Inspired by the Classic of Mountains and Seas Written & Illustrated by Alicia Chen
Preface The 山海經, Shan Hai Jing, or Classic of Mountains and Seas, is a classic Chinese text that guides a traveler through the landscape of ancient China. I began my senior capstone with the intention of creating a mythological bestiary, but I didn’t want to rely on classic creatures where my illustrations would develop nothing new. In my search for lesser-known mythological beasts, I came across the Classic of Mountains and Seas and its vivid descriptions of both real and imagined animals. However, the Classic has no overarching plot; to guide newcomers through this classic text, I needed to create my own story.
The Beasts in the Mountains presents an original fairy tale about a mother’s journey to save her ill son. She speaks to a number of creatures along the way, hoping that one will be able to help her. I have included the English translations of each creature’s description from the original text to read side-by-side with the narrative. I never intended to write and illustrate a storybook when I first set out to create a bestiary, but I’m glad that it has evolved into this. The beasts depicted in this book are only a small selection of the hundreds described in the Classic. If you enjoy this story, I encourage you to look further into the classic text and discover for yourself why the Classic of Mountains and Seas has remained popular for centuries.
Deep in the mountains of ancient China there lived a woman and her son.
They lived alongside fantastical beasts, and though they never sought the creatures out, the woman often regaled her son with tales of their wondrous abilities.
Early one spring, her son fell illâ€”so ill that for two days and two nights the woman worried he would not live.
On the third day, she gathered her resolve.
She would travel across the mountains to seek aid from the beasts, hoping that one would have the power to cure her son. With only an empty sack and the clothes on her back, the woman left her beloved son and began her journey.
The creatures were so abundant that the woman encountered one after crossing only a single valley. She approached cautiously. “Great beast,” she said. “My son is ill. I have heard rumors of your magical abilities, and I beg for your help in saving him.” The beast turned to her. “My name is the Hubbub. I cannot cure your son, but I will give you some feathers from my wings. Travel south, and you may find more who can help.”
Three hundred and fifty leagues further north is a mountain called Mount Bridgedrain. It has no plants or trees but quantities of gold and jade. The River Far rises here and flows east to empty into the River Goosegate. There is a bird here which looks like the boastfeather. It has four wings, one eye, and a dog’s tail. Its name is the hubbub. It makes a noise like a magpie. If you eat it, it will cure a bellyache, and it is effective for indigestion.
The woman continued south, several feathers heavier. At a river crossing, she came across a second creature and approached again. “The Hubbub told me you may be able to help me,” she said. “My son is ill. I am seeking a cure.” The Join-Join Fish, for that was the creature’s name, gazed at her steadily. “I have no powers, so I can do nothing for your son. Walk west, and look there. I will give you some of my scales.”
Going further south, the rivers course for 500 leagues and drifting sands run for 500 leagues. Then there is a mountain called Mount Tiptoeheel which has a girth of 200 leagues round. There is a river on this mountain stretching over an area of forty leagues across where the water jets up. Its name is Deep Marsh. It contains numerous large turtles. There is a fish here which looks like a carp but it has six feet and a bird’s tail. Its name is the join-join fish. When it cries, it calls itself: ‘Gur-gur.’
The woman followed the river until the trees and rocks changed. The air rang with drumbeats, and she searched high and low for their source. As the woman neared their origin, the drumbeats fell silent, and the beast that had been making the noise glanced at her speculatively. “If you are here to ask for a Piebald’s aid in battle, I will not help you,” it said. The woman bowed low. “I do not wish to go to war. I only ask for a cure for my son.” The Piebald seemed pleased at this answer and replied, “I will give you my fur, and you may find some use for it. Go west, but be wary of the Banereptile-Niece’s cry.”
Three hundred leagues further west is a mountain called Mount Midtwist. Jade is abundant on its south face, and there are quantities of male-yellow and white jade and also gold on its north face. There is an animal on this mountain which looks like a horse; it has a white body with a black tail, a single horn and the fangs and claws of a tiger. It makes a noise like a drumbeat. Its name is the piebald. It feeds on tigers and leopards. It is effective against weapons.
Taking heed of this warning, the woman proceeded carefully. She trailed the riverbank in silence, accompanied only by the rush of water until three twisting forms rose before her. She addressed them: “Great serpents, I ask for your aid. My son is ill and will not survive the week.” The snakes coiled together, hissing. “We are Humming Snakes, and our only power is to cause droughts. We cannot be of assistance. Take our scales and feathers, and continue forward through the mountains.”
Three hundred leagues further west is a mountain called Mount Fresh. It has quantities of gold and jade, but no plants or trees. The River Fresh rises here and flows north to empty into the River Person. The River Fresh contains numerous humming snakes which look like serpents, except that they have four wavy wings. They make a noise like a stone chime. Whenever they appear, that town will have a severe drought.
