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A brush with the spur: Robert Joe Cutter on the Chinese cockfight.

Genuine, pure play is one of the main bases of civilization. Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens

WHAT DOES ONE DO with a book on the history of cockfighting in China? On the face of it, the subject would seem, at best, of marginal interest, appropriate to dilettantish curiosity. As one reviewer put it: "This is an excellent study of cockfighting in traditional China, and provides much pleasure for anyone wanting to find out more about metallic spurs, mustard wings and raccoon-dog grease."(1) But who really wants to know about raccoon-dog grease? Who needs to know anything about Chinese cockfighting, when we know so little of more serious matters? Just how often has each of us happened across references to the sport or to the terminology appropriate to it as we work on more serious matters?(2)

Who, then, would want to read a book on "metallic spurs, mustard wings and raccoon-dog grease"? Not many, I am willing to bet. With that remark, we are into the thick of it. If Cutter were willing to accept my bet, and I suspect he would be, and we were to lay down mutually acceptable ground-rules, we would have transformed what is serious business for both of us into a form of play. Even without the bet, we tacitly engage now in a more widely practiced type of contest, one with very strict rules: he has written a book, which obeys certain conventions appropriate to our discipline, and, in reviewing it, I am bound to respond to the challenges he has laid down (or, better yet, missed) in a formulaic way. During the course of this mildly agonistic game, we will hopefully play out some very serious issues--the possibility today of coming to terms with the literatures of China's past, the importance of our attempt to do so, etc., etc.--in ways less threatening to both of us than they might otherwise be. At the end of this contest, nothing will have really happened. No departments will close, no books will be burnt, and no one will be barred from further study. Both of us will emerge physically intact, to play another day.

To use a metaphor of which Cutter would approve, we are now engaged in a cockfight. I mean this not simply in the sense that we are both males and therefore considered prone to competitive play. Rather, I would invite the spectator's careful consideration of the following apt observation from the article by Clifford Geertz that Cutter cites in his introduction: As any art form--for that, finally, is what we are dealing with--the cockfight renders ordinary, everyday experience comprehensible by presenting it in terms of acts and objects which have had their practical consequences removed and been reduced (or, if you prefer, raised) to the level of sheer appearances, where their meaning can be more powerfully articulated and more exactly perceived.(3) So, if this essay seems, to the spectator, to vie with the book that prompted it--an unequal contest that will certainly find the present offering a loser--so much the better. We all stand to gain something by playing it that way.

Then, too, a playful approach is entirely in the spirit of Cutter's initial foray into the ring. Cutter is perfectly aware that his book is not, in the final analysis, about cockfighting, mustard feathers, or raccoon-dog grease. He even states the matter combatively: "It so happens that cockfighting as a belletristic topic and social phenomenon is an excellent reflector of certain important developments in Chinese literature and history."(4) Oh yeah? Well, in fact it is.

While the sport of cockfighting itself seems not to be as important a mode of social recreation in China as it is in Geertz's Bali, Chinese writings on the cockfight show it to be equally a playing out of more serious issues. Cutter provides numerous examples, from the earliest account of an actual cockfight, where status issues and clan jealousies are involved, to more literary exploitations of the subject, in which fighting cocks stand as metaphor for examples of human belligerence, bravery, or foolhardiness. Chinese writings on the cockfight frequently involve a double level of play. This is because the formalistic act of writing itself, whether at literary banquets, in the official exams, or simply as a medium of social exchange, was often recognized to be a contest that resembled the cocks' battles in excitement, flash, bravado, and love of sheer display.(5)

Here, again, Cutter's work is hardly lacking in examples. Particularly fine is the mock battle carried on between Han Yu and Meng Chiao in their jointly composed linked verses, for which Cutter has thoughtfully marked out the couplets each composed.(6) As you read this elegantly translated piece, keep in mind that Meng Chiao was the elder of the two and you will know why Han Yu opens with the couplet: "The larger gamecock proudly comes; / The smaller gamecock, frightened, waits." It is a marvelous contest, each of the friends courteously deferring to the other, yet drawn into the excitement of battle almost despite himself. The frisson of literary combat comes from the knowledge that, in the mannered and polite atmosphere of the poetic game, "winning," in the sense of verbally overpowering one's opponent, is to lose utterly and unredeemably. As Meng Chiao puts it in his final couplet of the poem: "A heroic heart finds dying in battle sweet."

