Student Report on a Book Talk by Huaiyu Chen: In the Land of Tigers and Snakes: Living with Animals in Medieval Chinese Religions.

By Zu (Zuo Rui) Gan

On the 12th of October, the CARE lab, the Humanities Research Centre, and the “Meanings, Identities, and Communities” cluster from the Centre for the Study of Contemporary China invited Dr Huaiyu Chen to present on his book about the relationship between animals and humans during the time of medieval Chinese religions. Dr Chen is a renowned scholar on Chinese Buddhism and is an Associate Professor in the School of Historical, Philosophical, and Religious Studies at Arizona State University. A total of 22 students and 6 faculty attended the talk.

Dr Chen first brought up the history and context of Animal Studies. He pointed out that previous scholars had termed Christianity as an anthropogenic religion, and posed the question if Chinese religions were the same. Although Buddhist texts claimed to not harm any living beings, there were other contesting instances. He also highlighted the importance of understanding that although religious texts might portray one thing, the lived experience of the people might be different, emphasizing the gap between the canonical principle and the local understanding and approach. Hence, he stressed the importance of understanding the various social and political contexts and histories in place of these religions and cautioned against depicting Chinese religions as solely being against animal cruelty or emphasizing harmony between humans and animals.

Dr Chen further illustrated his point by providing sources where tigers were captured and pacified by various ruling groups such as the Buddhists, Daoists and the State. In fact, taming animals were often used as a way to showcase the legitimacy and power of a body. With claims of being able to tame tigers, the emerging Buddhists could upset the power balance of the local rulers and claim more followers and legitimacy. Another example Dr Chen provided of the complexities of human-animal relations in medieval Chinese religions was by providing visual evidence from the Dahuang caves, where depictions of humans riding and ruling over animals were commonplace. These depictions were not only uncovered in the past, and Dr Chen showed us modern-day statues of humans and arhats taming animals as well.

Dr Chen also brought up the interesting question of if animals can obtain enlightenment. In his research, he found certain texts claiming that the parrot would be able to achieve enlightenment because of it’s ability to talk. Since it could talk, it could theoretically chant and recite the Buddha’s name and thus eventually achieving nirvana, especially if viewed through the lens of Pure Land Buddhism.

During the Q&A section, some students expressed interest in understanding the relationship between animals and humans in Chinese tales such as the Journey from the West. Dr Chen ended his talk by highlighting that although there was no possible way to determine the agency and thoughts of animals, we can still glimpse the complex relations humans had with the animals that were present around them.