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The Religious System of China. Volume IV
Extrait: Man-bears, were-stags, were-monkeys, were-rats, were-horses, were-reptiles

Une édition électronique réalisée à partir du texte de l'ouvrage de Johann Jacob Maria de Groot, The Religious System of China. its ancient forms, evolution, history and present aspect. Manners, customs and social institutions connected therewith. Volume IV : The Soul and Ancestral Worship : The Soul in Philosophy and Folk-Conception. Édition originale, E. J. Brill, Leiden, 464 pages + illustrations. Réimpression : Literature House, Ltd, Taipei, Taiwan, 1964. Une édition réalisée par Pierre Palpant, bénévole, Paris.


Man-bears, were-stags, were-monkeys,
were-rats, were-horses, were-reptiles

That the belief in man-bears is very old, we saw on page 159, where we stated that the soul of a dead man, haunting the bedroom of the ailing prince of Tsin in the shape of a bear, forms the topic of an episode recorded in the Tso ch‘wen among the events of the year 534 before our era. Tsze˘-ch‘an, who, as we saw in the same place, was consulted about this spook by Han Süen-tsze˘, declared it to be the soul of a progenitor of the Hia dynasty, banished more than seventeen hundred years previously for mis-management of works against terrible floods harrassing the Empire at that time (comp. B. I, p. 956).

« Anciently, he said, when Yao imprisoned (or killed ?) Kwun on mount Yü, his soul (shen) changed into a yellow bear, and in this shape entered into the abyss of Yü. In the reign of the House of Hia he was actually an object of sacrificial worship in the suburbs, and the three dynasties (of Hia, Shang and Cheu) all have sacrificed there to him ; the kingdom of Tsin is now at the head of a confederation ; perhaps it has not fulfilled that duty as yet ? Han Süen-tsze˘ thereupon presented the Hia sacrifice in the suburb, on which the Ruler became a little better.

In spite of the oldness of the belief in were-bears, Bruin as a versipellis never played a part of importance in Chinese life and thought, and tales referring to him in that character are scarce in the books. This is, of course, not so much ascribable to lack of superstition as to lack of bears, these animals having apparently always been pretty rare in historical China, or not having existed at all in many parts. The I yuen relates of

« a man, named Hwang Siu, Of Kao-p‘ing in Shao-ling (Hunan province), who entered the mountains in the third year of the Yuen kia period (A. D. 426), and did not come back for a month. His son Ken-sheng, in search of him, found him cowered down in a hollow tree, covered from head to waist with hair in colour like that of a bear. On his asking him how he got in that condition, he said :

— It is a punishment inflicted on me by heaven ; you will have to go from here alone.

Sheng burst into piteous wailing, and went home. After a year, the woodcutters saw that his form had become in every respect that of a bear.



References to anthropomorphous stags or to stag-shaped men we have sot found in Chinese literature prior to the fourth century. Koh Hung is the first to mention them. He tells us of

« one Chang Kai-tah and one Ngeu Kao-ch‘ing, two men giving themselves up to the refining of their thoughts and reflections in a grotto in the Yün-t‘ai mounts, before whom unawares a man appeared, dressed in a single robe of yellow silk and a headkerchief of Dolichos cloth.

— Excuse me, Taoist doctors, said he, ‘this is a hard and bitter life of seclusion ;

but the two men looked into a mirror, and discovered therein that they had to do with a stag.

— You are an old mountain-deer, they said, how dare you assume human forms ?

and before they had spoken these words, the visitor turned into a stag and careered off.

It was Koh Hung’s firm opinion that stags, to be able to thus undergo transformation, had to be extremely old.

« Tigers, he wrote, and stags and hares, can all live a thousand years, and of those which have reached the full age of five hundred, the hair turns white. If they can attain the last-named age, they are also able to be metamorphosed.

An old legend of a man changed into a stag we have in the I yuen.

