowed upon the creature include benevolence and virtue, and it is said that the zouyu dares not tread on grass nor feast on victims of bloodshed. Speed and agility are their strong suits, hence why they are rarely caught in action.
While the mythical zouyu is hard to track down, some historical records claim that people actually saw the creature with their own eyes. Like the more famous qilin, the zouyu is said to be drawn to the habitats of righteous monarchs. In the early Ming dynasty (1403–1435), zouyu were reportedly sighted and offered as worthy tributes to reigning emperors. It spurred such widespread favour that art pieces were dedicated to the beast.
Before the zouyu attained fame in the Ming dynasty, the animal had already been employed extensively as a metaphor for outstanding leadership and righteousness. Early writings about the zouyu notably borrow its name to advise people in power on ethics.
As early as the second century BC, the zouyu debuted in Rites of Zhou (周禮; zau1 lai5), a text on bureaucracy and organisational theory. A cautionary word from the Duke of Zhou (周公; zau1 gung1) to King Cheng of Zhou (周成王; zau1 sing4 wong4) warned the avid archer against shooting animals, and to instead focus on the archery target instead—in other words, to mimic the zouyu’s kind-hearted character and to never kill animate beings.
Similarly, The Classic of Poetry (詩經; si1 ging1)—an ancient collection of Chinese poetry—also lauded the tamed beast for letting go four out of five preys when foraging and encourages people from all upbringings to emulate the zouyu’s benevolence.
Furthermore, the frequent associations of the zouyu with hunting made it the centrepiece of a song for noble huntsmen. Whether or not the zouyu exists, it embodies a potent tale of morality for believers to endeavour towards a greater self and sense of being.
If the illustrated portraits of the zouyu remind you of species you have seen on television, in pictures, or in captivity, then you will probably agree that the sacrosanct beast is not quite as mysterious and legendary as it may seem. Over the years, scholars have speculated that the “zouyu” could have been an ancient name for the following two animals.
Snow leopard: Clothed in greyish-white fur beautifully dotted with black so from head to tail, the snow leopard lives up to the zouyu’s description in one of the Chinese legends—although its lack of a five-coloured tail is made up with a fluffy one.
With its home in the snowy mountains of Tibetan and western China, its camouflage coat keeps it safe from the human radar, and the breed further mystifies us with its nocturnal habits. According to zoologists, snow leopards commit themselves to a route along rocky streams for game, completely avoiding of grasslands and forests.
Panda: Can you believe this tender fellow had a history of appearing in fields of combat? While this black-and-white creature was not knocking out warriors in battle, in an account from the Western Jin dynasty (266–316), it is reported that the gentle giant stood as a symbol for peace and reconciliation in a flag called the “zouyu flag” (騶虞幡; zau1 jyu4 faan1). Mind you, this is not just any “weapon” you wield when your infantry is at its wit’s end—waving this flag meant that you were the endorsed mouthpiece of the emperor, one who could formally call for the end of a battle, and everyone must oblige.
Some accounts also shed light on the panda’s actual involvement in warfare. According to the venerated Records of the Grand Historian (史記; si2 gei3), the mytho-historical tribe leader Huangdi—also known as the Yellow Emperor (黃帝; Wong4 Dai3)—claimed sovereignty to what was prototypical central China by using wild animals in his army. Leopards, tigers, bears, and even giant pandas were bred for battle!
Zouyu versus taowu: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them contributes to certain misunderstandings of this enduring Chinese creature. Sharing a similar name to taowu (梼杌; to4 ngat6), the good-natured zouyu looks similar to what is considered one of the most malevolent beasts in Chinese mythology. While they both possess the trademarks of a tiger’s body and an elongated tail, the taowu is much more menacing with its protruding boar fangs. It also has limbs that are more crooked, like a frog, which are absent in a zouyu.
Zouyu and Tai Hang Fire Dragon: Wiggling a fluffy cat toy is by no means how you would tame the zouyu, who is believed to be gentle and willingly approaches those it deems worthy. However, this misrepresentation might have been inspired by the local Tai Hang Fire Dragon. A ritual that was birthed in the Hakka village of Tai Hang in 1880, performing a Fire Dragon Dance in the Mid-Autumn Festival with a fiery “beast” made of straw was the villagers’ best hope to ward off a ravaging plague. Since then, the creature has become an indispensable festive tradition. Strewn with flaming straws and incense sticks, the village icon is led by “pearls”—globe-like incense arrangements—set ablaze.
Zouyu’s real speed: Non-Chinese speakers might be unaware that the Chinese love hyperbole; therefore, when they deem that zouyu can “travel 1,000 miles per day” (日行千里; jat6 hang4 cin1 leoi5), it is merely a dramatic take on its otherworldly swiftness. After all, zouyu is the unchallenged Chinese folkloric idol—the more magical, the better!
While the zouyu may not strike you as the definitive Chinese mythological creature when stacked up against strong contenders like the dragon and the phoenix, it surely holds a unique place in the vast landscape of Chinese culture. Its embodiment of integrity and honour echoes the timeless yearning for a just leader to take the reins.