In J.K. Rowling’s wizarding world, aspiring young witches and wizards at Hogwarts learn about magical creatures from magizoologist Newt Scamander’s masterpiece Fantastic Beasts & Where to Find Them; here in China, we rely on the book, The Classic of Mountains and Seas, or Shan Hai Jing (《山海经》).
Dating all the way back to at least the fourth century BCE, this book provides accounts of 277 curious creatures over 550 mountains, 300 rivers, and 100 realms. Much like the Care of Magical Creatures course textbook, there’s not a plot or narrative in Shan Hai Jing, but dry geography and cultural accounts of, presumably, ancient China and more. But, what a bizarre and fanciful world this ancient text depicted! It shows mountains along with lands beyond seas and wilderness, in which indigenous people with exotic customs reside, strange creatures lurk, and novel plants grow. And like many early texts in the world, myth is also woven into these accounts, making it the origin of many classic Chinese legends, such as the goddess Chang’e on the moon, after whom the modern Chinese moon exploration project is named.
No one knows who the author, or most likely authors, was, but the 18-chapter version we have today is edited by a 3rd century alchemist named Guo Pu (郭璞), who was known for practicing divination and feng shui.
Serious scholars like Sima Qian, father of Chinese historiography in the 2rd century BCE, treated this text with caution, stating that “as to the strange things in Shan Hai Jing, I dare not to comment,” in his Records of the Grand Historian (《史记》). But it certainly did not stop others from imagining a pre-historic fantasy world.
Most of the time, scholars believe the book to contain exaggerated accounts of ancient travelers’ trips overseas. Today, there is a lot of enthusiasm for reading ancient texts and seeing if any traces of reality can be found among the fanciful. So far, the best guesses have these ancient beasts residing in Africa, and in some cases Australia or South America. Take a look at their original descriptions and see how close you think they are.
“…it looks like a horse but with a white head; it has stripes resemble that of a tiger and its tail is red; they sound like people singing, and its name is Lushu. Wearing its pelt can multiply your descendants.” — Classic of the Mountains: South
One theory believes that the Lushu is the deer-like okapi, living in the dense mountain and rain forest in central Africa. The okapi was thought by Europeans to be a mythical creature until the 20th century. Its stripes and reddish brown fur certainly have a resemblance to the description.
“…the creature looks like a fox but with bands on its neck, its name is Lei, and they are hermaphroditic. People who eat their meat will stop becoming jealous.” — Classic of the Mountains: South
There are people who think this is the spotted hyena, native to Sub-Saharan Africa. The ancients might have mistakenly believed they are hermaphroditic because the genitalia of the female spotted hyena closely resembles that of the male.
“…the creature looks like a piglet, but with chicken feet; it sound like dog barking and its name is Lili; its appearance in a certain place forebode coming construction projects.” — Classic of the Mountains: South
The aardvark, native to Africa, is thought to be the Lili. And because aardvarks constantly dig for food with their sharp claws and powerful legs, or create burrows to live in, ancient people might have taken this characteristic as some kind of prophetic sign for future construction work.
“…the creature looks like a pig, but with tusks; its name is Dangkang, and its sounds like it is calling its own name; its appearance is a good sign for a great harvest.” — Classic of the Mountains: East
The African warthog is thought to be the Dangkang, mainly because of their protruding tusks.
Based on assumptions like these, many are ready to claim the book is a record of early human migration from the African motherland. But this is certainly a slippery path with no end. Just look at a few other cases, which under that logic, might prove that the ancient Chinese traveled to Australia and South America.
“In the East Sea is a mountain called Mount Liubo, 7,000 li away. Gray beasts that look like oxen live there. The beast doesn’t have horns but has only one foot. Whenever it enters the water, rain storms follow. It shines as sun and moon, and sounds like thunder. Its name is Kui.” — Classic of the Wilderness: East
There’s a theory that the beast Kui is actually a hopping kangaroo, which appears to have only one foot in the air. The vague description of an island in the sea certainly adds to such possibility. Finally, both names begin with “k,” a suspected linguistic connection.
“…the creature looks like a rabbit, but with a bird’s beak; it has the eagle’s eyes and the snake’s tail. It feigns death in the presence of people. It sounds like it is calling its own name. Its appearance is an omen for a plague of insects.” — Classic of the Mountains: East
Many believe this account is referring to the armadillo. So much so, that the Chinese name for armadillo is, really, Qiuyou.
Are these fantastic beasts the proof of ancient Chinese traveling around the world, or a pure coincidence between reality and things conjured up by imagination? The truth might be even more complicated, and there just might be some early communication between these various lands.
Illustration from “Illustrated Shan Hai Jing” by Hu Wenhuan in Ming Dynasty