« One P‘eng Shi, from Loh-ngan in the P‘o-yang region (in Kiangsi province), a hunter by occupation, lives in the Hien khang period (A. D. 335-343), and is accompanied by his son whenever he goes up country. Once he stumbles, falls down, and changes into a stag, which jumps about and galops off. His son gives up hunting for the whole of his life, but his grandson takes up the business anew. Once he shoots a white stag with a Taoist charm of the seven stars (the Greater Bear) between its antlers, and his grandfather’s names and abode, as also his year and month (of birth). This sight arouses in him remorse to such a degree that he gives up hunting for ever.

Koh Hung’s legend of the two Taoist hermits with the stag suggests that the stag is in China suspected of sometimes seeking inter-course with men with objects not quite innocent, and intended to disturb their religious zeal. On the other hand we have tales that represent it as having resorted to men in perfect good faith, in order to embrace their life of religious ascetism, and thus walk by their help in the path of salvation.

« In mount Sung, thus we read, an aged Buddhist monk had constructed a straw but, where, between shrubs and creepers, he led a life of obedience to the Commandments, without ever going out. Unexpectedly he beholds a young lad, who greets him, and entreats him to make him his disciple. But the anchorite goes on reciting his holy books without looking up. So the boy stands there from morn till eve, and then the monk asks him :

— My son, what have you come to these high mountains for, where human footprints are scarcely ever seen ? Why do you desire to become my disciple ?

— I have been living on this hill, he answers ; my parents are dead, so that I am without any protectors and am so young. I feel sure I deserve this fate for not having cultivated virtue in my previous existences ; therefore I have vowed to abjure wordliness and to seek a Master ; verily, I long to cultivate the blissful state of the world to come.

— But are you able to do it ? asks the monk.

— Should my words not be consonant with my heart, is the answer, then may not only you, Master, but also Emperor Heaven and Empress Earth withhold from me their pardon.

The monk finds him clever and intelligent, and sees in him a person with much disposition for good. He gives him the tonsure, and so energetic and industrious does he prove as a disciple, that his likes are but seldom found. When he trains other monks in the Law, they are unable to contradict him, and when he asks the brethren for instruction in the doctrines, they never checkmate him. No Wonder that the old monk appreciates him highly, nay, he regards him as a saint and a sage.

Thus many years go on, till in a frosty autumn the leaves of the trees are falling. A cold breeze is drearily blowing, and in the glens it is all bright freezing weather, when suddenly the young monk scans the four points of the compass and screams out in a distinct voice :

— In the depth of the Mountains I grew up to old age ; why did I leave them for that one and only Church ? I waver as to whether I shall betake myself to my companions of old, and give up tormenting my soul any longer from morn till eve.

Then again he sends forth a protracted scream, and after a while a troop of stags appears, and runs past the spot. Then the young man begins to hop ; he throws off his religions garb, changes into a stag, joins the troop with a bound, and is off.



Nor is the monkey, resembling man, as it does, more than any other animal in outward appearance and intelligence, looked for in vain in the Chinese list of turncoats. In the Annals of the Kingdoms of Wu and Yueh, which were written in the first century of our era, we are told that Keu Tsien, who ruled Yueh in the fifth century before Christ, on being told by his Minister of a certain lady versed in the noble art of fencing and fighting,

« sent a messenger to her, with orders to bring her to Court, to be interrogated there about the use of swords and spears. The lady set out for the north to appear before His Majesty, and fell in on the way thither with an old man, who told her he was a Mr. Yuen.

— I have heard, said he, of your dexterity in the use of the sword, please show me one single proof of it.
On which the dame answered :

— I am not so bold as to conceal my capacities ; put me to the test, Sir.

At these words Mr. Yuen grasped a lin-yü bamboo stem and swung about on a twig of it, which, coming down, was seized immediately by the woman, so that Mr. Yuen was hurled into a tree and changed into a white monkey. Then the lady took leave of him, and pursued her journey.

To judge from this legend, as also from some others given in books, superstition and tradition ascribed the capacity of transformation into men especially to old monkeys, preferably as old as Methuselah, the product of the metamorphosis then being a greybeard hoary with age. The author of the Shuh i ki, who lived in the sixth century, was evidently imbued with these ideas when he asserted

« that monkeys, when five hundred years old, change into kioh (certain large gibbons), which become old men when they attain the age of a thousand years.