If Cutter is vulnerable to attack, in this game of ours, it lies in his reticence to unpack fully for us these delicious ambiguities, literary (wen treatments of the martial (wu) sport of cockfighting, that turn the metaphor back on itself to lay bare the agonistic (wu) aspects of this most cultured (wen) pursuit.

Before digging my spurs in, it might be prudent to note that Cutter has translated in full the classical foundation of such metaphors: "Has your Highness never seen the cock? On his head he wears a cap: he has civil culture. To his legs are attached spurs: he is possessed of martial qualities."(7) Further, he allows Po Chu-i's explicit exploration of the subject, the "Rhapsody on a Cock's Spur Writing Brush," to make the case eloquently for him. Add to these the fact that, without Cutter's painstaking reconstructions of the social history of cockfighting and careful translation of so many of the pertinent texts (in every genre and from all periods of Chinese history, barring the Shang), none of this would be apparent, and it begins to seem that Cutter has himself adopted the role of Chuang-tzu's "wooden gamecock."

His text contains more than he is willing to say. Rather than contend over Cutter's examples, then, a quick feint might prove more exciting and, at the same time, more revealing of the play- element I wish to highlight in the literature of what many of our colleagues, on evidence of their writings, seem to hold the most somber of all cultures. I shall fashion my own wooden gamecock to set against Cutter's. For this purpose, I append one of the few pieces on the sport in all of Chinese literature to which Cutter has not referred. This is the "Rhapsody on the Wooden Gamecock" of Hao Hsu-chou.(8) Little is known of Hao, other than the fact that he was a master of the rhapsodic (fu) form. This particular piece was written for his chin-shih exams in 822.(9)

In addition to the title, the examiners gave the candidates a rhyme-phrase around which they were to structure their pieces, using one rhyme for each section. The rhyme-phrase for this rhapsody was: "Attaining this [state] they were without opponents and so were able to crow first."(10) Imagine the situation. Hao Hsu-chou is engaged in the paramount contest of his life, one for which he has long prepared. Through the exam topic they have chosen, the examiners have challenged him to liken it to another, unequal, contest explored in a classical source. More immediately, Hao is engaged in literary combat with his fellow examinees, all of whom will write on the same subject. From this perspective, the examiners are spectators. "Who will crow first?" they ask. But the examiners remain players as well. They have, in their choice of topic and rhyme, set a subtle trap, as we shall see. Hao Hsu-chou, "Rhapsody on the Wooden Gamecock"


Formerly there was one Of mental attainment and perfect skill Who was able to comprehend his gamecocks' emotions. These emotions might be trained, whether the cock was large or small. The technique complete, they neither flew away nor cried out. Facing the most energetic opponent with self- possession: they stood unyielding as if planted upright. Entering the broad arena without glancing at anything: they were integrated as if carved into shape.(11)


At first, he Instructed them by means of what was natural to them, Coaxing them to be unafraid;(12) Hoping that he could transform them by degrees, So that they would eventually be comparable to withered trees. Their substance would differ from that which is roughed out and carved--he utilized a process that would awaken them to non-contentiousness. Their forms would not be embellished or incised-- presumably because they assumed the state of emotionlessness.


Being thus, then They would certainly differ from the wild [pheasant] which drinks and pecks; And must in all particulars vary from [the parrot] which freely plays and roams.(13) He waited for them to reach self-realization through lodging their wills; Expecting that they would then see as nothing the opponents they faced. Months followed days--reaching the limits of their abilities, they gradually resembled new shoots from a fallen tree. Neither shaking nor trembling--they were complete, slowly becoming like decayed stumps.(14)


This completed, How could it be necessary to spread mustard on their feathers? Or to shut them in decorated cages? Their expansive spirits were completely transformed; Their heads round and necks straight: completely manifesting the shape of wheel and beam. Their beaks sharp, their spurs keen: of equal sharpness with the thorns of the hawthorn and spiny citron.


