Bigfoot and the Yeren

A dialogue with

Joshua Blu Buhs and Sigrid Schmalzer

Joshua Blu Buhs’s Bigfoot: The Life and Times of a Legend explores the real legacy of a mythical creature. Among the topics in The People’s Peking Man: Popular Science and Human Identity in Twentieth-Century China, author Sigrid Schmalzer delves into the meaning and resonance of the yeren, China's answer to the West's Bigfoot. We recently asked them to discuss the similarities and differences between the wildmen of their books.

Joshua Blu Buhs: There are some amazing similarities between Bigfoot and the yeren, especially in our discussion of them in our books. First, there is the theme of loving the beast and sacrificing friends and family in the hunt for it. Second, there is the way that wildmen represent the possibility of extinction, authenticity, and the horrors of civilization. Third, there are parallel stories about kidnapping, marauding wildmen. The wildman may nor may not be a ubiquitous character-type, and its representation is certainly shaped by the different cultures in which it appears, but these similarities are intriguing. What’s your take on this?

Sigrid Schmalzer: I, too, am struck by how many similarities there are both in the yeren and Bigfoot stories themselves and in the stories about the people who search for them. In both cases the wildness of the monsters is crucial to their cultural significance—and this wildness is something to fear but also to embrace. The fear of the “savagery” of the wild runs through stories about wildmen who kidnap—and often rape—humans; these stories have old roots in China. But the wildness of Bigfoot and yeren also emerges in these stories as an antidote to the corruption of modern society. Some of the specifics of what that corruption is understood to be differ between the two cases (e.g., in China, it includes the inhumanity of Mao-era political campaigns), but in both places there is a strong environmentalist theme—a romantic notion that Bigfoot and yeren represent “endangered species” and that they (like Goodall’s chimps or Fossey’s gorillas) offer the hope of reconnecting with our primeval selves and returning to the more pure world of nature.

The people who search for both Bigfoot and yeren are dominantly male. They often style themselves as rugged adventurers who are willing to brave the dangers of wilderness, the scorn of scientific authorities, and the loss of their families and other social ties—their ties to civilization. But I was struck by your discussion in the last pages of your book of the recent trend of women-centered narratives… again raising the connection to Goodall and Fossey, the idea that a woman primatologist might once again allow “humankind” to make “contact with another sentient being” (p. 252). An earlier example of this not in your book is Karen Minns’s novel, Calling Rain, published in 1991: it’s a lesbian romance about a Bigfoot researcher and her graduate student inspired in part at least by Dian Fossey’s work with gorillas. (Years ago when I first started the research on yeren, I had fun reading some of these North American stories, an activity I justified because they were “directly related to my dissertation.”) I don’t think I’ve seen anything along these lines in the Chinese case: Goodall is an inspiration, but to male yeren enthusiasts; the stories sometimes involve female yeren and speak to questions of sexuality and gender, but from a male perspective (e.g., emphasizing voluptuousness and/or loyalty to family). To me the emergence of ecofeminist Bigfoot stories is a hopeful moment at the end of your book that stands in marked contrast with the larger double “tragedy”—of the working-class male Bigfooters who fail to find respect and of Bigfoot itself, who becomes swallowed up by consumer culture—that is your primary story arc.

Buhs: I want to come back to your question about female Bigfoot-hunters in a moment. But first, the discussion of similarities raises what is to me an interesting historiographical question: Are wildmen archetypes? Archetypes and other transhistorical concepts are not much in vogue these days. And anthropologist Gregory Forth (Images of the Wildman in Southeast Asia) cautions against using the concept, arguing that the core of the image is too sparse: a hairy, humanlike biped. Still, that the legends are so similar in such diverse places forces the question. Presumably, there was not much (recent) contact between the Chinese villagers you write about and, say, the First Nations tribes in Canada who told similar tales. Certainly, it’s possible that there are wildmen in both places that give rise to the stories—but this starts to beggar belief when one looks at wildmen stories from elsewhere, because then you’d have to posit—as Ivan Sanderson did—that there are several species of undiscovered apes, all over the Earth. The only other option I see is that the image is universal—or, at least, ubiquitous. Forth even suggests this himself when he notes that probably most every culture that has existed has recognized both the difference between humans and animals as well as the continuity, making stories about some creature that bridged the gap interesting for exploring the boundary line. Your book, especially, finds this tradition at work. In North America, at least once the story passed into white society, the tales only rarely touched on the human-animal divide, or did so obliquely, by looking at racial and gender divides and using the wildman, as a symbol of the natural, thereby naturalizing racial and sexual hierarchies. The question for us, as historians, is to look at the way this archetype was used in different situations—thus, in China, the yeren was used to critique Maoist programs, in Britain to raise questions about imperialism, and in the US to resist (and accommodate) consumerism. It’s not unlike sex, in that sex is a biological process that comes in many cultural forms. The wildman may be something built into the human mind, or a natural consequence of the human mind’s engagement with the world, but that takes specific cultural forms. I don’t know, necessarily, how recognizing this biological substrate should play out methodologically, but it seems important to acknowledge.

