Author Essays, Interviews, and Excerpts

Bigfoot and the yeren: a conversation about wildmen

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In May, the Press published Joshua Blu Buhs’s Bigfoot: The Life and Times of a Legend, which explored the very real legacy of a mythical creature. (Check out Buhs’s recent conversation with the LA Times Jacket Copy blog.) But Buhs’s book wasn’t the first on our list to consider a legendary wildman. Among the many topics explored in The People’s Peking Man: Popular Science and Human Identity in Twentieth-Century China, author Sigrid Schmalzer delves into the meaning and resonance of the yeren, China’s answer to the West’s Bigfoot.
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We recently asked the two scholars to discuss the similarities and differences between the wildmen of their books. The far-ranging discussion that resulted was so fascinating that we’re publishing the dialogue in three installments. Part I kicks off below with Buhs remarking on the parallels between the two figures.

Joshua Blu Buhs: There are some amazing similarities between Bigfoot and the yeren, especially in our discussion of them in our books. First, there is the theme of loving the beast and sacrificing friends and family in the hunt for it. Second, there is the way that wildmen represent the possibility of extinction, authenticity, and the horrors of civilization. Third, there are parallel stories about kidnapping, marauding wildmen. The wildman may nor may not be a ubiquitous character-type, and its representation is certainly shaped by the different cultures in which it appears, but these similarities are intriguing. What’s your take on this?
Sigrid Schmalzer: I, too, am struck by how many similarities there are both in the yeren and Bigfoot stories themselves and in the stories about the people who search for them. In both cases the wildness of the monsters is crucial to their cultural significance—and this wildness is something to fear but also to embrace. The fear of the “savagery” of the wild runs through stories about wildmen who kidnap—and often rape—humans; these stories have old roots in China. But the wildness of Bigfoot and yeren also emerges in these stories as an antidote to the corruption of modern society. Some of the specifics of what that corruption is understood to be differ between the two cases (e.g., in China, it includes the inhumanity of Mao-era political campaigns), but in both places there is a strong environmentalist theme—a romantic notion that Bigfoot and yeren represent “endangered species” and that they (like Goodall’s chimps or Fossey’s gorillas) offer the hope of reconnecting with our primeval selves and returning to the more pure world of nature.

