At first, there were just two guys holding a bunch of monkeys attached to ropes. Five minutes later, a crowd three-deep had gathered and the beaming faces said it all. Evidently, this was the kind of thing that passed for Saturday afternoon entertainment in the kind of place that Shaoxing is – the kind of place where watching a monkey smoke cigarettes brings squeals of delight and the notion of animal welfare is as alien as the concept of rights for plants.
Shaoxing, for the record, is a provincial city in Zhejiang province, around 50 km south of Hangzhou. It is a canal town, as far as any guide book will tell you, notable for being the ancestral home of former Premier Zhou Enlai and the birthplace of Chinese literary great Lu Xun. Other than that, it is unremarkable in almost every way – a prefecture-level city, forever in the shadow of its more illustrious neighbours, from which anyone who can escape does so at the first opportunity.
Though China may have taken a giant leap economically in the last forty years, the same cannot be said of certain other guages of what makes a country great. After forty years of Mao and the education of an entire generation having been as good as written off, China is only just finding its way out of the thicket as subsequent generations come though.
If you want the figures, of the 32.9 million children who entered primary school in 1965 (the year before the Cultural Revolution began), only 1.3 percent could expect to attend high school and only 0.5 percent would make it to university (Walder, Andrew G., China Under Mao, 2015). That leaves a hell of a lot of people now in their 50s and 60s without anything other than a basic education, to say nothing of their own children.
The result of such a vacuum is that 1) there are guys around that view training monkeys to smoke and catch knives as as good a way as any to make a living, and 2) the people who gather round and applaud these hilarious spectacles, see no problem with guys training monkeys to smoke and catch knives. Indeed, they find entertaining as f@%k.
Sadly, the travelling monkey street show is not uncommon in China, as it is not uncommon in many other parts of Asia. I’ve seen it in Kunming; I’ve seen it in Guangzhou; and every time it’s just about as depressing as you’d expect, not so much because there are monkeys smoking (which they shouldn’t do, because it isn’t big and it isn’t clever), but because with all the people standing around pointing and laughing, the evolutionary gap between spectators and spectacle is always made to seem a little less clear than it was before.
That taming a wild monkey to the point where he will sit there obediently with a cigarette in his mouth might not be as enjoyable for the monkey as it is for those watching evidently wasn’t an issue here. Indeed, if it were an issue – if the thought process that would allow some reflection on what your eyes were seeing were ever to bubble to the surface – maybe we would start to see the end of such practices. The cowering monkeys, the snarling guy with the whip, the chains around the neck – the clues were there. We just need to start making the connections. If indeed anybody actually cares.
Related Posts: For more monkey business, search monkeys.
Get Involved: Too much of an animal-loving Westerner? Let us know in the comments below.