Back to your point about the way that the American hunt for Bigfoot has changed to allow for the participation of more women. In the past, Bigfoot was seen as a creature that needed to be hunted, probably killed, to make it real. And hunting was an avocation most open to men. More recently, Bigfoot has been constructed as a sentient, even wise being. This change, I argue in my book, was caused by the passage of Bigfoot from entertainments aimed at the working class to those meant for the middle class, who were more inclined toward environmentalism and a benign view of nature. A sentient, or wise, creature needs to communicated with, not attacked. Communication is seen in America as a trait better developed in women than men, thus creating a space for more women to enter the field. More generally, the domestication of Bigfoot has allowed more women—Molly Gloss, Francine Prose, Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Allyson Mitchell, and, as you mention, Karen Minns—to write about the creature, including writing self-consciously fictional stories, and make art from it. I’m not so sure, however, that I see the turn toward ecofeminism as hopeful. Maybe I’m just more pessimistic than you. But I think there’s more than that, as well … The feminist versions of Bigfoot were almost always put to use doing what came to be known as “soul work.” They represented a turning away from the world, a way of making middle-class Americans feel better about their situations, but did not engage with the structural conditions that made soulwork seem necessary.

To connect my two points, I offer a hypothesis, which is based on empirical evidence and would need more research to become more than tentative. My hypothesis is this: The wildman archetype is useful for thinking through a number of issues, boundaries between the human and nonhuman, between the races, between the genders, between civilization and wilderness, between the authentic and plastic. Wildmen can entice people to think about change and going elsewhere, but, ultimately, they cannot lead us out of the conditions in which we live.

Schmalzer: I find the emergence of ecofeminist Bigfooters hopeful not because I think it represents a “better” kind of Bigfoot studies (though I can’t help but like it more), but because it demonstrates that Bigfoot will continue to generate interesting questions and opportunities to challenge authorities—it’s not “dead.”

You say, “Wildmen can entice people to think about change and going elsewhere, but, ultimately, they cannot lead us out of the conditions in which we live.” I’ll respond by quoting Nobel laureate Gao Xingjian from his 1990 novel Soul Mountain. His narrator has just arrived in the forest of Shennongjia, where he contemplates searching for the elusive yeren: “Not having a goal is a goal, the act of searching itself turns into a sort of goal, and the object of the search is irrelevant.” [Gao Xingjian (Mabel Lee, trans.) Soul Mountain (New York: Harper Collins, 2000 [1990]), 342.] Similarly, in his 1986 poem ”I am Yeren,” Zhou Liangpei gives us: “In the pathless forest, to be lost does not count as being lost” and “the search for searching often resides in returning to the origin.” Bigfoot-like monsters are not well suited for resolving problems. They are unfindable; their power lies in turning answers back into questions. That’s why the inversion works so well: it’s bound to become a double inversion. As Zhou Liangpei’s yeren doppelgänger puts it, “If we look at one another, we’ll see who still retains a tail / You are my bright mirror, and I am yours.” [Zhou Liangpei, Yeren ji (Beijing: Huaxia chubanshe, 1992), 97-98.] Are we civilized or savage? Is civilization in fact the height of savagery? Then what does that make savagery? Bigfoot can’t show us the way out, but he can get us appropriately confused about where we are—not to mention who we are.

Back to the question of archetypes. The similarities really are too profound to ignore, I think—much more than just a “hairy, humanlike biped”—and it seems you agree. We also agree that as historians our job is then to see how this archetype behaves in different times and places. This reminds me of a question you asked during a previous exchange, which I’ll paraphrase as: Why have scientists in China apparently been more willing than their North American counterparts to entertain the possibility of—and even expend time and energy researching—wildmen?

Here’s where historical context is absolutely critical: it’s not just about place, but about time as well. In the late 1950s, when Soviet scientists were engaged in research on yeti and the Soviet Union still had scientific advisors in China, a few Chinese scientists were assigned to investigate reports of wildmen in southwest China. They weren’t very enthusiastic about it, and they concluded that the sightings were probably of gibbons, though they didn’t rule out the possibility it could be something more unusual. Yeren studies didn’t amount to anything much until the late 1970s, and then they quickly blossomed. China was emerging from the volatile period of the Cultural Revolution and plunging into a new set of social and political relations both within China and internationally. Chinese scientists gained much greater access to foreign publications, including Bigfoot-related materials along with all sorts of other fun stuff. The world was suddenly much bigger, and there was profound excitement about all sorts of possibilities—the possibility that an unknown hominid survived in the ancient forested corners of China, and perhaps even more importantly the possibility that scientists would enjoy the freedom to study yeren along with many other subjects previously off limits. Because of their association with the supernatural, stories about yeren aroused concerns about “superstition,” which the socialist state was committed to eradicating. Scientists and others eager to study yeren used this concern as a justification for their research: if they found a yeren, they could prove that it was not a supernatural creature but rather a real animal, knowable through science, of some evolutionary relation to humans and apes. I think they did believe this, but that their primary motivation lay in the excitement that the yeren as a “mystery” offered as the political and scientific orthodoxies of the Mao years began to show signs of crumbling.

I should note, too, that while Chinese scientists in the 1970s and early 1980s generally felt more favorably toward research on wildmen than scientists in North America did, not everyone jumped on board, and within ten or fifteen years the number of supportive scientists had dropped considerably, and today just a few high-ranking scientists continue to express interest. I wonder if we did a quantitative comparative study whether the difference in attitude between Chinese and North American scientists would really be that large (at least after 1990 or so). After all, you note in your book that Schaller, Goodall, and others supported Bigfoot research. Finally, some have suggested that the training scientists received in Mao-era China failed to prepare them to think critically, and so made them susceptible to all sorts of irrational theories. I don’t really buy this. I think if anything the pressure worked the other way: it prevented people from venturing far afield. Once the door opened in the 1970s, the exploration of new territory became a tremendously compelling scientific value.

