Author Essays, Interviews, and Excerpts

Bigfoot and the yeren (Part III): the conversation concludes

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We recently asked Joshua Blu Buhs—author of Bigfoot: The Life and Times of a Legend —and Sigrid Schmalzer—author of The People’s Peking Man: Popular Science and Human Identity in Twentieth-Century China—to expound upon the similarities and differences between the wildmen of their books. Their far ranging discussion began here and continued here. In Part III, Schmalzer begins by taking up Buhs question of professional vs. popular accounts of wildmen.
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Sigrid Schmalzer: I see the most critical issue to be that of differing ideas about authority in knowledge making: in this case, both who is authorized to speak about science and whether science itself should be considered the authoritative way speak about wildmen. In the late 1970s, things in China were changing rapidly, but ideas about science from the Mao era (1949-1976) still held a lot of water. I already mentioned the big emphasis on using science to stamp out “superstition”: this suggested that scientists had privileged access to knowledge and that other people (especially people with lower educational levels, like peasants in remote villages) would be authorized to speak only when they were rid of superstition and had embraced science. But at the same time there was another strong current in the other direction: Mao had called on political leaders and intellectuals to “follow the masses,” and especially during the more radical periods, this applied to science as much as everything else. The idea was that based on their experience in labor, the working classes had a vast storehouse of knowledge, much surpassing anything found in the ivory tower. So this presented two very different ways of interpreting the value of rural eye-witness reports on yeren. Did they represent just the kind of “superstition” one would expect in backward rural areas? Or were they reliable evidence from the most knowledgeable and trustworthy sources—”the masses” of poor peasants? People who wanted to promote yeren research argued the latter, and you can see in their writings both calls to “follow the masses” and criticism of establishment science as divorced from on-the-ground experience.
By the mid-1980s, I see the emergence of a different attitude, one that questions not just the “ivory tower” but science itself as a source of understanding about the world. Instead of celebrating the power of science to “crack the mysteries” of nature, such sources celebrate yeren as having the power to elude science and remain mysterious, the stuff of legend surviving in an increasingly modern, industrialized world. Good examples of this are the poem I quoted before by Zhou Liangpei and the Nobel laureate Gao Xingjian’s novel Soul Mountain and his less well known 1985 play titled Yeren. If people want to understand the cultural significance of yeren in 1980s China, that play is the best single source—other than my book, of course. Although it’s fiction, Gao captures all the major themes just as they were playing out among the real historical actors: environmentalism vs. industrialization, elitism vs. anti-elitism, legend vs. science, the use of yeren as a foil to expose the often savage (or “inhuman”) behavior of civilized humans, the researcher who abandons his family in search of yeren (and of himself).

Joshua Blu Buhs: There are similar tensions in the US (especially) as there are in China. On the one hand is the official opinion of scientific elites: that Bigfoot is a popular superstition, understood by looking to the psychology of believers—which is to say, looking for the material basis of superstition. This position is probably best represented by CSICOP, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (now simply CSI, The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry). The membership of CSICOP included some scientists, but also philosophers, magicians, science writers, and science fiction authors. And contrary to its name, it rarely did investigations—finally dropping the conceit in the early 1980s when there were claims that one investigation did turn up some evidence for astrology, the report was supposedly suppressed, and a few members resigned. Mostly, CSICOP defended the privileges and reputation of science against anything that challenged it—New Agery, flying saucer groups, religion, and on and on. Starting in the 1980s and increasing in the 1990s, CSICOP members attacked the evidence put forth by Bigfooters, landing a number of devastating blows, perhaps the most important of which proved that Krantz could be easily hoaxed.