Thus, Their random, fleeting emotions extinguished; Their balanced, excellent breath-energies complete, Their breasts thrust out, each followed on the other's heels; Their pupils darkly flashing, pierced [into opponents] at the joints.(15) One is startled at the arrayed patterns as their brocade wings dazzle. One is bewildered at plucked blossoms which are their "flower-caps" (i.e., cockscombs) flashing. Those uselessly high-strung harbor anxiety at their lack of talent: how could such as they be self-assured?(16) Those with "courage to sell" are obsessed with fear of attacking the consolidated: none of these dares to strive for priority.(17)


As a result these cocks are able To advance differently than the highly agitated, To remain motionless like the vacuous and still. The craftsman of Ying would mistakenly summon up his mental skill;(18) Master Hou would be angry in vain at their attacks on the eyes.(19) Tranquilly unperturbed: the physical state of Tzu- ch'i has just been matched;(20) Firmly undeterrable: the strength of Chou Po does not yet rival theirs.(21)


The analogy resides in this; Its sources have been verified: Their training accomplished, they have already forgotten domination through force. Through accumulated practice, they gradually access their inborn abilities. This being so, Those who speak of Southern Kingdoms are not worth discoursing with;(22) Those who contend in the Eastern Suburbs, though praised, have no virtue.(23)


Were there a gentleman Outstanding and self-possessed, Upright and self-reliant; Who, through making his body a clod, would be indistinguishable from wood, And through making his mind ash, might observe the gamecock as I have done-- In the deep sincerity of that still victory He might be expected to crow once in this fashion. Except in the matter of the mustard, Cutter has been a valuable guide through the intricacies of our rhapsody. Indeed, it would be impossible to get anything much from this piece except by reference to the information, both on the cockfight and on Chinese literature, that he has so patiently assembled. Still, the point of this rhapsody and, it seems to me, of Po Chu-i's "Rhapsody on a Cock's Spur Writing Brush" and of several other of the pieces Cutter translates, is the one thing that Cutter does not expand upon.(24) Beyond the question of whether or not the literati participated in actual cockfights, a question ably addressed in this book, there is the even more interesting question of why, given the sport's longstanding negative connotations, they would want to write about it. Hao Hsu-chou, though he was forced to do so, is only one of the writers who indirectly tells us why: because, in so many ways, the cockfight was a game like other social games, among them the game of writing.

It may seem a trifle unfair that I have chosen to single out one aspect of this engaging book when it does so much else, but that is the way the game is played; the way reviews are written.(25) In the best examples (and I hope this is one) the book is tested beyond the limits it set for itself and, by this means, we construct "a level of appearances, where ... meaning can be more exactly perceived."

Above, I suggested that the examiners had, in the case of this rhapsody, set a trap for the unwary exam candidate: the Chuang-tzu passage from which the title is taken says only that the "wooden gamecocks" do not respond when other cocks crow, and never mentions their own crowing. The rhyme-phrase, which serves to further define the theme of the assigned title as well as to provide the rhymes, is taken not from the Chuang-tzu, but from a different work altogether.

A wooden gamecock would, of course, not crow at victory. The final section of Hao's rhapsody plays on the implications of this. How would a "self-realized" wooden gamecock crow first? Through writing an excellent exam rhapsody about the wooden gamecock, explaining how it would not crow, then ending the piece by silently crowing in a true Chuang-tzian fashion--that's how! We might thus paraphrase the final section of Hao's rhapsody as follows: Now if one of the candidates Were outstanding and self-possessed, Upright and not dependent on others-- He would be the uncarved block--he would be indistinguishable from wood. He would make his mind ash and he would contemplate the gamecock as I have done. Since he would be so like Chuang-tzu's gamecock, he would realize the utter appropriateness of the "still victory" to his wooden nature And you might expect to hear him crow but once, in this, a suitably silent victory ... an exam rhapsody like this. Hao says to the exam graders, "Got it yet? I'm the one you are looking for! This is the only sort of 'crow' you could have expected to hear."(26)

1 Andrew Lo, review of The Brush and the Spur, in Chinese Literature:Essays, Articles, Reviews 13 (1991): 122. As will become clearer, Lo has seriously misunderstood the nature of this book.

2 Assuming, for the moment, that we would all recognize a reference to cockfighting in a Chinese text, were we to stumble across it. Cutter's discovery of the technical vocabulary associated with the sport will be discussed in the notes below.

