Yet the question remains, why was a goat-like beast chosen to represent the idea of legal justice in ancient China? The ovicaprids (i.e., goats and sheep), which are designated by the Chinese character yang, are herded by pastoral peoples who have sufficient grazing lands. Thus, out on the vast pasture lands of Central Eurasia, goats and sheep were an essential part of the nomad economy, prized for their milk, their meat and their wool. In contrast, arable land in China has always been scarce, and the Chinese are generally lactose intolerant, so it would seem that goats were not a logical economic choice. However, there is now strong evidence to indicate that the goat was of much greater importance in the economy of early China than it is today. Of the “three important domesticated quadrupeds that derived from the west, the Chinese first and foremost became familiar with the ovicaprids, next with bovines, and last with horses” (Mair 2003, 177). In fact,
no other animal in China can lay claim to have provided the inspiration for so many fundamental, positive cultural concepts, certainly neither the horses nor bovines can begin to compete with sheep and goats in this regard. So dramatic was the impact of ovicaprids at the foundational level of Chinese civilization that we cannot escape drawing the conclusion that shepherding pastoralists must have been intimately involved in its establishment. (ibid.)
Old ideas regarding the relationships between nomadic versus settled peoples in central and eastern Asia have recently undergone profound changes, as scholars delve more deeply and systematically into the early languages and history of these areas. As a result, it is now apparent that throughout Chinese history there were much stronger and more intimate links between the settled Chinese and their “barbarian” nomadic neighbours to the north and west of the East Asian heartland than had previously been realized.
The gradient of the steppes was such that, before the beginning of the Common Era, the migration of peoples and the transfer of culture generally flowed from west to east, including fairly freely through China all the way to the far south. After the beginning of the Common Era, however, the gradient of the steppes gradually tipped in the other direction and started to flow primarily (but not wholly) from east to west. (Mair, 2005a, 47)
Recent research suggests that both the idea of writing and the use of the chariot may have been introduced to China in antiquity by Indo-European magi (magicians) entering the Chinese heartland from Central Asia and bringing with them the concept of magic (Mair, 1990). There is also “good evidence that the role of king and mage coincide in the crucial matters of the interpretation of the cracks in oracle bone divination” (Mair, 1990, 35 n. 17). If this is true, then it is reasonable to search for the origin of the idea of using a magical goat as a symbol for legal justice among the pastoralists of the steppes to the north and west of China. Ruth Meserve has examined in detail the idea of “animal judgements” among Asian nomadic societies, and concluded that
animals—especially domestic livestock—were used to meet legal obligations in terms of taxation, levies, fines, i.e., payment assessed in kind. In such instances the animals themselves played a passive role in the legal process. Animals—both wild and domestic—could assume a far more serious and unusual function when used in an active capacity. This active role existed in the form of “animal judgements” to determine “right” and “wrong,” “innocence” or “guilt.” (Meserve, 2001, 90)
According to her research, an animal judgement or “test”, when used in a case of suspected criminality, was known as an “ordeal.” “Practised all over the world in ancient and medieval times, it was known in the West as judicium Dei ‘judgement of God’ or as divinum judicium ‘divine judgement’ … (because it was believed) that supernatural intervention would rescue an innocent person from the danger of physical harm [during such a test]” (ibid., 92-93). Such an “ordeal”
involved a physical test or contest between man and animal, in which the accused was placed in danger of severe injury or even loss of life (presumed guilty) or was able to escape such consequences (presumed innocent). Although it might be assigned to the realm of superstition and myth, it only demanded belief by the people to be effective and retained, perhaps, for more challenging cases where judgement (for whatever reason) was difficult. (ibid., 93)
At first glance, the similarities between the ancient Inner Asian concept of the ordeal and the story of Gao Yao and his goat-unicorn zhi appear to be quite striking. But what evidence is there to prove a connection between the two? We now know that goats were of supreme importance in early China, and Mark Edward Lewis believes that there is, in fact,
a considerable body of evidence linking butting and goats to the origins of legal procedure in China. Gao Yao, the creator of punishments under Shun, was reputed to be an ancestor of several of the states whose ruling lineages were surnamed Jiang. The graph of this surname represents a goat and a woman. It was a graphic variant of the character qiang which represented a man and a goat and was the generic name of a group of tribes that lived to the west and northwest of the Chinese heartland (fig. 8). In its definition of this character, the Shuowen says, ‘The western barbarians. They are of the goat race.’ This tradition of their animal ancestry was attested as early as the Shang oracle inscriptions and was also reported in the chapter on the Qiang in the Hou Han Shu. Moreover, later texts preserved records that showed goat worship among the Qiang. The goat was clearly the sacred, totemic animal of the Qiang peoples, and the Jiang surnamed states were supposedly descended from the Qiang. Thus the tradition that Gao Yao, ancestor of the Jiang states, passed judgements with a magical goat may well have some foundation in actual practices…. In short, all the beings credited or blamed with the introduction of laws in China were tied to the Qiang people of the Jiang surname, and linked to the activity of butting. (Lewis, 1990, 198-99)
Figure 8. The ob graphs yang (sheep/goat) and Qiang (‘goat people’)
and two versions of the modern character Qiang
It is evident therefore, that the “goat people” who practised animal ordeals of justice were known to the Chinese from ancient times. In fact, the scholar Deng Shuping believes that the Xia Dynasty people (21st to 16th century B.C.E.) belonged to the Jiang tribe (Deng, 1995, 4). “The identification of the Qiang with people in Gansu and the Qinghai region as early as the neolithic has been suggested in studies of hairstyles and painted faces that appear on some painted pots. The hairstyles were identified as typical of the Qiang in Han-date descriptions” (Hsü and Linduff, 1988, 58). In addition, it is probable that some of the Qiang population drifted down into southwest China during the Neolithic period (Tzehuey, 1998, 299). Linguistic and other evidence “all point to the conclusion that the founders of the Shang had close ties to Germanic or Celtic-speaking people from the steppes” (Wei, 2005, 43).
