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The Importance of Living (V): Our Animal Heritage

By Lin Yutang Chapter Three OUR ANIMAL HERITAGE I THE MONKEY EPIC BUT if this biological view helps us to appreciate the beauty and rhythm of life, it also shows our ludicrous limitations. By presenting to us a more correct picture of what we are as animals, it enables us to better understand ourselves and the progress of human affairs. A more generous sympathy, or even tolerant cynicism, comes with a truer and deeper understanding of human nature which has its roots in our animal ancestry. Gently reminding ourselves that we are children of the Neanderthal or the Peking man, and further back still of the anthropoid apes, we eventually achieve the capacity of laughing at our sins and limitations, as well as admiring our monkey cleverness, which we

By Lin Yutang

Chapter Three



BUT if this biological view helps us to appreciate the beauty and rhythm of life, it also shows our ludicrous limitations. By presenting to us a more correct picture of what we are as animals, it enables us to better understand ourselves and the progress of human affairs.

A more generous sympathy, or even tolerant cynicism, comes with a truer and deeper understanding of human nature which has its roots in our animal ancestry. Gently reminding ourselves that we are children of the Neanderthal or the Peking man, and further back still of the anthropoid apes, we eventually achieve the capacity of laughing at our sins and limitations, as well as admiring our monkey cleverness, which we call a sense of human comedy. This is a beautiful thought suggested by the enlightening essay of Clarence Day, This Simian World. Reading that essay of Day’s, we can forgive all our fellowmen, the censors, publicity chiefs, Fascist editors, Nazi radio announcers, senators and lawmakers, dictators, economic experts, delegates to international conferences and all then busybodies who try to interfere with other people’s lives. We can forgive them because we begin to understand them.

ln this sense, I come more and more to appreciate the wisdom and insight of the great Chinese monkey epic, Hsiyuchi, The progress of human history can be better understood from this point of view; it is so similar to the pilgrimage of those imperfect, semi-human creatures to the Western Heaven the Monkey Wuk’ung representing the human intellect, the Pig Pachieh representing our lower .nature, Monk Sand representing common sense, and the Abbot Hsiiantsang representing wisdom and the Holy Way. The Abbot, protected by this curious escort, was engaged upon a journey from China to India to procure sacred Buddhist books. The story of human progress is essentially like the pilgrimage of this variegated company of highly imperfect creatures, continually landing in dangers and ludicrous situations through their own folly and mischief.

How often the Abbot has to correct and chastise the mischievous Monkey and the sensuous Pig, forever led by their sadly imperfect minds and their lower passions into all sorts of scrapes! The instincts of human fraility, of anger, revenge, impetuousness, sensuality, lack of forgiveness, above all self-conceit and lack of humility, forever crop up during this pilgrimage of mankind toward sainthood. The increase of destructiveness goes side by side with the increase of human skill, for like the Monkey with magical powers, we are able today to walk upon the clouds and turn somersaults in the air (which is called “looping-the-Joop” in modern terms), to pull monkey hair out of our monkey legs and transform them into little monkeys to harass our enemy, to knock at the very gates of Heaven, brush the Heavenly Gate Keeper brusquely aside and demand a place in the company of the gods.

The Monkey was clever, but he was also conceited; he had enough monkey magic to push his way into Heaven, but he had not enough sanity and balance and temperance of spirit to live peacefully there. Too good perhaps for this earth and its mortal existence, he was yet not good enough for Heaven and the company of the immortals. There was something raw and mischievous and rebellious in him, some dregs unpurged in his gold, and that was why when he entered Heaven he created a terrific scare there, like a wild lion let loose from a menagerie cage in the streets of a city, in the preliminary episode before he joined the pilgrims’ party. Through his inborn incorrigible mischief, he spoiled the Annual Dinner Party given by the Western Queen Mother of Heaven to nil the gods, saints, and immortals of Heaven. Enraged that he was not invited to the party, he posed as a messenger of God and sent the Bare-Footed Fairy on his way to the feast in a wrong direction by telling him that the place of the party had been changed, and then transformed himself into the shape of the Bare-Footed Fairy and went to the feast himself. Quite a number of other fairies had been misled by him in this way. Then entering the courtyard, he saw he was the first arrival, Nobody was there except the servants guarding the jars of fairy wine in the corridor. He then transformed himself into a sleeping-sickness insect and stung the servants into sleep and drunk the jars of wine. Half intoxicated, he tumbled into the hall and ate up the celestial peaches laid out at table.

When the guests arrived and saw the despoiled dinner, he was already off for some other exploits at the home of Laotse, trying to eat his pills of immortality. Finally, still in disguise, he left Heaven, partly afraid of the consequences of his drunken exploits, but chiefly disgusted because he had not been invited to the Annual Dinner. He returned to his Monkey Kingdom where he was the king and told the little monkeys so, and set up a banner of rebellion against Heaven, writing on it the words “The Great Sage, Equal to Heaven.” There followed then terrific combats between this Monkey and the heavenly warriors, in which the Monkey was not captured until the Goddess of Mercy knocked him down with a gentle sprig of flowers from the clouds. So, like the Monkey, forever we rebel and there will be no peace and humility in us until we are vanquished by the Goddess of Mercy, whose gentle flowers dropped from Heaven will knock us off our feet. And we shall not learn the lesson of true humility until science has explored the limits of the universe.