3 Clifford Geertz, "Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight," Daedalus 101.1 (1972): 23. In his characterization of the cockfight as "deep play," Geertz expands on Johan Huizinga's explorations of the importance of play in culture-formation (Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture, translator unknown [1950; rpt., Boston: Beacon Press, 1955]). We should also notice Laurence G. Thompson's terminological refinement of Huizinga's key terms: "I should like ... to define our concept by placing in opposition the 'play-spirit' and the 'work-spirit.' Taken this way, it is apparent that almost any activity can be carried on in either spirit, so that play is not so much a 'what' as a 'how'" ("Obiter Dicta on Chinese Religion as Play," Chung-yang yen-chiu-yuan kuo-chi Han- hsueh-hui i-lun wen-chi Proceedings of the International Conference on Sinology: Section on Folklore and Culture, [1977], 61).

4 Cutter, xi ("Preface").

5 While Huizinga does not deal specifically with the cockfight, he does suggest the underlying avian parallels with human play: "All the basic factors of play, both individual and communal, are already present in animal life--to wit, contests, performances, exhibitions, challenges, preenings, struttings, and showings-off, pretences and binding rules. It is doubly remarkable that birds, phylogenetically so far removed from human beings, should have so much in common with them".

6 Cutter, 73-74.

7 Cutter, 43.

8 Ch'uan T'ang-wen, 624.8a-9a; Wen-yuan ying-hua, 138.2a-3a. There are few variants between the two versions. I have uniformly accepted the readings of the latter text.

9 See Hsu Sung, Teng-k'o chi-k'ao, 19.35a. None of the other pieces have survived. For more on Hao's skill in the rhapsodic form, see Stephen R. Bokenkamp, "The Ledger on the Rhapsody: Studies on the Art of the T'ang fu" (Ph.D. diss., Univ. of California, Berkeley, 1986).

10 This rhyme-phrase alludes to one of the standard tropes of poems on cock-fighting, which originated in the pre-Ch'in philosophical text, the Shih-tzu: "Battle is like a cockfight--the victor crows right away" (Cutter, 23). One of the joys of Cutter's book is that references to such allusions are readily retrievable through reference to his detailed index. To find further examples, one need only look up "crowing."

11 Setting the scene, this opening section adds little to the Chuang-tzu anecdote of Chi Hsing-tzu, trainer of cocks wooden and immovable in their perfection. Cutter, influenced by Western terminology, often translates ("cleared area, ritual space, field, arena") as "pit," despite the fact that there is no evidence that Chinese cockfights were ever truly held in pits. At any rate, the translation "pit" would not do here, since the site of the examinations with its rows of single cells was often metaphorically referred to as the and the poet will wish to play on this in developing his metaphor.

12 This line refers obliquely to a strange "chicken story" from the Shih-chi about Confucius and his disciple Tzu-lu: "Tzu-lu had a defective nature; he loved physical strength. Capped with a cock - feather headdress?] and belted with a wild-boar -skin belt or scabbard?], he was cruel and violent before Confucius. Confucius established the rituals and duties and thereby gradually enticed him so that Tzu-lu reformed and became a disciple]." See Cutter, p. 5 and note 24. As the remainder of this section makes clear, Hao describes an educational process somewhat more Taoist than the "trimming and carving" of Confucian discipline.

13 The identification of these two sorts of fowl depends on allusions. For the pheasant, see A.C. Graham, trans., Chuang-tzu: The Inner Chapters (London: Unwin Paperbacks, 1986), 64. For the parrot, see William T. Graham, Jr., "Mi Heng's 'Rhapsody on the Parrot,'" Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 39 (1979): 39-54.

14 Cutter has me here. After Hao has so patiently set up this last telling metaphor, I am unable to render it cogently. Cutter shows how the term "root, stump" became a technical term for the winning fowl in a cockfight, presumably adopted because, although their limbs were torn, they remained firmly "rooted" in the arena. Hao has been toying all along with the woodenness of these cocks and that other important wood image in the Chuang-tzu--the withered, bent, and useless tree, unfit for carving. Since carving is also a standard trope for Confucian training in the literary craft, the metaphor is well chosen. There is training going on, but it is not of the standard Confucian variety. The lineaments of this Taoist image have been ably analyzed in Rolf A. Stein, The World in Miniature: Container Gardens and Dwellings in Far Eastern Religious Thought, tr. Phyllis Brooks (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1990), 95-104.