Schmalzer: I wanted to pick up on your mention of the way Bigfoot has naturalized racial hierarchies. Your book offers an effective analysis of racialized imagery in Bigfoot stories and art. I wonder if you had also thought about the possible relationship between anthropological theories about Bigfoot and anthropological theories about race. I was interested to see the anthropologist Carleton Coon appear in your book—not in his usual role as author of one of the most notoriously racist scientific books on human evolution, but for his involvement in Abominable Snowman work (which I don’t recall knowing about). He appears in my book in that former role. He argued that separate evolutionary paths had led the modern races to be inherently unequal, and he even sought to bring these ideas to bear on civil rights issues—including Brown v. Board of Education. Perhaps significantly, the key U.S. Bigfooter anthropologist Grover Krantz was also interested in the origin of modern races. He was a proponent of multiregional theory—considerably less offensive than Coon’s ideas, but still notable (in contrast with the more widely accepted recent Out-of-Africa theory) for its contention that the modern races separated relatively early in evolutionary history. I wonder what could be made of this connection.

Buhs: I have thought about the relationship between anthropological theory and Bigfoot—or wildmen more generally, at least from a North American point of view. The connections, as I’m sure you know, are quite numerous. First, there is what might be termed the imperial context. Why were the British in the Himalayas in the first place, looking for the Abominable Snowman? Because conquering Everest was a form of Empire making. And why was Carleton Coon drawn into the discussion about wildmen? Because he was in Asia at the same time that the American oil magnate Tom Slick was leading a hunt for the Yeti. Coon was there on a study for the U.S. Air Force, photographing local peoples so that downed pilots could recognize their position by the physiognomy of the natives. Imperialism in action!

This extended to interest in Bigfoot and Sasquatch, as well. In the 1950s, Ivan Sanderson, a naturalist and popularizer of all things wildmen, argued that America needed to hunt for the wildmen in North America because the Russians were hot on the trail of those in Asia. And if the Russians got there first, they would use the wildman to propagandize that Darwin was right, evolution was real, the universe was material all the way down, and the religious instincts of Americans would be disproved, leading the nation to wander aimlessly. The hunt for the wildman was the battle for humanity’s soul, part of the Cold War. The theme continued in the writings of John Green, who emphasized in the 1970s that China and Russia were pulling ahead of the West in commitment to science. His argument was persuasive enough that Roderick Sprague, an anthropologist who edited Northwest Anthropological Research Notes, chose to open his pages to anthropological studies of Bigfoot, and that was where Krantz’s first papers appeared. Bigfoot, in other words, was key to maintaining world hegemony, at least in the viewpoint of some of those who chose to study the creature.

I wonder to what extent the study of yeren might have been influenced by similar factors. For example, the West was always worrying about Chinese activity in the Himalayas. (It’s been claimed—by the Russians—that US hunts for the Yeti were covert missions to spy on the Chinese.) Was there any way in which attempts to find the yeren was folded into the Cold War? Also, I am vaguely aware that the Chinese were involved in an attempt to classify and census the various ethnic groups in the hinterlands. I can imagine ways in which interest in the yeren may have fit with this. Did it?

Second, there are what might be classified as institutional factors. By the 1950s, the main thrust in North American anthropology was against racial typing—a tendency that was only strengthened in the 1970s with the increasing prominence of anthropological genetics, which showed that racial classification was hopelessly muddled and probably not useful at all. Thus, to hold out for the legitimacy of racial types was to stand against the tide of disciplinary change. So was, of course, holding that there were yet undiscovered primates. It is pretty clear from the record that both Coon and Krantz relished their roles as mavericks. Whether they expected to be mavericks from the beginning, or grew into the part, I don’t know, but they came to accept, and even entice the label, and so in a sense their interest in wildmen grew naturally out of their position within anthropology.

Third, certain theoretical commitments made the acceptance of wildmen possible. Both Coon and Krantz emphasized that the human family tree was branching and not linear. This was true of most anthropologists of the time, certainly, but with their different multiregional theories, they emphasized the branchiness to the extreme. Coon argued, as I understand him, that modern humans arose from Homo erectus several times during the course of history, and at several different points, so that some races—whites—were more developed than others—Africans, Australian aborigines. Given this model, it is relatively easy to assume, as well, that other primates evolved several different times, as, for example, in the case of the Yeti and Bigfoot. The one does not necessarily follow the other, but the thoughts are compatible. Krantz’s ideas were similar. For him, racial differences first evolved in Homo erectus, and the transition to modern humans is hard to discern from the fossil record—for it was culture and language that separated H. erectus and Homo sapiens. This model could be used to explain wildmen, as well. Krantz argued that the prehistoric ape Gigantopithecus evolved into both the Yeti and Bigfoot, just as H. erectus had evolved into modern humans several times.

Hence, there’s a way in which theoretical commitments to naturalizing the differences between races led to—or allowed on to imagine—the evolution of wildmen, though, as best as I can tell, no really strong connection between the two exists.

