Animals and Human Society in the Sinitic World

Animals and Human Society

Animals and Human Society in the Sinitic World

March 1, 2021 – July 31, 2021

Organizers:

Gideon Shelach Lavi (The Hebrew University of Jerusalem),
Nir Avieli (Ben-Gurion University of the Negev) 

The proposed research group will fill a gap in the global history of the human interaction with non-human animals. It will examine the diverse roles that animals – real and metaphorical – have played in Chinese history, society, and culture. Bringing together scholars working in the diverse disciplines of archeology, history, anthropology, art, religious and literary studies, the group will provide a comprehensive picture of the representations, roles and attitudes towards animals in Sinitic world (including not only China proper but other regions that were in contact with it and adopted elements of the Chinese culture). Extending from prehistoric times animals, through dietary practices and sacrifice, to the representation of pets in Chinese literature and art, the research group will make multiple contributions to Chinese studies. At the same time, it will provide a crucial and hitherto neglected perspective on the human interaction with the environment. In recent decades the humanities and social sciences have become increasingly aware of the significance of the interactions between human and non-human animals.

Anthropologists have termed the growing interest in human-animal relationship the "animal turn," the "trans-species turn" or the "post-human turn." This new perspective is transforming our understanding not only of animals’ effects on the development of human society and culture, but also of the rigid hierarchy where humans are on top and the rest of the natural world is subordinate to them.

The "animal turn" has largely passed China by. We still lack detailed studies not only of the literary and artistic representation of animals but also of the roles they have played in practice during the temporally long, and throughout the geographically vast, Chinese universe. Moreover, no integrative research have been carried on the complex networks of human-animal interactions, including the influences of those interactions on the shaping of human society and culture in the Sinitic world. The proposed interdisciplinary research group will fill this scholarly lacuna.

Anthropologists and historians alike have noted that the self-definition of humans is inseparable from their conception of non-human animals. Similarly, human attitudes towards beasts all too often tell us how they perceive fellow humans. In this respect, it is important to compare the Sinitic worldview to the Western one. Unlike the monotheistic faiths that have humans fashioned in god's image, the Chinese philosophical tradition holds that humans and beasts differ in degree, rather than essence, of spirituality. Imported from India, the Buddhist theory of transmigration contributed to the Chinese tendency of minimizing the existential divide between human and non-human animals. Does this theological affinity between people and their beasts of burden have any bearing on the latter's fate in human hands? Dose it create specific types of human-animal interactions that are Sinitic and different from Western types? The research team intends to investigate these questions, which answers are likely to be complex.

 

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The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology