As the story has it, a then lesser warlord is forced to abandon his hard-earned power base, when a frightful enemy presses down from the north. He orders his troops to burn down the whole town before retreating southward, bringing with him all the residents that can still move on the way down to the Yangtze River.
The warlord declares his duty to save innocent lives. The unarmed people that leave their hometown with the defeated army, however, turn out functioning like a cushion. This effectively slows down the engaging enemy though the cost is thousands of civilian casualties after a predictable slaughter. The man behind the cold-blooded tactic in question is the warlord’s principle advisor Zhuge Liang. Many centuries on, he is still celebrated as the wisest mind in history.
Wars came and went. The place called Xinye today has little to reflect its eventful past, except a custom that may find its roots in the exodus eighteen hundred years ago. Unlike the majority of their inland compatriots, men from this area are much less reluctant to leave their families behind when chances to earn more loom elsewhere, sometimes many hundreds of kilometers away. The farmers from the surrounding countryside follow a traditional lifestyle of having trained monkeys to perform in the streets. In the municipal park of Xinye, you can see a bronze statue of a trainer with his monkey like the town’s ascot.
Monkey performances used to be popular, both in rural areas and in major cities, especially over the few years in the wake of the Cultural Revolution. You sometimes saw a poorly dressed farmer walk on the street with two monkeys, one carried on his shoulder, the other in tow. The shows could take stage everywhere, even on the sidewalk on Beijing’s thoroughfare Chang’an Avenue, on which Tiananmen’s gate tower stood. The tamer would crack a whip wielded in his hand, threatening to beat down at any moment.
The monkeys were good at imitating human mannerisms. They raised their hands to salute the bystanders before one of them did a few gymnastic movements, its partner beating a little gong. The show came to a climax when the animals began fighting back against their owner, attacking him with cobbles picked up from the ground, or whatever lay conveniently at hand. The spectators broke into applause, some dropping a few coins in the cap that either of the two monkeys ran back to beg with.
“The fight’s fake,” Mr. Zhang thus said to me when I visited his bungalow house in the countryside outside Xinye, where the major products were apples and corn. “The beasts were taught to do that, I tell ya.” A monkey trainer and the village head, he told me that the farmers 1) were unwilling and 2) couldn’t afford to mistreat the monkeys they invested in raising.
“They are like family members,” he would repeat this another few times. In his village, even a quasi retirement policy was established for the senior animals – when they are well into advanced age, they can stay at home without working until the last day.
Around his house, I saw a few juvenile animals allowed to run around freely, playing with his grandson, more or less like family pets. Meanwhile the grownups were locked up in an old house across the yard, looking out curiously at me from behind iron bars.
Most of the monkeys are born at home now. They are naturally domesticated and easier to train. Therefore the farmers don’t have to buy wild ones from the illegal markets. Even better, they don’t need to have the animals’ tails cut off. When I asked why the monkey’s tail was traditionally considered a problem, as recorded in classical literature, Mr. Zhang told me that the operation’s purpose was to spoil the monkey’s balance in the air, lest it escapes.
The history of monkey shows goes back to the Han Dynasty when China was an integrated empire before the civil war related in Romance of the Three Kingdoms, whose army was strong enough to keep nomadic tribes like the Huns off its borders. The Xinye County Museum, which is small and often closed to the public, houses a few portrait bricks from the unearthed tombs of local nobles who lived and died nearly two millennia ago, demonstrating this practice’s early shape.
I wonder how much it developed through the centuries, nevertheless. It never had the honor of being promoted as the highest ruler’s exclusive enjoyment and thus transformed into a sophisticated, if not yet highbrow, art form like the Beijing Opera. What we see today is not too different from the primitive circus Zhuge Liang might personally witness in his time. And this partly explains why monkey training has never become a salaried profession.
The farmers travel out only during each year’s off-season after the autumn harvest. They stop wherever they get paid for their humble craft but return home with their hairy partners before the lunar calendar New Year’s Eve to spend the holiday with their families. They lack the will and opportunities to melt into the cultural centers to improve their grassroots art. In many places the cops are happy to shoo them away as beggars, if not by force, especially where the locals harbor biases against the Henanese as a dishonest people.
The farmers usually perform with their monkeys in backwater towns where local people are more tolerant. They are careful before stepping into a bigger city. As for Beijing, it’s out of the question. Over recent years, when the capital city is becoming an autopia, everything with a pre-modern whiff is taken for an unwelcome element that should be removed, including the monkeys. Even the armies of bicyclists that were once omnipresent in the cityscapes are seen much less now.
The unfriendly atmosphere has undoubtedly strengthened the farmers’ sense of alienation when they wander around. Once satisfied with extra earnings in their pockets, they return home with little hesitation.
When I took a bus from the center of Xinye to the aforementioned village of Mr. Zhang, I noticed there was a township every few kilometers along the half-paved country road, each of which had a government.
Needless to say all governments run at a cost. According to research by Dr. Feng Junqi, a Peking University sociologist, the government of Xinye alone is more than a thousand officials strong; most of them come from 161 well-resourced, intermarried families that make most administrative posts quasi-hereditary. But Xinye is far from rich. The monkeys, like their owners, make their contribution to the local revenue but enjoy little, if any, welfare.
The farmers’ boomerang-like itineraries make them much less bohemian than conventionally Chinese.
My visit to Mr. Zhang’s village ended with a casual chat with another farmer. When I dropped in, he was training a monkey to jam a little ball into a scale-down hoop raised in the courtyard. His choreographic inspiration came from Jeremy Lin, the Chinese American NBA player who remained a national conversation topic in recent years. This man was younger and more aspiring. He said that the show had to attract the next generation with something new, not only the audiences, for the children in the village were more and more reluctant to pick their ancestors’ trade.
“The tradition is dying but we still have to hand it down,” he said. I was not sure his monkey was following those high-minded words. At one point the little trainee under the whistling whip unleashed an expression remotely echoing that of Caesar in Rise of the Planet of Apes.