It is worthy of consideration that the monkey-man of the Wu and Yueh Annals called himself a member of the Yuen tribe. This name has the same pronunciation as a word denoting a certain monkey or gibbon species, and its written form occurs, moreover, as principal component in the written name of that animal. In subsequent ages it continues a feature of monkey-myth to represent were-monkeys as persons bearing that tribal name, just as man-foxes were, as we saw on page 195, often believed to be members of the Hu tribe.

As well as the fox and the stag, the monkey is notorious in Chinese mythology for embracing sometimes, in a human shape, Buddhist religious life and ascetism. In this virtuous character we find him e. g. in the Süen-shih chi, in a tale too long and tedious to insert and furnishing no particulars of interest for oriental folklore or animism. Furthermore, both in his own shape and in that of man, the monkey often acts as a dangerous devil, in which character we shall meet him anew in our chapter on Animal Demons, in Part II.



« The slave-maid of Wei Kien-tsu of Shang-yü, named P‘i-nah, was a beauty. One Sü Mih was enamored of her ; which induced a rat to assume her shape and visit him in bed. But doubts arose in him as to her identity. So he stroked her four limbs, and felt they contracted under his hand, till she was a rat again, which ran away.

The family of one Chu Jen had lived as farmers at the foot of mount Sung for a series of generations. Suddenly he missed his first-born boy of five. He sought for him for more than ten years, but he could not find out whether he was alive or dead.

One day, a Buddhist monk wanders past, and stops at his door, accompanied by a disciple whose appearance and features are strikingly like those of the lost child. Jen asks the monk to walk in ; he places a meal before him, and after a while he says :

— Teacher, both in manners and features your disciple is like my first-born son whom I lost ten years ago.
The monk is amazed, and rising to his feet, says :

— Thirty years long I have lived in the wild jungle of mount Sung, and ten years have gone by since this disciple came to me, weeping and crying. I asked him what was the matter with him, but he showed all the bewilderment of tender youth, and could not well explain from where he came. I brought him up, I gave him the tonsure, and he is now so clever and bright that nobody equals him ; I have always deemed him to be a sage. If he is your son, then try to find it out by thoroughly examining him yourself.
Jen and his family now set to work to interrogate and examine their child.

— He had a black mark on his back, the mother says,
and on searching his body all over, they find that mark, convinces them that he really is their child. Father, mother, and all the family burst into wailing, and the monk departs, leaving the boy with his parents.
The parents keep him at home, and educate him in the same way as they do their other sons ; but whenever the night comes he disappears, to return at daybreak. This having gone on so for two or three years, the parents begin to suspect him of playing the thief ; they watch him, and perceive that he changes every night into a rat, which runs away from home and comes back in the morning. Their interrogations do not lead to any confessions, but after a long lapse of time he says :

— I am no son of yours, I am a king of the rats under mount Sung. The rats there, my subjects, have seen me, and so I can come back here no more.

His parents think him in a fit of mental derangement ; but that same evening he turns into a rat, and runs away.




The antiquity of the belief in were-horses may be concluded from the fact that in the Bamboo Annals, a collection of ancient documents which, as stated on page 416 of Book I, were discovered in the grave of a king in A. D. 279, we find it recorded

« that in the thirty-second year of the reign of king Süen (B. C. 795) a horse changed into a man.

This event is hardly more astounding than that of a steed which, according to the same work,

« changed five years after into a fox.

Were-horses of an origin somewhat different were, a thousand years later, the two babies that, according to the Standard Annals of that time,

« were born of horses in the Ho-poh region and in Ch‘ang-ngan, respectively in the second year of the Khienfu period (A. D. 875) and in the first year of that styled Chung hwo (A. D. 881).

The belief in the possibility of such wonderful births was evidently by no means new at the time when those Annals were written, as, according to a passage inserted therein, King Fang, the wise diviner of the first century before our era

« wrote in his Yih ch‘wen, ‘Traditions about the Combinations and Permutations of Divining Stalks’ : When feudal princes stand in arms against each other, and a spectral horse of theirs gives birth to a human being, then the day is nearing when their people will be swept away.