On the other hand, there is a long tradition in the US of romanticizing the lone seeker of truth, the individual who stands against society. The Bigfoot hunter Peter Byrne tapped into this when he wrote that Bigfoot should be taken seriously exactly because it was reported by rural, salt-of-the-earth types: and therefore was proved by the “simple genuine honesty of the country people.” (Peter Byrne, “Being Some Notes, in Brief, on the General Findings in Connection with the California Bigfoot,” Genus 18 (1962): 55-59 (quotation 56).) This last view obviously challenged science to some extent—here’s some data that can’t be accounted for by standard theories, explain it! But that challenge could come in stronger and weaker forms. Some Bigfooters pointed to the good faith of the eyewitnesses, the abundant tracks, odd sounds, possible nests and hunting grounds, as evidence that there was an animal at large in the United States and Canada, an unknown animal, probably an ape. And they wanted science to explore that possibility. (John Green, the so-called Dean of Sasquatchery, even admitted that it might all be a hoax—but then wanted scientists to explore how and why this hoax was perpetrated. What a novel piece of human behavior!, he said. Study it.) Others, though, used Bigfoot to challenge science more broadly. After Patterson’s movie brought Bigfoot to the world’s attention again in the late 1960s, the beast was quickly linked to UFOs, ESP, and other forms of what might be called stigmatized knowledge, and thus became more than an interesting fact of zoology or sociology, but evidence that scientists were misunderstanding the universe in more fundamental ways. By the 1970s, this strand had developed to its farthest reaches, although it would continue to attract devotees and elaboration over the next three decades. Jon Erik Beckjord, the bugbear of Bigfooting, argued that Sasquatches were not purely material forms at all. They were interdimensional beings who could enter and exit our reality at will—which explained why none was ever caught and why trails sometimes began and ended abruptly. His proof? Some photos he took of landscapes which seemed unoccupied by Bigfoots; development of the photos, though, showed to some—that is to say, Beckjord and his friends—odd faces, which he took to be Sasquatches. The theory was a pig’s breakfast of popular science and science fiction, and it called for the overthrow of basic scientific categories. No surprise, he was a favorite target of CSICOP. Still others, as you suggest, resisted the urge to explain Bigfoot scientifically at all. Some of this developed out of paranormal theorizing: Bigfoot was not amenable to scientific analysis. Other thought modalities were needed to understand the beast. Thus, Beckjord used cameras. Lunetta Woods relied on her dreams. Jack Lapseritis and Stan Johnson used channeling. Lee Trippett used ESP. A number of authors used fiction.
There was also, as you suggest in the case of China, the romantic appeal of unsolvable mysteries. During the 1960s and 1970s, this was one attribute that made Bigfoot attractive to working-class white men in whose entertainments Bigfoot frequently appeared. Generally speaking—very generally—I argue that many of these men felt dispossessed by American society because of the civil rights movement, the women’s right movement, anti-war agitation, the rise of consumerism with its consequent dismissal of artisanal values, and their own declining economic fortunes. There was some pleasure in cheering for a beast that refused to be accommodated to society, that resisted all of its dehumanizing ways (and so was therefore maybe more human). The romanticism helped Bigfoot pass into the middle class during the 1980s. (Remember “Harry and the Hendersons“?) There remained in middle-class depictions of the beast a championing of its mysteriousness, its ability to resist modern culture. Different, though, was that for the most part the middle-class Bigfoot was acknowledged to be a myth. Of course there was no Sasquatch! But the idea was a good one to hold, because it represented hope and faith in a world beyond the material.
So I think that many of the themes are comparable between the US case and the Chinese one, but that the distribution and timing of those views are very different. I also wonder if there was anybody in China like John Green or Peter Byrne: people who were not accredited scientists, who were on the side of the folk or the popular, but who could still speak about the yeren and emphasize its material reality? There are equivalents of Krantz and Napier. And of CSICOP. There are also the local legends, which might be compared to the sighting reports in the US. But was there anyone who tried to put together the local legends into an overarching narrative? Who both courted science—please come study this!—and criticized it—you fools!? Or did the totalitarian nature of the political system make such a position impossible?
SS: There are such equivalents—or maybe “equivalents” is too strong a word, parallels perhaps. The best (but by no means the only) example is Zhang Jinxing. He was working for a construction company in the 1980s when he was overtaken with a desire to travel around the country (a rare bug in those days), which evolved into a passion for the yeren mystery. He has worked closely with the scientist Yuan Zhenxin (from China’s top-ranked paleoanthropology research institute) in the Strange and Rare Animals Exploration and Investigation Committee and finds inspiration in Jane Goodall, both for her willingness to go live with the apes she studies and the priority she places on environmental education in the service of protecting wilderness. But in other ways he strongly distances himself from the scientific establishment. He wears scraggly long hair and beard (very rare in China) and encourages people to think of him as a kind of “monkey man” himself. Another member of the Strange and Rare Animals Exploration and Investigation Committee, the media professional Wang Fangchen, wrote in an epigraph to a report authored by Zhang Jinxing (the report was titled Striving to Be Like Goodall, Bravely Exploring the “Yeren” Mystery): “So-called experts are only regular people with a little more specialized knowledge. In actuality, experts can also make mistakes, and they can even use scientific methods to turn an entire subject into mistake upon mistake.” (Zhang Jinxing, Zhengzuo Gudaoer, yong tan “yeren” mi [Striving to Be Like Goodall, Bravely Exploring the “Yeren” Mystery] (Beijing: Zhongguo kexue tanxian xiehui, 2002), no page number.) So this is a great example of simultaneously courting science and criticizing it.