As the woman moved onward, the thickets of oak and hemp grew denser. A crumbling stone trail seemed to weave itself across the mountain, and the woman followed this path faithfully until a blur overhead caught her eye. With a graceful leap, the beast landed in her path. “I am the Scaly-Cur. What business does a human have at my summit?” it asked. “My son is dying,” she replied. “I am searching for those who could save him.” The Scaly-Cur tilted its head. “I can cure lunacy but not the ill. Take a fragment of my shell and perhaps it will help.”
Thirty leagues further southeast is a mountain called Mount Vergewheel. On its summit there are many holmoak and oak trees, and many hemp plants. There is an animal on the mountain; it looks like a dog, but it has tiger claws and a shell. Its name is the scaly-cur. It is good at leaping. Those who eat it won’t suffer from lunacy.
As the woman continued, her faith in the mountains started to dwindle. She became so consumed by worry that only the vivid coat of the next beast pulled her from her thoughts. A leopard peered at her from nearby. “I am searching for a cure for my son,” she said. “I have heard of the magical abilities held by beasts in these mountains, and I ask for any aid.” The leopard regarded her lazily. “I am the Wrangler. I am no help to the ill, but you may take some of my fur if you leave my territory.”
Two hundred and eighty leagues further west is a mountain called Mount Brilliantartemesia. It has no plants or trees, but great quantities of green jasper and dark green jade. There is an animal here which looks like a scarlet leopard with nine tails and a single horn. It makes a noise like a stone being struck. Its name is the wrangler.
With no cure and only fragments of feathers, fur, and scales, the woman thought of her son, laying feverish and alone. She began to consider that perhaps she would find nothing. A harsh cry shook her from her despair. Alarmed, she stumbled through glittering gold and jade deposits that had replaced trees until a beast suddenly presented itself, grinning wildly. “What is a human doing this deep in the mountains? I am called the Banereptile-Niece. Convince me why I shouldn’t devour you here and now,” it said. Even fear did not diminish the woman’s respect for the beast’s power. With shaking knees, she bowed low. “My son is dying. I am seeking a cure from the creatures of the mountain. Please, let me be,” she said. The Banereptile-Niece appeared puzzled by her response. “Respect from a human is unusual. You are fortunate that I am not starved today. Take one of my fallen teeth when you leave, and keep it as a reminder of this place.”
Five hundred leagues further south is a mountain called Mount Duckbeauty. Gold and jade are abundant on its summit, and on the lower slopes are numerous needle stones. There is an animal here which looks like a fox and it has nine tails and nine heads, and tiger claws. Its name is the banereptile-niece. It makes a noise like a baby. It devours humans.
Tired and desperate and with the night closing in, the woman approached the last beast she could find. “Please,” she said. “I have searched the mountains, but no one has been able to help me. My son will die without a cure. I beg for your aid, whatever you can give me.” The beast replied, “I am a god of this mountain. I can provide you with a cure. However, I require a ritual or a trade of equivalent value.” Hearing these words, the woman nearly fell into despair. She had no materials to perform the god’s traditional ritual, nor riches to trade.
The deities of these mountains all have the appearance of a dragon’s body and a bird’s head. Sacrifice to them follows this ritual: use animals with hair of one colour; use a single ceremonial jade, then ritually bury it; use stick rice for the sacrificial rice.
The woman was about to turn away when she reached into her bag and felt the fur, feathers, and scales the previous beasts had given her. A thought occurred to her. She addressed the beast once more. “I cannot complete your ritual, and I have no wealth, but I have gifts bestowed to me by the other beasts of this mountain. They are precious, but I would gladly trade them for my son’s life.” The god was silent for a long moment before replying. “I accept your trade. Go home, and when you arrive, your son will be awake and healthy.”
That night the woman did not sleep, walking until her feet were blistered and her lips chapped.
When she arrived at her door with the morning sun just breaking the horizon, she could hear the familiar cheerful sounds of her son preparing breakfast, as if he had never been ill. She entered much relieved, and they shared the meal in happy silence.
“Mama,” the son asked, when the meal was finished, “tell me about the beasts again.” The woman smiled, thinking back on her extraordinary journey, and began her tale.
Credits This book was written and illustrated by Alicia Chen for the 2018 illustration capstone course at Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts at Washington University in St. Louis. Typefaces used were Centaur MT Bold and Centaur MT Bold Italic. Bestiary entries were transcribed from the English translation of the Classic of Mountains and Seas by Anne Birrell, published by Penguin Classics. All other text is original writing. Special thanks to my advisor John Hendrix, Jaleen Grove, and all my CDES classmates for their endless advice. Additional thanks to Kristina Kleutghen and Tobias Zuern for their help in early project research and to Noah ben David for editing my story. To Madison, Alice, Jenny, Andrew, and Angela: thanks for supporting me through these long studio nights.