Boo! Chinese & European Monsters Strangely, Eerily Similar

There's something inside us that loves a good monster. We want them scary. We want them surprising.

But apparently not too surprising.  Across time and across cultures, our monsters come in strangely predictable forms.

Take, for example, these guys:

European monsters
The Fourth Part of the World

This is a Five Monster Collection from a 2000 year old text. Back in the first century, AD, Pliny the Elder, a great Roman scholar, collected descriptions of creatures who lived at the very edge of the known world. Sailors claimed to have seen them. Travelers too. They'd shown up in folktales. They didn’t look like Europeans because they lived far enough away that it was ok to look — well, like anything one could imagine.  So here’s what Europeans imagined way back then (courtesy of Toby Lester, from his enchanting book The Fourth Part of the World):

European monsters
The Fourth Part of the World

Toby Lester mentions others: the Panoti, with ears so large they had to hold them in their hands and could use them to fly.  Also, the Astomi, mouthless creatures who fed themselves by sniffing apples.

Lester found these illustrations in a book from Roman writer Julius Solinus. Solinus repackaged Pliny’s monsters into a kind of National Enquirer version called the "Gallery of Wonderful Things." For the next thousand years, when Westerners conjured up creatures from distant lands, sort of the medieval version of Star Wars, these are the creatures they imagined.

But here's the surprise.

If we skip to the other side of the world — to China — and ask what did the Chinese think distant creatures looked like, it turns out they also had a monster collection. Their monsters show up in an ancient text called "The Classic of Mountains and Seas." And guess what?

Well, first, take a look at this Chinese sampler, paying particular attention to the headless face-on-my-chests fellow second from the left:

Chinese monsters
The Fourth Part of the World

I couldn't help but notice that with every conceivable shape available, the Chinese came up with monsters that look like the West's monsters. Here’s Toby Lester's list:

  • The Loppy Ears (who "have such big ears they flop down onto their shoulders")
  • The Feathered Folk (who "can fly, but not very far")
  • The Hairy Folk (covered in hair "like a pig")
  • The Mushroom People (whose aspect was like "a meat fungus")
  • The Progenyless Folk (a boneless race who, because they eat only air "are clear-headed and live a long time")

So the Chinese imagined Big-Eared monsters and so did the Europeans. The Chinese have air eaters, the Europeans Apple Sniffers .The Chinese have a face-on-my-chest monsters, ditto the Europeans.

European and Chinese monsters.

Two thousand plus years ago, Europeans and Chinese had very, very little contact but somehow they imagined a startlingly similar cast of frightening and fantastic creatures.

I don't know why I'm disappointed. I guess it's no big surprise that people from very different cultures and very different places often scare and enchant themselves in much the same way.

P.T. Barnum knew that. Hollywood knows that. The deeper question is: Why do we dream and imagine so similarly?  Why did we have to wait 2,500 years to get a truly original monster like The Blob?

The Blob movie poster
The Blob (1958)

Toby Lester's book, The Fourth Part of the World, tells the story of the first map that used the word "America" to describe a land mass east of Europe. His monster collections appear on page 39 (Europe) and page 69 (China).

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.