Saturday, May 28, 2016

Everyone Wants to Be a Wild Man


The April issue of Archaeology Magazine features an artifact, a gold spoon finial from late medieval Europe, crafted into the form of a bearded, club-wielding humanoid of doubtful sanity. The editor identifies his visage as that of the "Wild Man," a common motif in European art and ceremonial from the twelfth century to the fifteenth. Scholar Ronald Hutton notes that the Wild Man evoked earlier pagan deities and at the same time warned Christian Europeans of the chaos that lurked at the edge of their civilization. We might add Robert Berkhofer's observation (in The White Man's Indian [1978]) that the Wild Man heavily influenced Europeans' perception of Native Americans. Early modern Europeans sometimes assumed that Indians, like Wild Men, lived on raw meat or human flesh, and referred to both groups as "woods-dwellers" or "silvani" - in English, "salvages." 

What interested me most about the article was the obvious ambivalence Europeans displayed toward Wild Men. Commoners and elites feared these mythical figures but also emulated them, the latter by including them in military heraldry and by dressing as Wild Men for pageants. The image, like that of Native Americans in later centuries, suggested strength, physical courage, and a carnivalesque suspension of social rules. (We may note that the same elites who dressed as Wild Men in the fourteenth century also dressed as Brazilian Indians in the sixteenth century.) The Wild Man thus served as a precursor to the early-modern trope of the "noble savage," and a bridge between that era and the pre-Christian Europeans whom Tacitus and his Classical contemporaries admired.

Monday, May 09, 2016

The Attack Monkeys of Ningbo


I'm brushing up my knowledge of what Gary Brecher calls “the Teflon Empire” by reading Julia Lovell's clear-eyed, balanced history of the First Opium War, the event that Chinese nationalists consider the founding episode (founding atrocity, if you prefer) of modern Chinese history. Like most military conflicts, this one had few redeeming features. It doesn't even bear a very accurate name. Qing officials did destroy a lot of English opium in 1839, but the British government did not go to war as payback; rather, it wanted to humiliate the decadent government of an allegedly inferior nation. Humiliate China it did: the war proved hopelessly, tragically one sided, with thousands of demoralized Chinese troops crushed in their indefensible forts and drowned in their obsolete junks. British casualties numbered in the low hundreds. Like the Falklands War, the Opium War was (to quote Ricky Gervais) “basically a range war...the equivalent of holding a midget at arm's length...[while] you're just kicking him in the bollocks.”

There's not much levity in Lovell's book, but she does have an eye for colorful details. I particularly enjoyed her account of one of General Prince Yijing's attempts at unconventional warfare: "Before the [Chinese] assault on [British-held] Ningbo, Yijang had made room in the budget to buy nineteen monkeys: the idea was to tie firecrackers to their backs then fling them onto English ships moored nearby.”* None of the general's subordinates, however, would volunteer for monkey-tossing duty, so Yijing's special simian attack force went unused. I regret to say the monkeys' attendant eventually abandoned them to starve. The ministrations of Mars are usually cruel.


* My petite amie suggests that General Yijing had read of the Hindu monkey-god Hanuman, who ignited enemy buildings with his tail.


Above image: Japanese (not Chinese, but certainly East Asian) macaques frolicking in the snow. Taken by the author, Dec. 2014.