Essays & Images on Cities, Travel and Contemporary Culture. A web journal of James A. Clapp, Ph.D., an UrbisMedia Ltd. Production


Author and his friend, the Xiezhi (Shee ay gier), Ming Tombs, Beijing (1991)

 It was nearly three decades that I first met the Xiezhi outside Beijing.  The one in this photo is caged up, for its own protection, I think, but which did not prevent me from sticking my elbow in its nose. (Probably professional jealousy on my part.)  the beast is sometimes represented with a single horn from its head and is sometimes called the Chinese unicorn. But most often it is a composite of four-legged animals and has a somewhat perplexed expression on its face.

We don’t have anything quite like the Xiezhi in the West.  The Xiezhi is China’s mythical critter that has the capability to know the difference between right and wrong. I suppose one could argue that we do have something like him in the Western tradition in the form of, say, the Oracle of Delphi.  But the Oracle’s powers were more in the nature of prognostication, whereas the Xiezhi, if I have it right, has powers that are more “ministerial.”  If we take into account that it also can discern the difference between virtue and vice, then it might explain that “right and wrong” is meant here in the moral/ethical connotation of those term rather than that of the er+san=wu variety. This is also further confirmed by the fact that the Xiezhi is also associated with jurisprudence in a manner similar to the Western blindfolded goddess of justice.

But I have to wonder whether the Xiezhi in this photo is caged up to keep it from properly doing its job in China where the meeting out of justice for right and wrong seems rarely to be performed with fairness and moral probity. But China is hardly alone. In an age of moral ambiguities (arguably, this might be any age) it would seem that an animal that can guide us to the right decision might be a good beast to have at hand. One can only wonder what one of them might adjudicate of such sticky moral dilemmas as nuclear proliferation, capitalistic exploitation, gun control, or relations between Israelis and Palestinians, Shia and Sunni, or Trump and the Russians. Would it be a better world if everyone had a Xiezhi pet?