Of a horse transformed into a woman the Siao siang luh gives the following curious account :

« Mr. Chang Ts‘üen, Governor of Yih-cheu, kept a noble steed, of which he took great care, and of which he was very fond. One day it was found in the stable, changed into a woman of the highest beauty. The attendants hurry to their lord to inform him of the matter, and as he is going to the stable to behold the miracle with his own eyes, the woman advances and salutes him with polite bows, saying :

— I am a woman from the Yen region. Being very fond of noble steeds, I was wont, whenever I saw one, to exalt its briskness to the skies, with this result that after some years I suddenly fell down, as if under the influence of drink, and changed into a mettlesome horse. Then I galoped away from home, taking my own way in a southerly direction for about a thousand miles, when I was caught, and thus got into your stable. Thanks to the care and affection you have bestowed upon me, I have now the good fortune to return to my own condition. My brutish state so filled me with dismay that my tears flowed and, imbibing the soil, were brought before the Emperor (of Heaven) by the tutelary divinity of the Earth, in consequence of which it was ordained I should return to my old state. The part is now to me like an awakening from a dream.

Chang stands aghast. He keeps the woman quietly in his house ; but when some ten years have elapsed, she unexpectedly asks his permission to return to her native place. He has not yet given it, when she lifts her eyes up to heaven ; crying and screaming she beats her own body, and on a sudden changes into a stately horse, which galops away. And nobody ever knew anything of her whereabouts.



As shown on page 160, the oldness of the belief in anthropomorphosis of tortoises and in the possibility of men turning into those animals, is attested by the writings of Chwang-tsze˘. More authentic evidence of its prevalence in the early centuries of our era we have in the Standard Annals of those times. They relate, that

« under the reign of the emperor Ling (A. D. 168-189) the mother of one Hwang, an inhabitant of Kiang-hia (in Hupeh), while taking her bathe, changed into a giant tortoise and plunged into a deep pool, out of which she came forth from time to time, the silver hairpin she had worn while bathing then being seen on her head.

And the Books of the House of Sung state,

« that in the first year of the Hwang ch‘u period (A. D. 220) the mother of Sung Shi-tsung in Ts‘ing-ho changed into a tortoise, and cast herself into the water.

Moreover, the Books of the Tsin dynasty relate :

« Under the reign of Sun Hao it occurred in Tan-yang (in Kiangsu), in the first year of the Pao ting period (A. D. 266), that the mother of one Süen Khien, an octogenary woman, while taking a bath, changed into a giant tortoise. He and his brothers shut the door and kept watch at it ; then they dug a spacious basin in the upper part of the hall, and filled it with water for the tortoise to divert itself in. On the first day and the next the animal continuously put its neck out of the water to look round, and then seeing the door ajar, it turned round, escaped and jumped into a distant pond, from which it re-appeared no more.

The idea, expressed in these tales, that it is a special idiosyncrasy of aged women to change into tortoises, preferably when in the bath, is, no doubt, not alien from the consideration that the tortoise, being an aquatic animal, belongs, just the same as water itself and all women, to the yin or female part of the Universe. But for this there are also a good number of tales in books of marvel which relate of tortoises as human beings of the other sex. To give two instances only :

« Yen T‘ai, while journeying on the Yangtsze˘, fell in with a fishing-boat, the crew of which told him they had fifty turtles with them. He bought them for five thousand hard coins, and set them free. No sooner was he some dozen steps off, when the fishing-boat capsized. When the evening came, fifty men appeared at his house.

— Your excellent son, they said to his parents, had five thousand coins with him ; here they are, take them.

The money was all wet. Greatly astonished the parents were, until T‘ai came home, and told them his curious adventure with the turtles he had redeemed.

« Fah-chi, a monk of mount T‘ai, had itinerated as far as Hwai-yin, when he saw a fisherman, who received him with much politeness. He followed him to his straw hut, and had some food placed before him most carefully. Astonished at so good a reception, the monk asks :

— My disciple, you make a living by fishing, and so you are a sinner ; how is it then that, on seeing a monk, you treat him with so much respect and courtesy ?