For in the epic, the Monkey still rebelled even after his capture and demanded of the Jade Emperor in Heaven why he was not given a higher title among the gods, and he had to learn the lesson of humility by aa ultimate bet with Buddha or God Himself. He made a bet that with his magical powers he could go as far as the end of the earth, and the stake was the title of “The Great Sage, Equal of Heaven,” or else complete submission. Then he leaped into the air, and traveled with lightning speed across the continents until he came to a mountain with five peaks, which he thought must be as far as mortal beings had ever set foot In order to leave a record of his having reached the place, he passed some monkey urine at the foot of the middle peak, and having satisfied himself with this feat, he came back and told Buddha about his journey. Buddha then opened one hand and asked him to smell his own urine at the base of the middle finger, and told him how all this time he had never left the palm. It was only then that the Monkey acquired humility, and after being chained to a rock for five hundred years, was freed by the Abbot and joined him in his pilgrimage.

After all, this Monkey, which is an image of ourselves, is an extremely lovable creature, in spite of his conceit and his mischief. So should we, too, be able to love humanity in spite of all its weaknesses and shortcomings.


So then, instead of holding on to the Biblical view that we are made in the image of God, we come to realize that we are made in the image of the monkey, and that we are as far removed from the perfect God, as, let us say, the ants are removed from ourselves. We are very clever, we are quite sure of that; we are often a little cocky about our ^cleverness, because we have a mind. But the biologist comes in to tell us that the mind after all is a very late development, as far as articulate thinking is concerned, and that among the things which go into the make-up of our moral fiber, we have besides the mind a set of animal or savage instincts, which arc much more powerful and are in fact the explanation why we misbehave individually and in our group life. We are the better able to understand the nature of that human mind of which we are so proud. We see in the first place that, besides being a comparatively clever mind, it is also an inadequate mind. The evolution of the human skull shows us that it is nothing but an enlargement of one o the spinal vertebrae and that therefore its function, like that of the spinal cord, is essentially that o sensing danger, meeting the external environment and preserving life-not thinking. Thinking is generally very poorly done. Lord Balfour ought to go down to posterity on the strength of his one saying that “the human brain is as much an organ for seeking food as the pig’s snout” I do not call this real cynicism, I call it merely a generous understanding of ourselves.

We begin to understand genetically our human imperfections. Imperfect? Lord, yes, but the Lord never made us otherwise. But that is not the point. The whole point is, our remote ancestors swam and crawled and swung from one branch to another in the primeval forest in Tarzan fashion, or hung suspended from a tree, like a spider monkey by an arm or a tail. 1 At each stage, considered by itself, it was rather marvelously perfect, to my way of thinking. But now we are called upon to do an infinitely more difficult job o readjustment.

When man creates a civilization o his own, he embarks upon a course of development that biologically might terrify the Creator Himself. So far as adaptation to nature is concerned, all nature’s creatures are marvelously perfect, for those that are not perfectly adapted she kills off. But now we are no longer called upon to adapt ourselves to nature; we are called upon to adapt ourselves to ourselves, to this thing called civilization. All instincts were good, were healthy in nature; in society, however, we call all instincts savage. Every mouse steals-and he is not the less moral or more immoral for stealing-every dog barks, every cat doesn’t come home at night and tears everything it can lay its paws upon, every lion kills, every horse runs away from the sight of danger, every tortoise sleeps the best hours of the day away, and every insect, reptile, bird and beast reproduces its kind in public. Now in terms of civilization, every mouse is a thief, every dog makes too much noise, every cat is an unfaithful husband, when he is not a savage little vandal, every lion or tiger is a murderer, every horse a coward, every tortoise a lazy louse, and finally, every insect, reptile, bird and beast is obscene when he performs his natural vital functions. What a wholesale transformation of values! And that is the reason why we it back and wonder how the Lord made us so imperfect.

1 ls this the reason why, when we are on a swing and about to swing forward after swinging backward, we get a tingle at the end of our spinal cord, where a tail formerly was? The reflex is still there and we are trying to catch on to something by a tail which has already disappeared.


There are grave consequences following upon our having this mortal body: first our being mortal, then our having a stomach, having strong muscles and having a curious mind. These facts, because of their basic character, profoundly influence the character of human civilization. Because this is so obvious, we never think about it. But we cannot understand ourselves and our civilization unless we see these consequences clearly.