Were there any connections between the yeren and Chinese anthropological theory? This discussion about the relationship between wildman and official science naturally raises the opposite. How can we understand the relationship between wildmen and those who were interested in the beasts but not officially (or by credentialing) given the privilege of speaking authoritatively about it?

Schmalzer: I see similar Cold War competition in the 1950s and 1960s materials on human evolution. For example, some Soviet and Chinese books on human evolution highlighted the Scopes Trial as evidence that, despite U.S. claims to be scientifically advanced, in fact religion (which found a welcome home in the capitalist, imperialist U.S.) held it back. By the time “yeren fever” took hold in the 1970s, China’s position in the Cold War had transformed. Relations with the Soviet Union were tense, and China and the U.S. were rebuilding a “friendship.” What I see in the yeren materials is a feeling of urgency to prove China’s ability to make a contribution in the new international scientific community it was joining. To be first to demonstrate the existence of a wildman (understood to be a “missing link” in the human evolutionary tree) would be a very large feather in China’s cap.

The bulk of the ethnic classification work happened in the 1950s, while yeren research didn’t take off until the 1970s. Nonetheless, there are uncomfortable moments in the yeren literature where yeren (and also yeti) are compared with members of minority nationalities who live near them. (Minority nationalities tend to live in peripheral areas, which are also for obvious reasons where stories about yeren typically arise.) For example, researchers sometimes suggested that certain environments had preserved ethnic minorities in a state of primitiveness and thus could also have supported the survival of the primitive yeren. In other cases, they talked about the possibility that yeren were in fact just members of some unknown primitive ethnic group or emphasized the need to use care in distinguishing between yeren and primitive humans.

I like the way you’re relating Coon and Krantz’s ideas on human evolution and on Bigfoot. Certainly, they both position themselves as mavericks, and that goes a long way to explaining this connection. In my book I similarly portray one of the key scientists who supported yeren research in China, Zhou Guoxing, as a maverick. Since multiregionalism is the dominant theory in China, this is not evidence of his being a maverick, but in other ways he’s often challenged conventional wisdom. For example, in the 1980s he overhauled the anthropology wing of the Natural History Museum in Beijing. The authorities delayed the opening of the new exhibit because of concerns about two of his changes: he de-emphasized Engels’s theory that labor created humanity, and he created a new segment on human sexuality that included nude photographs and explicit anatomical drawings. Since then he’s consistently encouraged an openness in exploring sexuality as a facet of human experience and a whole host of unusual theories about human evolution—for example, the idea that humans evolved from a kind of “water ape.”

I see what you mean about multiregionalism’s “branchiness,” though I don’t usually think of it this way. The recent out-of-Africa theory overturns the linear model (codified during the modern evolutionary synthesis) that preserved Peking Man, Neanderthals, and other fossil humans as direct human ancestors rather than extinct branches (dead ends) on the human family tree. Multiregionalism sticks with the linear model: there are fewer extinct branches because the various Homo erectus populations (in China, this includes Peking Man) are not considered dead ends, but rather are direct ancestors of modern peoples—in that sense, they’re on the main trunk of human evolution. But looking at it another way, multiregionalism is “branchier” within our species, since the races separated earlier and all these racial branches survived until the present day. Perhaps people who see ancient branching of the races with all the branches making it all the way up the tree would also be more inclined to entertain the idea that another hominid branch (Bigfoot, yeren, etc.) could have survived as well.

I suppose the Chinese case might work to support this theory, since it is notable for support for both multiregionalism and (apparently at least) yeren research as well. I should note, though, that the key figures in multiregionalism and yeren research in China are not the same people. However, one important yeren supporter, the paleoanthropologist Huang Wanbo, has postulated the existence of a Chinese Australopithecus (which would perhaps be ancestral to both modern humans and yeren). Yeren researchers often theorized on the proper place of yeren in the human evolutionary tree. One theory (first written, but not published, in the 1960s) was that yeren were the descendants of Gigantopithecus (which would make sense given the discovery of Gigantopithecus fossils near one of the hubs of yeren stories); another pointed to Australopithecus, the discovery of which would have been very exciting for Chinese scientists.

One other way in which yeren and anthropological theory were connected—especially in the early years—was the application of Friedrich Engels’s theory that “labor created humanity” to the study of yeren. The idea was that since (according to the great authority Engels) it was labor that separated humans from other animals, any discussion of yeren’s nature would have to include the question, did yeren labor? Since there was no evidence of tool manufacture, the assumption was that yeren did not labor and thus were not human.

I’ve written far too much and I haven’t yet come to your last and very interesting question: “How can we understand the relationship between wildmen and those who were interested in the beasts but not officially (or by credentialing) given the privilege of speaking authoritatively about it?” Can I throw it back to you to start? I know there’s lots to say on the U.S. side.

Buhs:The discussion makes me reconsider, to an extent, just how much Bigfoot raised questions about the meaning of humanness. Certainly, this was not the main theme of Bigfoot research, but by comparison with the yeren, I see now that it was present.