— Time was, the other replies, when I made acquaintance in the Hwui-ki mounts with one Yün-yuen, a superior man, who preached the Dharma to the multitude. I, a man addicted to the pleasures of life, awoke by his sermons to the Holy Doctrine, and ever since when I see a monk, I feel a boundless joy.

With astonishment undiminished the monk admonishes him to change his calling. But the fisherman says :

— Though I received instruction in the doctrine of virtue, I am still entangled in the nets of sin ; but the same is the case with such monks as you are, who possess this dignity without being able to apply themselves to the commandments ; our sinfulness is equally great ; what difference is there between us ?

Bashful and ashamed, the monk absents himself. Then looking behind, he sees that the fisherman has become a big tortoise, which plunges into the Hwai, while the straw hut fades away.

Conceptions about the existence of snakes with human or partly human form prevailed in China probably in the darkest night of time, mention being made of such monsters in so old a work as the Shan-hai king.

« In Yang-shan, thus we read in that curious book, are many metamorphosed snakes. As to their shape, they have a human face, a wolf’s body, and the wings of a bird, but they move about like snakes. And the Siang-liu family have nine heads with human faces, bodies as serpents, and a blue color.

It was, no doubt, under the influence of the general belief in such semi-human animals that still in the eighth century the learned Sze˘-ma Ching, attempting to construe a kind of history out of written and oral traditions about China’s oldest times, wrote that

« P‘ao Hi (i. e. Fuh Hi, see Book I, p. 963) had the body of a snake and a human head, and Nü Kwa (Book I, p. 418) a serpent’s body with a man’s head.

Traditions about changes of men into snakes and of snakes into men are, no doubt, likewise very old in China. It is related e. g. :

« When Chang Khwan became Governor of Yang-cheu under the emperor Wu of the Han dynasty (B. C. 140-86), two old men had been there before the magistrate with a litigation about the limits of a disputed plot somewhere in the mountains. For several years the decision had been adjourned, but Chang Khwan took up the case again, so that the two men re-appeared in court. He then discovered from their shape and demeanour that they were not men, and ordered his lictors to arm themselves with clubs and spears. When they entered, he asked the two men :

— Tell me what sort of spirits you are.

Away the old sires ran, and Khwan, hooting and crying, attacked them ; on which they changed into snakes.

Elsewhere we read :

« Mrs. Chao, the wife of Wang Chen, prefect of the district of Hwa-yin, was the daughter of a wealthy man in Yen. She was a woman with nice features, and had married Wang Chen at an early age ; (no wonder then that) about six months after she had followed him to his post, a young man turned up, always availing himself of the moment when Chen went out, to visit her, regularly in her bedroom. After a series of such visits he seduced her. One fine day Wang entered, and found the galant with Mrs. Chao on the same dining-mat, drinking together, and laughing merrily. With a loud cry of fright the lady fainted, and while she sank to the ground, quite breathless, the young man changed into a big snake and decamped. Chen then told the slave-maids in attendance to lift their mistress up under her arms, but lo, she, too, turned into a snake, and escaped with the other one. Wang Chen ran after her, but only to see how she followed the serpent that was ahead into mount Hwa, where they ultimately vanished.

We are wont to cell a peevish or violent, brawling woman a dragon. The Chinese go further than that, and believe in changes of shrews into serpents and snakes as dreadful realities. So,

« Mr. Wei, a Censor, had a sister, with a temperament both harsh and cruel, virulent and wicked. Her female slaves and her servants she whipped and flogged so cruelly, that death often ensued. Suddenly she got the fever. For a week or so she refused to see anybody, remaining all the time secluded in her room, and venting her fury by ejecting invectives against all who ventured to approach. When ten days had thus elapsed, a rustling sound was heard in the room. They stole near to see, and on their way up the hall smelled a poisonous stench of tainted meat ; then opening the window, they saw that the woman was changing into a huge snake longer than a chang, assuming a red spotted colour. Her clothes, nails and hair lay scattered all over the mattress. With furious looks the beast dashed out against the men, casting terror into the hearts of the whole family, who jointly let it escape into the open country. It was the violence and cruelty of her character, that brought about this metamorphosis.

