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李貞白《詠刺蝟》“On the hedgehog” by Li Zhenbai

行似針氈動,

臥似栗毬

莫欺如此大,

誰敢便行[1]


When walking, [it] moves like a spiky rug;

When lying still, [it’s] like a ball of chestnut fur.

Don’t underestimate [it] because of this size,

Who dares to shake [his] fist right away?


* From Quan Tang shi 全唐詩 (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1980), 870.9872-9873.

[1] Red characters rhyme.

 

Recently I received some updates from a four-legged friend in France who had his first encounter with a hedgehog. Not too long before this encounter, he had learned his lesson from some chestnuts in their spiky outer shells, which perhaps explains why he was more cautious when he discovered this peculiar “chestnut” in the grass.



Amused by his barking full of anxiety and perhaps also excitement and curiosity, I searched for videos on the internet to see how other dogs and cats react to the presence of a hedgehog. In fact, some of them do try to shake their fist at the little beast (and learn their lesson, of course). And it’s funny to see some domestic hedgehogs, fully aware that their power has been established, walk around freely while scaring off their feline or canine friends (mastiffs excluded, it seems) at their homes along the way.


As it happens, I came across an interesting article by Wang Jiakui 王家葵 on Chinese myths about the hedgehog last week. The article led me to several fascinating accounts about this animal. For example, Tao Hongjing 陶弘景 (456-536) noted:


處處野中時有此獸,人犯之,便藏頭足,毛刺人,不可得捉。能跳入虎耳中,而見鵲便自仰腹受啄,物相制如此。[2]

This beast can be found here and there in the fields. When people threaten it, [it] will hide its head and legs and sting with its hair, saving itself from being caught. [It] can jump into a tiger’s ear, but when [it] sees a magpie, [it] will turn his belly up to let it peck. Such is the way that animals subdue one another.


However, the editors of the Xinxiu Bencao 新修本草 cast doubt in an empirical spirit and pointed out that a tiger’s ear cannot even hold an egg and is too high from the ground for a hedgehog to jump in.[3] As one of the alternative names of the tiger is lier 李耳,[4] Wang Jiakui supposes that people somehow dreamed up the myth about the hedgehog jumping into a tiger’s (hu 虎) ear (er 耳).[5] Another possibility is that this is one of those cases in which an interlinear note is mixed with the main text by scribal errors.


Whether the origin of the myth was imagination or mistake, the myth continued to evolve and upgrade itself. The Tansou 談藪 vividly depicts how a hedgehog would fight against a tiger:


虎不敢入山林而居草薄者,畏木上有𧽤鼠也。鼠見虎過,則咆噪拔毛投之,虎必生蟲瘡潰爛至死。[6]

The tiger doesn’t dare to go into the mountain forest and stay on a shallow grassland, for it fears there would be a hedgehog in the tree. When a hedgehog sees a tiger passing by, [it] will squeak and draw its [spike-]hair to throw at the tiger. The latter will definitely grow sores that will break and lead to its death.


In another variation of the myth, recorded in Fang Yizhi’s 方以智 (1611-1671) Wuli xiaozhi 物理小識, a hedgehog can even enter a tiger’s mouth and burst its genitals to escape.[7]


Various explanations have also been offered for the relationship between the hedgehog and the magpie. According to the Huainanzi, it’s the magpie’s excrement that takes effect,[8] whereas the Xinxiu Bencao proposes something completely different: as the hedgehog hates the sound of a magpie, it fakes death to attract and catch the magpie to stop the annoyance.[9] Unfortunately, no evidence or eyewitness accounts have been provided to support these assertions. Today we know that the main predators of hedgehogs are nocturnal animals like owls, foxes, weasels, etc. And hedgehogs don’t seem to take an interest in attacking magpies.


I’ve never had the opportunity to meet a real hedgehog. When I visited the Cotswolds, I found a lovely hedgehog home accessory (perhaps a door draft stopper) in the cottage I stayed in. That was about the only time I could get close to a hedgehog-like thing. It might require quite some luck to come across a wild hedgehog in broad daylight, but I think I can share with my lucky four-legged friend that an eminent ancient Chinese pharmacologist suggests that a curled hedgehog will unfold itself if peed on.[10] Maybe he wants to consider that instead of barking at the little creature for half a day on their next encounter…


[2] Quoted in the Bencao gangmu, see: https://ctext.org/library.pl?if=en&file=53294&page=206. [3] Ibid. [4] See Fangyan 方言: https://ctext.org/fang-yan/di-ba. [5] Wang Jiakui, “Shitou Jianzi bu youxi” 石頭剪子布遊戲 in Bencao bowuzhi 本草博物誌 (Beijing: Beijing daxue chubanshe, 2020), 228. [6] Quoted in the Bencao gangmu, see: https://ctext.org/library.pl?if=en&file=53294&page=207. [7] See Fang Yizhi, Wuli xiaozhi: https://ctext.org/library.pl?if=en&file=59604&page=83. [8] See Huannanzi: https://ctext.org/huainanzi/shuo-shan-xun (passage 19). [9] Quoted in the Bencao gangmu, see: https://ctext.org/library.pl?if=en&file=53294&page=206. [10] Bencao gangmu: https://ctext.org/library.pl?if=en&file=53294&page=206 (尿之即開).


 

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1 comment

1 Comment


"I’ve never had the opportunity to meet a real hedgehog"


Me neither! Despite living in Britain for about 40 years. Lovely poem.Thanks

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