You mention the importance of Engels’s maxim, “Labor created humanity” and so the need to know if the yeren labored. There were similar debates about Bigfoot’s status as a human. Much of this was prompted by workers outside of the US, in particular Bernard Heuvelmans in France and a small group of Russian “hominologists” met at Moscow’s Darwin Museum and took their lead from the historian Boris Porshnev. The Russians developed an odd theory about humanity, arguing that there was a fundamental split between modern humans and Neanderthals because Neanderthals could not speak. Further, they argued that the wildmen of Russia and Mongolia—often called Almas—were examples of Neanderthals. This view was far outside the mainstream, of course, but given that interest in Bigfoot was also outside the mainstream, it provoked some Bigfooters to ruminate on the wildman’s speech ability. (Krantz, by the way, first thought that Bigfoot might be a remnant population of Neanderthals, but he had in mind the more accepted view of Neanderthals as speaking and culturally—sophisticated; he dropped this line of thought when it became clear (to him!) that Bigfoot did not speak, make tools, or live in complex societies.) Heuvelmans was a jazz singer and popular science writer. His On the Track of Unknown Animals inspired many in the Bigfoot community, although for many years Heuvelmans was reluctant to admit that Bigfoot was a primate. He thought them more likely a relic population of giant sloths. But in 1968, along with Ivan Sanderson, he saw a carnival exhibit which was supposed to be a wildman frozen in a block of ice. Unlike many others who saw it, Heuvelmans and Sanderson believed the creature to be real—an actual example of a wildman. Sanderson thought maybe it was Homo erectus, though he was not sure. Heuvelmans became convinced that the creature was a Neanderthal. Although he saw Bozo—as Sanderson called it—in Rollingwood, Minnesota, he thought it likely that Bozo had been killed in Vietnam during the conflict there and then shipped out in a body bag along the same trade route that carried illicit drugs. In the middle 1970s, Heuvelmans and Porshnev put out a book in French arguing that Neanderthals still existed. (Porshnev had died in 1972, so his portion had to have been written before that.) Obviously, these discussions blurred the lines between humans and Bigfoots, even if Porshnev’s theory depended on making that line rather firm: because when his ideas were translated, it became easy to think of Neanderthal in the conventional way, as a “caveman.” And so Bigfoot came to be seen as a “caveman.”

This was never the majority view. The two big camps were 1) Bigfoot is some kind of ape, probably Gigantopithecus, but not necessarily. 2) Bigfoot is a paranormal being who flits between dimensions, which accounts for repeated failures to capture it. Still, there were some who thought that Bigfoot was a primitive human, most famously, perhaps, Roger Paterson, who, along with Bob Gimlin, supposedly filmed a Sasquatch as she loped through the northern California forest. Interest in Bigfoot and wildmen more generally had died out during the 1960s, largely because Sir Edmund Hillary had gone in hunt of the Abominable Snowman and declared it a myth. But Patterson’s film, taken in October 1967, revived interest in Bigfoot—big time. It was after Patterson that scientists such as Krantz and John Napier began to take the topic especially seriously. It was also after Patterson that interest in hunting Bigfoot really took off, and set the stage for popular understandings of the beast that sometimes complemented and sometimes resisted the scientific establishment.

Schmalzer: I see the most critical issue to be that of differing ideas about authority in knowledge making: in this case, both who is authorized to speak about science and whether science itself should be considered the authoritative way speak about wildmen. In the late 1970s, things in China were changing rapidly, but ideas about science from the Mao era (1949-1976) still held a lot of water. I already mentioned the big emphasis on using science to stamp out “superstition”: this suggested that scientists had privileged access to knowledge and that other people (especially people with lower educational levels, like peasants in remote villages) would be authorized to speak only when they were rid of superstition and had embraced science. But at the same time there was another strong current in the other direction: Mao had called on political leaders and intellectuals to “follow the masses,” and especially during the more radical periods, this applied to science as much as everything else. The idea was that based on their experience in labor, the working classes had a vast storehouse of knowledge, much surpassing anything found in the ivory tower. So this presented two very different ways of interpreting the value of rural eye-witness reports on yeren. Did they represent just the kind of “superstition” one would expect in backward rural areas? Or were they reliable evidence from the most knowledgeable and trustworthy sources—“the masses” of poor peasants? People who wanted to promote yeren research argued the latter, and you can see in their writings both calls to “follow the masses” and criticism of establishment science as divorced from on-the-ground experience.

By the mid-1980s, I see the emergence of a different attitude, one that questions not just the “ivory tower” but science itself as a source of understanding about the world. Instead of celebrating the power of science to “crack the mysteries” of nature, such sources celebrate yeren as having the power to elude science and remain mysterious, the stuff of legend surviving in an increasingly modern, industrialized world. Good examples of this are the poem I quoted before by Zhou Liangpei and the Nobel laureate Gao Xingjian’s novel Soul Mountain and his less well known 1985 play titled Yeren. If people want to understand the cultural significance of yeren in 1980s China, that play is the best single source—other than my book, of course. Although it’s fiction, Gao captures all the major themes just as they were playing out among the real historical actors: environmentalism vs. industrialization, elitism vs. anti-elitism, legend vs. science, the use of yeren as a foil to expose the often savage (or “inhuman”) behavior of civilized humans, the researcher who abandons his family in search of yeren (and of himself).