In the class of man-snakes we must place also certain monsters reported to have been born in snake-forms from women, to live without shuffling off their ophidian shape. They existed already in the imagination of the people in the second century of our era, for we read in the Standard Annals of that time, in a biography of the high grandee Teu Wu :

« When his mother gave birth to him, she brought forth at the same time a snake, which they set free in the forest. Afterwards she died, and they were on the point of burying her, when, before they let her down into the grave, there came a large snake out of the jungle. Straightway creeping to the grave, it knocked its head against the coffin ; with bloody tears it waved its head up and down, coiled itself up, and acted as if it were moaning and weeping ; and when after a while it withdrew, all the people felt convinced that the event foreboded felicity to the Teu family.

Thus, in spite of its shape, the animal possessed a perfect human character, manifesting itself in highly dutiful, filial conduct.

In the Yang ch‘ang period (A. D. 322) of the reign of the emperor Yuen, thus Yü Pao relates, a Ki-yang woman, named Jen Kuh, while ploughing a field, took a nap under a tree, when a man dressed in feathery clothes neared her and had sexual intercourse with her. His abode she remained ignorant of, and when after a pregnancy of several months she was to be confined, the feathery-clothed man turned up again and stuck a knife into her vagina, which thereupon brought forth a little viper. The man then departed, and Jen Kuh afterwards got access to the Imperial residence as a dignitary of the Crown, even changing service in Ch‘en-liu (the Metropolis) for that in the interior of the Palace.

Side by side with stories of men turning bodily into snakes, there exist some which show that the souls of the dead may assume the serpent-shape, quite independently from their former mortal coil. The following legend may serve as an instance of this ; it occurred in a work which existed probably under the Han dynasty, viz. the Ch‘en-liu fung-suh ch’wen or Traditions about Manners and Customs in Ch‘en-liu, which is the Khai-fung region, forming a part of the present Honan province.

« The district of Siao-hwang is Hwang-hiang, in the Sung region. There the Prince of P‘ei, having raised an army to wage war in the provinces, lost his august mother. When the realm was reduced to peace, he sent a messenger thither with a coffin, to evoke her soul in the deep wilds ; and during this ceremony a red snake appeared, which bathed in the water, and entered the coffin. And on the spot where it bathed hairs were found.

In conclusion, we have to attest the belief in man-lizards and man-frogs.

The Lang hüen ki tells of

« a man wounded by a snake, and smarting bitterly under the bite. On the point of expiring, he sees a little child approach.

— Take two knives, it says, rub them against each other in some water ; drink the water, and the effect will be salutary.

On these words it changes into a green lizard, and disappears in a hole of the wall. The man follows the advice, and is cured immediately. It is on account of this event that the green lizard is called the snake(-bite) curer. He is the so-called house-watch (i. e. the house-lizard).

One Yang Tsien of Chung-kwei made a large tank behind the hall of his house, enclosing it with a series of rooms, bolted and locked securely on all sides. At every bath he had there, he placed the bath things, basins etc. on the brink of the tank, then locked out every one, and jumped into the tank ; and the bath finished, he crawled out of the water after an hour or so. Nobody could get a peep at him, and he merely told others that it was his nature to be so fond of tank-bathing.

One fine day he lies asleep done in the hall, when a thief enters. Suddenly this man sees a frog in the bed, a beast almost as large as the whole bed itself. Its eyes glisten like gold and shoot brilliant beams, and the thief, scared at the sight, falls headlong to the ground. The frog then adopts the human shape and becomes Tsien, who rising up and grasping his sword, asks :

— Who are you ?

The thief mentions his names, on which Tsien casts a silver incense-ball towards him, saying :

— I give you this because of your pinching poverty ; but do not under any pretext whatever tell others what you have seen.

The thief lacks courage to accept the present, and gets away with polite bows. Being afterwards imprisoned in Khai-fung for some other reason, he lets the matter out.

Retour au texte de l'auteur: Jean-Marc Fontan, sociologue, UQAM Dernière mise à jour de cette page le samedi 17 novembre 2007 7:15
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