15 "To pierce through at the joints" may perhaps be an oblique reference to the Chuang-tzu story of Cook Ting, who was able to slice up an ox, without even looking at it, by instinctually finding the "joints". (See Graham, Chuang-tzu, 63-64.) Our stalwart fowl do the same to their opponents with their fixed gaze.

16 The reference is to the Chuang-tzu story on which the poem is based. "Uselessly high-strung" describes the state of the cocks after only ten days of training and, presumably, that of any well- trained fighting cock (Cutter, 16.)

17 Having "courage to sell" is a figure of speech dating back at least to the composition of the Tso-chuan. The sense is that one is so brave that he can offer up the excess for sale.

18 The carpenter of Ying was so skilled with his axe that his friend would call on him to slice tiny bits of piaster off the end of his nose. More remarkably, the friend was able to stand perfectly still during this hair-raising procedure. (See Graham, Chuang-tzu, 124.) The point here is that the carpenter would mistakenly see in these motionless fowl the rebirth of his former buddy and, thinking he was called upon to perform, "mistakenly give rise to his mental skill" once again.

19 Here, I think the point goes to me: the reference is to the earliest recorded cockfight in the Tso-chuan and later texts, during the course of which both Chi P'ing-tzu and Hou Chaopo cheated by introducing innovations to the sport. Chi spread mustard powder on his birds' wings and Hou used metal spurs (Cutter, 10-15). Cutter explores various records of this incident in detail, including the controversy over whether the original record had "mustard" or "armor." He concludes that "the purpose of mustard would be either to disturb the opponent so as to prevent its getting a hold ... or to act as an irritant to one's own bird" (Cutter, 15). Cutter seems to have missed the one explicit description, cited in P'ei Yin's (fl. 465-72) commentary to the Shih-chi, of how mustard was supposed to work: "They pounded mustard seeds and sprinkled it on their cock's feathers, so as to 'dust' the eyes of Master Hou's cocks" (Shih-chi, 33.1541; the same explanation is given in a Sung account that Cutter translates on pages 117-20). Try it yourself with any commercially available mustard powder and you will see the efficacy of this strategy, if little else. The wooden cocks, having no use for mustard, "strike the eyes" only with their unnatural immobility.

20 In Tzu-ch'i, we have yet another reference to the woodlike perfection so valued in the Chuang-tzu. A.C. Graham translates: "Tzu-ch'i of Nan-kuo reclined elbow on armrest, looked up at the sky and exhaled, in a trance as though he had lost the counterpart of himself. Yen-ch'eng Tzu-yu stood in waiting before him. 'What is this?' he said. 'Can the frame really be made to be like withered wood, the heart like dead ashes?'" (Graham, 48).

21 The reference here seems not to any "facts" concerning Chou Po, but rather to what was written of him by the great historian Ssu-ma Ch'ien, who describes Chou as (Shih-chi 57.2071). This rather obscure phrase seems to mean something like "strong as wood yet warm-hearted in his sincerity." I thank Anna Shields for pointing out the importance of this additional wood-image in this context.

22 This is most likely a reference to Fan Hsun (fl. ca. 250), king of Vna (modern Kampuchea) who was reported to outfit with metal spurs his cocks to vanquish those of his generals (Cutter, 9-10).

23 The "eastern suburbs" are given as the site of cockfights attended by the gentry in Ts'ao Chih's poem "Famous Towns" (Cutter, 22).

24 I am thinking particularly of the closing section of Po's rhapsody. which describes hopefuls who come for the exams, "suck(ing) their brush hairs": "They wish to strive for supremacy beneath a taloned foot, / Hope to attain eminence between brush and inkstone" (Cutter, 81).

25 In addition, it is obligatory that the book review function as a shopping-guide. That task is easily accomplished in this case: you should certainly buy this book. In addition to its careful scholarship, stimulating contents, and detailed index, all alluded to above, it is a handsome volume. Characters are reproduced for each text translated, printing errors are few, and there is a beautiful, fold-out color plate (suitable for framing) of a sixteenth-century painting. The Chinese University Press has obviously not stinted on production costs. At twenty-eight dollars, it is a real bargain.

26 The astute reader will no doubt have noticed that review-writing is often a form of "crowing," accompanied by varying amounts of public preening. Cutter will undoubtedly read this essay. He will do so silently. Got it yet?
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Author:Bokenkamp, Stephen R.
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Date:Jul 1, 1993
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