The people who search for both Bigfoot and yeren are dominantly male. They often style themselves as rugged adventurers who are willing to brave the dangers of wilderness, the scorn of scientific authorities, and the loss of their families and other social ties—their ties to civilization. But I was struck by your discussion in the last pages of your book of the recent trend of women-centered narratives… again raising the connection to Goodall and Fossey, the idea that a woman primatologist might once again allow “humankind” to make “contact with another sentient being” (p. 252). An earlier example of this not in your book is Karen Minns’s novel, Calling Rain, published in 1991: it’s a lesbian romance about a Bigfoot researcher and her graduate student inspired in part at least by Dian Fossey‘s work with gorillas. (Years ago when I first started the research on yeren, I had fun reading some of these North American stories, an activity I justified because they were “directly related to my dissertation.”) I don’t think I’ve seen anything along these lines in the Chinese case: Goodall is an inspiration, but to male yeren enthusiasts; the stories sometimes involve female yeren and speak to questions of sexuality and gender, but from a male perspective (e.g., emphasizing voluptuousness and/or loyalty to family). To me the emergence of ecofeminist Bigfoot stories is a hopeful moment at the end of your book that stands in marked contrast with the larger double “tragedy”—of the working-class male Bigfooters who fail to find respect and of Bigfoot itself, who becomes swallowed up by consumer culture—that is your primary story arc.
JB: I want to come back to your question about female Bigfoot-hunters in a moment. But first, the discussion of similarities raises what is to me an interesting historiographical question: Are wildmen archetypes? Archetypes and other transhistorical concepts are not much in vogue these days. And anthropologist Gregory Forth (Images of the Wildman in Southeast Asia) cautions against using the concept, arguing that the core of the image is too sparse: a hairy, humanlike biped. Still, that the legends are so similar in such diverse places forces the question. Presumably, there was not much (recent) contact between the Chinese villagers you write about and, say, the First Nations tribes in Canada who told similar tales. Certainly, it’s possible that there are wildmen in both places that give rise to the stories—but this starts to beggar belief when one looks at wildmen stories from elsewhere, because then you’d have to posit—as Ivan Sanderson did—that there are several species of undiscovered apes, all over the Earth. The only other option I see is that the image is universal—or, at least, ubiquitous. Forth even suggests this himself when he notes that probably most every culture that has existed has recognized both the difference between humans and animals as well as the continuity, making stories about some creature that bridged the gap interesting for exploring the boundary line. Your book, especially, finds this tradition at work. In North America, at least once the story passed into white society, the tales only rarely touched on the human-animal divide, or did so obliquely, by looking at racial and gender divides and using the wildman, as a symbol of the natural, thereby naturalizing racial and sexual hierarchies. The question for us, as historians, is to look at the way this archetype was used in different situations—thus, in China, the yeren was used to critique Maoist programs, in Britain to raise questions about imperialism, and in the US to resist (and accommodate) consumerism. It’s not unlike sex, in that sex is a biological process that comes in many cultural forms. The wildman may be something built into the human mind, or a natural consequence of the human mind’s engagement with the world, but that takes specific cultural forms. I don’t know, necessarily, how recognizing this biological substrate should play out methodologically, but it seems important to acknowledge.
Back to your point about the way that the American hunt for Bigfoot has changed to allows for the participation of more women. In the past, Bigfoot was seen as a creature that needed to be hunted, probably killed, to make it real. And hunting was an avocation most open to men. More recently, Bigfoot has been constructed as a sentient, even wise being. This change, I argue in my book, was caused by the passage of Bigfoot from entertainments aimed at the working class to those meant for the middle class, who were more inclined toward environmentalism and a benign view of nature. A sentient, or wise, creature needs to communicated with, not attacked. Communication is seen in America as a trait better developed in women than men, thus creating a space for more women to enter the field. More generally, the domestication of Bigfoot has allowed more women—Molly Gloss, Francine Prose, Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Allyson Mitchell, and, as you mention, Karen Minns—to write about the creature, including writing self-consciously fictional stories, and make art from it. I’m not so sure, however, that I see the turn toward ecofeminism as hopeful. Maybe I’m just more pessimistic than you. But I think there’s more than that, as well … The feminist versions of Bigfoot were almost always put to use doing what came to be known as “soul work.” They represented a turning away from the world, a way of making middle-class Americans feel better about their situations, but did not engage with the structural conditions that made soulwork seem necessary.
To connect my two points, I offer a hypothesis, which is based on empirical evidence and would need more research to become more than tentative. My hypothesis is this: The wildman archetype is useful for thinking through a number of issues, boundaries between the human and nonhuman, between the races, between the genders, between civilization and wilderness, between the authentic and plastic. Wildmen can entice people to think about change and going elsewhere, but, ultimately, they cannot lead us out of the conditions in which we live.
SS: I find the emergence of ecofeminist Bigfooters hopeful not because I think it represents a “better” kind of Bigfoot studies (though I can’t help but like it more), but because it demonstrates that Bigfoot will continue to generate interesting questions and opportunities to challenge authorities—it’s not “dead.”
You say, “Wildmen can entice people to think about change and going elsewhere, but, ultimately, they cannot lead us out of the conditions in which we live.” I’ll respond by quoting Nobel laureate Gao Xingjian from his 1990 novel Soul Mountain. His narrator has just arrived in the forest of Shennongjia, where he contemplates searching for the elusive yeren: “Not having a goal is a goal, the act of searching itself turns into a sort of goal, and the object of the search is irrelevant.” (Gao Xingjian (Mabel Lee, trans.) Soul Mountain (New York: Harper Collins, 2000 [1990]), 342.) Similarly, in his 1986 poem “I am Yeren,” Zhou Liangpei gives us: “In the pathless forest, to be lost does not count as being lost” and “the search for searching often resides in returning to the origin.” Bigfoot-like monsters are not well suited for resolving problems. They are unfindable; their power lies in turning answers back into questions. That’s why the inversion works so well: it’s bound to become a double inversion. As Zhou Liangpei’s yeren doppelgänger puts it, “If we look at one another, we’ll see who still retains a tail / You are my bright mirror, and I am yours.” (Zhou Liangpei, Yeren ji (Beijing: Huaxia chubanshe, 1992), 97-98.) Are we civilized or savage? Is civilization in fact the height of savagery? Then what does that make savagery? Bigfoot can’t show us the way out, but he can get us appropriately confused about where we are—not to mention who we are.
Back to the question of archetypes. The similarities really are too profound to ignore, I think—much more than just a “hairy, humanlike biped”—and it seems you agree. We also agree that as historians our job is then to see how this archetype behaves in different times and places. This reminds me of a question you asked during a previous exchange, which I’ll paraphrase as: Why have scientists in China apparently been more willing than their North American counterparts to entertain the possibility of—and even expend time and energy researching—wildmen?
Here’s where historical context is absolutely critical: it’s not just about place, but about time as well. In the late 1950s, when Soviet scientists were engaged in research on yeti and the Soviet Union still had scientific advisors in China, a few Chinese scientists were assigned to investigate reports of wildmen in southwest China. They weren’t very enthusiastic about it, and they concluded that the sightings were probably of gibbons, though they didn’t rule out the possibility it could be something more unusual. Yeren studies didn’t amount to anything much until the late 1970s, and then they quickly blossomed. China was emerging from the volatile period of the Cultural Revolution and plunging into a new set of social and political relations both within China and internationally. Chinese scientists gained much greater access to foreign publications, including Bigfoot-related materials along with all sorts of other fun stuff. The world was suddenly much bigger, and there was profound excitement about all sorts of possibilities—the possibility that an unknown hominid survived in the ancient forested corners of China, and perhaps even more importantly the possibility that scientists would enjoy the freedom to study yeren along with many other subjects previously off limits. Because of their association with the supernatural, stories about yeren aroused concerns about “superstition,” which the socialist state was committed to eradicating. Scientists and others eager to study yeren used this concern as a justification for their research: if they found a yeren, they could prove that it was not a supernatural creature but rather a real animal, knowable through science, of some evolutionary relation to humans and apes. I think they did believe this, but that their primary motivation lay in the excitement that the yeren as a “mystery” offered as the political and scientific orthodoxies of the Mao years began to show signs of crumbling.
I should note, too, that while Chinese scientists in the 1970s and early 1980s generally felt more favorably toward research on wildmen than scientists in North America did, not everyone jumped on board, and within ten or fifteen years the number of supportive scientists had dropped considerably, and today just a few high-ranking scientists continue to express interest. I wonder if we did a quantitative comparative study whether the difference in attitude between Chinese and North American scientists would really be that large (at least after 1990 or so). After all, you note in your book that Schaller, Goodall, and others supported Bigfoot research. Finally, some have suggested that the training scientists received in Mao-era China failed to prepare them to think critically, and so made them susceptible to all sorts of irrational theories. I don’t really buy this. I think if anything the pressure worked the other way: it prevented people from venturing far afield. Once the door opened in the 1970s, the exploration of new territory became a tremendously compelling scientific value.
And so concludes our first installment of Buhs and Schmalzer’s intriguing discussion of the wildmen of their respective books. Join us tomorrow for more!