Rhinocerology 5. A distant relative

Although I wanted to speak about the Far Eastern occurrences of the rhinoceros only later, nevertheless now I have to lead forward a Japanese animal. On the one hand because I’m already late with its presentation, for I received it from Komaváry in Tokyo as a New Year present, and on the other hand because it fits very well here, at the end of the Dürer pedigree, as its farthest descendant both in time and in space.

True, the following comics is not about the rhinoceros, but about an elephant… however, wait till the end. And anyway I’m planning to add a post on the elephant and on the rhinoceros, so let this one be a trailer (coming! coming!) to it.

To understand the basic concept of the comics (why does the elephant work like this?) you have to know that the Chinese name of the elephant – 象 xiàng – also means ‘image, imagination’, and this is how it is used in Japanese, too. I don’t know why. It is quite rare in Chinese that a character has two meanings as distant as these. The character itself is simply the image of an elephant, rotated in 90 degrees to economize on space. From the inscriptions of ancient bronzes, oracle bones and stamps this is how we can reconstruct its etymology:

Formation of the Chinese character of elephant 象
In vain I browse through the Chinese historical dictionaries, they do not give any hint as to the reason of this peculiar homonym. However, I seem to remember to have read somewhere in the great French sinologist Claude Larre that around the creation of this character the elephant was on the verge of extinction in China, and soon there was left none. Its Chinese character, however, remained, and in order to take some good use of it, they indicated with it the word ‘image, similarity, imagination’ pronounced in the same way as ‘elephant’: xiàng. By this they also referred, to some extent, to the elephant, for by that time it had become a fabulous, imaginary animal in China. Do you remember the Zen story where blind people feeling the elephant imagine it as a thick column, as a great wall or as a boa, depending on where they stand? 瞎摸象, xiā mó xiàng, “the blind is feeling the elephant”, as the proverb says. Nevertheless, in those times Chinese people with healthy eyes could not have more precise ideas about the look of the animal either.

There exists another character of a similar meaning 像 xiàng, in which the sign for “man” stands in front of the elephant. In Chinese this means ‘portrait, statue’ (surely as a result of the compound “man+image”), while in Japanese, writes Komaváry, it is a component of the word 想像力 sōzōryoku, “imagination.” Is it perhaps the blind man, he asks, feeling the elephant? While I imagine how much it could have stimulated the imagination of old Japanese people when, perhaps once in a life, an elephant appeared in the town and a man in front of it: a showman, a juggler, a tender. Someone like the protagonist of the following story.

The Japanese inscriptions have been translated by Komaváry. You can read them in a popup window by moving above them with the mouse. Images in a row are read from right to left according to the Japanese custom. Our javascript popups do not work in Google Reader, so reader addicts are invited to come in. The elephant will hunch up a bit.

This rhinoceros is the last one not only in the melancholic zoology of the comics, but also in the sense that this animal, published a month ago, in December 2008, is the last descendant of the Dürer woodcut known to me. Have you seen its armory and horn on the withers?

I think this similarity is intentional. For the author could have found a thousand images on living rhinoceroses, and nevertheless he decided to copy the figure of Dürer. This is because to his ingenious story on imagination – xiàng – he needed precisely an imaginary rhinoceros. How can we prove this? With the etymology of the Chinese – and also Japanese – name of the rhinoceros.

The Chinese name of the rhinoceros – 犀 – is a combination of the characters 尾 wĕi ‘tail’ and 牛 niú ‘cattle’, meaning something like ‘cattle with a tail’. That the rhinoceros is similar to the cattle is all right. But why did they emphasize just the tail, perhaps the least significant member of the rhinoceros? To understand it, we have to know that the rhinoceros in Chinese fairy tales – for a real one has been just as unknown there in the last thousands of years as a real elephant – has a long tail. And lo, can you see which tail does this one on the last picture try to conceal behind its tender?…

Perhaps even the elephant leaving on the wings is a reference to the flight of imagination, although I do not know whether this expression exists in Japanese. And although the rhinoceros seems to be a much more down-to-earth being, nevertheless… I only say you’d better take care.

Oleg Dozortzev: A house of the winged rhinoceros, 2008Oleg Dozortzev: A house of the winged rhinoceros, 2008

8 comentarios:

Julia dijo...

Qué fantástica entrada! El comic es fabuloso y tus comentarios interesantísimos.

Studiolum dijo...

¡Gracias! Pero las calidades fantástico y fabuloso son garantizados del tema mismo, así que no tengo ningún mérito…

Eres aún en Brasil? ¡Qué envidia! Aquí hace veinte bajo zero.

Julia dijo...

Los temas no garantizan nada si no se los sabe tratar... así que sigo reivindicando el mérito para vos!
Estoy todavía en Brasil, sí.
No hace tanto calor como otros años (igualmente estoy en el sur, Florianópolis, no en el norte de temperaturas más altas) pero las vacaciones siguen muy bien, por suerte.
Soplaré un poco de sol y aire cálido para que les llegue por Hungría pronto.

Hugo Carlos dijo...

Ya me hice fan de tu blog, me encantó la historia del elefante..

seguiré leyendo tu blog

Studiolum dijo...

¡Muchísimas gracias! Y espera más cosas encantadoras…

Studiolum dijo...

The tumblr site 文字移植 that is “Character transplantation” has made a reference to this post. This excellent tumblr site collects the examples of transitions between Chinese/Japanese characters as texts or as images, really worth to follow!

Rasmus dijo...

The meaning of "image; to resemble" for 象 is very old and certainly predates the verge of extinction for elephants in China (bones from sacrifices present at Shang and Shu burial sites, bronze-age images common). [See Elvin, The Retreat of the Elephants.]

Possibly true that it was a phonetic borrowing, but the extinction of the elephant would not have been required for that to happen.

Studiolum dijo...

Mafa Alborés has proposed a related link in a comment which I have deleted by mistake. Sorry, and thank you for the link!