I suspect that all democracy, all poetry, and all philosophy start out from this God-given fact that all of us, princes and paupers alike, are limited to a body of five or six feet and live a life of fifty or sixty years. On the whole, the arrangement is quite handy. We are neither too long nor too short. At least I am quite satisfied with five feet four. And fifty or sixty years seems to me such an awfully long time; it is, in fact, a matter of two or three generations. It is so arranged that when we are born, we see certain old grandfathers, who die in the course of time, and when we become grandfathers ourselves, we see other tiny tots being born. That seems to make it just perfect. The whole philosophy of the matter lies in the Chinese saying that “A man may own a thousand acres of land, and yet he still sleeps upon a bed of five feet’* or sixty inches, It doesn’t seem as if a king needed very much more than seven feet at the outside for his bed, and there he will have to go and stretch himself at night. I am therefore as good as a king. And no matter how rich a man is, few exceed the Biblical limit of threescore and ten. To live beyond seventy is to be called in Chinese “ancient-rare,” because of the Chinese line that “it is rare for man to live over seventy since the ancient times.”

And so in respect of wealth. Of this life, everybody has a share, but no one owns the mortgage. And so we are enabled to take this life more lightly; instead of being permanent tenants upon this earth, we become its transient guests, for guests we all are of this earth, the owners of the land no less than the share-croppers. It takes something out of the meaning of the word “landlord”. No one really owns a house and no one really owns a field. As a Chinese

poet says:

What pretty, golden fields against a hill!

Newcomers harvest crops that others till.

Rejoice not, O newcomers, at your harvest;

One waits behind a new newcomer still!

The democracy of death is seldom appreciated. Without death, even St. Helena would have meant nothing to Napoleon, and I do not know what Europe would be like. There would be no biographies of heroes or conquerors, and even if there were, their biographers certainly would be less forgiving and sympathetic. We forgive the great of this world because they are dead. By their being dead, we feel that we have got even with them. Every funeral procession carries a banner upon which are written the words, “Equality of Mankind.” What joy of life is seen in the following ballad that the oppressed people of China composed about the death of Ch’in Shih-huang, the builder of the Great Wall and the tyrant, who, while he lived, made “libellous thoughts in the belly” punishable by death, burned the Confucian books and buried hundreds of Confucian scholars alive:

Ch’in Shih-huang is going to die!2

He opened my door,

And sat on my floor,

He drank my gravy,

And wanted some more.

He sipped my wine,

And couldn’t tell what for;

I’ll bend my bow,

And shoot him at the wall.

When he arrives at Shach’iu,

Then he is going to fall!

From this, then, a sense of human comedy and the very stuff of human poetry and philosophy take their rise. He who perceives

2 By inversion, these ballads were reported by the Chinese historians as prophetic oracles, giving expression to the voice of God through the voice of the people. That explains the future tense. The Emperor did die at Shach’iu.


death perceives a sense of the human comedy, and quickly becomes a poet. Shakespeare became a deep poet, when he had Hamlet trace the noble dust of Alexander, “till he find it stopping a bunghole”; “Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander returneth into dust; the dust is earth; of earth we make loam; and why of that loam, whereto he was converted, might they not stop a beer-barrel?” There is, after all, no more superb sense of comedy in Shakespeare than when he let King Richard II talk of graves, of worms and epitaphs and the antic that keeps court within the hollow crown that rounds the mortal temples of a king, or where he speaks of “a great buyer of land, with his statutes, his recognizances, his fines, his double vouchers, his recoveries,” with all his fines ending in a “fine pate full of fine dirt,” Omar Khayyam and” his Chinese counterpart, Chia Fuhsi (alias Mup’itse, an obscure Chinese poet), derived all their comic spirit and comic interpretation of history from the sense of death itself, by pointing to the foxes making their homes in the kings’ graves. And Chinese philosophy first acquired depth and humor with Chuangtsc, who based his entire philosophy, too, on a comment on the sight of a skull:

Chuangtse went to Ch’u and saw an empty skull with its empty and dried outline. He struck it with a horsewhip and asked it, “Hast thou come to this because thou loved pleasures and lived inordinately? Wert thou a refugee running away from the law? Didst thou do something wrong to bring shame upon thy parents and thy family? Or wert thou starved to death? Or didst thou come to thy old age and die a natural death?” Having said this, Chuangtse took the skull and slept upon it as a pillow…

When Chuangtse’s wife died, Hueitse went to express his condolence but found Chuangtse squatting on the ground and singing a song, beating time by striking an earthen basin, “Why, this woman has lived with you and borne you children. At the worst, you might refrain from weeping when her old body dies. Is it not rather too much that you should beat the basin and sing?”

And Chuangtse replied, “You are mistaken. When she first died, I could not also help feeling sad and moved, but I re-fleeted that in the beginning she had no life, and not only no life, she had no bodily shape; and not only no bodily shape, she had no ghost. Caught in this everchanging flux of things, she became a ghost, the ghost became a body, and the body became alive. Now she has changed again and become dead, and by so doing she has joined the eternal procession of spring, summer, autumn and winter. Why should I make so much noise and wad and weep over her while her body lies quietly there in the big house? That would be a failure to understand the course of things. That is why I stopped crying.”

To be continued…


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The Michelin brothers created the guide, which included information like maps, car mechanics listings, hotels and petrol stations across France to spur demand.

The guide began to award stars to fine dining restaurants in 1926.

At first, they offered just one star, the concept was expanded in 1931 to include one, two and three stars. One star establishments represent a “very good restaurant in its category”. Two honour “excellent cooking, worth a detour” and three reward “exceptional cuisine, worth a


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