Buhs: There are similar tensions in the US (especially) as there are in China. On the one hand is the official opinion of scientific elites: that Bigfoot is a popular superstition, understood by looking to the psychology of believers—which is to say, looking for the material basis of superstition. This position is probably best represented by CSICOP, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (now simply CSI, The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry). The membership of CSICOP included some scientists, but also philosophers, magicians, science writers, and science fiction authors. And contrary to its name, it rarely did investigations—finally dropping the conceit in the early 1980s when there were claims that one investigation did turn up some evidence for astrology, the report was supposedly suppressed, and a few members resigned. Mostly, CSICOP defended the privileges and reputation of science against anything that challenged it—New Agery, flying saucer groups, religion, and on and on. Starting in the 1980s and increasing in the 1990s, CSICOP members attacked the evidence put forth by Bigfooters, landing a number of devastating blows, perhaps the most important of which proved that Krantz could be easily hoaxed.

On the other hand, there is a long tradition in the US of romanticizing the lone seeker of truth, the individual who stands against society. The Bigfoot hunter Peter Byrne tapped into this when he wrote that Bigfoot should be taken seriously exactly because it was reported by rural, salt-of-the-earth types: and therefore was proved by the “simple genuine honesty of the country people.” (Peter Byrne, “Being Some Notes, in Brief, on the General Findings in Connection with the California Bigfoot,” Genus 18 (1962): 55-59 (quotation 56).) This last view obviously challenged science to some extent—here’s some data that can’t be accounted for by standard theories, explain it! But that challenge could come in stronger and weaker forms. Some Bigfooters pointed to the good faith of the eyewitnesses, the abundant tracks, odd sounds, possible nests and hunting grounds, as evidence that there was an animal at large in the United States and Canada, an unknown animal, probably an ape. And they wanted science to explore that possibility. (John Green, the so-called Dean of Sasquatchery, even admitted that it might all be a hoax—but then wanted scientists to explore how and why this hoax was perpetrated. What a novel piece of human behavior!, he said. Study it.) Others, though, used Bigfoot to challenge science more broadly. After Patterson’s movie brought Bigfoot to the world’s attention again in the late 1960s, the beast was quickly linked to UFOs, ESP, and other forms of what might be called stigmatized knowledge, and thus became more than an interesting fact of zoology or sociology, but evidence that scientists were misunderstanding the universe in more fundamental ways. By the 1970s, this strand had developed to its farthest reaches, although it would continue to attract devotees and elaboration over the next three decades. Jon Erik Beckjord, the bugbear of Bigfooting, argued that Sasquatches were not purely material forms at all. They were interdimensional beings who could enter and exit our reality at will—which explained why none was ever caught and why trails sometimes began and ended abruptly. His proof? Some photos he took of landscapes which seemed unoccupied by Bigfoots; development of the photos, though, showed to some—that is to say, Beckjord and his friends—odd faces, which he took to be Sasquatches. The theory was a pig’s breakfast of popular science and science fiction, and it called for the overthrow of basic scientific categories. No surprise, he was a favorite target of CSICOP. Still others, as you suggest, resisted the urge to explain Bigfoot scientifically at all. Some of this developed out of paranormal theorizing: Bigfoot was not amenable to scientific analysis. Other thought modalities were needed to understand the beast. Thus, Beckjord used cameras. Lunetta Woods relied on her dreams. Jack Lapseritis and Stan Johnson used channeling. Lee Trippett used ESP. A number of authors used fiction.

There was also, as you suggest in the case of China, the romantic appeal of unsolvable mysteries. During the 1960s and 1970s, this was one attribute that made Bigfoot attractive to working-class white men in whose entertainments Bigfoot frequently appeared. Generally speaking—very generally—I argue that many of these men felt dispossessed by American society because of the civil rights movement, the women’s right movement, anti-war agitation, the rise of consumerism with its consequent dismissal of artisanal values, and their own declining economic fortunes. There was some pleasure in cheering for a beast that refused to be accommodated to society, that resisted all of its dehumanizing ways (and so was therefore maybe more human). The romanticism helped Bigfoot pass into the middle class during the 1980s. (Remember “Harry and the Hendersons”?) There remained in middle-class depictions of the beast a championing of its mysteriousness, its ability to resist modern culture. Different, though, was that for the most part the middle-class Bigfoot was acknowledged to be a myth. Of course there was no Sasquatch! But the idea was a good one to hold, because it represented hope and faith in a world beyond the material.

So I think that many of the themes are comparable between the US case and the Chinese one, but that the distribution and timing of those views are very different. I also wonder if there was anybody in China like John Green or Peter Byrne: people who were not accredited scientists, who were on the side of the folk or the popular, but who could still speak about the yeren and emphasize its material reality? There are equivalents of Krantz and Napier. And of CSICOP. There are also the local legends, which might be compared to the sighting reports in the US. But was there anyone who tried to put together the local legends into an overarching narrative? Who both courted science—please come study this!—and criticized it—you fools!? Or did the totalitarian nature of the political system make such a position impossible?