But beyond such examples, whether authored by scientists or other yeren enthusiasts, books on the “yeren mystery” invariably (at least, I don’t think I’ve seen any exceptions), as you say, “put together the local legends into an overarching narrative.” While there are also footprint casts and hair samples, the most compelling evidence (in that it makes the most exciting reading) comes in the form of that narrative, which brings together historical written accounts and more recent rural eye-witness testimony. The key difference as I see it lies in the class relations. Wang Fangchen and Zhang Jinxing are not scientists, but neither are they peasants. The large majority of eyewitness accounts come from peasants, and peasant knowledge is widely presumed to be tainted with superstition. My sense is that for all their parallels, there is a profound difference between the class positions of working-class folks in U.S. Bigfoot history and peasants in Chinese yeren history. Whether or not they uphold the value of peasant testimony, the people who write books on yeren in China—or otherwise devote significant portions of their lives to studying and talking about yeren—are not peasants.
JB: By way of some concluding remarks, I will ask some additional questions.
The question I always get when the topic of my book comes up is, Why? Why write about Bigfoot at all? Why care about wildmen?
I’ve developed a ready answer for this: because in looking at how people think about wildmen, we learn something about how they fit themselves into the universe, how they make meaning and understand the world. In the 1970s, Bigfoot appealed to working-class men and the entertainers who catered to them because it could be used to understand their place in the world. Later, in the 1980s, the creature came to embody ideas about the environment. And so by looking at how the beast was understood, we learn something about our past.
That’s a tidy answer, and a standard one for historians, I think. But (at least) two things bother me about it.
One, is how easily I use that answer to make clear I don’t believe in Bigfoot. “Look!,” I am saying. “I am a scholar. Don’t confuse me with true believers.” Of course, in doing so, I reinforce class hierarchy that is often hidden in discussions of wildmen: I make clear that I am a middle-class type, who can use the image of the wildman but not accept its reality. Since the book was meant to expose the power relations, I am uncomfortable reinstalling those same relations. But that is where Bigfoot leaves us. As you say, that’s what wildmen are meant to do, make us get lost, and ask questions, sometimes irresolvable ones.
The second thing that bothers me about my answer is that it relies too easily on the categories of science and superstition—and so allies me with CSICOP. But I don’t want to be allied with CSICOP! CSICOP’s whole message is that science is good knowledge, knowledge other than science is bad. And I don’t think that at all. Certainly, there are cases where it is imperative to sort out the good knowledge from the bad—medical treatments seem the obvious exemplar to me. But I see no reason that other modes of knowledge shouldn’t flourish—at least in the right spheres of cultural life.
But, really, there’s no other way to do a history than relying on solid, social-scientific methods. I would not be happy with another historian if he or she cited his or her dreams or channeling experience as evidence! It’s that whole getting lost again.
I guess what I am saying is that by putting Bigfoot on the table the way I have, and dissecting it, I have also destroyed some of the mystery. And that I am Romantic enough not to want that mystery all thwarted by science, be it the physical sciences or the social sciences.
I’ll close with a short section from the first draft of the book that tried to express this hesitation. It was eventually cut:
Taking Bigfoot seriously as a subject, watching the legend come into being—emerging out of earlier legends—develop and die, inevitably deflates the myth that surrounds the creature, too, robs it of mystery. Believing in Bigfoot after learning its history is impossible. Telling Bigfoot’s story deprives the world of one more marvel. It is a middle-class act, allied with the tendency to see Bigfoot as only a myth and to explain such a myth as resulting from the workings of explicable social processes. It discovers wonder where modern scientists do, not in “novelty, rarity, or ignorance of causes” but in “parsimony, order, and simplicity.” ( Lorraine Daston, “Preternatural Philosophy,” in Biographies of Scientific Objects, ed. Lorraine Daston (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 15-41 (quotation 39).)
Still, this is a kind of wonder. It is a wonder how the world works, that people should come to believe in Bigfoot at all. It is a wonder how tenacious belief can be. Although there were many, many people who became entangled in Bigfoot’s story, four are usually singled out, the Four Horsemen of Sasquatchery they are sometimes called, each having spent the better part of fifty years seeking the beast. And yet, not one of them ever saw the creature; only one ever even claimed to find tracks on his own.
The power of Bigfoot to compel such intense belief is amazing, almost beyond the ability to explain. The mystery of this attraction runs through Bigfoot’s life. It is possible to offer up reasons why people chose to believe in Bigfoot, why they continued to do so despite mounting evidence against them, despite the ravages of time. And these reasons are compelling. But they still seem, somehow, inadequate. There’s an indecipherable residue in the human spirit, resistant to all analyses. It is tempting to say that this bit of irreducible complexity is the wildman, the uncontrollable, inexplicable impulses inside all of us—that, though, explains nothing, only masks behind words one of the world’s true mysteries. Better to explain what can be explained, and acknowledge that there are mysteries beyond the power of the human mind to grasp.

SS: I’m struck once again by how much we have in common: most of your concluding thoughts apply very much to my experience as well.
