By Published: Dec. 12, 2023

CU Boulder researcher Antje Richter studies early medieval Chinese records of the strange to understand how literature explores what it means to be human

It may seem like a wholly modern affliction, but replacement anxiety has haunted the human condition for a very long time—the worry that not only could someone or something else fill our roles, but possibly do a better job.

In medieval China, the privilege that was perceived as inherent to being human could be convincingly undermined by, of all things, animals—at least in the popular literature of the day. Called “records of the strange,” these largely forgotten narratives are tales of mistaken identity in which an animal successfully impersonates and replaces a human until it is eventually found out.

These stories, which have frequently been denied the esteem granted to the poetry and other “serious” literature of the time, nevertheless touch on important issues of identity and privilege: What is required to exist, or even just pass, as human? How is personal identity conceptualized across gender and species? How can literature illuminate “true” identity?

Antje Richter

Antje Richter, an associate professor in the CU Boulder Department of Asian Languages and Civilizations, has researched themes of identity and privilege in Chinese records of the strange.

These are themes Antje Richter, a University of Colorado Boulder associate professor of Chinese, explores in a recently published paper that focuses on three particular records of the strange. In it, she highlights how the political and social changes that shook early medieval China raised important questions about ethnic, social and personal identity—and records of the strange were an accessible medium in which to address them.

“This literature has tended to be compartmentalized by scholars because it’s not ‘high’ literature,” Richter explains. “’High’ literature is poetry, it’s historiography, it’s several other genres that get taken seriously, while these texts are often regarded as leftover literature.

“But they enjoyed enormous popularity in the period they were written, though so many of these story collections have been lost. But the area of animal studies has really grown more prominent in the last 10 to 15 years, and scholars are looking to these records of the strange to learn more about how people thought about the human-animal boundary and what these stories had to say about species and social class.”

The human-animal barrier

Throughout her scholarship, Richter has been fascinated by records of the strange, especially the ones that venture beyond the most common trope of “animal spirits impersonating women in order to have sex with men, which is a whole different can of worms,” she says.

Richter instead focused on records of the strange from the collection Records of an Inquest into Spirit Phenomena, compiled by Jin Dynasty historian Gan Bao, and Latter Records of an Inquest into Spirit Phenomena, generally attributed to poet Tao Qian. Her focus is male protagonists, since at the time men could aspire to a broader range of social roles and activities.

In the story “The Old Yellow Dog at Kuaiji,” an inattentive, frequently absent husband named Wang returns to his deeply unhappy wife one day and is much more loving and attentive. A suspicious servant sees this and reports it to the real Wang, who challenges and fights the imposter, eventually revealing it to be an old yellow dog. Wang beats it to death, and his wife is so ashamed that she grows sick and dies.

In “The Old Raccoon Dog at Wuxing,” two sons mistake their father for a demon and kill him, only to have the demon return to their home in the appearance of their father. For many years, the imposter lives in their home until a ritual master recognizes the evil, utters a spell and reveals their “father” to be an old raccoon dog. The sons then capture and kill it.

The third story Richter highlights, “The Brindled Fox Scholar,” involves a fox who passes as a highly respected scholar until it, too, is revealed and eventually boiled to death.

“Each of these stories is told not from the perspective of the animal, but by a human narrator, and an important aspect of the human-animal boundary is this question of what constitutes human identity,” Richter says. “It’s exploring the difference between ‘passing’ and ‘being.’

“I think an important point is the human struggle with animals and drawing lines between us and them. Animals are either working for us, like dogs, or they are, like foxes, habitually crossing over from the wilderness into areas populated by humans in a way that can feel very threatening.”

Questions of identity

The records of the strange that Richter highlights also reflect the upheaval and changes in Chinese society during the early medieval period, which is generally considered to have begun with the fall of the Han Dynasty in 220 CE.

I feel that these kinds of uncertainties and insecurities, these questions of identity, are expressed in these stories. This is still a very relevant theme today.”

“A large part of the northern Chinese aristocracy was driven south because of invasions by northern ‘barbarians,’ and they then were living together with people of different cultures, different looks, different preferences,” Richter says. “For people originally from the north, the area south of the Yangtze River, in early China, was not regarded to be highly civilized.

“I feel that these kinds of uncertainties and insecurities, these questions of identity, are expressed in these stories. This is still a very relevant theme today.”

Records of the strange also can be interpreted as a commentary on principles of meritocracy—which then, as now, were frequently more ideal than reality.

“In these stories we see this aspiration to rise,” Richter explains. “The aspiration may have been there, but success was reserved only for certain people. We see it in the fox posing as a scholar, this idea of ‘how dare you seek to live in this realm where you do not belong.’ Being denied access was very likely a very common experience for quite a lot of people.”

Top image: "Six Horses" ink and color on paper handscroll, by unknown artists in the 13th and 14th centuries CE.

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