Schmalzer: There are such equivalents—or maybe “equivalents” is too strong a word, parallels perhaps. The best (but by no means the only) example is Zhang Jinxing. He was working for a construction company in the 1980s when he was overtaken with a desire to travel around the country (a rare bug in those days), which evolved into a passion for the yeren mystery. He has worked closely with the scientist Yuan Zhenxin (from China’s top-ranked paleoanthropology research institute) in the Strange and Rare Animals Exploration and Investigation Committee and finds inspiration in Jane Goodall, both for her willingness to go live with the apes she studies and the priority she places on environmental education in the service of protecting wilderness. But in other ways he strongly distances himself from the scientific establishment. He wears scraggly long hair and beard (very rare in China) and encourages people to think of him as a kind of “monkey man” himself. Another member of the Strange and Rare Animals Exploration and Investigation Committee, the media professional Wang Fangchen, wrote in an epigraph to a report authored by Zhang Jinxing (the report was titled Striving to Be Like Goodall, Bravely Exploring the “Yeren” Mystery): “So-called experts are only regular people with a little more specialized knowledge [Zhang Jinxing, Zhengzuo Gudaoer, yong tan “yeren” mi (Beijing: Zhongguo kexue tanxian xiehui, 2002)]. In actuality, experts can also make mistakes, and they can even use scientific methods to turn an entire subject into mistake upon mistake.” So this is a great example of simultaneously courting science and criticizing it.

But beyond such examples, whether authored by scientists or other yeren enthusiasts, books on the “yeren mystery” invariably (at least, I don’t think I’ve seen any exceptions), as you say, “put together the local legends into an overarching narrative.” While there are also footprint casts and hair samples, the most compelling evidence (in that it makes the most exciting reading) comes in the form of that narrative, which brings together historical written accounts and more recent rural eye-witness testimony. The key difference as I see it lies in the class relations. Wang Fangchen and Zhang Jinxing are not scientists, but neither are they peasants. The large majority of eyewitness accounts come from peasants, and peasant knowledge is widely presumed to be tainted with superstition. My sense is that for all their parallels, there is a profound difference between the class positions of working-class folks in U.S. Bigfoot history and peasants in Chinese yeren history. Whether or not they uphold the value of peasant testimony, the people who write books on yeren in China—or otherwise devote significant portions of their lives to studying and talking about yeren—are not peasants.

Buhs: By way of some concluding remarks, I will ask some additional questions.

The question I always get when the topic of my book comes up is, Why? Why write about Bigfoot at all? Why care about wildmen?

I’ve developed a ready answer for this: because in looking at how people think about wildmen, we learn something about how they fit themselves into the universe, how they make meaning and understand the world. In the 1970s, Bigfoot appealed to working-class men and the entertainers who catered to them because it could be used to understand their place in the world. Later, in the 1980s, the creature came to embody ideas about the environment. And so by looking at how the beast was understood, we learn something about our past.

That’s a tidy answer, and a standard one for historians, I think. But (at least) two things bother me about it.

One, is how easily I use that answer to make clear I don’t believe in Bigfoot. “Look!,” I am saying. “I am a scholar. Don’t confuse me with true believers.” Of course, in doing so, I reinforce class hierarchy that is often hidden in discussions of wildmen: I make clear that I am a middle-class type, who can use the image of the wildman but not accept its reality. Since the book was meant to expose the power relations, I am uncomfortable reinstalling those same relations. But that is where Bigfoot leaves us. As you say, that’s what wildmen are meant to do, make us get lost, and ask questions, sometimes irresolvable ones.

The second thing that bothers me about my answer is that it relies too easily on the categories of science and superstition—and so allies me with CSICOP. But I don’t want to be allied with CSICOP! CSICOP’s whole message is that science is good knowledge, knowledge other than science is bad. And I don’t think that at all. Certainly, there are cases where it is imperative to sort out the good knowledge from the bad—medical treatments seem the obvious exemplar to me. But I see no reason that other modes of knowledge shouldn’t flourish—at least in the right spheres of cultural life.

But, really, there’s no other way to do a history than relying on solid, social-scientific methods. I would not be happy with another historian if he or she cited his or her dreams or channeling experience as evidence! It’s that whole getting lost again.

I guess what I am saying is that by putting Bigfoot on the table the way I have, and dissecting it, I have also destroyed some of the mystery. And that I am Romantic enough not to want that mystery all thwarted by science, be it the physical sciences or the social sciences.

I’ll close with a short section from the first draft of the book that tried to express this hesitation. It was eventually cut:

Taking Bigfoot seriously as a subject, watching the legend come into being—emerging out of earlier legends—develop and die, inevitably deflates the myth that surrounds the creature, too, robs it of mystery. Believing in Bigfoot after learning its history is impossible. Telling Bigfoot’s story deprives the world of one more marvel. It is a middle-class act, allied with the tendency to see Bigfoot as only a myth and to explain such a myth as resulting from the workings of explicable social processes. It discovers wonder where modern scientists do, not in “novelty, rarity, or ignorance of causes” but in “parsimony, order, and simplicity.” [Lorraine Daston, “Preternatural Philosophy,” in Biographies of Scientific Objects, ed. Lorraine Daston (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 15-41 (quotation 39).]

Still, this is a kind of wonder. It is a wonder how the world works, that people should come to believe in Bigfoot at all. It is a wonder how tenacious belief can be. Although there were many, many people who became entangled in Bigfoot’s story, four are usually singled out, the Four Horsemen of Sasquatchery they are sometimes called, each having spent the better part of fifty years seeking the beast. And yet, not one of them ever saw the creature; only one ever even claimed to find tracks on his own.