I chose to research yeren because they sit so perfectly on the border between human and animal, and thus I expected them to provide insight into the changing ways that Chinese people have imagined what it means to be human and where humans fit in the natural world. In recent history, yeren have also inhabited a newer border region between science and superstition, which makes them ideal for teasing out the ways people have struggled to define these tricky concepts—and the social consequences that different definitions carry.
I appreciate your thoughtfulness on the difficult question of how we as researchers relate to our subjects. It can sometimes be a struggle to explain that we are not interested in wildmen so much as we are interested in people who are interested in wildmen—just as a historian of chemistry conducts research not on chemistry itself but on chemists. Like you, I hope that in defining my inquiry in cultural terms (the significance of yeren in Chinese history) I will be let off the hook on the question of belief. Also like you, I am not comfortable in either of the main camps of people who talk about wildmen: I seek neither to prove the existence of yeren nor to expose yeren research as superstition.
On one hand, as a historian evidence is very important to me. While some who pursue yeren think carefully about evidence and have interesting things to say about its role in research, I’ve also often encountered attitudes very far removed from the standards in our profession. For example, when I interviewed one person involved in the yeren scene in China (someone I haven’t mentioned previously), he immediately sought to sell me some readily available published materials for about ten times the market price. Fraud! What I really wanted was to read some of the primary sources (field journals and the like) in his possession, and I tried to explain how much more valuable those were as historical evidence than the published materials that drew liberally from them without citation. He then offered to allow me to have my picture taken next to the primary sources: I could include the photo in my book as “evidence” that the sources existed and that I had seen them. Of course, what I meant by evidence was completely different: I hoped to read the materials, analyze them, and then offer interpretations based on that analysis. His approach to inquiry and communication—key activities in any type of research—conflicted with mine, and I was profoundly uncomfortable with his assumption that we were engaged in the same kind of work.
On the other hand, one of the most surprising consequences of my research on campaigns to “squash superstition” in socialist China is that I’ve become more sympathetic to people who perceive science as a threat to their beliefs—including religious creationists concerned about the teaching of evolution. In China, framing yeren as a question of superstition vs. science was part and parcel of the larger effort to replace religious or “idealist” worldviews with a scientific, materialist one. Especially in the Mao era, school textbooks, museum exhibits, and other media on human evolution often specifically called attention to the power of evolutionary theory to overturn religious accounts of creation. I found this very jarring: the direct confrontation made such materials appear vulgarly ideological. But I had to admit upon further reflection that the educational materials on human evolution in our own society are also ideological: such materials decline to mention the consequences of evolutionary theory for religious creationism, but they nonetheless present a worldview backed by scientific authority that is incommensurable with creationism. So, despite my certainty about the scientific validity of evolutionary theory and my commitment to seeing it taught in the schools, I’m not willing to be in the camp of people who put Darwin-fish on their car bumpers to needle the Jesus-fish crowd… any more than I want a CSICOP bumper sticker (if there is such a thing).
On the third hand (darn these Cartesian binaries anyway!), at some point over the course of my research, I changed my mind about the cultural implications of the transformation of yeren into a scientific subject. At first I was very defensive of the legends: I felt that the imposition of scientific categories threatened to rob them of their beauty and their integrity. While I did not want to be a science cop debunking the claims of yeren researchers, I did initially see myself as a kind of culture cop responsible for exposing the colonialist ambitions science brought to a precious world of story and mystery. But by the time I started to write, I had already begun to doubt this perspective. My training as a historian kicked in, reminding me that no story is “original” or “pure” … they are all always already mixed up with everything else going on around them, and they are constantly undergoing transformation. In that sense, my urge to protect the yeren stories resembled the way some of the people I study see wildmen to represent an endangered primordial purity.
Without denying the very real power differential between scientists and peasants, I now find the interaction of scientific, literary, and mythical accounts to be more of a cross-pollination than a contamination or colonization. To my mind, this cross-pollination is the key reason that yeren have become such a potent subject for cultural exploration and critique in recent decades. The new stories—complete with arguments over science and superstition—speak to contemporary hopes and fears… and in their own ways they too are beautiful. Taking another step back, I think we can see our own discussions of wildmen in a similar light. When we put Bigfoot and yeren “on the table,” as you put it, and pick them apart to see how they were put together over time, we are telling a new kind of story, driven by history rather than science. I think the wildmen will survive the procedure. And I imagine someday some other form of knowledge-making—neither legend nor science nor history—will emerge to shape stories about yeren and Bigfoot. What will that future incarnation of wildmen tell people about themselves and their worlds?
And thus concludes our conversation. If this conversation has intrigued you, don’t forget to pick up a copy of Buhs‘s and Schmalzer‘s books for more fascinating discussion of Bigfoot and yeren!