Archive #25 – The Gibbon in China: An Essay in Chinese Animal Lore (1967) by Robert van Gulik

Last updated: 12-10-2021

The gibbon, a small, arboreal ape endemic to East and Southeast Asia, is known for its ethereal song and spectacular displays of acrobatics. Anyone who studies this primate, be they primatologist or scholar of history, mythology, or art, should own a copy of Robert van Gulik‘s (1910-1967) The Gibbon in China (1967). Though brief, this work is an amazing survey of historical references, poems, folktales, and art spanning over 3,000 years from the Zhou to Qing dynasties. Originally called a “white ape” (baiyuan, 白猿), the primate was thought to possess Daoist magic and secret knowledge (such beliefs influenced Sun Wukong). The Gibbon in China is out of print and hard to find, and available copies are prohibitively expensive. So I am thrilled to share a PDF of this wonderful piece of scholarship.

I would have included a digital file of the original “grammophone record” of gibbon calls, but I don’t have the know-how or equipment necessary to digitize it. I may add the file in the future.

The scan was produced with an overhead document camera. The glossy pages made scanning somewhat difficult. I had to use a soft, indirect light source. In addition, the print on numerous pages was already really faint due to the book being a photocopy of the original typescript. Therefore, sections of some pages appear blurry but still readable. The original file was 247 mb. I compressed it to a smaller file. I can provide the larger file upon request.


A gibbon soaring through the treetops. Photo by Sachin Rai. A larger version can be found here.

Description from the preface

The gibbon … was the traditional, purely Chinese symbol of the unworldly ideals of the poet and the philosopher, and of the mysterious link between man and nature. The gibbon initiates man into abstruse sciences and magic skills, and it is his calls that deepen the exalted mood of poets and painters on misty mornings and moonlit nights.

From the first centuries of our era on, Chinese writers have celebrated the gibbon in prose and poetry, dwelling in loving detail on his habits, both in the wild and in captivity. Great Chinese painters have drawn the gibbon in all shapes and attitudes; till about the 14th century from living models, and when thereafter the increasing deforestation had reduced the gibbon’s habitat to S.W. China, basing their pictures on the work of former painters and on hearsay. So important was the gibbon in Chinese art and literature, that he migrated to Japan and Korea together with the other Chinese literary and artistic motifs, although Japan nor Korea ever belonged to the gibbon’s habitat.

The gibbon thus occupies a unique place in Far Eastern culture, it being possible to trace the extent of his habitat, his appearance and his mannerisms for more than two thousand years. Therefore I thought it worth while to try to assemble these literary and artistic data, for the reference of orientalists, zoologists, and animal lovers in general. The results are embodied in the present essay.

The book begins with an introduction, describing gibbons and their habitats as I came to know them during many years of daily association. I have illustrated my observations with photographs of a few of my own gibbons; a key to those will be found at the end of the volume. It is hoped that these introductory remarks will supply the reader with the general background, and provide him with the material for comparison with the Chinese literary and artistic data contained in the body of this book.

The main text is divided into three parts, treating the subject-matter in chronological order. Part I describes the earliest data available, from ca. 1500 B.C. till the beginning of the Han dynasty, 202 B.C. Part II deals with the early centuries of our era, and gives a general picture of the gibbon as he appears in the literature of the T’ang dynasty which ended in 907 A.D. Part III is mainly concerned with pictorial representations of the gibbon in the art of the Sung, Yuan and Ming dynasties. The survey ends with the beginning of the Ch’ing dynasty, in 1644 A.D.; for after that date the gibbon became so rare in China that what is written about him is largely repetitious. An appendix gives a brief account of the gibbon in Japan.

Mated Gibbons

A pair of mated gibbons. A larger version can be found here.

Book link

Update: 12-10-21

I’ve posted a piece about a folk Taoist white ape god related to Sun Wukong.

The White Ape Perfected Man: Sun Wukong’s Divine Double


This has been posted for educational purposes. No malicious copyright infringement is intended. If you like the digital version, please support the official release.


Van Gulik, R. H. (1967). The Gibbon in China: An Essay in Chinese Animal Lore. Leiden: E.J. Brill.

7 thoughts on “Archive #25 – The Gibbon in China: An Essay in Chinese Animal Lore (1967) by Robert van Gulik

  1. Wow, Jim! This was mind-blowing, and I haven’t gotten to the text yet. I don’t know if you got that or not, but my family name is “Fitzgibbons.” “Fitz” is Gaelic for son, which means I’m the son of gibbons. Many would not make a big deal out of that, but the line in the preface “the mysterious link between man and nature” really hit home. Nature is the only thing I want to write about. The book I sent you tells why, the next book I’m working on also-Nature is everything I’m about. Which makes it all the more sad that I can’t read shit of the text in your post-it’s too small! I consider reading it connecting with my roots, and it’s certainly symbolic that I can’t do that. Another thing that might be glossed over in the preface is the word “deforestation.” If the Chinese considered the animal to be so special how could they have destroyed its habitat like that? To a lesser extent it reminds me of Indians, who consider the Ganges sacred but it is completely polluted and in most places undrinkable. This is our reality now. Thanks for another great post, and if you have any tips on how to “big” the text let me now.

    1. Hi. I never thought of your surname before. That’s pretty cool.

      You have to download the file to see the book in full screen. It’s annoying that wordpress shrinks it down. I’ll email you the full file.

      The author does refer to habitat loss due to deforestation. I guess it doesn’t matter how special or divine something is, human’s are assholes.

  2. Hello Jim, and many thanks for this.

    “Unworldly ideals of the poet and philosopher”…hmm.

    I found a little line-drawing of a gibbon in a fifteenth century primer, translated by L. Carrington Goodrich: wend your way there ~ [15] The Changes >> about >> about FAQ >> more FAQ >> Edward Said >> notes >> primer for a monolingual eye >> p.12.

    I can understand your wish to make a digital version of the audio yourself, but there’ll surely be a service in your neck of the woods that’s set up to do just that. I recently had a Pandora’s box of 16mm, super8, VHS, and audio cassettes done at the one venue…



    1. That’s a cute line drawing. I saw examples of this primer on Twitter some time ago. I don’t remember who posted it.

      Thank you for the suggestion. I’ll look around to see if I can find such a place.

  3. I don’t do social media… recommend if there’s nothing local.
    Admire your meticulous approach to copyright: I try to stick to a different set of criteria~
    changes.htm >> about >> about FAQ >> on appropriation

  4. Ah!! Thank you foe the pdf of the book.

    I do not have to interloan it.

    Have you been able to record the record?

    That I would appreciate!


    PS please use my email.

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