The power of Bigfoot to compel such intense belief is amazing, almost beyond the ability to explain. The mystery of this attraction runs through Bigfoot’s life. It is possible to offer up reasons why people chose to believe in Bigfoot, why they continued to do so despite mounting evidence against them, despite the ravages of time. And these reasons are compelling. But they still seem, somehow, inadequate. There’s an indecipherable residue in the human spirit, resistant to all analyses. It is tempting to say that this bit of irreducible complexity is the wildman, the uncontrollable, inexplicable impulses inside all of us—that, though, explains nothing, only masks behind words one of the world’s true mysteries. Better to explain what can be explained, and acknowledge that there are mysteries beyond the power of the human mind to grasp.

Schmalzer: I’m struck once again by how much we have in common: most of your concluding thoughts apply very much to my experience as well.

I chose to research yeren because they sit so perfectly on the border between human and animal, and thus I expected them to provide insight into the changing ways that Chinese people have imagined what it means to be human and where humans fit in the natural world. In recent history, yeren have also inhabited a newer border region between science and superstition, which makes them ideal for teasing out the ways people have struggled to define these tricky concepts—and the social consequences that different definitions carry.

I appreciate your thoughtfulness on the difficult question of how we as researchers relate to our subjects. It can sometimes be a struggle to explain that we are not interested in wildmen so much as we are interested in people who are interested in wildmen—just as a historian of chemistry conducts research not on chemistry itself but on chemists. Like you, I hope that in defining my inquiry in cultural terms (the significance of yeren in Chinese history) I will be let off the hook on the question of belief. Also like you, I am not comfortable in either of the main camps of people who talk about wildmen: I seek neither to prove the existence of yeren nor to expose yeren research as superstition.

On one hand, as a historian evidence is very important to me. While some who pursue yeren think carefully about evidence and have interesting things to say about its role in research, I’ve also often encountered attitudes very far removed from the standards in our profession. For example, when I interviewed one person involved in the yeren scene in China (someone I haven’t mentioned previously), he immediately sought to sell me some readily available published materials for about ten times the market price. Fraud! What I really wanted was to read some of the primary sources (field journals and the like) in his possession, and I tried to explain how much more valuable those were as historical evidence than the published materials that drew liberally from them without citation. He then offered to allow me to have my picture taken next to the primary sources: I could include the photo in my book as “evidence” that the sources existed and that I had seen them. Of course, what I meant by evidence was completely different: I hoped to read the materials, analyze them, and then offer interpretations based on that analysis. His approach to inquiry and communication—key activities in any type of research—conflicted with mine, and I was profoundly uncomfortable with his assumption that we were engaged in the same kind of work.

On the other hand, one of the most surprising consequences of my research on campaigns to “squash superstition” in socialist China is that I’ve become more sympathetic to people who perceive science as a threat to their beliefs—including religious creationists concerned about the teaching of evolution. In China, framing yeren as a question of superstition vs. science was part and parcel of the larger effort to replace religious or “idealist” worldviews with a scientific, materialist one. Especially in the Mao era, school textbooks, museum exhibits, and other media on human evolution often specifically called attention to the power of evolutionary theory to overturn religious accounts of creation. I found this very jarring: the direct confrontation made such materials appear vulgarly ideological. But I had to admit upon further reflection that the educational materials on human evolution in our own society are also ideological: such materials decline to mention the consequences of evolutionary theory for religious creationism, but they nonetheless present a worldview backed by scientific authority that is incommensurable with creationism. So, despite my certainty about the scientific validity of evolutionary theory and my commitment to seeing it taught in the schools, I’m not willing to be in the camp of people who put Darwin-fish on their car bumpers to needle the Jesus-fish crowd… any more than I want a CSICOP bumper sticker (if there is such a thing).

On the third hand (darn these Cartesian binaries anyway!), at some point over the course of my research, I changed my mind about the cultural implications of the transformation of yeren into a scientific subject. At first I was very defensive of the legends: I felt that the imposition of scientific categories threatened to rob them of their beauty and their integrity. While I did not want to be a science cop debunking the claims of yeren researchers, I did initially see myself as a kind of culture cop responsible for exposing the colonialist ambitions science brought to a precious world of story and mystery. But by the time I started to write, I had already begun to doubt this perspective. My training as a historian kicked in, reminding me that no story is “original” or “pure” … they are all always already mixed up with everything else going on around them, and they are constantly undergoing transformation. In that sense, my urge to protect the yeren stories resembled the way some of the people I study see wildmen to represent an endangered primordial purity.

Without denying the very real power differential between scientists and peasants, I now find the interaction of scientific, literary, and mythical accounts to be more of a cross-pollination than a contamination or colonization. To my mind, this cross-pollination is the key reason that yeren have become such a potent subject for cultural exploration and critique in recent decades. The new stories—complete with arguments over science and superstition—speak to contemporary hopes and fears… and in their own ways they too are beautiful. Taking another step back, I think we can see our own discussions of wildmen in a similar light. When we put Bigfoot and yeren “on the table,” as you put it, and pick them apart to see how they were put together over time, we are telling a new kind of story, driven by history rather than science. I think the wildmen will survive the procedure. And I imagine someday some other form of knowledge-making—neither legend nor science nor history—will emerge to shape stories about yeren and Bigfoot. What will that future incarnation of wildmen tell people about themselves and their worlds?

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Joshua Blu Buhs
Bigfoot: The Life and Times of a Legend
©2009, 304 pages, 35 halftones

Sigrid Schmalzer
The People’s Peking Man: Popular Science and Human Identity in Twentieth-Century China
©2008, 336 pages, 24 halftones

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