In Shang and Zhou times the Qiang tribes occupied the areas of eastern Gansu and western Shaanxi regions in northwestern China, including the Lingtai and Baoji areas. They were skilled in animal husbandry, farming and metalworking (Sun, 2006) and several Qiang tribes supplied horses to the Shang. In Shang Dynasty sources, the Qiang are usually mentioned as enemies, prisoners of war, and sacrificial victims (Chang, 1980, 227-31: Shelach, 1996). In fact, the Qiang were among the states that joined with another northwestern tribe, the Zhou, in the final conquest of the Shang (Chang, 1980, 249), and there is substantial evidence of contact between the Zhou and the Qiang throughout Zhou history (Hsü and Linduff, 1988, 55). It would also appear that:
whenever we find Shang and Zhou visual representations of people who can plausibly or securely be identified with the Qiang or their successors in the same local, they almost always have clearly Europoid characteristics (large and long noses, round and deep-set eyes, narrow faces, thin lips, prominent jaws, beards, tattoos, etc.). (Mair, 2003, 169)
The continuing presence of these ancient Europoid horse breeding tribes in the borderlands to the north and west of the Chinese heartland must have led to considerable interaction over a long period of time, especially during the Zhou Dynasty, whose rule they helped to establish. These Qiang people were considered to be “Western Tibetan” and were “precursors of part of the Tibetan group, during the Warring States and early Han dynastic periods of Chinese history” (Meserve, 2001, 93). During the Wang Mang interregnum (9-23 C.E.), the Qiang were induced to surrender the area of Kokonor to the Chinese empire. Thus in the Hou Han Shu it says,
Since [in the empire, Wang] Mang had brought about [the condition of] complete tranquillity, in that to the north he had influenced the Huns, to the east he had caused [people] to come [from] beyond the ocean, and to the south he had attracted the Huangzhi, but only in the western quarter he had not yet produced [any effects], he therefore sent a General of the Gentlemen-at-the-Palace, Ping Xian, and others, bearing much money and silk, to tempt the Qiang outside the barriers and have them present their territory [to the throne and to express] a desire to be received by and to be subordinate [to] Chinese rule. (Dubs, 1955, 215)
As a result, the areas inhabited by the Qiang, to the north and west of the Chinese heartland, were incorporated into the empire as the Commandery of Xihai (Western Sea). Yet it is evident that during the Eastern Han Dynasty they were still considered to be “barbarians” for Zhang Heng ((78-139 C.E.) in his “Western Metropolis Rhapsody” verse 745, when describing a circus performance at the Han court at the capital Chang’an, says,
As for the tricks performed at the top of the pole—
There was no end to their numerous postures.
Drawing their bows, archers shot at a Western Qiang,
Looking back, they fired at a Xianbei.
(Translation by David R. Knechtges in Mair, 2005b, 207)
The archers were shooting, of course, at effigies, not real people. But these actions still convey, at the very least, a quality of disrespect for these foreign tribes on the borderlands of China.
Based on the accumulated evidence mentioned above, it is reasonable to suggest that the idea of using a goat-like beast in an “ordeal” to determine guilt or innocence under the law in ancient China, was strongly influenced by the “goat people” known as the Qiang. The Qiang people probably had their own longstanding notions about justice being determined by butting, but were captivated by the Saola when they encountered it in East Asia. This makes perfect sense, because the homeland of the Qiang people was to the northwest of present day China, in the very area in which, as we shall see, the earliest representations of the unicorn appear. Thus it is clear that the evolution of the unicorn of justice within China had an earlier prehistory outside of China, among the Europoid Eurasian nomads, and that the Chinese myth of Gao Yao and his goat-unicorn zhi was based in part on the ancient Eurasian notion of “animal judgements” (Mair, pers. comm. 2005).